HOW CAN THERE BE HONOUR IN KILLING?
CHENNAI: Ramya (name changed) hails from a small village close to Virudhachalam in Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu. Although her parents ensured that she got the best of education, and today they support her endeavours to do well in her career in the booming Information Technology industry in Chennai, every time she goes home for a visit she is warned against doing anything that would bring disgrace to the family and is threatened with dire consequences if she “dared to behave like Selvi”. Selvi is an example for all the young women in Ramya’s village. She was butchered to death by her brothers and father after she professed to have fallen in love with a man from a lower caste.
Statistics from the United Nations reveal that one-in-five cases of ‘honour killing’ internationally every year comes from India. Whereas such incidents are commonly reported from the Hindi heartland of north India, the fate of young women in the southern states, especially Tamil Nadu, is no better, despite the fact that female literacy levels are higher in the region and women enjoy a more equitable social status. In fact, several gruesome incidents have come to light in the recent past. The alleged murder of a 21-year-old pregnant woman in Ramnad, who married a boy outside her community, and the vindictive killing of a 23-year-old upper caste Hindu girl from Madurai, who dared to elope with a Dalit boy she had met while pursuing her post-graduate studies, are just two cases reported earlier this year, which point to the prevailing social mindset when it comes to dealing with couples who transcend barriers of caste, religion or community.
‘Honour killings’ stem from a social set up that has been conditioned to feed into a rigid understanding of what honour means. One interpretation is that which is presented in Shakespeare’s ‘The Tragedy of Julius Caesar’. When Brutus speaks of honour one can’t help but appreciate the importance he has given to this virtue. “Set honour in one eye and death i' the other,” he said, “And I will look on both indifferently. For let the gods so speed me as I love the name of honour more than I fear death.”
Quite appreciable, and perhaps dramatically logical, this line of thought might seem to deify Brutus and his value system. But what if this logic is borrowed and then extended beyond the self – where a few get to decide whether or not another deserves to live? This understanding of honour is coloured by a weft of patriarchy and misconstrued religious and cultural values. In several communities across India, women are seen as the emblems of family honour. Naturally, their behaviour, decisions and actions are seen as a reflection of the family’s ‘values’ and so any deviation from the ‘accepted’ route is a dent on their status and an erosion of their pride, which has to be prevented at any cost even if it means killing in cold blood.
Chennai-based social commentator and activist Raakhee Suryaprakash believes that ‘honour killings’ are a result of a complex mix of several factors. “‘Honour killings’ are a blot on our collective conscience as they feed on the ‘lakshman rekha’ mentality and the so-called societal norms. Unfortunately, violence against women in India in many instances is perpetrated by the women of the family, too. It is a vicious cycle fed by patriarchal, communal and religious passions that dispenses with all sense of right and wrong,” she asserts.
In the course of drawing out their own interpretations of what religion and culture dictates, the fact that ‘honour killings’ continue to happen despite the enactment of strict laws shows that the most dishonourable of acts are, in fact, cloaked in a false sense of comity. As Suryaprakash puts it, “Any decision or act against ones family's expectation, and overnight daddy's little princess or the most beloved sister becomes a stain on the family’s reputation that can be washed away only by spilling her blood. The killing of the boy or the man involved in the 'forbidden' relationship leads to revenge killings and blood feuds that keep communities in a state of insecurity and panic.”
Girls like Ramya, who come from traditional backgrounds to make a life and career in the bustling state capital, are constantly living under a veiled threat of violence. Says the youngster, “On the one hand, parents want to educate their daughters, like mine did. And yet they want to retain complete control over the way we lead our lives by ensuring that nothing we do will tarnish their reputation. When I was initially sent to Chennai to study and even now when I am a self-sufficient working professional I am constantly reminded of my ‘boundaries’.
Whenever I go home, my parents issue fresh warnings lest I forget. They clearly tell me that if I so much as even try and do something similar to what Selvi did all those years back then they too would not hesitate to retaliate in the manner that her father and brother did.”
The question that obviously comes to mind is: how does this crime continue to thrive in spite of a slew of tough laws? According to advocate Aarshi Tirkey, this happens mainly because the perpetrators perceive ‘honour killings’ to be above the law. “‘Honour killings’ have been defined in several ways but they are predominately an extra-judicial punishment carried out by the family or community members against a member, most often female, who they believe has allegedly brought shame to them. More often than not, women who are believed to have carried out sexual or marriage-related ‘offences’ are targeted. The punishment is meted out by communal assemblies known as khap panchayats in the north and katta panchayats in the south. These are typically committees of the moral police, who consider themselves as having the power and authority to deal with objectionable marriages. What is objectionable is entirely subjective, and left to their warped discretion,” she says.
Even though protection against such acts of violence can be found in the Indian Penal Code, the Constitution as well as the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, most of the cases related to ‘honour killings’ are silenced because of the undue influence that the so-called moral police exercises over the community. Points out Tirkey, “In order to tackle the issue, in August 2012 the Law Commission of India had prepared a draft legislation known as the Prohibition of Interference with the Freedom of Matrimonial Alliances Bill, which was designed to target the unlawful activities of khap panchayats and punish honour killings. However, even now, the draft has not been presented before the Parliament, and the future of the proposed bill looks uncertain.”
In the 21st century, it is strange to have to witness such realities. To the logical mind, it is but impossible, unreal and unacceptable. High time that we as a society change our attitude, wake up to reason and ask: ‘how can there be honour in killing?’
(Women's Feature Service)