What’s the Honour in Killing?

“Fear cuts deeper than swords.”
George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones

Qandeel Baloch, a Pakistani model and performer known for catching the public eye through her bold antics on social media, was in the limelight one last time, when her brother murdered her on July 15, 2016. After being presented to the media by the police, the perpetrator confessed that he drugged and suffocated her to death because she had brought dishonour to the family-name due to her shameless self-portrayal on social media. Waseem Azeem was unapologetic about the heinous act he had committed on his sister- an act of ‘honour killing’.

Honour killing refers to the act of severe domestic violence, by the family or the community of a woman, culminating into her murder (Meetoo & Mirza, 2007). Southeast Asian countries are most susceptible to honour killings as compared to rest of the world. Of these killings, India and Pakistan account for the majority. While women are the subject of majority cases of honour killings, men can also get killed as ‘collateral damage’ for being involved with the woman in some capacity that her family doesn’t approve of.

Myriad reasons instigate honour killings. These range from the woman disagreeing to marry according to her family’s wishes or marrying someone belonging to some other caste, to having a sexual relationship with a man, or divorcing her husband. These practices prevail mostly in rural areas. A prominent reason why they are carried out, is due the fear that governance bodies like Khap panchayats have instilled among villagers’ minds with respect to family prestige and honour. It is these bodies that sometimes order and execute these killings. It has been ingrained into people’s mind sets that certain behaviour is considered honourable, and anything which goes against that and challenges these ‘traditional values’ has to be severely punished.

Further, the misogynist notions that women are born to be inside the house and take care of it continue to prevail. Women who rebel against these notions become victims of honour killings. The caste system in India is very rigid, and intimate relationships with individuals belonging to ‘lower castes’ are not well received. Highest number of honour killings have been carried out due to prevalent caste and religion issues.

Anecdotally speaking, negative stereotypes involving caste, gender roles, and severely elated notions about family pride and honour are instilled amongst young minds by their families and even educational institutions. Progressively, it becomes difficult to break through the tough mould, and the drive to protect ones ‘honour’ from being destroyed in the society overtakes consideration for anything or anyone else. This atrocity has also taken the ugly route of becoming an industry, where one kills a woman family member and accuses a rich person of being involved with her, just to extract huge sums of money from that individual later so as to forgo vengeance.

Despite perpetrators’ claims that individuals who infringe family values deserve the fate according to the religion, no religious texts propagate honour killings. They are in fact a consequence of communal extremism and political agendas of certain individuals. In India, local political parties have largely allowed these incidences to prevail, so as to remain in public favour.

These incidences also prevail in European countries, and the Americas, but mostly amongst immigrant families from the middle-east, or the Southeast Asian countries. For instance, Harry Potter actress Afshan Azad, a UK resident, received death threats from her father and brother for dating a Hindu guy. In another such case, a man of Egyptian origin shot his two daughters as they were dating non-Muslim men. Highly educated masses in India are also not sheltered from extreme views regarding family honour. The Aarushi Talwar murder of 2008, where the parents were arrested for being involved in killing her for family honour, is a proof of this. This supports the notion that misogyny and deeply rooted anti-religious sentiments are the root cause of honour killings, and surrounding liberal atmosphere does little to change them.

In order to curb these incidences, efforts should begin at the grassroots level, by not instilling fear about values, caste, and religion in young minds. Also, parents and family members need to think rationally, rather than out of fear for judgement. In India, groups like love commandos have taken to themselves to protect individuals at risk of being killed for honour, as they are not getting enough social and legal support. Individuals also need to take a personal stand against these incidences, and not discard them as ‘private family matters’, should they ever witness one.

Specific to India, although there are strict laws against homicide which apply to cases of honour killings, they have not been very effective in curbing the activity due to stigmas deeply rooted within society. Reforms need to be made to curb informal governance bodies such as Khap Panchayats. Despite the Supreme Court ban on Khap Panchayats, they still continue to exist. Local governance bodies could keep a check on existence of such entities and ensure that they cease to exist by law. Also, individuals in rural areas should be made aware of legal implications of having Khap Panchayats, and advised to reject their authority.  It is imperative to create an awareness about socio-political factors instigating honour killings. All of this is only possible if political leaders involve themselves actively in curtailing social evils. Further, gender equality and freedom of choice should be propagated and accepted at a personal level. If these social issues are not tackled collectively, India’s dream of becoming a superpower will only remain a dream.

Sampada Karandikar