CHENNAI, India — Ramya hails from a small village in a coastal district of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Her parents gave her the best of education and continue to support her endeavors to do well in her career in the booming information technology industry in Chennai, the state capital. But every time Ramya (not her real name) 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 every five cases of thousands of “honor” killings internationally each year takes place in India. While such incidents are commonly reported from the Hindi-speaking heartland of north India, the fate of young women in the southern states, especially Tamil Nadu, is no better, despite that female literacy levels are higher in the region and women enjoy a more equitable social status than in many other parts of India.
Several gruesome incidents have come to light in the recent past. The alleged murder of a 21-year-old pregnant woman who married a boy outside her community, and the vindictive killing of a 23-year-old upper-caste Hindu girl from the temple city of Madurai, who dared to elope with a Dalit [untouchable] boy she had met while pursuing her postgraduate studies, are just two cases reported earlier this year that point to the prevailing social mindset when it comes to dealing with couples who transcend barriers of caste, religion or community.
‘Honor’ killings stem from a social system that has been conditioned by a rigid, often local, understanding of what honor means. In Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of Julius Caesar,” Brutus proclaims that “I love the name of honour more than I fear death.”
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 honor is colored by a weft of patriarchy and misconstrued religious and cultural values. In several communities across India, women are seen as the emblems of family honor. Naturally, their behavior, 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 family status and an erosion of their pride, which has to be prevented at any cost, even if it means killing in cold blood.
A Chennai-based social commentator and activist, Raakhee Suryaprakash, believes that honor killings are a result of a complex mix of factors. She holds that such deaths are a blot on our collective conscience. They feed on the Lakshman Rekha mentality [rooted in ancient Indian mythology, in which a line is drawn around a woman to protect her, and crossing that line, by a man or woman, calls for action from family men whose sense of honor or masculinity has been perceived to have been challenged].
“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 dispense with all sense of right and wrong,” Suryaprakash asserts.
The fact that honor killings continue to happen, drawn from what the community’s own interpretation of what religion and culture dictates, despite the enactment of strict laws, shows that the most dishonorable of acts are, in fact, cloaked in a false sense of comity. As Suryaprakash puts it: “Any decision or act against one’s 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.”
Women like Ramya, who come from traditional backgrounds to make a life and career in the bustling state capital, are constantly living under a threat of violence. “On the one hand, parents want to educate their daughters, like mine did,” she said. “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. They clearly tell me that if I so much as even try and do something similar to what Selvi did all those years ago, 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 Aarshi Tirkey, a lawyer, this happens mainly because the perpetrators perceive honor killings to be above the law. “Such killings have been defined in several ways, but they are predominately an extrajudicial punishment carried out by the family or community members against a member, most often female, who they believe has allegedly brought shame to them,” Tirkey said. “More often than not, women who are believed to have carried out sexual or marriage-related ‘offenses’ are targeted. The punishment is meted out by communal assemblies, 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.”
Even though protection against such acts of violence can be found in the Indian Penal Code, the Constitution and the Protection of Women From Domestic Violence Act, most cases related to honor killings are kept quiet because of the undue influence that the so-called moral police exercises over the community. “In order to tackle the issue,” Tirkey said, “in August 2012 the Law Commission of India prepared draft legislation known as the Prohibition of Interference With the Freedom of Matrimonial Alliances Bill. This bill was designed to target the unlawful activities of communal assemblies in these cases.
“However, even now, the draft has not been presented before the Parliament, and the future of the proposed bill looks uncertain,” Tirkey said. In the 21st century, it is strange to have to witness such realities. To the logical mind, it is impossible, unreal and unacceptable. High time that we as a society change our attitude, wake up to reason and ask: How can there be honor in killing?
This article first appeared in ©Women’s Feature Service.
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Kirthi Jayakumar is a lawyer and journalist in Chennai, specializing in international law and human rights. She has worked as a United Nations Volunteer in human rights in Africa, India, Central Asia and the Middle East. Jayakumar has also developed a women’s rights programs locally, called the Red Elephant Foundation.