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Noose family ties

Why the khaps’ cultural defence argument falls flat ...

Written by Ravinder Kaur |
July 23, 2010 3:32:39 am

There is much heat and little light in the media and civil society debates on “honour killings”. I have previously offered two hypotheses regarding the intensification of khap activism and honour killings. Regions where both phenomena predominate are typically low sex ratio areas propelling “deadly” competition over marriageable women (considering that marriage in India remains compulsory and age at marriage remains abysmally low,the competition kicks in while girls are quite young). Equally,parents are losing hold over deciding who their children will marry — the beginning of a momentous shift in a country that is known for two sorts of seminal intergenerational contracts — one,that sons will look after old parents and two,that parents will arrange the marriages of their progeny. Both today are being challenged by self-choice marriages. An equally important third factor is the “in process” challenge to caste restrictions on marriage. In a caste-bound and hypergamous society,where the rule is that a woman must marry up and never down,inter-caste marriages in which the women are often higher caste and the men lower,often Dalit,brings on the ire of the upper castes. Intra-caste marriage reproduces caste exclusivity while inter-caste marriage strikes at its very roots.

But let us take another perspective on “honour killings” — I would prefer to include these in a category I call “family murders”. Other similar murders that can be included in this category are dowry murders,involving husbands and in-laws; female foeticide and infanticide,involving “to-be-parents”,parents,and grandparents; crimes of passion in which people are involved in an intimate relationship,or jilted lovers taking to murder. What shocks us about such murders is that they are perpetrated by close and trusted relatives,by those who we normally expect to love,nurture and protect us. Family murders strike at our self -image as a society of close-knit,resilient families in a world where we feel the family has largely self-destructed.

In recent times,feminist activism has been pushing the state to take steps to address honour killings. In response,khap panchayats and Haryana-western UP society are claiming legitimacy for the khap diktats on the basis of “our culture”. In a world that valorises cultural diversity and should do so,individuals and communities sometimes take recourse to the strategy of what is called “cultural defence”. In the US,perpetrators of family or intimate crimes have often got lighter sentences by claiming that their culture justified such killings. Into this fall such offences as abduction of women (justified by a cultural claim of “marriage by capture”(Hmong),killing an adulterous wife (justified in many South Asian and Middle Eastern societies); mother-child suicide if the husband is unfaithful (Japan and China),etc.

Can Haryanvi or western UP culture be allowed as defence for honour killings? Some have argued against sagotra marriages on grounds of genetic proximity. But it is very rare (if at all) that the couples being killed have been closely related biologically. And patterns of marriage in other parts of the country,for instance,cross-cousin (between children of opposite sex siblings) and uncle-niece marriage in the south — have not had any noticeable genetic ill-effects. Another emotional Haryanvi defender recently asked activists how they would feel if their own school-going daughters began eloping at the age of 14-15. The contention would be that they,the Haryanvis,were interested in their daughters’ welfare and didn’t wish them to enter early marriages. But these are the very same people asking for a lowering of the marriage age! So are they objecting to elopement,early marriage or the fact that these marriages are somehow “wrong” in their eyes?

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What other “good things” are being protected by culture in these parts? The argument is that all young people belonging to a village or a group of villages are like brothers and sisters and must behave accordingly,and that this affords protection to women. To begin with,this hides the widespread exploitation of Dalit women by upper-caste landlords — what happens to the brotherly feeling then? Secondly,the traditional rules of marriage came about in a particular historical and demographic context and have become redundant today. Instead of initiating new laws our political class should be willing to do the hard work of taking the lead in working with communities to help them understand and cope with the deep changes taking place in their lives. If they want khaps to remain important social institutions,they have to help and advise khaps to address important issues such as female foeticide,lack of inheritance among women,new gender equations and the aspirations of young people.

The writer teaches at the Indian Institute of Technology,Delhi

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