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India: Honor Killings Mar an Otherwise Promising Landscape for Women’s Rights

July 14, 2010

President of India, Pratibha Patil

This week the New York Times reported on the death of Nirupama Pathak, a high caste woman recently married and pregnant with her partner, a lower caste man.  Honor killings, though illegal, have been a chronic practice in India (and a number of other countries) for some time.

But recently, the antiquated stain fell upon an elite Delhi neighborhood and it seemed the international media really took note.  An even fiercer follow-up editorial in the Times calls on Indian politicians to address and eradicate the practice, plainly called “murder.”

While India emerges as a global giant – and economic force to be reckoned with – and with some of the more progressive reproductive health policies in Asia, there are periodic  reminders of a society where transgression and traversing, particularly for women, are still fatally taboo.

What the hell is this elusive notion of “honor,” and why does it fall upon the head of women, not just in India but in countless cultures worldwide?

The recent slew of honor killings are  just coverage of a deeper and broader occurrence of the events.  Some construe the continued practice  as unfortunate “growing pains”: side effects of a society in flux, transitioning from a generation born in colonization to one born in greater freedom, with the world virtually at their finger tips.

In India, many would like to think – and this may be largely true – that caste is increasingly irrelevant, and that mobility, education, economic opportunities particularly for women, are widespread.  Women in India have fought for and earned numerous opportunities for advancement, including the recent passing of the women’s reservation bill, which reserves 33% of state assembly and parliamentary seats.

Abortion is largely legal, and family planning (theoretically) widely accessible.  There is, in theory, government-funded health care, and an impressive number of high-powered and high-achieving women in political leadership roles.  And yet…

Particularly shocking practices like sex-selective abortion, child marriage, bride burning, and honor killings persist.  Honor killing is the one practice that might potentially be distributed “equitably” among both men and women – since marriage is obviously a two-way street, and yet women bear the brunt with their lives.  The irony is that it was in part the death of an upper caste woman helped spark a firestorm of coverage to actually highlight the issue that has plagued women of all castes for years.

Just like honor killings in response to rapes almost unilaterally target the victim or survivor herself, honor killings for cross-caste marriages focus on “the root of the problem,” or the woman – that cunning, beguiling, bewitching  creature.

In a day and age where the impressive Sonia Gandhi can lead a global juggernaut from behind the scenes, how do we understand a society that condones the killing of its women when they dare to marry for love?  Why, when it comes to issues of education, job training, and even economic independence, are women gaining major ground, yet continuing to be stymied when it comes to freedom in love and marriage?  Perhaps the last frontier of control, the last stronghold of agency.

I regret the bad press around these terrible tragedies, but clearly it’s time for India to admit to its longstanding harmful practices and launch a national, concerted effort to eradicate and address not just  the practice, but the root causes that enable it.

3 Comments
  1. July 18, 2010 7:10 pm

    My family is from India and I can see the way it works.

    I volunteered for an NGO, and was in direct contact with women who have suffered murder attempts, and some managed to get murdered during the course of my volunteering there. People just engaged in creative ways of killing people who didn’t comply with the rules of marriage.

    My boyfriend’s sister was expelled from her family because she got engaged to a man who was from her sub-caste. She’s heartbroken, but she refuses to marry anybody else.

    Seemingly enlightened people buy into this crap. I don’t buy the argument that, as outsiders, we’re not qualified to comment. They’re just shit justifications for awful practices like honor killings, child labor, bride burning, political corruption and sexual slavery. Everybody knows it. And nobody likes to be told that they’re wrong.

  2. July 31, 2010 1:47 am

    In less than 3 generations more than 50 million women have been eliminated from India’s population. This is systematic and it is targeted. Girls are being killed because they are hated! No one wants girls. So millions are aborted — somtimes as late as the 8th month. Thousands of new born girls are strangled, drowned or buried in rural areas. Every 20 minutes a young woman is tortured and gang lynched by her husband and inlaws while her own parents look away. This is GENOCIDE by the U.N. own definition under the 1948 Convention on genocide. The systematic killing and prevention of birth and continuity of a group is genocide. Please support the 50 Million Missing Campaign which is fighting female genocide in India. http://www.50millionmissing.in

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