57% of young men and 53% of young women in India believe that a man is justified in beating his own wife.
– UNICEF Survey (2012)
This may come as a shocking revelation to those who are unaware of the plight of women in many parts of this country. However, both domestic violence and honour killings not only exist in India but often flourish under some of the archaic laws and customs of the nation. They form a self-perpetuating vicious circle of violence against women and the subjugation of feminine self-assertion through a culture of fear and aggression.
Domestic violence may be defined as the consistently violent and hurtful treatment of any woman by members of her own family, usually male. IPV or Intimate Partner Violence narrows this definition down to the abuse perpetrated solely by the male partner of the woman. In India, both these occurrences exist in abundance, with many women being abused, both physically and mentally, by both their husbands and their in-laws. Such abuse often leads to the suicide of the victim, or even to murder garbed as a suicide.
Honour killing is the murder, usually of a woman or perhaps a couple, by members of her own family. It takes place usually in primitive communities that place much value on the concepts of ‘honour’ and ‘shame’. In such a society, men are the harbingers of honour and pride – those that earn honour through their deeds. A woman can affect her family’s honour only by destroying it, mainly through perceived sexual misconduct. The concept of honour-killing is intrinsically tied to the patriarchal opposition to the sexual and reproductive self-assertion of women, who were earlier seen as the property of their male kin. As such, transgressions on the part of the woman, or even the perception of a transgression, would justify her murder in such societies. Khap Panchayats or kangaroo courts often play a central role in perpetuating this culture of violence, legitimizing it in the eyes of the people as a legal decision.
Honour killings in India happen chiefly in the Northern states of Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. It is relatively unheard of in the Southern and Western parts of India including Gujarat and Maharashtra; whereas states like West Bengal in the East haven’t been witness to an honour-killing in decades.
Domestic violence in this country is faced the least by women belonging to the Jain and Buddhist communities (3-4%) and the most by those belonging to the Muslim community (11%). Hindu, Christian and Sikh women fall somewhere in the middle. The level of education and socio-economic status of the victims also makes a huge difference, with poor women with minimal education being the greatest sufferers.
Domestic Violence in India is caused by various socio-cultural and economic factors including dowry, patriarchal views about the position of women and the changing face of society.
Dowry – Many women are physically and mentally abused in their matrimonial homes with unreasonable demands for money and gifts from their parents.
Relationships – Indian women are even abused by their own parents for dating or wanting to marry men outside specific caste and religious boundaries.
Westernization – Women are often abused and intimidated for purportedly adopting ‘Western’ values such as a desire for jobs, careers, modern dressing styles, etc.
Causes of honour killings are just as numerous and varied, if a lot more insidious. Anything from refusing to enter into an arranged marriage to talking to your neighbour’s son can become a justifiable cause for murder in such an environment.
Premarital sex – Women are often killed by their family for having (or being accused of having) sex before marriage. This is because a woman’s virginity is seen as the possession of her male relatives; first her father and then (to be given as a gift of sorts) to her husband. Any suggestion of being robbed of their rightful property through the woman’s indiscretion might incite the men to violence.
Rape – Women in certain parts of the country and the world have even been killed for having been raped, as the rape of a woman is said to bring dishonour upon her family. This is especially true if the woman becomes pregnant as a result of that rape.
Elopement – Couples have often been killed for having eloped to get married against the wishes of their families. Sandeep Kumar and Khusboo, a couple from Hoshiarpur, were hacked to death by Khusboo’s family in one such recent incident of honour killing.
Use of Minor Boys
The culture of honour killings hurts not only women but men too. In certain cases, minor boys from the families are compelled to kill their sisters and cousins who are seen to have stepped ‘out of the line’. This is done to take advantage of the more lenient criminal codes for children and minors. If they refuse, they might also face dire consequences from the family elders.
All this is not to say that the aforementioned problems are unsolvable. In fact the joint efforts of the Government as well as human rights activists have helped in curbing such abuse of women to a great degree.
However, much work remains to be done still. Laws such as the one-sided criminalization of extra-marital sex, which still sees women as the property of their husbands, and the non-existence of a marital rape law, tacitly encourage the perpetrators of these heinous crimes by reinforcing their world-view of male superiority.
Keeping this in mind, domestic abuse laws should also be made gender-neutral, as both men and women might be physically and mentally tormented. The idealization of men as the invincible masters of the race hurts both the genders equally, making men into the perpetrators of violence while simultaneously stifling the voices of abused men. It is time we brought gender-equality out of the text-books and applied those principles to real life.