Friday, October 29, 2010

His honour to kill and her fate to die?

We call our nation Bharat Mata, Dharti Maa. We worship many Goddesses. However, we revere them on conditions of ‘purity’ and ‘chastity’. 

This feminine idolization or idealization doesn’t quite settle. Economically we’re booming but culturally still misfits; not as per the norms of the ‘Great White Man’ but even by our own ‘Asiatic’ standards of adaptation in a global village and by universal standards of human rights.

The recent rise in reports of young men and women being murdered in the name of honour has been crucial in throwing light on a long continuing trend that the local law, for reasons of both corruption and tradition, have kept under wraps; and the urban educated had until recently become oblivious to.The exposure of honour crimes has been a serious reality check - barely 5 kilometers from the fringes of our flourishing cities thrives an alien culture.

Honour - A word that spells collectivism not only in definition but to a greater degree also patriarchal in an Indian context. Instances of women dying in the name of honour have been witnessed through history in a multitude of forms. The earliest that one recalls is the now abolished Sati, legitimately practiced pre-independence, when women threw themselves or were thrown in the funeral pyre of their husbands.
One shudders to recall the chaos of the India-Pakistan partition during which women’s bodies became the site of offense and defamation. Most female victims in the massacre died by their own hands. Urvashi Butalia, in her book ‘The Other Side of Silence’ which recounts survivor experiences of partition from a feminist perspective, talks about the status of women who willingly killed themselves to save their own or their family’s honour, and women who were abducted by mobs from either side of the border. Survivors, mostly male, emphasized the ‘heroic’ and ‘valorous’ aspects of these tragic deaths as she observes, “…while abducted women entered the realm of silence, women who were killed by families, or who took their own lives, entered the realm of martyrdom”.

A remarkable movie that dealt with the subject matter of women's sexuality subject to honour and violation during the India-Pakistan partition

What gets purported in the repeated incidence of such acts and society’s legitimate acceptance towards them is the psyche of the woman being the bearer of family honour, dictated by masculine prudence. It is not to say only women come under the knife or bullet for supposedly dishonoring their families. News reports show both lovers being slaughtered for committing the forbidden. On April 4, 2009 Reuters had reported the honor killing of four gay men in the Sadr city slum of Baghdad. Men, too, are paying an equal, if not heavier, price for patriarchy.

Courtesy front pages and breaking news, honour killing has become the intellectual subject of a human rights debate. At this moment, however, more judgments are being passed where answers aren’t available, which is, again, a sad consequence of reportage. Speed trials and judgments deliver justice in time but do not prevent recurrence of the crime. More questions need to be raised, sensitively and sensibly. Only by addressing the issue from within will we be able to gauge more reasonably this culture of violence against women, something that the criminal justice system does insufficiently.

In the contemporary scenario of honour killings, two fresh angles are being recorded. One - women are neither silent nor passive spectators in such incidences. The abhorrent case of Delhi based journalist Nirupama Pathak’s own mother doing the dirty job questions the theory of maternal instincts against all odds. In an interview to Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID), Rana Husseini, author of "Murder in the Name of Honor", on the role of women in honour killings said that they are usually divided into a) those who don’t have a say in the issue; if they stand up and speak, they might get killed themselves. That’s how they wind up as accomplices, b) others who really believe that the woman should be punished and that it will be a lesson to others in the family.
                                                    The second focuses on the system of castes and communities like the Khap Panchayat who glorify such crimes as their moral duty in preserving the sanctity of their community. There are debatable theories of ‘sick societies’ and in situations like these, it’s a real struggle to draw a line between mental health and cultural sanction. Is it more disturbing to think that it was a collective stand or that it didn’t prick their conscience? Further, the question here is if conscience is embedded in morality, which is certainly more culturally defined, or independent from it.

Writing for The Times of India, Madhu Kishwar sought to protect the rights of any community like the Khap Panchayat to, “insist on the right to decide for itself what aspects of tradition they wish to cherish and what they wish to discard or reform, provided its leaders can enforce community norms through democratic consensus”. 

Rightfully, such a negotiation must be worked out wherein a sensitive approach is taken, one which does not lambaste community norms and cultural sentiments nor puts caste adjudicators on such a high horse where they decide who lives or dies in shame or honor.

The highlight on the murder of the Delhi based journalist, Nirupama Pathak, who came from a family with an impressive educational profile, also forces us to identify the line that many Indians demarcate between ‘education for occupation’ and ‘tradition for living’. Are we essentially the same people from the period when Granths and Vedas were written, only with touch screen devices now to read them from? Isn’t ‘honour killing’ a practice no less cruel than Sati was?

Northern states like Delhi, Punjab and Haryana have the fastest growing economic and social enterprises; yet the sex ratio remains abhorrently skewed. On the far end, although the eastern and north eastern states of the country continue to struggle with sufficient economic provisions, let alone investments; dowry death, rapes or honour killings were somehow never a part of their contemporary history. These places are yet to progress to a level that can provide more than the traditional opportunities for women, but they are not currently debarred from the existing options in occupation or education. Rather than looking west, some of these sex skewed states could more realistically emulate their own neighbours…their own brethren.

It is imperative here to understand two ideas in the context of integration. One, for the development of any state wherein infrastructural growth must accompany (or at least be followed by) cultural revolution or else the gap widens and development becomes like a hollow, empty barrel with a superficial crust. And the other is of national integration via communication and cultural exchange.

Despite the multitude of reasons and contexts in which honor killings take place, it should be repeatedly reminded that the supreme courts are above all local laws and cultural collectives and that the only exception to murder is self defense, not ‘honour’. 

Originally posted on 5th July, 2010 in The Alternative 

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