History of Honour Crimes

Honour killings are not a recent phenomenon. They have been happening for centuries all over the world. In history books we find such cases occurred in 1200 BC in the Hammurabi tribes and in 6000 BC among Assyrian tribes. In those tribes’ women’s chastity was considered to be the property of families.

In Ancient Babylonian, Egyptian, Chinese, North American Native American tribes and Persian cultures women committing adultery were punished. In Ancient Rome, being raped was considered so dishonorable and detrimental to a woman’s life and reputation that the elders of the tribe believed that killing her was a ‘merciful act.’ The Roman law of Pater Familias (oldest male or father of the family) gave complete control to the men of the family on their children and wives.

India: ‘No’ to marriage by choice

No law against forced marriage
Twenty first century India is still reeling under the pressures of the caste system. Communal divides have also grown stronger. So, when a girl and boy fall in love and their choice of partner defies societal norms of religion, caste, sub-caste or ‘gotra’ there is a severe backlash from the community to which either/or both belong. So much so that the parents or brothers of the victim/s face enormous pressure and sometimes for the sake of their own survival have to go to the extent of becoming murderers. (Manoj-Babli case, Kaithal, Haryana, June 2007, Nirupama Pathak case, May 2010, Bhavna Murder, New Delhi, Nov. 2014, Pratibha Murder Case, Muzaffarnagar, U.P., Jan. 2015) This social phenomenon can be described as some kind of patriarchal reaction to the freedom of choice exercised by young individuals, without considering the matter of endogamy. At the psychological level, it may be some deep-rooted insecurity of a family that the action of their children may lead to their ostracism and, eventually isolation from the community from which they have been drawing support. On the other hand, remaining closely bound to the joint family or community seems to have its benefits, especially when it comes to matters of matrimony and property. A saying in Hindi goes ‘Roti aur beti ka rishta har kisi se nahin hota.’(The relationship of sharing food and a daughter is not possible with everybody).But with more and more young people leaving their homes to study or work in different cities and even countries, it is natural that they will meet many friends from different social backgrounds-castes and sub-castes, classes, religions and this will often lead to personal choices defying their parents’ will and existing social norms. So, the new relationships are often nipped in the bud. If the (mostly upper caste) girl tries to defy warnings, her life may be snuffed out to save the family from future problems. If the boy is of a lower caste, the girl’s family will try to kill him.

The distinctive nature of honour crimes
The distinctive nature of crimes in the name of honour is their collective nature and brutality, both of which enjoy social sanction. It is for this reason that often it is extremely difficult to pre-empt these incidents. Many members of an extended family or village community plan the act together, many times through a formal "family council" or village council or Khap, which is strong enough to dismiss any dissenting voices, defy and challenge the law of the land as well as easily manipulate the police. Many times, the police and local politicians may also share the opinion of the Khap and support its diktats, because they not only share the same ideology of casteism, communalism and patriarchy, but find it useful for vote-bank politics. (In the Bhavna case, her father was a local politician owing allegiance to the Congress Party; Both the ruling party and the opposition supported the Khaps’ demand for amending the Hindu Marriage Act so as to prohibit marriage within the same gotra.)

A means of controlling women’s sexuality and behaviour
Another significant feature is the connection of honour crimes with the control of a woman’s behaviour and the preservation of her chastity till marriage which in the context of modern lifestyles is perceived to be in danger. A key aspect is the importance of the reputation of the family in the community, and the stigma associated with losing social status. In tight-knit communities this can lead to ostracism and total isolation.(Shafilea Murder Case, Chesire, NW England, Sept. 2003, Amina and Sarah Murder
case, Jan. 2008). Rather, if a diktat is obeyed, the status of the perpetrators may rise within their communities, because their behaviour is seen to be in consonance with prevalent social norms and hence justified. In 2012, there had been a demand from the Sarv Khap of Haryana that the Hindu Marriage Act be amended to lower the age of marriage. This demand was later shelved due to the all-out opposition from many Community members. In the words of Chandigarh based legal experts Anil Malhotra and his brother Ranjit Malhotra, “in traditional societies, honour killings are basically 'justified' as a sanction for 'dishonorable' behaviour.”

The brutality of honour crimes
Honour crimes may include inhuman treatment or brutal attacks, confinement and restriction in mobility, blackening the face, shaving hair, naked parading, beating, forcing the victim to consume urine, excreta or poison, gang rape, and other kinds of inhuman treatment at the hands of the perpetrators. Methods of killing may include violent forms like stabbing, beating or stoning to death, burning, beheading, hanging, throat slashing, lethal acid attacks, shooting and strangulation. These murders are mostly performed with extreme brutality in public to warn others within the community of possible consequences of engaging in what is seen as unwanted or illicit behaviour. It has been seen in several cases, that because a couple had left the village due to fear, they were tactfully called back by their parents according to a premeditated strategy, on the promise of accepting their relationship and organizing their marriage, and then confining and forcibly marrying them to someone within their caste, or killing them.

A positive story
But there are those who have defied traditional codes and risked their lives for it. A Hindu woman, Shail Devi saved the lives of 10 Muslims in Azizpur Bahilwara village in Bihar's Muzaffarpur district during communal clashes after an honour killing, in which five people died, in January 2015. Shail Devi, a frail widow in her early 50s, risking her own life, gave shelter to her Muslim neighbors when a mob of more than 5,000 people attacked Azizpur Bahilwara village after a 20-year-old Hindu boy's body was found. She, with her two daughters stood guard outside the house and sent the attackers away. The boy had been allegedly abducted and killed over his love affair with a Muslim girl.
Shail’s act of courage was lauded by the Muslims as well as the district administration, and she was awarded a cash prize of Rs. 51,000 by the Chief Minister of Bihar.

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