By Sagarika Chandel, KIIT School Of Law, Bhubaneswar.

November 15th 2014, a final year student from a reputed college of Delhi University strangulated to death by her parents for marrying a youth of a different caste. November 29th 2014, an eight months pregnant teenager strangulated to death by her brothers and thrown into a canal in Meerut. September 18th 2013, a girl was lynched by her own family and her paramour beheaded publicly by the girl’s parents and uncle as “no regrets” was said by the remorseless father of the deceased victim. April 2012, a 26 year old teacher was killed by her mother, brother and uncle as she wished to marry a boy belonging to a different religion and a lower caste. In June 2007, six men murdered a newly-wed couple for marrying outside their ‘gotra’ in Haryana after the village elders accused the couple of violating the code of conduct relating to marriage.

The above mentioned cases, shamefully, do not even account for a handful of the total cases of honour killing in India. More than 1000 young individuals in India are condoned to death every year owing to ‘Honour Killings’. 

What is honour killing?

Honour killing, also referred to as honour violence or honour crime is when young men and women are slayed by the elders of their family, community or village for the reason that the acts of the dead have brought shame or dishonour to their family. Such killings are done with the justification of defending ‘family honour’ and thus there is a huge impetus for the members of the village or community to defend the ones guilty of homicide which ultimately makes the prevalence and assessment of honour based crime highly difficult. Women, in particular, are victims of this crime.

According to Human Rights Watch, “honour crimes are acts of violence, usually murder committed by male family members against female family members who are perceived to have brought dishonour upon the family”.

Features of honour killing.

Honour killings usually involve murders and a number of other violent acts such as torture and physical abuse. Victims also include those who are driven to commit suicide under family pressure. Honour based violence is committed in all forms – assault, rape, gang rape, forced marriage, forced eviction, kidnappings, acid attacks, threats and harassment. What distinguishes honour crimes from other forms of domestic abuse is the collective nature of the crime. That is, to say, in honour based killings, the members of the extended family conspire together to commit the crime and act in consensus to accomplish the act. In certain cases the execution is done in a very formal and organised manner where ‘family councils’ are formed consisting of male members of the family and the senior women who decide together to reach the conclusion if the ‘accused’ having brought disgrace to the family should be killed or not followed by working out a plan in furtherance of their decision.  The other aspect in such cases is the family in its entirety, has a vested interest in exercising control over women, their behaviour, and their life decisions. As per a study of 2010, the average age of honour killing victims ranged between 15-25. Honour killing is practiced in various other forms such as in Egypt, it involves the father killing his daughter by beheading her and parading with her head and shouting, “I avenged my honour”. Although in many countries such cases are under-reported or classified as suicide or accident. Such perpetrators’ actions are duly supported by their community members who often treat their acts as heroic deeds.

Historical overview

Laws that have encouraged violence against women as an insistence upon the control of female autonomy traces back to the Hammurabi code and Assyrian law codes of 6000 B.C. During the ancient Roman times, the senior male of the household called the ‘pater familias’ retained the right to kill an unmarried but sexually active daughter or an adulterous wife. According to Blackstone, the Roman law justified homicide when committed “in defence of the chastity either of oneself or relations”. In certain Arab countries, under Ottoman Rule, the killer would sprinkle the blood of the victim on his clothes and parade through the streets displaying his blood smeared murder weapon as a means of attracting community respect rather than condemnation for taking a life. In the Bible, in numbers 25: 6-19, a man and a woman are slayed in the temple by ‘Phineas’ for marrying across racial boundaries and this ends a plague and guarantees priesthood to Phineas’ lineage. Until 1980, a law in the Italian Penal Code justified murder committed to defend ‘honour’ but had to be removed due to feminist campaigns.

Causes

Honour killing arises out of the discrimination practiced against women. Women are not given their due rights to take decisions about their life, rather it is the family of the woman who decides on her behalf. And in case such a decision is challenged or not followed, it is considered immoral and unethical on part of the victim. Another cause responsible for honour killing is a dispute between parents and their child regarding marriage, especially the marriage outside one’s own caste. In India, majority of the cases of honour killing arise out of caste distinction. Practice of caste distinction dates back to the Manu Smriti that distinguished between higher and lower castes and considered Brahmins of the highest caste of Indian society. Caste or ‘gotra’ is a very important factor from the sociological angle of honour killings because when a woman marries a man of a lower caste, she acquired the ‘lower’ caste of her husband and thus brings her family disgrace by lowering their status in the eyes of the society. The basic cause of such menace is the patriarchal mind set and the tradition of caste and exercise of control over a woman’s body.

Thus, marrying outside one’s own caste, or going against the parents’ wishes is considered to bring dishonour to the family and therefore the own father, brother, uncle of such victim believing themselves to be entitled to punish their child and even put their child to death in case they stray from the ‘established norms’ practice such barbarism which carries the name of ‘Honour killing’. Other causes of honour killing include women dating and choosing their own partners which is perceived as an act of rebellion from the established family traditions. Thus when the woman refuses to break off her relationship and accept an arranged marriage, she is tortured, harassed and ultimately murdered. In certain cases, the woman is married to an abusive and violent husband in spite of which the family would insist the girl to continue staying with the man and not divorced so that the family’s status in the society does not get hampered and in case the girl rebels, she is killed. Another common case is when the girl is raped and instead of showing support to the victim, the family of the victim feels humiliated. The situation is worsened when the girl gets pregnant and to save the dignity of the family, the rape victim is killed. Homosexuality has also been a reason for causing honour violence as behaviours, be it same-sex sexual acts or acts considered inappropriate expression of gender (like a male dressing up as a female) triggers suspicion, immediately tagging such individuals as ‘unnatural’ and leading to their honour killings.

Legal Position in India

In Arumugan Seevai V. State of Tamil Nadu*, the Supreme Court of India held that, “to kill or physically assault a young man/woman who marries against their wishes is wholly illegal”. In another case the Supreme Court held that honour killings, for whatever reason, come within the category of rarest of rare deserving severe punishment. It is time that such barbaric and brutal practices are cut off from our nation. There exists no law in India dealing with ‘honour killings’ per se. The Government’s proposal of amending section 300 of IPC and including honour killings was rejected by the Law Commission of India on the grounds that the existing provisions adequately deal with such killings. The Law Commission has proposed that Khap Panchayats indulging in such crimes must be declares unlawful and introduced a ‘Prohibition of Unlawful Assembly(Interference with the Freedom of Matrimonial Alliance) Bill of 2011.

Combating the Issue

The vulnerability of women with honour killings can be reduced only if the patriarchal mind-sets are confronted and challenged. Being a sociological issue involving traditions, culture, norms, law alone cannot be effective in curbing this issue. Another important liberator is education as an educated and economically independent woman would not easily bend down to the rules determining her own life. Also, with the advancement of the world, it is the need of the hour that people adjust to the changing patterns of the society. It is also very important to raise awareness and develop protection procedures to ensure prompt action to combat the honour killings.

*(2011)6 SCC 405