In many societies, rape victims, women and girls suspected of engaging in premarital sex, and women accused of adultery have been murdered by their relatives because the violation of a woman’s chastity is viewed as an affront to the family’s honour.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that the annual worldwide number of so-called “honour killing” victims may be as high as 5,000 women.
The British organisation that supports victims and survivors of forced marriage and honour based abuse is Karma Nirvana. Most honour killings are of women, by men.
When I was looking for examples of honour killings for this blog, I stopped when I found it unbearable: I did not run out of subjects.
According to a paper presented at an international conference in London 30th June-2nd July 2010, “Social-legal perspective of forced marriages”, prepared by Chandigarh-based senior lawyer Ranjit Malhotra, at least “900 incidences of honour killings” take place every year in three states alone (Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh):
A large number of “honour killing” cases, however, go unreported as members of the family or the clan involved try to pass them off as natural deaths, says Mr Malhotra, who says he has done an extensive study on the subject. If another 100-300 cases are added to this figure for the other states, on which data still remains sketchy, the total number of “honour killings” in the country could go well beyond 1,000 every year…
This would not include girls killed or fetuses identified as female aborted. (Prolifers in typical moral confusion latch on to the latter and argue that the “solution” is to make abortion illegal/harder to obtain: apparently thinking that gendercide is vastly improved if families that kill girl children are forced to wait until after the girls are born. I raised this point three months ago with Cora Sherlock when she guest-blogged here – Sherlock is a prolifer who self-identifies as a human rights campaigner on this one issue – but she preferred not to answer.)
This is not a moot point. In “Why Kali Won’t Rage. A Critique of Indian Feminism” Rita Banerji writes:
What is now amply evident is that this existential disparity faced by India’s women is fueled by an unrestrained misogyny. A misogyny that not only does not permit women an equal life-style but one that does not even permit them the most fundamental of all human rights — the right to live. A 2011 global poll by Thomson Reuters Foundation identifies India as the fourth most dangerous country in the world for women (Chowdhury).
This signifies a misogyny that does not even spare infants and girls. A 2007 UNICEF report shows that the mortality rate of girls under 5 years was abnormally high, about 40% higher than boys the same age, and this was due to intentional neglect, a malicious denial of food and medication, that is tantamount to negligent homicide (UNICEF 12). A 2011 study by the Indian Council of Medical Research and the Harvard School of Public Health showed that girls under 5 years were 21% more likely than boys that age, and infant girls one-year or younger were 50% more likely to die than infant boys that age, because of violence inflicted on them at home. They estimated that in the last two decades more than 1800,000 girls under the age of 6 years have been killed by domestic violence. The head researcher Jay Silverman said, “Being born a girl into a family in India in which your mother is abused makes it significantly less likely that you will survive early childhood. Shockingly, this violence does not pose a threat to your life if you are lucky enough to be born a boy” (Sinha K., Violence at Home).
Nor would this include attacks that fall short of killing: Mamta Kanwar, married to Megh Singh, lived until July this year in Jhaparawas village in Dausa’s Sikrai area in India, in her in-law’s house with their three children – two sons and a daughter. Megh works as a labourer in Jaipur’s Kanot. Mamta had a land dispute with one of her husband’s family. On 20th July, Mamta says
“This relative had barged into my house and attempted to misbehave with me when I approached authorities complaining that he was trying to grab my property.”
The police arrested him from the house “in an inebriated condition”. The khap panchayat (“Khap is a cluster of villages united by caste and geography“: the word “panchayat” literally means “assembly” (ayat) of five (panch) – respected elders of the community) instructed her to withdraw her complaint to the police against her in-law.
“When I refused to follow the diktat, another meeting was held on July 25 in which I was expelled from the village. The caste leaders also ordered that my house be razed.”
According to the police, 27-year-old Prakash Meena had an illicit relationship with a 22-year-old woman living in the neighbourhood. “She is a distant relative of his. While Prakash works as a labourer in the village, the woman’s husband was staying in Ahmedabad for the past few years. The woman has a three-year old daughter,” said SP, Udaipur, Hari Prasad Sharma.
The officer said that Prakash and the woman had fled from the village a fortnight ago. “The villagers were looking for the couple and they found them near Keshiriyaji area in Udaipur on Saturday evening,” said the officer.
The villagers brought them back and kept them confined throughout the night. “A panchayat was called on Sunday morning in which the woman’s husband and her in-laws were present. They were demanding action against the couple,” said the officer.
The villagers and half-a-dozen panchayat leaders gathered around 9.30 am. Soon, Prakash and woman were tied to a tree.
Woman’s husband Hamji Meena stripped her and the youth in front of the crowd. They then cut off their hair.
And then they beat the two people for three hours. Police who tried to stop the beating had stones thrown at them to drive them away.
On June 23, 2008 Justice K.S. Ahluwalia of the Punjab and Haryana High Court said
while simultaneously hearing 10 cases pertaining to marriages between young couples aged 18 – 21:
“The High Court is flooded with petitions where … judges of this Court have to answer for the right of life and liberty to married couples. The State is a mute spectator. When shall the State awake from its slumber [and] for how long can Courts provide solace and balm by disposing of such cases?” A legislature with little political will and a pliant executive will have to be made responsive under pressure of a mass movement.
While deprecating the caste system in the country, the Supreme Court has declared illegal ‘khap panchayats’ which often decree or encourage honour killings or other institutionalised atrocities against boys and girls of different castes and religions who wish to get married or have married.
“This is wholly illegal and has to be ruthlessly stamped out. There is nothing honourable in honour killing or other atrocities and, in fact, it is nothing but barbaric and shameful murder. Other atrocities in respect of the personal lives of people committed by brutal, feudal-minded persons deserve harsh punishment. Only this way can we stamp out such acts of barbarism and feudal mentality. Moreover, these acts take the law into their own hands, and amount to kangaroo courts, which are wholly illegal,” a Bench of Justices Markandey Katju and Gyan Sudha Misra said on Tuesday.
According to Fawaz, Zahra had been married just five weeks when her brother, Fayyez, arrived on an unannounced visit, saying he planned to look for work in Damascus. Zahra was happy to see her brother, but Fawaz described feeling painfully torn between his duties to hospitality, a cardinal virtue in Bedouin culture, and his feeling that Fayyez — sleeping just upstairs in Fawaz’s parents’ apartment — was a danger to his wife. On the morning Zahra was attacked, Fawaz recalls going upstairs before leaving for work to find Fayyez awake and tapping nervously at his cellphone.
“He couldn’t afford to have a mobile,” Fawaz said. “I’d been wondering about that. It turned out that his uncle had given him the phone so that he could call and tell the family that he’d killed his sister. We learned later that they had a party that night to celebrate the cleansing of their honor. The whole village was invited.”
Zahra had been kidnapped from her home by a man who took her to Damascus and raped her. She was rescued by the police after a week and jailed for her own protection. Her family persuaded Fawaz to marry her in order to get her out of jail and enable her murder. Her brother killed her, and almost at once turned himself into the police:
“Fayyez told the police, ‘It is my right to correct this error,’ ” Maha Ali [the lawyer who helped Zahra when she was in protective custody] reported “He said, ‘It’s true that my sister is married now, but we never washed away the shame.’ ”
A Syrian law allows a light penalty – a very short prison sentence – for a man who kills a woman of his family if he catches her in “illegitimate sexual acts with another,” or in a “suspicious state with another.” Although the family seem to have planned this killing for months, that law made it unlikely that Fayyez would be charged with premeditated murder.
Yumun Abu al-Hosn of the Association for Women’s Role Development, the organisation that runs the shelter where Zahra lived in the last months of her life before she married Fawaz:
“This is what we’re trying to change. We may not be able to stop honor killings overnight, but at least if the crime is tried as premeditated murder, then Zahra and others like her will have some dignity in death.”
Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings links to and discusses this article, suggesting that
When you live in a corrupt dictatorship and you cannot uphold your own dignity by refusing to participate in corruption, by speaking up for what you believe in, by being honest and noble and brave and true, then perhaps you might think: well, at least there is this one thing I can still control: my daughters, my sisters. It’s not much, but I think I can imagine, somewhat dimly and without sympathy, why that might look like the only possibility you have when all else fails you, and why you might cling to it all the more if you knew, in your heart, that being honorable in any fuller sense was beyond you. When everything gives way and you have no solid ground to stand on, holding fast to almost anything can look like a good idea.
Consider the situation of “mail order brides” in the US. According to this 2011 article in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, the “international matchmaking industry” aka the mail-order bride trade – is “thriving like never before”.
The Tahirih Justice Center, a nonprofit organization in Falls Church, Va., that protects immigrant women, estimates that the number of mail-order marriages in the U.S. more than doubled between 1999 and 2007, when up to 16,500 such unions were sealed.
International matchmakers are now a growing segment of the U.S. online dating industry, which, according to market research firm IBISWorld, racked up more than $2 billion in 2010 revenue.
Their typical customer in the US is “middle-aged men who find dating troublesome” – men who may be divorced or have never married, who want a wife to “take care” of them, and see it as simpler and cheaper to pay $2000 to a mail-order bride company and meet the other costs of importing a wife.
Until very recently, if a woman in that situation was being abused by her husband, if she left him, she lost her green card and her right to stay in the US. Amanda Marcotte writes:
The reality is that the mail-order bride industry markets itself by feeding into a racist, misogynist narrative that holds that “Western women” have been rendered unmarriageable by feminist teachings about egalitarian marriages. (Lots of fun examples of this theory available for perusing here.) The pitch is that men who want an old-fashioned (read: submissive) wife need to look outside of the country, preferably toward countries where economic distress is pushing women into desperate situations. I don’t think it’s much of a leap to suggest that men with abusive tendencies might just find such a pitch enticing on its surface, and even more so if they discover that the industry has a political arm aimed at making sure that should you feel the need for some physical discipline of your newly obtained old-fashioned wife, she can’t leave you without facing deportation.
And this article pointing out that a draft-dodger in Israel can expect 90 days in jail, but an IDF soldier got 45 days for killing a white flag-waving Palestinian mother and her daughter during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza.
And Fleet Street Fox pointing out the misuse of the word “tragedy” to describe family annihilation, when one parent kills their children and their partner and then themselves:
Ninety five per cent of perpetrators are male. Women who kill their children rarely kill their partners too; men generally kill their partners first.
The killers are usually white, working, middle-aged, and rarely have any previous convictions. They’re ordinary in every way, except for the fact they identify their manhood with how outwardly successful they are – whether millionaires or manual workers, they want to be seen as happy, sound, and able to provide for their families.
Often, but not always, they’ve bullied, coerced, or been violent to their partners. Then something happens which threatens to reveal them as ‘less of a man’ – their wife’s had enough, they’re being chased by the taxman, they lose their job. Sometimes all of them.
They usually begin with an argument between a man and his partner – 75 per cent of familicides happen in a bedroom. He cannot face the world if it knows whatever she knows, so he kills her. Then he cannot face his children because he’s killed their mother, and kills them, and finally the guilt swamps him and he kills himself.
Not all are the same, but fundamentally all such killings come down to a point where someone who strives to be seen as successful has a change in their life they cannot adjust to, and when they lose control they seek to take it back with murder, before atoning for it with suicide.
What I am trying to point here is that there is no cause for racism in discussing the murders of women which are called “honour killing”. Violence against women by men is prevalent throughout the world: the deliberate abandonment of girls in Rochdale to their abusers by the social services was documented this weekend.
In the film It’s A Girl, a woman – married at 15 to her older sister’s husband because her sister couldn’t have children – talks of how because she was supposed to provide her husband with a son as a family obligation, she killed eight daughters soon after they were born. Among the reactions to this on Youtube:
“…pink lady needs a beating!”
“Those who kill these baby girls should be killed!!! There are no excuses for this kind of cruelty.”
“WTH is wrong with that woman?????”
While we all agree that there is nothing that can justify or excuse what this village woman did, we need to ask ourselves if we would have acted differently had we been in her shoes. The fact of the matter is that we are all a product of our environment. And the environment that produced this woman is a brutal, female-hating culture. She grew up bound by traditional mores that say girls are of no value. A woman marries into her husband’s family, becoming little more than a possession, and bearing a son or bringing a large dowry are the only two ways a woman can elevate herself within the family system.
In another two decades, India will have annihilated 20 percent of its female population. To get an estimate of how many women that would be, add up the entire populations of Sweden, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium and Portugal. In less than a century, more than 50 million women have been targeted simply for being female and wiped out from India. Millions have been killed before birth. Millions killed as infants. Millions killed as little girls. Thousands killed as new brides. Thousands killed as they are forced through repeated, back-to-back, unsafe abortions to get rid of girls. Thousands more killed for so-called “honor” or branded as “witches” and mob lynched. And many burnt alive as widows on the pyres of their husbands. Killed at every stage of life–simply for being female! There is no other human group in history that has been persecuted and annihilated on this scale.
From June: man beheads his daughter claiming it was done in a fit of rage because his daughter “had relations” with men: two cases in the Punjab of the men of the family (father and uncles) killing the daughter for being involved with a man of lower caste, and in one instance also killing the man, too.
She was a rape victim but her husband blamed her for the incident and punished her with death. Three years after Devender Pal Singh killed his wife after he got to know that she was raped by his neighbour, the 25-year-old man has been sentenced to life imprisonment by a trial court, after a trial court termed it a case of honour killing. The couple had just been married for a year.
“The case in hands is redolent of the primordial savageness of mankind. It sings vociferously how much cruelty a man can assume and that too for vanity,” additional sessions Judge Rajender Kumar Shastri said while holding Devender guilty of murdering his wife Poonam Pal in 2009.
According to police officials, the girl had eloped with her boyfriend Dinesh in 1996. The couple was later traced following which a case of abduction and rape was registered against Dinesh by her family.
When the case came up for hearing 14 years later in May this year, the girl was found missing with the police suspecting that she was killed for ‘honour’ by her family.
Husband and wife killed because she had married outside her family:
Saif Rehman , 31, who lived in Ibrox, Glasgow, for six years, and his American wife Uzma Naurin, 30, were shot dead when their car was ambushed on November 1 last year in Lalamusa in the Punjab province of Pakistan.
Ms Naurin, who lived in New York, was the first woman in her family to shun the traditional arranged marriage and wed someone outside of the family.
Jagmati Sangwan wrote two years ago of Khap panchayats defying the law of land:
A sad example of the gotra row is that of Ved Pal Moan, brutally beaten to death last year when he tried to secure his wife who was confined by her parents at Singhwal village in Jind district.
He was escorted by a police party and a warrant officer of the High Court. Ved Pal had married neither within his gotra nor within the same village. In this case, another absurd code was invoked by the khap: that the couple violated the custom of not marrying in the neighbouring village as it forms part of bhaichara (brotherhood).
A khap congregation held in March 2009 publicly pronounced the death sentence for Ved Pal, and it succeeded in executing it in June. As couples are selectively targeted, it is clear the real motive is to control women’s sexuality to ensure that property remains within the patriarchal caste domain (mainly Jats in Haryana).
The whole direction of “honour killing” is that it is something that is done to women. When a woman kills her rapist to “cleanse her honour”, as Nevin Yildirim did in Turkey earlier this year, it may receive wider attention than the many deaths of women, but it seems unlikely to revolutionise a system in which women are to blame for being raped. The man Nevin Yildirim shot had been raping her and blackmailing her and threatening her daughters, as appears to have been widely known in their village from the man’s own bragging. But no one did anything.
Witnesses described Yildirim walking into the village square, carrying the man’s head by his hair, blood dripping on the ground.
“Don’t talk behind my back, don’t play with my honor,” Yildirim said to the men sitting in the coffee house on the square. “Here is the head of the man who played with my honor.”
I thought of reporting him to military police and to the district attorney, but this was going to mark me as a scorned woman,” Nevin Yildirim said “Since I was going to get a bad reputation I decided to clean my honour and acted by killing him. I thought of suicide a lot but couldn’t do it.”
The Law Commission has recommended that honour killings be made a non-bailable offence and advocated a seven-year jail term for caste panchayat members found guilty of persecuting legally married couples in the name of honour.
In its latest report, the Commission headed by Justice P V Reddi also asked the government to explore the possibility of a new law to prohibit unlawful caste assemblies which take decisions to condemn marriages not prohibited by law.
“No person or any group shall assemble to condemn any marriage not prohibited by law, on the basis that it dishonoured the caste or community,” the report stated.
The Hindustan Times notes that the Law Commission
has recommended a maximum jail term of seven years for members of caste panchayats who object to legally valid marriages in the name of “honour”. The commission, however, has rejected the law ministry’s suggestion of defining honour killing as a specific offence in criminal law, stating that the existing definition of murder need not be tampered with.
“With great respect, we are constrained to say that a blanket direction by the Supreme Court, making death sentence a rule in cases of honour killings, is a departure from the principles firmly entrenched in our criminal jurisprudence,” the report stated. Stating that death sentence can only be imposed in the rarest of rare cases, the commission has pointed out that in honour killings, a number of accused may be involved and the “degree of participation and culpability may vary”.
This Commission was set up in July 2010, from a Cabinet-level discussion in the Indian government:
Most of the ministers observed that the present laws were not adequate to deal with such killings but there was no unanimity on how to go about it, sources said.
Kapil Sibal, M S Gill and Kamal Nath were among those who expressed their opinions on dealing with the menace effectively, they said.
Gill cited the example of ‘khap’ panchayats where orders to murder anyone in the name of honour are issued by a congregation of villagers and wondered whether all the people present during that assembly should be held accountable.
Sibal suggested some changes in the law to deal with such killings specifically.
That suggestion has been rejected: the Law Commission has argued that the current laws are adequate.