10.12.2004

Githa Hariharan: Honor Killings still a problem

See this op-ed in a recent issue of the Calcutta Telegraph, by Githa Hariharan, one of India's important novelists.

Not only are they still a problem, there is no good way to estimate how widespread they are, since deaths are often concealed. It's a problem that people like Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon talked about in their respective books on partition, but the essential social structure that fosters honor killings (rigid social boundaries between castes and ethno-religious groups, firmly entrenched patriarchy) is still prevalent in rural India. And while the violence is usually directed against women, men are also frequently targeted by the families of their lover or spouse.

Hariharan makes the connection between past (partition violence) and present especially clear in the following paragraphs:

It is a useful thing to perpetuate a tradition of martyrdom, especially when women's bodies are vulnerable to being viewed as the vessels of national honour. It was this unholy honour that provided the motive for otherwise "normal" men to kill their own sisters and wives and mothers during the Partition - "disappearances" and murders which have been covered by a conspiracy of silence, and by the more acceptable belief that these women were abducted or killed by men from the other side. In her book The Other Side of Silence, Urvashi Butalia takes on this myth that the perpetrators of violence were always "outsiders". She writes about a man she interviewed in Amritsar, Mangal Singh, whose family killed seventeen of its women and children. He refuses to use the word killed; he says they became "martyrs" in keeping with Sikh pride. The women, he says, were willing to become martyrs. "The real fear was one of dishonour." But, asks Butalia, who had the pride and the fear? It is not a question Mangal Singh was willing to examine. Similarly, in Borders and Boundaries: Women in India's Partition, Ritu Menon records the account of a partition survivor, Durga Rani. In this account, two types of honour killings occur: one in anticipation of dishonour; the other as a way to cope with dishonour. Consider, on the one hand: "In the villages of Head Junu, Hindus threw their young daughters into wells, dug trenches and buried them alive. Some were burnt to death, some were made to touch electric wires to prevent the Muslims touching them." On the other hand, Durga Rani gives us an idea of what happened to many women who had been abandoned after being raped and disfigured. They could not be "kept" any longer because their "character" was now spoilt. In some cases, as in that of a girl who was raped by ten or more men, the only way to deal with the dishonour was murder; the girl, says Durga Rani, was burnt by her father.

All these years after Partition, this dishonourable honour still stalks the land, wreaking its barbaric violence on both men and women, but preferably on women. Most cases are reported from Punjab, Haryana and parts of western Uttar Pradesh. The statistics are disturbing; twenty-three such murders were reported during 2002 and 2003 in Muzaffarnagar alone. Thirty-five young couples were declared "missing". And in Punjab and Haryana, one out of every ten murders is an honour killing. In most of the cases where the girl is from an upper caste, the boy is the target of violence, usually by the girl's family. Often, girls who are murdered for "destroying the honour of the family" are cremated without any legal formalities and the deaths concealed.