The term ‘honour killing’ literally means killing for honor. The usage of the term ‘honour’ has a tendency to rationalize and legitimize the motive of the crime by creating a false notion that the crime has been committed to save the honor of the family. This implies that it is the responsibility of the society to prevent any violation of its tradition. “The regime of honour is unforgiving; women on whom suspicion has fallen are not given an opportunity to defend themselves, and family members have no socially acceptable alternative but to remove the stain on their ‘honour’ by attacking the woman. Thus the usage of the term ‘honor’ along with killings is a misnomer and misleading. The term Honor killing is an inaccurate description of this crime.
Honour killings are chiefly characterized by violence against women. The ideology of honor stems from the patriarchal and gendered societal norms which expect women to conform to their traditional roles and any deviation from the same is censured. Woman in all her roles, whether as a mother, daughter, sister or wife is always supposed to be subservient to men. A woman’s honor is related to her conformity with the traditional roles ascribed to her and any attempt to break from these is considered a dishonorable act. Such a loss of honor is deemed irreversible and is to be restored by punishing the rebel with death. Conceptions of family honor endorse honor killings. Whenever a woman indulges in acts perceived as dishonorable such as marrying against the family wishes, marrying someone from the so called “lower caste”, eloping with someone, becoming victim of a stigmatized offence such as rape, molestations or sexual harassment, refusing an arranged marriage, asking for divorce, having pre-marital or extra marital relationships, adultery etc, she has to pay for it with her life. The community plays a very important role in traditional honor killings. Ultimately it is the community which decides what acts are honorable or dishonorable. The killings are highly unlikely unless the transgression becomes known in the community. It is shocking how caste and other prejudices continue to dictate social life and individual choices even in these contemporary times.
Indian society is patriarchal and gender insensitive. Patriarchy in its wider definition manifests itself in institutionalization of male dominance over women in society. In our tradition bound society, women have always been subjected to social, economic, physical, psychological as well as sexual exploitation. In fact the institutions of family and marriage, where she is considered to be safe, have become the major cause of her oppression. The forms of oppression may vary but the content is same. The dominant familial ideology in India has shaped and constructed the family as private and beyond state intervention thereby immunizing the oppression of women within this domestic sphere. Any efforts to prohibit violent and oppressive practices within the family have time and again been resisted as an undue intervention into the ‘private’ sphere of the family. Thus for women the Right to Life and Personal Liberty granted under Article 21 of our constitution is contingent on their acting in conformity with the prevailing social norms and traditions.
Honour killings represent the most overt and brutal method of subjecting women to male control and subordination. The genesis of this problem can be traced back to incidences of voluntary killing of unmarried daughters and wives during turbulent times such as war, partition etc to save them from being violated. Since childhood, girls are subjected to restrictions in matters of dressing, movement and behavior. All this is done to inculcate in them a sense of subservience to the other gender and submit to male dominance. It is a common experience that if the sister or daughter commits something unusual and socially unacceptable such as having a love affair or eloping with a boy of her choice, the society holds the father or brother responsible for not reining in the girl and allowing such a social wrong to occur. Such men caught in a social warp feel the pressure of being the upholders or custodians of traditions and the feeling is that the dishonour once brought upon the family cannot be undone unless the source of dishonour is destroyed which means killing of one’s own sister or daughter and sometimes the boy with whom she was involved.
Another issue underlying these gruesome killings is property. Nowadays people want their daughters to be educated and independent yet submit to male dominance within the familial sphere. Educated women have acquired more mobility in the society. This allows them to meet and interact with more men with whom they sometimes strike a friendship. When an educated and liberated female, driven by a new found confidence and ambition chooses her partner in defiance of the social norms, she is giving a subtle yet clear message that she has an equal status in the society and has autonomy over her body and life. This declaration of independence is perceived as a potential threat that she may either herself, or with support from her partner, seek an equal share in the family’s property which the law entitles her to but which she is rarely accorded. Even after the 2005 amendments in the Hindu succession Act, giving equal share to girls in the ancestral property, women seldom stake a claim to their share. Traditionally, when marriage takes place within an intimate circle, property rights are usually foregone. The lurking threat that the woman may stake a claim to the property assumes importance especially among poor, uneducated youth who are dependent on land. This eventually leads to an overriding sentiment that the evil is to nipped in the bud itself and this is manifested in the killing of such women.
Such killings are violative of our constitutional provisions regarding equality and protective provisions for women empowerment enshrined under Articles 14, and 15 (1) & (3). They curtail a woman’s freedom of movement (Art 19) and violate her right to life and personal liberty (Art 21).
A fair, transparent and impartial judicial system is the backbone of a democratic country like India. The role of the judiciary is extremely significant as it not only administers justice according to law but also promotes social and economic justice through its judgments. More importantly when new situations arise which are not covered by existing laws then the judges are required to call for a judicial legislation. Article 141 of the Indian Constitution lays down that the laws declared by the Supreme Court shall be binding on all courts within the territory of India. Often young couples who fall in love have to seek shelter in the police lines or protection homes, to avoid the wrath of kangaroo courts. In our opinion honor killings, for whatever reason, come within the category of rarest of rare cases deserving death punishment. It is time to stamp out these barbaric, feudal practices which are a slur on our nation. This is necessary as a deterrent for such outrageous, uncivilized behavior. All persons who are planning to perpetrate `honor’ killings should know that the gallows await them”. Thus the Apex Court has made it very clear that such cases are to be dealt with strictly and nothing but the extreme penalty should be awarded to those who commit such barbaric and horrendous murders in the name of honour.
Nishtha Agrawal, Assistant Professor, Unitedworld School of Law (UWSL)
Disclaimer: The opinions / views expressed in this article are solely of the author in his / her individual capacity. They do not purport to reflect the opinions and/or views of the College and/or University or its members.