Violence against women’s autonomy, in all matters and especially in matters of sexuality and marriage, is one of India’s most widespread and tenacious forms of gender violence – and also the least recognised. It is a form of violence that hides in plain sight. Violence (against men and women both) to prevent a woman from exercising her choice in love and marriage is not properly documented, since India does not have a specific law against “honour” crimes. To spot such violence and confront it, you need to look beneath the surface and read between the lines of available documentation.
In 2014, an English daily, The Hindu, tracked 583 rape cases decided by New Delhi’s district courts in 2013. It found that the single largest category of cases (nearly 40 percent) involved consenting couples who had eloped, after which the parents (usually of the women’s) had filed cases of rape. This startling fact meant that rape statistics are actually disguising something else: coercion and domestic violence against women’s sexual autonomy. This sleight of hand, that conflates “relationships chosen freely by women” with “rape”, allows authorities – police, women’s hostels, factory managements – to continue to pass off restrictions on women’s liberties as necessary for “safety from rape”. Strict curfews, bans on using mobile phones, punishments for being found talking to a man, dress codes banning “immodest” or “western” clothes, informing a woman’s parents if she is found being friendly with a man – these are just some of the “safety” rules imposed on women in educational institutions and workplaces that help maintain the ecosystem in which “honour” crimes take place.
The term “honour” crimes is somewhat misleading not only because it implies that such crimes are “honourable”. It also gives the impression that these crimes are a product of the “culture” – customs and traditions – specific to certain communities or faiths. Associating such crimes with rigid traditions and certain communities alone prevents acknowledgement of the fact that these crimes are extremely widespread in India, across regions and communities. For instance, in 2010 when Nirupama, a student of journalism, was killed by her family members in Jharkhand for planning to marry her boyfriend from another caste, the then Chairperson of India’s National Commission of Women said that her murder did not count as an “honour” killing because such killings were specific to the Indian state of Haryana where the “khap panchayats” (community councils) exist.
It is clear that a wide range of measures are needed to effectively combat patriarchal crimes against love and against women's autonomy in India.
Neelam Katara, mother of Nitish Katara who was killed by the sons of a prominent politician DP Yadav because he was in love with Yadav’s daughter, recounts that during the murder trial the Sessions Court judge asked her, “How is this an ‘honour’ crime? Daughters are killed in honour crimes, but here your son was killed”. She also recounted that during the appeal hearing in India’s highest court, a judge asked her how the murder could be an “honour killing” since her son was from a “good caste”. The phrase reveals how even Supreme Court judges think of dominant castes as being “good” and oppressed castes as “bad”; but it also reveals how “honour crimes” are understood narrowly as a set of practices (killing of daughters, or objection to daughters marrying “beneath” them). Instead such crimes need to be understood as patriarchal violence against the daughters’ sexual agency and autonomy. It needs to be acknowledged that such crimes can take a very wide variety of forms, including violence against the daughter’s partner. Moreover, we need to recognise that such violence is not an expression of “culture” alone, or else why would modern educational institutions and even factories supplying to global corporations use the same forms of violence (disguised as “protection” or as “culture”) to discipline women in education and in workplaces?
It would be better to use the term “patriarchal crimes against autonomy” to reflect the character of such violence more accurately, and strip it of the myths that subtly valorise it. In the Nitish Katara case, the Supreme Court of India tried to redefine the concept of “honour crime” as a crime against women’s choice, observing that a woman’s “individual choice is her self-respect and creating (a) dent in it is destroying her honour.”
In India, the idea that parents have a right to control who their daughter marries has especially wide acceptability because of the caste system: caste boundaries can be maintained only by surveilling and controlling women to make sure they marry in keeping with caste norms. Any autonomy by women is a threat to this order. And some of the worst violence is meted out to men of the most oppressed – Dalit – castes, if they marry a woman from a more privileged caste.
In March 2016, a young Dalit man in Tamil Nadu, Shankar, was brutally hacked to death at a public crossroads in the presence of his wife Kausalya – Kausalya’s parents had ordered the hit, because she was from the dominant Thevar community. Kausalya also was badly injured. But when she came out of hospital, she refused to return to her parents. Instead she has become a committed anti-caste campaigner, travelling on her motorbike addressing talks against caste and patriarchy, and offering support to other women in similar situations, whose spirit is in danger of being broken. But the Tamil Nadu state government has just issued a circular making woman like Kausalya extremely vulnerable to violence: it makes parental consent mandatory for marriages to be registered. In a state where right-wing parties are running a campaign instigating violence against inter-caste marriages, especially those where the man is Dalit, such a circular is dangerous.
Women in inter-faith and inter-caste relationships are subjected to immense torture and coercion at the hands of their families, their communities, and increasingly, right-wing and fascist political parties in India. In many cases, they succumb to the pressure and disown the relationship – especially if their partner has been killed. Political organisations close to India’s Hindu majoritarian ruling party are unleashing organised violence against inter-faith relationships in which a Hindu woman loves a Muslim man – they term such relationships as “love jihad“.
A sting operation caught leaders of India’s ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) and its parent organisation, the fascist RSS, on tape making detailed boasts of violence against women, done in the name of “rescuing” them from inter-faith marriages. One BJP leader explained that such campaigns instigating fear of “love jihad” among Hindu parents was a key strategy to build support for the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. These leaders openly boast of surveilling local courts to track impending marriages of Hindu women to Muslim men, mobilising violent crowds to separate the couple, beating the women with wooden planks, and even drugging them to force them to give up the relationship and file a false case of rape against their boyfriend. Several television channels in India participate in creating and sustaining the myth of “love jihad”. However, not a single case of alleged “love jihad” has actually stood the test – each has proved to be entirely consensual. In such cases, the young woman is up against not only her own parents and community – but against political forces that command power. Standing up to such pressure calls for immense courage.
In 2014, a Hindu woman, Shalu, fell in love with Kaleem, a Muslim, in Meerut. The fascist outfits portrayed the relationship as a classic case of “love jihad”. Shalu was forced to file cases of gang rape against Kaleem and his family members. The media amplified the fascists’ sensational claims that Shalu was one among scores of Hindu women lured by Muslim men and then victimised. But Shalu eventually managed to escape her parents’ home, go to the police station and tell them the truth – and Shalu and Kaleem are now married.
Another woman victim of a similar patriarchal crime is Hadiya, who converted from Hinduism to Islam and then chose to marry Shafin Jehan. Her father approached court to get Hadiya’s marriage annulled – and in a verdict that flouts India’s Constitution, the Kerala High Court actually annulled the marriage and handed 24-year-old Hadiya over to the “custody” of her father, claiming that “As per Indian tradition, the custody of an unmarried daughter is with the parents, until she is properly married”. Indian citizens who hoped that the Supreme Court would lose no time in overturning such an outrageous order, were in for a shock. The Supreme Court took six months to do what they should have done on the first day: free Hadiya and declare that she was free to chose her faith and her partner in marriage (the order to this effect was finally passed on Women’s Day this year).
Instead, they ordered India’s anti-terror agency the NIA to go on a fishing expedition to see if terror groups were conspiring to convert Hindu women to Islam and radicalise them! Hadiya meanwhile was subjected to brainwashing attempts by notorious Hindu radical outfits at the behest of her father. These outfits, masquerading as “yoga clinics” specialise in trying to break up inter-faith marriages. It was only because Hadiya stood firm in spite of the prolonged imprisonment in her father’s home, that the Supreme Court belatedly (and with seeming reluctance) declared that it had no option but to set her free and uphold her marriage. Shockingly, the Supreme Court passed no strictures against the brazenly unconstitutional Kerala High Court verdict.
When a young New Delhi man Ankit Saxena – a Hindu – was killed on a public street by his Muslim girlfriend’s father, there was an organised political campaign by leaders of the ruling BJP to portray the killing as proof of the cruelty, barbarism and backwardness of Muslims. It was his family and close friends who, admirably, resisted the attempt to use his death to further Islamophobia – pointing out that it was a patriarchal crime that people of all communities in India have been known to commit.
It is clear that a wide range of measures are needed to effectively combat patriarchal crimes against love and against women’s autonomy in India. Women’s movements have for long been campaigning for a law against “honour-based” crimes, on the lines of the one enacted by Pakistan. They point out that the United Nations too has recommended laws against such crimes. In India, another urgently needed reform measure is to get rid of the clause in the Special Marriage Act (the law that applies to inter-faith, secular marriages contracted in courts) requiring couples to publicly announce their marriage plans a month before the wedding. It is this waiting period that gives parents and motivated political outfits time to organise violence to prevent the marriage. India’s women are campaigning not only against such patriarchal killings – but against any restrictions, on any pretext, on adult women’s autonomy, mobility, and choice. Unfortunately, that struggle is especially hard now – with the ruling political forces today backing a full-fledged ideological and physical assault on women’s autonomy.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.