Nothing honourable about honour killing

Aug 03 : The term honour killing is at best a cruel and tragic irony, because there is nothing remotely honourable about the brutal murder of a young man, woman or couple, by an entire caste, community or village, merely because they dared to challenge some archaic and meaningless code set down by some village elders for the village and its residents.

Killings such as these are very frequently reported, but rarely merit more than the passing attention of a fast-moving world, so jaded and exhausted in the pursuit of the daily minutiae and miseries of life to actually concern itself with something that happens so far away.

Often our movies and those who live in cities tend to romanticise the idylls of rural life, supposedly natural, close to basics and uncluttered by the cynicism of the urban jungle. In reality, however, villages are, in certain aspects, very scary and brutal places to live in, especially in terms of the overarching dominance of patriarchal, chauvinistic, caste and communal values. The treatment of Scheduled Castes, the sudden flare-up of communal tensions between religious groups, the attempts by the upper castes to control the fortunes of the village are all too well-known and well documented to bear repetition. However, the stark fact that needs to be seriously considered is that whenever tensions break out — whether they are communal in nature or warring castes — it is the women of those communities who are forced to bear the brunt of the violence. Thus in cases of communal or any other violence, it is the women of the opposite community who are attacked, raped and assaulted. We never stop to think why, if there is tension between religious or castes groups, the women of the other community need to be attacked. Why can’t the men just battle it out among themselves?

On many occasions, especially in areas where vested interests seek to spread communal tension, a false rumour is started that a woman of a particular religion was raped. This rumour spreads like wildfire and immediately, outraged men of that religion gang up. Instead of rounding up the alleged or real perpetrator of the crime — who is generally a man from the opposite religion — they roam around raping and molesting innocent women of that particular community. The total lack of logic, the sheer injustice of this is never really contemplated. It has always filled me with rage to see how the battles of men are always fought upon the bodies of women. The problems, anger, territorial issues are always those of the men but the violence and assault are perpetrated mostly upon the bodies of women.

The reasons for this anomaly are not far to seek. Patriarchal society has always controlled and aspired to control the sexuality and fertility of women. Of course, patriarchy seeks to control women in every possible way, including the capacity of women to be mobile. For example, in parts of West Asia, women are not allowed to drive cars. But that is a whole different story. On the issue of honour killings it is amply clear that the sexuality of a woman, her perceived purity and chastity are all considered to be precious commodities owned by the men of her family that include her husband and his immediate family. This is why the physical person of the woman and her sexual "inviolability" are treated as the benchmark of "honour" of her family and, as a result, of the entire religious community or caste.

The most cursory analysis of this attitude makes the discriminatory anomaly of this thesis crystal clear. Chastity and sexuality are matters that are or should be purely within the private domestic domain. It is a matter that should concern solely a woman and her husband. That the entire community should sit in arbitration over the marriage of a woman merely because they belong to the same caste or religion is simply a violation of the human rights of that particular woman. In fact, the only concern in the public domain should be if, or when, a woman is raped, assaulted or molested, in which case the entire community should spring to her defence and ensure that the perpetrators of the atrocity against the woman are severely punished. Alas, such alacrity and concern are conspicuously absent in our society and conviction rates for rape per se (as opposed to rape during communal or other violence) are dismally low. In fact the cruellest blow of all is when law courts actually deliver or endorse judgments accepting a rapist’s offer to marry his victim and thereby acquitting him of his horrific offence. The reasoning obviously being that by marrying the man who raped her, her chastity would be preserved. Even worse are the multitude of instances when village panchayats decree that sexual offenders and rapists should pay monetary compensation to the male members of the victim’s family — her husband, father or brother — and thereafter absolve the rapist of further punishment. It is unimaginable to any civilised mind how the victim of rape can possibly be or feel compensated by money being offered to her family. Yet, this is a reality we live with daily, and largely ignore.

Recently, the media had reported that in Haryana a young man Vedpal — after obtaining a court order to reclaim his wife accompanied by a police officer — was killed by the villagers in the name of honour. The verdict of the caste panchayat had declared the marriage unacceptable as he married girl of his own gotra (sagotra union). Yet, I do not see the kind of national outrage that a TV programme or a cricket match defeat might have provoked.

Caste which many use as a basis to socially empower those who are at a disadvantage is thus being used as a yardstick and weapon to justify the murder of young men and women who dare to love beyond the parameters sanctioned by their village elders. Panchayats and local governments, which are the pride of Indian rural development, function tragically along with parallel, illegal, unconstitutional so-called panchayats, which pronounce barbaric death sentences upon young lovers and carry them out in defiance of law and order.

During a recent parliamentary debate, the Union government declared its resolve to fight the menace of these dishonourable shocking lynch murders, along with the help of state governments and the public at large. If we are to preserve our sanity as a democracy, all of us owe a duty towards our country to ensure that these efforts succeed.

Jayanthi Natarajan is a Congress MP in the Rajya Sabha and AICC spokesperson.

The views expressed in this column are her own.

By Jayanthi Natarajan

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