Honour crimes, the scourge of South Asia

In India and Pakistan, the high courts have employed harsh words and the death penalty to try to curtail so-called honour killings. But, as Faiz Jamil reports, that message isn't always filtering down to police and village officials.

A 'feudal practice' and 'a slur on our nation,' India's supreme court says

Killing his own daughter was necessary to protect the family's honour, Bagawan Dass argued, and that was why it didn't merit a life sentence.

Dass took his appeal all the way to India's Supreme Court. Because for him and others in this part of South Asia, what he did in 2006 was not only his right, but his responsibility.

The family's honour and standing in the community had to be protected after Dass's daughter married someone against the family's wishes. For them, the life sentence didn't fit the crime.

Last May, the Supreme Court of India agreed: it sentenced Dass to death.

It's a ruling that set a precedent in a region where the role and permissibility of so-called honour killings have wound their way through religion, caste and culture.

In the court's judgment, so-called honour killings "come within the category of the rarest of rare cases deserving death punishment."

Now is the time, it said, "to stamp out these barbaric, feudal practices which are a slur on our nation."

So-called honour crimes are not just murders, but also rapes and disfigurement, as in the case of this young Pakistani woman who had her nose and lips cut by a brother-in-law in 2006. (Reuters)

It was a bold statement, one that Indian politicians have generally been reluctant to make.

But while high-up officials and police are being shaken into action by these kinds of high-court pronouncements, those in local communities, where the root of the problem begins, do not appear to be nearly as moved.

"The community pressure is to go with the stream," says Yogesh Kamdar, a Mumbai-based rights activist.

As he sees it, while many cases of honour killings are now publicized, and their perpetrators held up to ridicule in the media, many more are believed to go unreported.

"And that would only be possible with the collusion of police and the [village] administration."

Tougher penalties

Many experts believe there are about 1,000 so-called honour killings a year in India, a harsh but relatively small number, it might be said, in a country with over a billion people.

But no one can be really sure if this is not just the tip of the iceberg. 

Muslim Pakistan next door is often said to have proportionally more of these crimes and it, too, appears to be having the same kinds of problems India has when it comes to stamping them out.

After years of agitation, Pakistan's legislature passed a law in 2004 authorizing the death penalty for so-called honour killings. But a few years later the country's chief justice was still lamenting the "enabling culture" that allowed the practice to continue.

Perhaps that should not be so surprising. For all the headlines you read here boasting about, say, India's economic growth or the number of BMWs on the roads, there are many more stories about social traditions that are locked in the past.

That's why some activists are starting to argue for stricter penalties (no bail, for example, being the latest cause), not just for those who commit these crimes, but for those responsible for enforcing the laws and who might turn a blind eye.

Already, tougher action against lower officials has had some effect, with officers being suspended or even dismissed in the past year.

"This sends a positive signals to the lower levels of enforcement that they have to hold up the constitution and not their own personal convictions," Kamdar says. "But this is happening gradually."

Rights and caste

Through the centuries, so-called honour killings have become deeply rooted in cultural and social norms — and not just in rural and urbanizing India but around the world.

On Monday, the BBC reported that a woman in Afghanistan was arrested for allegedly strangling her daughter-in-law because she had given birth to a third daughter.

In May 2010, police in the Indian state of Jharkhand arrest the mother of a pregnant journalist who was killed, allegedly for wanting to marry her boyfriend from another caste.

A UN study in 2000 suggested there were as many as 5,000 women and girls killed each year by a family member as part of some so-called honour crime. These incidents involved Muslim, Hindu and Christian families in South Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and as far away as Ecuador and Brazil.

Such crimes are also showing up in Canada, the U.S. and Europe among immigrant communities. Britain, Italy and Germany have all convicted people for the so-called honour killing of a close family member in the past four years.

Last month, Britain's Guardian newspaper reported that U.K. police forces, asked to compile lists, came up with more than 2,800 cases of so-called honour crimes, including killings, abuse and intimidation, in 2010.

There has even been a case of a British court taking a proactive stance by allowing an unmarried Muslim woman to have her child adopted, against the natural father's wishes, in order to prevent the woman's father finding out about the child and doing something to protect family honour.

Marriage and control

Rajana Kumari, who heads a New Delhi-based non-governmental organization for women's rights, says the notion that killing a woman is permissible basically stems from discrimination against children and women.

"It's the mindset that women have no rights to decide," she explains. "That once a decision is made, the family takes any challenge to that decision as a challenge to culture and family and values."

Most of these cases deal with disputes between girls and their parents over marriage and control. In the past few years alone, stories of fathers axing their daughters to death for seeing a boy from another caste, or a brother shooting his sister because she ran off with someone the family did not approve of, regularly crop up in the media.

In Hindu India, Kumari says, these incidents largely stem from the rules surrounding caste. "If you marry outside your caste you are going outside the norm and bringing dishonour."

She adds that the tradition of caste and control over a woman's body is very patriarchal and a central reason why the killings are usually done by the woman's family.

"In sociological terms, when a woman marries she goes into the husband's caste. Men maintain caste if they marry lower caste, not women. So women bring the family status down if they marry to a lower, or even just another caste."

Economic independence

Today, there are several countries trying to tackle the scourge of these crimes by top-down decree.

A few years ago, well before all the recent unrest, Syria's senior clerics denounced them as un-Islamic; Turkey set up a special department to try to track and prosecute them; and Jordan recently eliminated the "fit-of-fury" defence, which some courts had granted perpetrators.

But the greatest liberator might yet be the economy. As many more women join the workforce, more are also gaining independence along with their paycheques.

"It has to do with education and women becoming more economically independent," Kumari says.

"Because of the economy in India now, women are leaving their homes, without having to get married. And they have more power and means to make their own decisions."

In the long run, this kind of sociological change may reduce the number of so-called honour crimes. But the mentality that provokes them in the first place will likely take more than a fistful of rupees to overcome.

Human rights activists in Pakistan rally to protest against so-called honour killings, urging the government to enact the death penalty.