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Hindu Honor Killings? Yes, In India

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Posted on June 29 2010 9:00 am
Phyllis Chesler is an Emerita Professor of Psychology and Women's Studies at City University of New York. For extended biography visit The Phyllis Chesler Organization.

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Asha Saini,19, was electrocuted in an honor killing. Her uncle and father are under arrest.

Over the last six weeks, a spate of articles about Hindu honor (or “honour”) killings began appearing in the Indian and British media. I had arranged to receive Google alerts for honor killings; only recently did I add the British way of spelling the word: “honour.”

Initially, I was very surprised. Why? First, because honor killings occur quite rarely in the Indian diaspora in the West.  See my latest study in Middle East Quarterly. In North America and Europe, Hindus committed only 3% of the honor killings.

I was also surprised to read about many Hindu honor killings because Hindu human rights activists, whom I had queried, hotly denied that Hindus ever commit honor/honour killings.  When I pressed one such gentleman, he insisted that “anyone who says Hindus do this is a Marxist or a Muslim troublemaker.”

Nevertheless, according to the Indian media, at least ten separate cases of suspected honor killings either took place—the bodies of 16 victims were discovered—or arrests were finally made in June 2010 alone. More than one family member, often two to three relatives (a father, brother, uncle, grandmother, mother) or the village council (khap panchayat) were arrested as conspirators or murderers. Five male and female couples (ten victims) were killed while together; three killings were women-only; one killing was male-only.

The victims were mainly young and ranged in age from twelve to twenty-four-years old. The motives for killing them did not concern dressing in too western a fashion, refusing to dress in an acceptably customary way, or having unacceptable financial or career ambitions. The motives in all ten cases concerned the family’s need to control marriage and reproduction. The idea of choosing one’s own life partner was viewed as abhorrent, as something that only whores do.

However, in contrast to Muslim practices, these ten Hindu families found it unacceptable, a criminal act, to marry a cousin or someone from the same family or clan. In other words, while some of the honor killings are for marrying someone from a different caste, even the right caste mate might not be acceptable if he lives in the same village or is too closely related to the bride.

These killings are shockingly savage. Young daughters are beaten, even hacked to death—or they are electrocuted.

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17 Responses leave one →
  1. June 29, 2010

    There may be Hindu honor killings, but the difference is that the Indian authorities hold the people accountable for this and don't seem to be making excuses for it unlike Muslims.

  2. June 29, 2010

    This is a decades old phenomena and the reason that these killings are so prevalent in India is that they are often disguised to look like accidents and the largely male Indian Hindu Police are all too happy not to investigate the deaths as murders. In the West, these deaths would be seen as suspicious and would be examined and investigated like any other unexpected or wrongful death. But Hindu society is extremely patriarchal and women are still considered to be chattel in that society. Also wife killing is a revered tradition in India among Hindus. I feel that I must point out that until rather late in the 18th century, a deceased husband's widow was expected to throw herself or be thrown to burn with him on his funeral pyre in a peculiar Hindu practice called suttee. This disgusting practice was ended by the British as an abomination, but it was beloved by the Hindus and was considered along with the British outlawing of thugee, one of the major causes of the Great Indian Uprising or Pandy Rebellion. Furthermore, acts of suttee still takes place usually at the hands of the husband's family doing away with an unwanted widow.

  3. June 29, 2010

    As a person of Indian descent currently living in America, I've got to say I'm appalled that this stuff happens,but here are my thoughts, for whatever they are worth.

    I converted to Christianity. My Hindu parents were very upset about this, but they never threatened violence. I married a white person; one of my cousins married a Muslim, and another relative a lady from Singapore. My parents didn't provide a dowry, and my cousins (both male) didn't get one. My mother, a widow, never considered the barbaric custom of suttee.

    I am proud of my Indian heritage and the many cool things India has provided the world, but I am totally against barbaric customs like suttee.

    While such things still occur, when I've gone to visit India, it's pretty obvious that such things occur in a very small segment of the population. My grandmother has been a widow for over 20 years, and so is my aunt. In Bombay and the large, modern Indian cities, these types of things almost never happen. When they do, the community is outraged.

    Reading about the honor killings in India, two things struck me as quite different from the Muslim honor killings I've read about. First of all, in one case, the mother reported the killing. I don't think I've ever read of a Muslim mother turning in her son. The second is that the general community and the government don't wink at the murders. In many Muslim countries, they do.

    This isn't to excuse the atrocity or to say that India doesn't need to do more work to stop these types of abuses. However, one has to understand – India has over a billion people and many of them are still very uneducated and primitive. There are still villages in India where caste and primitive superstitions are very much a part of peoples' lives. India is still patriarchal, and parents in general still believe they have the right to manage their children's lives – this can cause conflict. However, it's not necessarily sexist – both sons and daughters are expected to obey their parents.

  4. June 29, 2010

    (Continued)

    In some ways, there are parallels to European culture in Shakespeare's time – he wrote of Juliet's parents threatening to beat her for refusing to marry according to their wishes. Over time, European society evolved so that, first, parents suggested marriages for their children and finally children chose their own mates. Indian society is undergoing the same trends.

    I personally do not think that Hinduism per se is as horrible to the rights of women as Islam, partly because, as we see over the course of the last 50 years, Indian society IS changing. Indians, in general, therefore do not see more freedom for women as being incompatible with Hinduism in the way that Muslims do.

    My Dad, when I converted to Christianity, made the argument that Hinduism is better for women since in Hinduism, there are female deities alongside each male deity. While I personally think Christianity is better for women, my Dad did make a good point. The worship of goddesses in Indian religion, including some very strong cults centered around particular goddesses, probably provides a philosophical baseline in the treatment of women. While on a practical level, girls are probably treated worse in India than they are in the West, just as they are treated worse in China and Africa, at the same time, I don't think Indian women suffer under the type of repression common in Islam.

    For example, in India, women drive vehicles, they hold political office and vote, they are engineers and professors and doctors, they mingle freely with men at work and in social settings. A Hindu woman cannot be divorced simply by the husband saying "I divorce you" three times.

    Also, while rape is still seen as shameful for the woman, parents do not kill the girl if she is raped. They defend their children. When I was in college, an Indian woman friend of mine was raped. Her brother was livid, not at his sister, but at the rapist. He wanted to kill the guy and he became very protective of his sister. While, as a "shamed" woman, it would be harder for her, in India, to find a husband, at the same time, no one in her family was blaming her. In this, I would imagine India is like ancient Jerusalem. When Tamar was raped, she was shamed, but her family defended her.

    The real problem I see with Hinduism and India is not sexism, but the caste system. Don't get me wrong, sexism does exist in India and Indian feminists are vocal about, for example, the elimination of the dowry system, and they should be. However, the elephant in the room of modern India is the caste system. Even many modern Indians who are college educated in the West have unconscious attitudes towards those of lower castes. As someone who grew up in America, I see this when I go back to India and it bothers me.

    One other thing to note – when Indians come to the West, even if they keep their Hindu heritage, they leave a lot of the primitive customs behind and, in general, assimilate. Hindus do not seek to impose their religion and culture on the West the way that Muslims often do. Devout Hindus who live in America go to temple; they do not ask for the Hindu equivalent of shari'ia law to be used instead of Western legal traditions. This is true for all castes and classes of Indian society.Therefore, like the Buddhist or Confucian Chinese or the animist Africans, I would say that Hindu (and Sikh and Jain, etc.) Indians are much less of a threat to Western society or values than conservative Muslims.

    This does not mean that I think all Muslims are bad. Many Muslims are wonderful people. But I think Islam is unique among religions in its unwillingness to modernize.

    • June 29, 2010

      A great posting Shefali. Honest, to the point and avoiding the obligatory obfuscation and lets face it, self absolving taqiyya we'd see in a muslim response.

    • June 29, 2010

      So, it seems to me that you're saying that the problem here isn't so much the religion but the societal culture that grew up around it. That's fair. I'm no expert on Hindu religious beliefs to know whether or not Hindu religious writings advocate these types of behaviors, but if they don't, then it's clearly a similar case to modern Christianity or Judaism who had similar restrictive cultures but grew (and are growing) out of them. A lot of times, the old ways of cultural behavior had some sound basis that protected society as a whole (fears about inbreeding for example), but today, they are simply not as important because we can determine who's too closely related to have much chance of healthy children to follow my example. Another would be the laws against lepers. Useful when no one understood the disease, but now we can treat it and know how it spreads – those laws are not as necessary.

      But change is slow, and I can't condemn that idea of those changes coming slowly. We can create equal problems by changing those customs, traditions, and taboos too quickly.

    • June 29, 2010

      Shefali,

      Great post. You addmit the flaws and make no excuses. There in is the difference.

    • June 29, 2010

      Shefali, very good posts.I agree with your analysis, that the caste system in India is not good for a growing and emerging democracy in India. I'm a big fan of J. Krishnamurti and had the great opportunity to meet him and listen to him in Ojai……before his death at 82 years.

      I hope you continue to post because your thoughts and honesty are refreshing!

  5. June 29, 2010

    Phyllis, the greatest absolute number of these crimes occur on the subcontinent (probably has to do with population density) and, as long as I've been studying them, they've been reported in publicly available media.

    I have not specifically studied the Hindu cases but, just observationally, they seem to occur most often over choice of mate, and it isn't uncommon for both parties in the couple to be killed. The differences, as I see them, are that there seem to be fewer "triggers," they are less gender based, there is usually public outrage over the deaths and the usually extremely violent nature of them, and there are more likely to be criminal and social consequences for the killer(s). And, as many of your posters above have noticed in Shefali's reasoned comments, there is more objectivity about their existence and the need for these crimes to be addressed criminally, socially, etc. In fact, I am quite surprised that your contacts weren't forthcoming to you about their prevalence.

    I am one of those researchers who's never viewed dishonor killings as particularly rooted in faith, as they pre-date Islam and tend to be more rooted in tribalism. That said, there are certainly correlations with faith and, in some cases, faith or maybe certain imams do nothing to quell them, but we all learned in Statistics 101 that correlation does not imply causation. The rooster crows, then the sun comes up, but the rooster didn't cause the sun to rise.

    Ellen Sheeley, Author
    "Reclaiming Honor in Jordan"

  6. June 29, 2010

    Dr. Chesler, please do look further into the matter.

    ============================

    My bets as of now:

    bet — Stories of mohammedan "honor" murder are with time penetrating the public consciousness and causing some uncomfortable questions to be asked.

    bet — The UK media is publishing these stories to fit the Tu Quoque narrative that jihad/sharia apologists fall back to when they cannot deny some damning fact, such as the frequency and acceptability of "honor" murder among the mohammedans. This is being done in response to pressure from mohammedans, or is being initiated by mohammedan writers/editors/managers/etc of media companies.

    bet — If plotted geographically, frequency of "honor" murders by non-mohammedans will show a proportional relation to proximity to mohammedan populations and/or historical mohammedan influence.

    ===============

    What we see from the examples Dr. Chesler cites is that there this sort of savagery happens among Hindus, most frequently among Hindus close to and subject to influence by a large mohammedan population, and is generally less acceptible among Hindus.

    I don't think the Tu Quoque approach is going to produce a very convincing diversion if thoroughly investigated.

    My main bet — While investigation will probably reveal that punishment of one sort or another for acting in defiance of marriage customs has been practiced in many cultures, murder of the offending female by her immediate family will turn out to be a specifically mohammedan phenomenon.

    Do I know? Of course not. But these are the patterns that are readily observable in the information published so far, at least that I have seen. I'm betting that deeper study will most likely produce confirmation.

    • June 29, 2010

      Joe,

      You may be correct about the cause of honor killings. What is important is how cultures are dealing with them in the here and now.

      I think it is instructive in looking at how the Indian mother reacted and the mother of the girl killed in Canada did. The Indian mother turned her son in. The Muslim woman in Canada asked for her husband and son to be released from prison.

      Let us not make the mistake of making the two equal.

      • June 29, 2010

        Actually I think we agree. My words above … "and is generally less acceptible among Hindus". Perhaps I should have used stronger words.

        I don't think I've actually said anything about the cause of "honor" murder.

        • June 29, 2010

          I though the main point of your post was that a deeper study of honor killings would point to culture or tribism rather than religion. My bad. I'll have to work on my reading comprehintion. :)

          • June 29, 2010

            Curious that it came across that way.

            I fully expect that there are tribalist considerations at play. But I expect that those are active at the level of case by case details, i.e. what the particular girl's particular alleged offense is. Boy from the wrong tribe, boy from the wrong religion, or simply a boy not approved by dad, or maybe just some outfits of which dad doesn't approve.

            My focus is on the difference between such forms of punishment as being locked in the house, or yelled at, or even beaten and actually being killed.

            I'm sure that plenty of punishment has been meted out over the ages to disobedient daughters all over the world. However I suspect that killing, specifically being killed by members of the family with at least the collusion if not the participation of the whole family, is probably specific to mohammedanism.

            I also think that general complicit, if not explicit acceptance by the surrounding community is probably specific to mohammedanism.

            I expect that further study will show that similar behavior today in non-mohammedan populations will probably prove proportional to the extent of mohammedan influence on that population, due to either history or proximity. I don't know. But that is what is suggested by what I have read so far.

            One has to bear in mind that The Reliance of the Traveler (Umdat as-Salik, a famous old guidebook for the mohammedan faithful) asserts that the killing of persons by their parents or grandparents is not a punishable offense. I know of no comparable assertion in any other text of any other surviving religions.

  7. June 29, 2010

    PS Note to Dr. Chesler: Please do not use the term diaspora as a generic term for expatriate populations. It is a specific biblical term (Deut. 28:25) referring to the dispersal, the scattering of the Jews among foreign nations as a punishment from on high, and as the outcome of a military defeat.

    There is a long distance between wanting to emigrate to a foreign country to better your condition, or simply change it, and being chased away from a place where you would prefer to stay, especially chased away by a hostile army. What is more, the term does not refer to an individual, or even many individuals leaving home. It refers to the defeat and dispersal of an entire people.

    While I could see applying the term to whole populations that have been attacked and displaced by some sort of "ethnic cleansing" program, forcing an entire population out of it's home territory, I cannot see how it is appropriate to general emigration, even on a large scale.

    While it is understandable that biblical terms are widely and even loosely used to describe various things, nonetheless biblical history is Jewish history. I think it is wrong to water down terms that designate specific events in the unique aspects of Jewish history.

    I realize that such use, diaspora=(emigration/partial displacement) is fairly common. But not among authors who I respect as much as you.

  8. June 29, 2010

    It doesn't change the fact that this is still predominantly a muslim practice. As Phyllis herself has stated, over 90% of "honor" murders are muslim.

  9. June 30, 2010

    I believe we are underestimating the distortions that colonizing Islam produces in victim cultures and societies.

    When Islamic norms about the chattel status of women and children infect a population, even non-Muslims will be affected — especially if Muslims are their effective masters in society. Hundreds of years of uncontrolled Muslim predation upon Hindus will inevitably show up in matters as basic as familial relations; the normalized, systematized brutality, cruelty and inhumanity of Muslim "family" life will spread like slow poison throughout the entire society.

    We are seeing the first stages of this even in Western societies that historically rejected and defeated Muslim incursions. Head- and body-bagging for women, "honor" murders, demands for gender apartheid in public areas, unpunished attacks upon uncovered women, defiant infidels, and gay people, and jizyah tax-support for Muslim religious equipment and facilities are growing more common day by day.

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