Pakistani human rights activists protest against the killing of pregnant woman Farzana Parveen for marrying a man she loved. Photo: Getty
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Enough is enough: Putting an end to “honour”-based violence against women and girls

After a shocking week of violence, "honour"-based crimes must be recognised for what they are – crimes against women created and fostered by a patriarchal society.

It has been a shocking week for violence against women in Pakistan, reflected in the number of horrific cases picked up by international news networks. National and international outrage was first sparked by the murder of Farzana Parveen, who was stoned to death outside Lahore High Court. Footage of the murder was broadcast to the world by onlookers who videotaped it on their mobile phones. Police officers can be seen failing to intervene in the deadly attack, which reportedly lasted for around fifteen minutes. The attack began soon after Farzana arrived to testify against her father's claim that she had been kidnapped and coerced into marriage. Her father, the only person arrested thus far for the murder, told police that Farzana had "dishonoured" her family for marrying against their wishes. Meanwhile, in the Indian State of Uttar Pradesh, two girls (aged fourteen and fifteen) were assaulted, murdered then hanged from a mango tree. Protests against perceived police inaction in the case ensued: two officers have now been arrested and a further two fired for failing to investigate when the father of one of the girls first reported them missing.

These murders are only the latest among many crimes committed in the name of "honour". "Honour"-based violence encompasses a wide range of physical violence (including assault, maiming and killing), coerced suicide (including by enforced self-immolation), starvation, forced marriage of women (often to a man who has already raped her), forced abortion, removal of children, female genital mutilation, forced virginity, forced hymen repair, and the curtailment of liberty, basic rights and/or education. Reports submitted to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights document the continuing occurrence of "honour" killings in Bangladesh, Brazil, Britain, Canada, Ecuador, Egypt, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Pakistan, Morocco, Sweden, Turkey, Uganda andUSA. The United Nations Population Fund estimates that between 5,000 and 10,000 women are killed in the name of ‘honour’ each year.

So called "honour" killings occur across a wide range of social, religious, ethnic and cultural groups. Although cultural and religious norms and traditions are often invoked to justify these crimes, it is imperative not to associate "honour"-based violence with one specific culture, country or religion. Instead, we must challenge popular stereotypes that suggest, for instance, that HBV derives from Islamic beliefs. Claims that honour killings are "unique" often result in the dismissal of these crimes as mere cultural aberrations; instead, these murders must be understood as part of a broader problem that affects all societies. Only by understanding that "honour"-based violence emerges from patriarchal beliefs and gender inequality can we begin to address this and other forms of violence against women and girls.

The vast majority of murders committed in the name of "honour" are perpetrated by men who use the trappings of religion and cultural tradition to legitimise the violence they perpetrate against female family members. In communities and societies that subscribe to codes of "honour", there are strict rules and norms dictating what people must and must not do. These norms are sharply divided along gender lines. Indeed, most norms focus on regulating female sexual behaviour and availability. Families and communities strive to ensure that ‘honour’ codes are strictly observed by all members because real or perceived transgressions are often seen to "stain" the "honour" of the transgressor’s entire family, kin-group or community. Violence against the transgressor is believed to "cleanse" the collective "honour" of the family and community, so it is often seen as necessary or even good. Thus, "honour" crimes reinforce and are, in turn, reinforced by patriarchal norms and traditions. One of the key traditions is a strict code of silence about such crimes when dealing with outsiders or the police.

My own research on gender-related killings of  women and girls in the Indian sub-continent and Iraqi Kurdistan shows that "honour" codes (and associated patriarchal views about the subordinate position of women) are embedded in broad and pervasive ways of thinking that revolve around gendered values and traditions that legitimise men’s control of women’s bodies and behaviour. These traditions and values heavily restrict the lives and activities of women, with any perceived "deviation" likely to attract some form of retribution or punishment. Punishment is often visible or public as it is only by punishing – and being seen to punish – those who transgress the "honour" code that a family’s reputation can be restored in the eyes of the wider community or society. Thus, "honour"-based violence, including ‘honour’ killings, do not just represent punishment for individuals but show other women and girls what is likely to happen to them if they do not conform to patriarchal social expectations as regards their behaviour and life choices. Until recently, practices that are harmful specifically to women have rarely been understood as stemming from norms and traditions that afford men control over all aspects of life while women are given little power to make their own choices. In the West, practices like female genital mutilation have often been viewed as an expression of the broadly atavistic nature of certain ethnic cultures. When the cause of "honour"-based violence is attributed to supposedly immutable and intrinsic traditions and religious beliefs, little attention is paid to the perpetrators of these crimes, either as culpable individuals or as part of male-dominated social structures.

To date, the norms and values associated with using violence to restore lost "honour" have only been recognised as a specific violation of human rights in specialist circles. However, there is a strong argument that states have a responsibility to prevent "honour"-based violence, including by taking action on the broader issue of how gender inequality often leads to the infringement of women’s human rights. While international treaties and conventions challenge both gender inequality and violence against women, the application of international law in individual countries is dependent on each state’s motivation to comply with their treaty-based obligations. To implement international human rights instruments, countries must amend their domestic legislation and develop new institutional processes (e.g. as regards how so-called "honour" killings should be investigated and prosecuted, much of which relies on police officers’ attitudes towards victims). However, for any of this to happen, there must be strong social and political commitment to establishing gender equality and protecting women’s rights.

Governments and other actors continue to differ in the degree to which they view "honour" killings as an issue that must be urgently addressed through preventative and educational initiatives. Thus, while attention to the issue has been growing since the early 2000s, this has rarely resulted in concerted or consistent national or international action.

"Honour"-based crimes must be recognised for what they are - crimes against women created and fostered by a patriarchal society. They represent a gendered form of violence not unique or specific to certain cultures or ethnic/religious groups,  but the product of social environments where the control and subordination of women by whatever means necessary is not only acceptable but even often encouraged. Programmes to prevent violence against women and girls cannot succeed until societies challenge the unequal power structures governing relationships between women and men. In other words, effective preventive work must address the root cause of the problem: inequality and discrimination.

Dr Aisha K Gill is a Reader in Criminology at University of Roehampton.

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Britain's commemoration of Partition is colonial white-washing in disguise

It’s much easier to focus on the indigenous perpetrators of religious violence than on the imperialist policies that facilitated it.

While in London a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t help but notice a curious trend in the British media’s coverage of the upcoming 70th anniversary of the end of British colonial rule in the Indian subcontinent. It wasn’t the familiar think-pieces about "the jewel in the crown", thinly disguised nostalgia for empire masquerading as critiques of colonialism (see for example, The Conversation’s piece on how colonialism was traumatic for, wait for it, officials of the British Raj). It wasn’t the patronising judgements on how India and Pakistan have fared 70 years down the road, betraying the paternalistic attitude some of the British commentariat still harbours towards the former "colonies". It wasn’t even the Daily Mail’s tone-deaf and frankly racist story about 92 year old countess June Bedani and her “loyal Indian houseman” Muthukanna Shamugam, who doesn’t even speak a word of “Indian” (that’s just classic Daily Mail). What got my attention was the British media’s raging hard-on for Partition - a flurry of features, documentaries and TV specials about one of the biggest and bloodiest mass migrations of the 20th century.

Just take a look at the major headlines from the past couple of weeks - "They Captured And Forced Him Out Of His Home: This Isn’t Syria In 2017, It Was India In 1947" (Huffington Post UK); "Partition: 70 Years On" (The Guardian, BBC and Independent, each with a different subhead); "The Real Bloody Legacy Of Partition" (The Spectator); "Remembering Partition: 70 Years Since India-Pakistan Divide" (Daily Mail) and many more. It isn’t that - unlike some of my more reactionary compatriots - I believe that the Partition story shouldn’t be documented and spoken about. On the contrary, I think India and Pakistan have failed to grapple successfully with Partition’s scars and still festering wounds, and the way it still haunts both our domestic politics and our relationship with each other. But the overwhelming focus on the grisly details of Partition by the British press is deeply problematic, especially in its unsubtle erasure of British culpability in the violence. Even the Guardian’s Yasmin Khan, in one of the few pieces that actually talks about the British role in Partition, characterises the British government as “naive and even callous” rather than criminally negligent, and at least indirectly responsible thanks to its politics of "divide and rule". Of course, it’s much easier to focus on the indigenous perpetrators of religious violence than on the imperialist policies that facilitated it. That would require the sort of national soul-searching that, even 70 years on, makes many British citizens deeply uncomfortable.

Rose-tinted views of empire aside, the coverage of Indian and Pakistani independence by the British press is also notable in its sheer volume. Perhaps, as some commentators have suggested, this is because at a time of geopolitical decline and economic uncertainty, even the tainted legacy of colonialism is a welcome reminder of the time when Britain was the world’s reigning superpower. There is certainly some truth to that statement. But I suspect the Brexit government’s fantasies of Empire 2.0 may also have something to do with the relentless focus on India. There is a growing sentiment that in view of historic and cultural ties, a post-Brexit Britain will find natural allies and trade partners in Commonwealth countries such as India.

If that’s the case, British policy-makers and commentators are in for a reality check. The truth is that, despite some simmering resentment about colonialism, most Indians today do not care about the UK. Just take a look at the contrast between the British and Indian coverage of Independence Day. While there are a handful of the customary pieces about the independence struggle, the Indian press is largely focused on the here-and-now: India’s economic potential, its relationships with the US and China, the growing threat of illiberalism and Hindu nationalism. There is nary a mention of contemporary Britain.

This is not to say that modern India is free of the influence - both good and bad - of colonialism. Many of the institutions of Indian democracy were established under the British colonial system, or heavily influenced by Britain’s parliamentary democracy. This is reflected both in independent India’s commitment (in theory, if not always in practice) to the ideals of Western liberalism and secularism, as well as its colonial attitude towards significant sections of its own population.

The shadow of Lord Macaulay, the Scottish legislator who spent four eventful years in India from 1834 to 1838 and is considered one of the key architects of the British Raj, still looms large over the modern Indian state. You can see it in the Penal Code that he drafted, inherited by both independent India and Pakistan. You can see it in Indian bureaucracy, which still functions as a paternalistic, colonial administrative service. And you can see it in the Indian Anglophile elite, the product of an English education system that Macaulay designed to produce a class of Indians “Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” It was this class of Anglophile Indians who inherited the reins of the Indian state after independence. It is us - because I too am a Macaulayputra (Macaulay’s child), as the Hindu right likes to call us. We congratulate ourselves on our liberalism and modernity even as we benefit from a system that enriched the few by impoverishing the many. This class of brown sahibs is now the favourite punching bag of a Hindu nationalism that we have allowed to fester in our complacency.

Still, ghosts of the past aside, the UK no longer holds sway over young India, even those in the Anglophile upper classes. Today’s young Indians look to the United States for their pop culture references, their global aspirations and even their politics, both liberal and conservative (see the Hindutva fringe’s obsession with Donald Trump and the alt-right). We still want to study in British universities (though increasingly strict visa rules make it a less attractive destination), but we’d rather work in and emigrate to the US, Canada or Australia. We drink coffee rather than tea (well, except for the thoroughly Indianised chai), watch Veep rather than Yes Minister, and listen to rap, not grime.

Macaulayputra insults aside, the British aren’t even the bogeymen of resurgent Hindu nationalism - that dubious status goes to the Mughal Empire. Whether this cultural turn towards America is a result of the United States’ cultural hegemony and economic imperialism is a topic for another day, but the special "cultural links" between India and the UK aren’t as robust as many Brits would like to think. Which is perhaps why the UK government is so intent on celebrating 2017 as the UK-India year of Culture.

Many in the UK believe that Brexit will lead to closer trade links between the two countries, but much of that optimism is one-sided. Just 1.7 per cent of British exports go to India, and Britain's immigration policy continues to rankle. This April, India allowed a bilateral investment deal to lapse, despite the best efforts of UK negotiators. With the Indian economy continuing to grow, set to push the UK out of the world’s five largest economies by 2022, the balance of power has shifted. 

The British press - and certain politicians - may continue to harbour sepia-tinted ideas of the British Raj and the "special relationship" between the two countries, but India has moved on. After 70 years, perhaps the UK will finally realise that India is no longer "the jewel in its crown". 

 

Bhanuj Kappal is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.