My Life Your Honour?: On Women's Bodies, 'Safety' And Honour

Just a few days ago, a woman was stabbed to death by a stalker in Delhi. Though she’d complained to the police, as the report states “the two families had reached a compromise”. Other reports state that the attacker had promised to mend his ways. The woman’s parents had opted to believe him. When women are stalked by men, parents and police all advise them to ignore it.

On the other hand, when a woman leaves home with a man of her choice, the police and the woman’s family go into overdrive, report marriages of choice as rape and do everything in their power to track down the couple. A woman asserting a life choice is to be hounded, but a man harassing a woman, even putting her life in danger, is free to do as he pleases.

In Pakistan, Qandeel Baloch, a self made social media star, and a model was murdered in her own home by her brother, because to his mind, she had brought dishonour to their family.

To many of us in this part of the world, it’s nothing new, nor too horrifying. We even give it a nice name to decrease the horror of it; we call it “honour killing” so we can turn away from the momentary shock and go back to our normal lives. We ignore the huge risks women face everyday, at the hands of those who are closest to them, even the ones they trust.

As per the Indian National Crime Records Bureau data for 2014, out of 37,413 rape cases, in 32,187 cases the offenders were known to the victims accounting for 86.0% of total rape cases during 2014. Women are at greatest risk in their own homes, or in their neighbourhoods or workplaces.

A woman is expected to uphold family honour by maintaining chastity before marriage and sexual loyalty to her husband, afterwards. Any deviation from the norm is strictly regulated and punishment for the same endorsed by all sections and all classes. Such is the cultural conditioning that even apparently well-educated people fall into the trap of clubbing women into slots, judging them for respectability. So a senior woman politician who has lived abroad for years, has presumably seen a more liberal side of society, tweeted thus.

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Let’s not assume that women are above sexism or that they don’t want a share in the spoils the system promises them if they follow the rules.

Since at least the second millennium Before Christ, we have records telling us of laws that classed women into categories based on their sexualities, segregated into honourable women and the disreputable ones. The sexually available woman was to be despised, even though masculinity couldn’t do without her, yet her very existence was begrudged her. The honourable woman had a home and a husband and her sexuality was the possession of her husband alone. Such a woman had been given in marriage by her father, having kept her virginity intact till the time of marriage.

At the other end of the spectrum were the slave girls whose bodies could be used by their masters in any way they saw fit, by anyone they wished to oblige. They could be used to bestow favours upon or to pay back dues. Basically, a slave woman was a commodity at the hands of her master. In both these cases, the sexuality of the woman is owned by a man. The only women who had any modicum of agency over their own bodies or sexualities were sex workers. The segregation soon came to be enforced geographically and the sex workers were restricted to a quarter of the city, where ‘respectable’ women wouldn’t be caught dead.

The biggest trick patriarchy played was to thus pit women against women, having them fight for the limited spoils of men’s attention, their only recourse to any kind of value or source of power. This system worked as the male is not only enjoined to keep it in place but also enforce it with violence. It is in this that his “honour” lies.

Even in the modern day, these same notions of honour tied to women’s bodies continue to persist. The individual’s identity is tied to the honour of the family, and that in turn is tied to the woman’s sexuality. The family honour outstrips loyalties to any individual. Killing a sibling is a reprehensible act, no doubt, but one which it is his unpleasant duty to perform. Family honour trumps women’s lives every time.

Unless this mindset changes, no matter how many laws we pass, women are not safe. All rhetoric of “women’s safety” will remain just empty words without aggressive campaigns to change the minds. Many more Qandeels and Karunas will continue to meet the same fate.

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