S O C I E T Y – H U M A N R I G H T S
A word that is meant to represent respect and prestige. An attribute that is supposed to give esteem to a person, a quality that reflects the dignity of an individual based on their characteristics and actions. Yet, in today’s harsh reality, this word and its connotation have become loosely translated to only serve women in the favour of men. To only apply to women under the rules of men. A word that cages and vilifies women of many countries to nothing except being property belonging to men.
In South Asia alone, honour killing is a prevailing practice in countries such as India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. It rings true for Turkey and other Middle Eastern countries as well.
Honour killings are murders with the motive of execution of people, predominantly women, who have brought ‘disgrace’ upon themselves, their families and communities, some way or the other by going against traditions and cultural norms. The victims of this ordeal are shunned and shamed to death for incidents as trivial as talking to men, having premarital relations, and partaking in activities ‘shameful’ for women to grave scenarios such as being molested, rejected from marriage proposals or having a child out of wedlock. Speaking up and demanding for their rights such as seeking a divorce from a binding, abusive, and miserable marriage is likewise berated and can be the intention for such murders too.
Individuals of the LGBTQIA+ community also suffer from honour abuse. In India, despite the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 2018 by the Supreme Court, many still flee from their homes to escape purgatory.
Akin to more conservative states, the difficult reality is a parallel for the LGBTQIA+ people of Pakistan and Turkey. Among many cases of violence against these individuals, a large number included brutal attacks on transgender sex workers in Ankara and Istanbul, and murders of gay and lesbian men and women, who are thought of as diseased and immoral. Gay men are further exempted from military service in Turkey; deemed incapable solely based on their sexual orientation.
Some families embrace these identities only if they conform to heterosexuality as a facade, while others disown their children and cut off all ties. And in other situations, family members even resort to homophobic and transphobic honour abuse and killings, which is mostly male endorsed. But when looking at the bigger picture, acceptance is a rare sight in locations such as urban India at best, and freedom of expression in sexual orientation and gender almost fictitious.
What is honour in the eyes of these men?
The perception of honour to men of such controlling communities is something that primarily lies within the women only. Eyebrows are never raised when the men do questionable deeds or are part of the equation concerning a woman, but havoc is created to put the latter to trial.
In India, this role is popularly assigned to leaders or groups of the Jat community called Khap Panchayats. Typically found in the regions of northern India, these are community administrations based in tribal, rural, and village areas of domains such as Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Haryana. Evolved from the social structure of Hinduism centuries back, these officials still exist to govern their own communities, especially to criticise and judge issues that pertain to women.
Anyone who disobeys the rules set by these men is subjected to brutal penalties that begin from fines and public degradation to being labelled as outcasts who face expulsion. They behave as quasi-judicial bodies that resort to violence and punishment to restore honour and teach women to live their lives by their laws.
Khap Panchayats reinforce sexist, dominating principles by taking regressive measures that confine the freedom of women and bar them from making independent decisions on issues like abortion, dowry, and being able to choose a spouse. In some territories of UP, women have been restricted from carrying mobile phones and wearing western attires as well.
In 2010, Khaps demanded an amendment to the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, to ban marriages within the same gotra (sub-caste). This meant the prohibition of marriage between people of the same village as well — the only relationship between men and women of the same gotra allowed was that of a brother and a sister. In other instances, they have encouraged marriage between different castes while scrutinising couples of interfaith unions.
Similar councils exist in Pakistan as well, where misogynistic men cause panchayat-ordered murders to quelch their bloodlust and exercise control over women. However, it is not just obsolete customs of prejudice by elderly men in tribal and rural locations that prompt such killings, but cold-blooded homicide by family members and relatives in larger, more modern states as well.
A paradigm of honour killings
900 such cases were reported in 2013 in Pakistan. Human rights groups said that convictions were scarce and the number of people who survived almost zero. In Afghanistan, more than 240 cases were recorded between January 2011 and May 2013, according to Amnesty International.
“When a murderer is convicted of an honour killing, often they receive no more than two years jail,” its article reports.
When a Dalit girl in Haryana was allegedly gang-raped by four men and then committed suicide, the Khap declared that girls should be wedded off young to steer clear of molestation. The rapists were not convicted and the girl was denied justice.
In another example, Qandeel Baloch, an acclaimed Pakistani social media star and model, was strangled to death in 2016 by her brother at their home in Multan, which sparked national protests. He had been seen freely roaming in town after her death and had shown no signs of guilt, instead, he was proudly announcing the news. Baloch was a controversial figure for the conservative country, and scrutiny and judgement of her portrayal of herself had led her brother to terminate her life — merely to save face in society.
Prime Minister at the time, Nawaz Sharif, had, thereafter, issued new legislation that precluded family members from absolving a murderer in honour killing cases. The new law guaranteed the death penalty or life imprisonment for the culprit. Nevertheless, the number of such crimes persisted to the following year.
An article by Deutsche Welle exhibits a report by Amnesty International that identified the number of flaws in the law. To illustrate, a judge had “the authority to rule out the aspect of ‘honour killing’ from the murder case”. A dangerous loophole implying that families could “bribe local judges to dismiss the case”.
Why are existing laws failing?
Laws, albeit quite a few in the last decade that have been established in both India and Pakistan, have been largely ineffective. Although Khap Panchayats have no legal status, the Jat community constitutes 25 per cent of Haryana’s population, hence becoming the state’s largest caste group. This means it is easy for them to have political backing despite having anti-women ethics.
Another reason these groups are still accepted is owing to the fact that they resolve disputes and maintain social order without involving the judiciary, which can be a more costly and lengthy process.
D.R. Chaudhary, the author of Khap Panchayat and Modern Age, remarks in his book, “Most of them dealt with social issues like promoting education, banning dance, and obscene songs on the eve of marriage, giving alms to the needy, limiting the number of participants in a marriage party.”
This explains why such social institutions have not been dissolved altogether, although they regularly pass oppressive rules. While the state or court may dismiss some of their rulings, they are therefore likely to never be completely abolished.
An issue still on the surge
On 27 March, 2018, the Supreme Court of India proclaimed it illegal for Khap Panchayats to end a marriage between consenting adults. Yet, only two weeks ago in Uttar Pradesh, in early March 2021, a father beheaded his 17-year-old daughter with an axe in a fit of rage, having caught her in a relationship with a man. He later proceeded to carry her severed head to the village police station and even confessed to his crime. A month earlier, another woman was burned alive by family members for being involved in an interfaith relationship.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi had visited Haryana in 2012 after four youths molested a Dalit girl. A column by India Today reflects how “the sheer indifference of politicians and vote-bank politics allow the Khap Panchayat’s writ to run amok. Although Sonia condemned the incident, she didn’t voice a word against the Congress-headed state government”.
When states cannot exterminate bodies of such power or police individuals who get away with murder with such an incentive, it is difficult to curb the number of honour killings. There are no specific laws for victims of honour crimes, and none among the existent general ones that are implemented correctly and brought to effect. In stark contrast, it has been observed that murderers instead receive reduced sentences when honour is the stimulus for the offence.
An equally disturbing truth is that the offenders of honour killings are almost always shameless killers who blatantly admit to their crimes, seeing no fault in their intentions or actions. This is derived from the rooted sexism and contempt for women that has sprouted into the countless men of our countries today. It comes from the inhumanity of our people when we disregard LGBTQIA+ rights simply because they are notions that do not fit into the norms of our society.
When men wrongfully demand to impose on the personal choices of women to conserve their honour, it is only men who lose their self-respect and dignity at the end of the day. When homophobia and transphobia motivated crimes do occur, it is only the culprits who are shredded off their morality and ethics. There is nothing honourable about honour killings.
Yashfeen Fatima Karim’s world revolves around scrumptious food, an engrossing book, or a Netflix series she can binge-watch.