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Honour killings are not honourable

By Kamna Arora | Last Updated: Wednesday, May 5, 2010 - 16:49
Kamna Arora
Éminence grise

Nirupama Pathak – a name that has, of late, hit headlines in the national as well as international media. She was a 22-year-old journalist, reportedly three-month pregnant, who was found dead in the last week of April at her family home in Jharkhand. Nirupama’s family claims that she committed suicide, but the post-mortem report tells a different story altogether.

“The parents were frequently changing their statements. First, her mother said she died due to electrocution. Later, the family members produced a suicide note and said she killed herself by hanging from the ceiling fan. The post-mortem report says she was murdered by smothering. It also revealed that she was 10-12 weeks pregnant,” Koderma police superintendent Kranti Singh said.

Nirupama’s fault: she fell in love with a boy from another caste. The girl hails from the family of Brahmins, while her boyfriend, Priyabhanshu Ranjan, comes from different caste. “There are indications that family pride was the prime motive behind the murder,” a police spokesman told reporters. The case once again highlights how common `honour killings` are in India. However, there are no official figures for the number of caste-related murders, because most of these cases go unreported, the perpetrators unpunished, but occupy the columns and slots of print and broadcast media quite often.

Nirupama’s mother, Sudha Devi, has been arrested. And if the charge is proved against her, it will be a rare case in which an educated middle-class woman will face trial for killing her own daughter.

There are many Nirupamas not only in India, but in many societies, who are burnt alive, strangulated, shot, tortured, all in the name of preserving honour of the family. What reputation does the family deserve after committing such a monstrous offence?

What is the reason behind honour killings? According to Marsha Freemen, director of International Women's Rights Action Watch at the Hubert Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, such killings occur in countries where the concept of women as a vessel of the family reputation predominates.

In the Indian society, women are regarded as personal property. In fact, violence against family members is perceived as a family and not a judicial issue. "Females in the family -- mothers, mothers-in-law, sisters, and cousins -- frequently support the attacks. It's a community mentality," said Zaynab Nawaz, a program assistant for women's human rights at Amnesty International.

Besides India, honour killings have been reported in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Brazil, Ecuador, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Pakistan, Morocco, Sweden, Turkey, and Uganda.

Notably, there is no law to deal with honour killings in India. Last year, Home Minister P Chidambaram ruled out making another law to deal with such a heinous crime, but observed “we should hang our heads in shame when such incidents take place in India in the 21st century”. Honour killings “would have to be dealt with as murder”, he said.

First of all, there should be a uniform definition of honour killing so that there is no room left for ambiguity as to what constitutes that crime. Furthermore, action should be taken against caste panchayats, which often give verdicts on inter-caste and inter-community marriages.

"At a time when the democratic sections of the society are demanding strict action against perpetrators of 'honour killings' and 'khap' panchayats, these panchayats are busy demanding amendments in the Hindu Marriages Act, which would essentially legalise the draconian, casteist diktats of the khap panchayats. Therefore, there is an urgent need for a strong and effective legislation against the khap panchayats' attempt to curb the freedom on love marriages," said National Commission for Women chairperson Girija Vyas.

Killing in the name of preserving honour only brings dishonour to the family and, largely, the country.

First Published: Wednesday, May 5, 2010 - 16:49

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