The corollary of honour is shame. The argument runs if honour is violated, it brings upon shame. Society as a collective unit pronounces what is honourable and what is not, and in this context, shame is a social experience. What though is shame and why are girls and women agents of shame? Shame, as a social experience, is induced by apparently indecent, inappropriate and unworthy behaviour and acts that go against the prescribed codes of dignity and appropriateness. And every society runs on certain prescribed cultural and behavioural codes of conduct that are regularly performed and internalised through collective reinforcement.
How Honour Killing is a Caste Crime
Caste as divided into a pyramid of birth-assigned ranks and sub-ranks imposes a relationship of hierarchy not just of the ‘highest’ with the ‘lowest’ but of the immediate higher up with its ‘inferiors’. The recent honour killing incident as per a report in the Frontline, reinforces this problematic nature of caste. M. Sudhakar from the Morappan Thangal village returned to his village from Chennai during the lockdown. After returning to his village, he attempted to meet his wife, which angered the women’s parents and relatives.
Sudhakar had married his wife, a woman from the Vanniyar community, six months ago at the Walajah town. While both of them belonged to groups classified as Most Backward Caste (MBC) by the state’s classification list, Sudhakar’s caste (Oddar) was considered to be the lowest among the MBC groups.
The woman’s family, which was opposed to the marriage, convened a local panchayat and got it to nullify the marriage and forcibly separated the couple. Sudhakar was subsequently harassed and chased away from the village. Since members from his community were in a minority in the village, they remained silent and did not question the ruling by the local panchayat.
Fearing for his life, Sudhakar’s parents, who were poor daily wage labourers, sent him to Chennai to work for a living. However, after the nationwide lockdown was announced, Sudhakar found it difficult to earn his livelihood in Chennai and returned to his village. When Sudhakar was alone in his village on March 27, the woman’s father, along with a relative, attacked and killed him. Soon after, the woman’s father and the relative surrendered at the Arani Town Police station, where a case was registered.
It is interesting to note that the woman’s family despite themselves being members of a marginalised caste group, acted upon imbibed notions of superiority over the deceased man’s family—members ranking lower than them. The notion of honour though Brahminical in its basis goes beyond the neat construct of Brahminical patriarchy while imitating its prescription of honour.
Honour and Notions of Provincial Patriarchy
Women were ‘exchanged’ in marriages for gaining kingdoms and brokering deals of peace and patronage; women were prizes and booties to be won and devoured in war. It’s a circle that recognised the right to exercise patriarchal control over a woman’s body just as a sovereign would exercise territorial control over his piece of land. The circle operated by kings and chieftains, feudal lords, state councillors, priests and princes would confine a woman’s sexual and marriage rights within the narrow boundaries of kinship- and caste-approved provinces. Cross-caste and cross-religious marriages could occur only if the patriarchal lords would have material gains or career and ego boosts out of it.
Today’s honour killing crimes are rooted in such a collective memory of primordial, provincial patriarchy. It is operated by a nexus of current-day patriarchs—local panchayat bodies across North and South India (who do not have any legal agency) and known as khap panchayats in North India, local police and rich, upper-caste, landed gentry, each owing their allegiances to their caste. Marriage is thus a product of caste and gender dictatorship, one that is legitimised by traditional caste and village councils, and male members of the dominant caste of that locality. Collectively, they maintain the ‘order’ of society.
Membership of caste is allowed to females who follow anulom (hypergamy) marriages—wherein girls or women are allowed to get married within their own caste or in an upper caste. A man is allowed to get married within his own caste or to a lower-caste woman. But the reverse pratilom (hypogamy) marriage is a taboo, in which a girl gets married to a lower-caste man (stemming from purity-pollution boundaries) or a man gets married to a higher-caste female. There are some other markers of ascribed identity that govern marriages in caste system—gotra, kula and sometimes rules of village exogamy. Traditionally, all the members of each kula or gotra are kindred brothers or sisters; and they are not allowed to get married within same kula or gotra under incest.
‘Exchange’ of women in a sub caste or within caste is called endogamous marriage; exogamy is the reverse. Endogamy is status quo; exogamy is sending one’s girl out in a ‘foreign’ community. Fear of exogamy is phobia of the outsider—outside of caste, creed and religion. No wonder, love, a product of free will that entails a woman’s consent, is therefore construed as a crime. Under love crimes, it is also easy for upper-caste custodians to demonise men of ‘other’ castes and religions—Dalits and Muslims—as love terrorists/jihadis/Romeos trying to seduce ‘their’ women and hijack their material and cultural properties. Women are slandered and reduced to objectified props of patriarchy in such narratives.
Men and women, who violate the code of caste chastity, are chased, hunted down, beaten up publicly, ostracised, forcibly remarried, brutalised and killed. Over the years, various reports and studies have pointed out how local police bodies co-opt or submit to panchayat heads owing to caste and kinship ties; and in such cases it is not hard to achieve the dystopia of patriarchal pride. One of the definitions of honour killing is the homicide of a member of a family or social group by other members, due to the belief the victim has brought dishonour upon the family or community. The end route of patriarchal pride, or the false notion of patriarchal pride is to deliver punishment. The perpetrators more often than not openly admit to or confess honour killing crimes with or without fear of the law and with a certain provincial, primitive “pride” in their action.
The brutality and unspeakable horror of couples having to pay with their lives, or being constantly hounded for falling in love outside caste is tied to an apathetic culture where such violence is normalised through narratives of the sin of transgression: how the lovers deserve their punishment. In the absence of a robust political will to stop this, the ideology of honour killing despite landmark court rulings thus continues to thrive in a hush-hush narrative where love/romance and sex is a taboo, aided by a pervasive rape culture.
Honour and its Cultural Packaging
The Hindi-Urdu equivalent of honour is izzat, and in popular culture the act of raping or ‘violating’ a woman is referred to as izzat lut liya. The underlying assumption being women are delicate and hence need protection, and this gives rise to a protector complex among male family members. Patriarchal figureheads of families often police young women to not step out, to not mix with men, especially men of a certain social positioning, not to dress in a certain way—in short not to be sexual creatures before marriage; their sexuality should be preserved for the rightful owner, the husband. Men avenge the honour of ‘their’ women by punishing other men—all the while women being still caught in a protector-violator exchange.
A woman’s personal izzat is her family’s business—hamari ghar ki izzat. Izzat, anyway is a regressive operative, on top of it if it is the family’s it becomes doubly so. Young girls who are found out to be in love are victim shamed—the derogatory, graphic and classist muh kaala karke ayi (you have tarnished your image/blackened your face) is an accusation that has long played out in Hindi films.
To lose honour or respect is akin to being undressed or stripped of one’s sense of dignity. There is a sense of disrobing at work here. Girls and women are traditionally held as the body politic of honour. They are often represented as covering their breasts—the sanctum sanctorum of their modesty. The dupatta, aachal—are varied sartorial tropes that beyond their aesthetic and practical value are cover-ups for such modesty. Such a gaze amounts more to victim shaming than to construct arguments around women’s constitutional rights to love, choose their partner and marry out of free will. It is natural for adolescents and young adults to be sexually attracted to members of opposite sexes and it should be within their rights to eventually form mutually agreeable, emotionally fulfilling relationships with their partners in marriages if they so want.
The ownership of the woman’s body that is so cherished by the family’s patriarchal heads as the site of their ‘honour’, and therefore as something that can be defiled by a man of lower rank/religious outcaste problematises concepts of civil liberty, human rights, law and justice. As the notion of defilement is rooted in purity-pollution lines demarcated by caste, honour crimes are perpetrated against men of lower castes as a ‘legitimate’ punishment.
The concept of honour may have become obsolete for large sections of urban India, but it still operates in even larger parts of mainland India, and continues to perpetrate violence and indignity. Let us not treat honour as a delicate issue rather as an archaic relic of a primitive past that has survived despite constitutional reforms of caste and gender.
- Ambedkar B. R. 1979 Dr. B. R. Ambedkar: Writing and Speeches Vol. 1, Education Department, Government of Maharashtra
- Srivastava Sonal 2016, What are the reasons for honour killing‟ posted on 12th March 2016.
- Santhanam & Yamunan 2016 Of love and honour killings The Hindu, Hyderabad, March 17.
Featured Image Source: RT News