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How Honorable is Honor Killing?

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By Nithin Sridhar

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A scary tale from Bangalore

In what appears to be a case of honor killing, a person named Hanumantaraaya is alleged to have murdered his sister Kasturi and her lover Basavaraju in Bangalore according to a report published in Vijaya Karnataka (July 6 issue), a Kannada daily.

The victims were originally from Koppala district, and Kasturi was in love with Basavaraju. But their love was not acceptable to her family due to caste consideration. Her brother had forced Kasturi to marry another man against her wishes. Kasturi left her husband and ran away with Basavaraju and arrived in Bangalore, just days after the marriage.

It is alleged that Hanumantaraaya was very upset with this, and he searched for Kasturi and found her to be living in Bangalore. He visited their house and spent the day with his sister. At night, when Kasturi and Basvaraju were sleeping, he allegedly hacked them to death with a knife. Kasturi was 24 years old and Basavaraju was 28 years old.

This brutal double murder adds one more to the ever-growing list of honor killings that is happening in India. A typical honor killing issue starts with two young people loving each other, and it ends with the lovers ending up dead, killed by their own families for ‘defiling’ their family’s honor.

The question that society, of which these perpetrators are an inseparable part, must ask itself is: What honor is there in killing someone in the name of honor?

Honor killing is a global phenomenon

Honor killing refers to the killing of a person by the members of his/her own family, because of the notion that certain actions of the victim brought insult and dishonor upon the family.

Honor killings are a worldwide phenomenon. Though it is difficult to estimate the exact number of people killed annually, it has been suggested that globally 5000 people are killed for honor every year. The Indian figures are estimated at 1000 people annually.

Honor killings are rampant in the states of Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab, Western UP, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Some experts suggest that the number of deaths globally is as high as 20,000 per year.

Apart from India, the cases of honor killings have been reported in Jordan, Pakistan, Turkey, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Italy, Israel, Holland, Sweden, USA, and many more countries. Therefore, this is clearly a global phenomenon.

What is honor?

Now, returning to the question: Is there honor in killing for honor? We must first look into the question: what is honor?

Traditionally, the notion of honor has been associated with zarr (wealth), zoroo (women), and zameen (land) in India. But does it mean women are commodities similar to land and wealth?

The answer is a definite no and therein lies the source as well as the solution to the problem. Pursuing land, wealth and women are considered as virtue because without them, a man cannot perform dharma (duties/righteousness). But, they can easily turn into a vice, if a man intends to misuse them.

The ultimate goal of life is considered as moksha (liberation), and this cannot be attained without attaining the wealth that constitutes artha, and without having a spouse, together with whom, one can pursue desires and duties that constitute kaama and dharma respectively.

Therefore, women are associated with honor of the family, not because they are commodities, but because without them, men are incomplete, without them the practice of dharma is impossible. When it is said, a wife is half portion of her husband, conversely it also means that husband is half portion of his wife. Hence, although their roles are different, men and women share an equal standing as far as a family is concerned.

There is no honor in honor killings

The next question is: whether killing is honorable?

Honor is related to virtuous and righteous actions. The scriptures have clearly defined what constitutes dharma or righteous actions and what constitutes adharma or unrighteous actions.

Ahimsa or non-injury is considered as the most important duty of whole mankind. When the Hindu scriptures, which are the basis of Indian life, clearly state that violence committed in self-interest is unrighteous, how can killing anyone, because of the notion that family honor has been ruined, be righteous? Further, such a notion of honor itself is based on wrong understanding.

Love or lust?

If it be pointed out, that few Hindu scriptures mention harsh punishments for adultery including death, it is easy to point out that love is not same as adultery.

It’s true that, adultery is considered adharma as it involves cheating and a wide variety of punishments have been mentioned depending the severity of the crime. But, nowhere do the scriptures mention that parents should kill their daughters, or brothers should kill their sisters by accusing them of adultery or of bringing dishonor to the family.

The authority of delivering punishments is only with the judicial systems and not with people. More importantly, in the present case of Kasturi, her forceful marriage itself is invalid as far as dharma is concerned. Marriage is called as kanyaadaanam because the bride is given as a charity. And charity is a very noble act.

But, anything forcefully given can never be considered as daanam (charity). Therefore, the marriage of the girl itself is invalid. So the question of adultery does not arise at all.

Also, love marriages are accepted as valid forms of marriage in Hindu scriptures which call them “gandharva vivaha.”

Therefore, any assertions that honor killing is committed because the victim had violated culture norms and family honor, has no basis.

Women, without whom no act of dharma is possible, are always honorable. And there is absolutely no honor in killing women. Honor killing is a dishonorable act. Period.

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The Attention Shifts To The U.S. As It Strikes Down FGM Law

Looking beyond the Michigan case, Jones said the key to stopping FGM isn’t just legislation but also education.

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FILE - A T-shirt warns against female genital mutilation. Its wearer attends an event, discouraging harmful practices such as FGM, at a girls high school in Imbirikani, Kenya, April 21, 2016.Image source: VOA

When a U.S. district judge last month ruled a federal ban on female genital mutilation unconstitutional, he undercut the federal government and alarmed anti-FGM activists, who hope to eradicate the practice.

The World Health Organization calls FGM, also known as female circumcision, a human rights violation of women and girls, with no health benefits.

Some 200 million women and girls around the world, mainly in Africa, have experienced FGM, the WHO says.

In his opinion, Judge Bernard Friedman called FGM “despicable,” but also “a local criminal activity” that must be addressed at the state level. In enacting a federal law, he said, Congress overstepped.

Now, local lawmakers, advocates and newspapers are calling for state bans that equal or surpass the scope of the federal law that was struck down.

Female Genital Mutilation, FGM, judge
A badge reads “The power of labor against FGM” is seen on a volunteer during a conference on International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Cairo, Egypt, Feb. 6, 2018. (VOA)

‘Never again’

The case Friedman ruled on centers around Dr. Jumana Nagarwala, an emergency room physician accused of performing FGM on at least 100 girls in Michigan for more than a decade.

Prosecutors have focused their case on nine girls, aged 7 to 12, from three states. The girls allegedly were subjected to FGM with the aid of Nagarwala and seven others, including the girls’ mothers.

Defense attorneys say the procedure amounted to only a “nick” on the girls performed as part of a religious ritual — not FGM. But they also argued in July that the federal law banning FGM is unconstitutional.

State Senator Rick Jones, who represents Michigan’s 24th district, told VOA by phone that he was shocked to learn about Nagarwala’s case and strongly disagrees with Friedman’s ruling.

Last year, Jones became the spokesperson for a package of bills outlawing FGM statewide. The legislation passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.

Female Circumcision, FGM
The barbaric practice of genitalia mutilation has been banned in developed nations. Wikimedia

Now, Michigan has some of the toughest FGM laws in the country.

Health-care providers convicted of performing FGM face up to 15 years in prison, along with the permanent loss of their medical licenses. Parents who take their daughters to doctors to be cut can lose custody.

The 1996 federal law, meanwhile, stipulated up to five years in prison and fines for medical providers who perform FGM.

“We wanted to send a strong message around the world: Never again bring your girls to Michigan for this horrible procedure,” Jones said.

Across the U.S., 27 states have passed laws banning FGM, many of which have been written in recent years and include penalties that go beyond the federal law, which also criminalizes so-called “vacation cutting,” the practice of taking girls out of the United States to have FGM performed overseas.

News organizations are among those pushing for an expansion of state laws. Last month, the Seattle Times editorial board called for a ban in Washington, one of 23 states yet to outlaw FGM.

FGM
A doctor checks her phone as she poses for a photograph in Mumbai, India, June 8, 2016. The 50-year-old woman defends what is widely considered female genital mutilation within her small, prosperous Dawoodi Bohra community in India. VOA

Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Times editorial board said all 50 states should ban the “barbaric” practice, in light of Friedman’s ruling.

Religious ritual?

The health-care providers and families involved in the Michigan case belong to Dawoodi Bohra, a Shi’ite Muslim sect based in India with about 2 million followers worldwide.

According to a study published earlier this year, FGM, called khafd in Dawoodi Bohra communities, is widespread in the sect and involves cutting the clitoral hood or part of the clitoris, without an anesthetic, when girls turn seven.

The study, commissioned by WeSpeakOut, an advocacy group focused on eradicating khafd, also found that three-quarters of Dawoodi Bohra women have experienced FGM.

The severity and nature of FGM can vary.

Health-care providers have identified four types of FGM. Khafd involves Type 1 FGM. Other types involve removing all of the external genitalia and narrowing the vaginal opening.

Jones rejects the idea that there’s a religious basis for the procedure, however it’s performed.

FGM
FILE – A counselor holds up cards used to educate women about female genital mutilation (FGM). VOA

“Across the world, this has been practiced by Christians, pagans, Muslims, even a small Jewish sect in Ethiopia,” he said.

“This is not about a religion,” he added. “This is about men attempting to control women’s behavior by this horrible procedure.”

The WHO identifies both short-term and permanent harms associated with the practice. Immediate concerns include severe pain, infections and, in some cases, death. Long term, women and girls subjected to FGM face a range of physiological and psychological complications that can affect menstruation, childbirth and sexual health.

The United States has been unequivocal in condemning the practice, saying “the U.S. government considers FGM/C to be a serious human rights abuse, and a form of gender-based violence and child abuse” on a fact sheet posted to the Citizenship & Immigration Services website.

Education and legislation

Friedman’s November decision is the latest in a series of setbacks for prosecutors.

Nagarwala spent seven months in 2017 in jail before 16 friends posted a $4.5 million unsecured bond, against the pleas of prosecutors, who argued Nagarwala could silence potential witnesses or even flee the country if released.

FGM
KAMELI, KENYA – AUGUST 12: A Masaai villager displays the traditional blade used to circumcise young girls August 12, 2007 in Kameli, Kenya. Maasai are a pastoral group mostly clustered in the Rift Valley. They practice circumcision on both boys and girls during puberty years as a rite of passage to adulthood. VOA

And in January, the judge dismissed charges that Nagarwala and a second doctor, Fakhruddin Attar, transported minors with the intent to engage in criminal sexual activity, an offense that carries a lifetime sentence.

Nagarwala still faces conspiracy and obstruction charges that could result in decades in prison.

The trial is now set to begin next April, the Detroit Free Press reported last month. However, the prosecution could appeal last month’s decision, drawing the case out further.

Also Read: Somalia Calls To Outlaw Female Genital Mutilation

Looking beyond the Michigan case, Jones said the key to stopping FGM isn’t just legislation but also education.

“What we have to do is continue to fight this worldwide. This is a global problem,” Jones said.

“It is a violation of human rights,” he said. “And I’m going to continue speaking out worldwide against this horrible, horrible practice that must end.” (VOA)