MADRAS, India – The act of killing is not so surprising when senseless brutality, especially against women, engulfs a community. Thousands of women are murdered every year by their families in the name of “honor.” This heinous crime cuts across continents, with most killings going unreported. When they are reported, the perpetrators are seldom punished, because the families or the society concerned may view the dead women as deserving of punishment.
“Most honor killings occur in countries where the concept of the woman as a vessel of a family’s reputation prevails,” said Marsha Freemen, director of International Women’s Rights Action Watch at the Hubert Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota.
The United Nations Commission on Human Rights avers that recent killings have occurred in Bangladesh, Britain, Brazil, Ecuador, Egypt, India, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Pakistan, Morocco, Sweden, Turkey and Uganda.
Sometimes the killings are carried out for ridiculously flimsy reasons. Failing to serve a meal on time can be seen as a stain on family honor. Amnesty International reported a case in which a husband murdered his wife because he dreamed that she had betrayed him. In Turkey, a young woman’s throat was slit after a love ballad had been dedicated to her over the radio.
Though murder for family/tribal honor is essentially an Islamic concept or is more prevalent among Muslims, the crime also occurs in Hindu and other communities in India. In a number of states, men and women who disobey parental wishes and marry outside their caste are often hanged in full public view.
A subplot of renowned Indian film director Shyam Benegal’s latest work, “Welcome to Sajjanpur,” set in a contemporary village, depicts the hanging of a beautiful former widow and her new husband. Why would a family and/or community oppose a widow remarrying? Widows are often considered easy prey for casual sex, and their properties are coveted.
Sometimes a murder is committed years after a couple has settled down in matrimony and begun raising children. The bliss is shattered by a male member of the wife’s family still smarting from the insult that he perceived had been heaped on the family by her doing as she pleased.
No religion sanctions killing, but sadly Islamic culture views women as men’s property with no rights of their own. This often ignites rancor and murderous tendencies. The belief that the “owner” of such “property” has the right to decide “its” fate becomes the basis for gruesome acts.
At times, even courts turn a blind eye to such incidents. In Peshawar, a woman seeking a divorce from a violent husband after a decade of marriage was murdered by her mother and her lawyer friend. The victim’s father, despite his high standing in society, could not dissuade the court from dismissing the case!
In India, women’s rights are deeply ingrained in mostly patriarchal communities, where men with landed properties go about with an air of superiority. In recent years, as literacy and economic independence have increased among women, the conflict between the sexes has worsened. Domestic violence, workplace uneasiness and rising divorce rates plague India.
However, in Kerala, where a largely matrilineal community has ensured greater respect for women through promotion of literacy and better health, honor killings have not been reported.
Education is still a big problem in India. The 60 percent school dropout rate begins in class five, where 29 of every 100 student stop attending classes. Most are girls. It is not surprising that 300 million Indians, a figure equal to the U.S. population, cannot read their own names. With most uneducated people living in rural areas and invariably hailing from economically and socially backward communities, women find themselves marginalized and more prone to falling victim to honor killings and other beastly atrocities.
Unless societies exhibit a level of maturity that extends greater educational opportunities to girls, allows them to own property and accepts them as individuals with basic rights of choice and freedom, expect honor killings to remain a bloody blot.
Gautaman Bhaskaran is a freelance journalist.