Deep Roots: Honor Killings Reflect Global Problem of Violence Against Women

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Deep Roots: Honor Killings Reflect Global Problem of Violence Against Women

Deepali Gaur Singh

While honor killings elicit attention as a primordial custom, the fact is that this form of violence is part of a much larger problem that transcends cultures and religions.

were buried alive
in the tribal region of Balochistan in Pakistan and only a national
outcry led to the arrest of the persons involved — months after
the incident had actually happened. The killings had even been defended as "tribal tradition" by some senior
members of the Senate, the Parliament’s Upper House.

What "crimes" had these women committed? Three of the women
were teenagers who wanted to marry men of their choice. The other two
– the mother and an aunt of one of the girls – supported their decision.
The women were abducted by men from their tribe, shot and thrown into
a ditch while still alive; the older women were buried along with them
for protesting, according to a report by the Asian Human Rights Commission

Across the eastern border in India,
a region that was still some days celebrating the Olympic glory of its
homegrown pugilist — Vijender Kumar’s bronze medal —
was recently shrouded by the hushed whispers of another honor killing. Two girls were killed on their return from
a late evening outing, escorted by unidentified men. The entire village
is believed to have watched as both were assaulted with sticks and axes,
hauled to the cremation ground half-dead and set on fire by their family
for the sake of "honor" — quite ironically on Diwali, a day celebrated
as the festival of lights in many parts of the country. But what was
even more shocking was the evidence of the system’s casual acceptance
of this family’s act. Not even a "First Information Report" was registered until a fortnight

Numbers of women killed frequently go unreported, the perpetrators unpunished as the concept of family honor tacitly justifies the act in the
eyes of the immediate community. And while such incidents elicit attention
due to the intrigue and horror attached to them as some primordial custom
practiced by certain sequestered communities, the fact is that this form
of violence is just a part of a much larger problem of violence against
women and an issue that transcends cultures and religions. Complicity
by other women in the family and the community only helps strengthen
the notion of women as property and the perception that violence against
family members is a family matter and outside of the judicial and public domain.
But at the center of the problem of violence against women is the imbalance
of gender relations that assume men to be superior to women. And against
the background of this subordinate status of women, much of gender violence
is considered normal and enjoys social sanction.  

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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When women are considered vessels of family,
clan and tribal or community honor, they will almost always be the direct
victims of crimes against a community or violence between groups. And
one does not have to look too far for evidence of these manifestations
of violence in the public sphere, tacitly supported by state and society
either by directly perpetrating it or rarely taking proactive measures
to curb it and punish the guilty.

In October, the Orissa government in eastern India placed six policemen under suspension for
misconduct and negligence of duty in connection with the rape of a
two months prior, in
August, during violence that had consumed the district of Kandhamal,
killing nearly 35 people on the discovery of the murder of a Hindu religious
leader. Despite a First Information Report filed the very
next day, the result of the investigative report and medical findings
were not filed for weeks and investigations began only a month after
reports started appearing in the media. Police
officials claimed they were busy dealing with the law-and-order situation in the district, preventing them from looking into the matter.
That the rape of a woman was not considered as much a part of the violence
at the time and was sidelined in the face of larger "law and order"
concerns is a reminder of not just the manner in which rape and violence
against women is perceived even by protectors and upholders of the legal
system itself but that it is an accepted collateral of violence of this

Only recently did the West Bengal court (in
eastern India) award life imprisonment to two Communist Party of India-Marxist
(CPI-M) activists – major coalition partners of the ruling Left Front
government in the state – for the 2006 rape
and murder of a teenage girl
. The girl was among those protesting land acquisition for a car project in
her native region of Singur. While the company withdrew their project
from Singur earlier this year in the face of continuing protests against
land acquisition, the teenager’s charred body was recovered from what
were once premises of the project in December 2006. Initially the government
had called foul and blamed the death on conspiracy theorists. There have been whispers that this perhaps
was only one of several cases of sexual assaults against women during
the course of the agitation.

And in this hierarchical structure
of gender violence, women from the lower castes of Indian society are even more vulnerable. By virtue of their position in the social structure
they are the ones that find themselves the most vulnerable to exploitation
of all kinds, while assaults are carried out with impunity with the
knowledge that avenues for redress are even fewer and farther in between.
Documented evidence and narratives by several human rights groups indicate that sexual abuse and other forms of violence against these women are used as tools
for teaching political "lessons" for what is perceived as rebellion or attempts
at dislodging the old, existent social order. Threatened by sexual exploitation
of various kinds, these women have also been arrested and raped
in custody as a means of punishing their male relatives both by the
law enforcers themselves or powerful men within their communities.

Many women learn to accept violence
very early in life. The family
itself socializes them to accept predetermined social relations expressed
in unequal division of labor between the sexes and control over the
allocation of resources. And it is within the so-called secure walls
of the home that women, very often, are most exposed to violence as they grow up watching the violence perpetrated against the other
women in the household by the male members of the family. These violent actions are often
closely linked to the concept of a woman as property and dependent
on a male protector be it father, husband or son.  

Despite the recognition of gender-based violence as a human rights violation, which also includes "violence
perpetrated or condoned by the state," a large percentage of women
continue to be unprotected against it — whether it be in the context of
the family, the community or the state. What is even more tragic is
that at every point key social institutions not only fail to be critical
of the violence but, in fact, play their role in legitimizing and maintaining
the violence. And even as women find their own voice within these spaces,
sometimes accepting the violence or negotiating space within
it, adding another dimension to their condition are the more passive
and insidious forms of violence that work in tandem — like sex selective
abortions, sustained nutritional deprivation and delayed health care
for female infants, or the unequal allocation of household resources
detrimental to the health of the girl child.