Parents kill DU student: Can we free our women from the burden of family honour?

With yet another incident of "honour killing" in Delhi, a young girl has been crushed by her burden of upholding the honour and values of an Indian family. Her apparent crime was marrying an eligible boy of her choice that her parents didn’t like.

The honour in this case was caste pride. The boy whom she married was from another caste.

On another occasion, the girl could have been killed by her family because she had had a sexual relationship with a man or she had an extra or pre-marital relationship. All this, in the eyes of the patriarchs, tarnish the honour of the family and the community. Some times, the community itself takes the responsibility of annihilation to save the honour.

 Parents kill DU student: Can we free our women from the burden of family honour?

Representational image. PTI

In India, this is a phenomenon that is seen mostly in its northern states, particularly Punjab, Rajasthan, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. Punjab and Haryana are notorious for this archaic and brutal practice.

Although couples get killed, it’s mostly the girls who lose their lives at the hands of their own families - often by their fathers or brothers, the enraged men of the family. And the reason? As many academics have pointed out time and again, according to the men, the honour of the family resides in the women, or more precisely in their bodies. Preserving the “purity” of the women or their bodies is their responsibility and right. Unfortunately, this instrument of control is often expressed as excessive care or over-protectiveness of the girls and women in the family.

The attitude of the men, who generally talk about women as their sisters, wives and the symbols of culture and respect in society actually perpetuates this burden of honour on women. What could have happened if they considered women as equal and not as repositories of family and community honour?. Would they kill them if they marry out of caste?

In fact, the burden of honour on women manifests in many more ways. For instance, they are considered “impure” during menstruation in many societies across the country. In some cases, they are banished from their routine lives and are even kept away from the family home. In almost all cases, they cannot visit places of worship during this period. Entry for young women are barred in some temples of the country because they menstruate.

Similarly, women cannot wear what they wish, for some clothes are dishonourable. Moral hardliners often cite women’s “provocative dressing” as one of the reasons for the increasing sexual violence against them.

Women are also burdened to preserve culture. Swarna Rajagopalan, in an article in the DNA, makes this interesting point: “Women embody tradition in ways that men don’t. When possible, girls are trained in a number of artistic pursuits, whether the classical arts of dance and music or household arts like kolam or traditional crafts like weaving or embroidery. Rarely expected to perform, but they are expected to ensure the next generation’s familiarity with this heritage. Some arts and crafts do also become livelihoods (and sometimes, that is when men take them up)—weaving, for instance.”

As authors of this well annotated research paper in International Journal of Criminal Justice Sciences note, "In a bizarre duality, women are viewed on the one hand as fragile creatures who need protection and on the other as evil witches from whom the society needs protection. The vulnerability of women around the world to this type of violence will only be reduced when these patriarchal mindsets are challenged and effectively confronted."

Although law enforcement has a major role in battling violence against women in the name of honour, clearly the fundamental problems are the social determinants such as male domination in society, the burden of multiple forms of honour on women and the social sanction of at least some forms of violence against them. Unless societal values change, law cannot do much. It actually boils down to the equality of women.

Although there are reasons such as castes, endogamy and other social values behind honour killings or violence against women in the name of honour, what abets it is the inequality of women. Political parties, which are hand in gloves with caste zealots for their electoral gains, or are against affirmative action for women, cannot be expected to make any change, but the State cannot run away from its responsibilities. Increasingly, the judiciary has been quite tough on people (For e.g. in 2010, a district court in Karnal sentenced to death five men in an honour killing case and sent to jail for life the head of the “khap” which ordered the killing), but the State hasn’t delivered on its responsibilities.

As some researchers note, "State authorities frequently ignore their obligation to prosecute honour killings. They should be viewed as "co-conspirators" in such crimes, and held accountable by organizations such as the United Nations."

The Delhi incident is an unfortunate occasion to remind the State that a super-power nation is still in dark ages when it comes to the rights and choices of women.

Updated Date: Nov 20, 2014 17:05:48 IST