Hindu vs. Muslim Honor Killings

Article excerpt

Although the overwhelming majority of honor killings worldwide occur within Muslim communities,1 one would not know this by reading the mainstream media. Fearful ofbeing labeled "Islamophobic," the American press has given only glancing attention to the widespread, honor-related ritual murder of Muslim women in the Middle East and South Asia while treating periodic honor killings among Muslim immigrants in the West as ordinary domestic abuse cases.

Over the last few years, however, the media has published a flurry of articles about Hindu honor killings in India, the only non-Muslim-majority country where these murders are still rampant.2 Apologists for Muslim culture and civilization rushed to herald the upsurge in Hindu (and Sikh) honor killings as evidence that the practice is "a universal problem, not an Islamic issue."3

While India is indeed a striking exception to Islam's near monopoly on contemporary honor killings, the following preliminary statistical survey shows Hindu honor killings in India to be different in form and commission from those of Muslims in neighboring Pakistan. Though no less gruesome, the Hindu honor killings seem largely confined to the north of India and are perpetuated by sociocultural factors largely specific to India. The millions of Indian Hindus who have immigrated to the West do not bring the practice along with them.

The recent spike of honor killings in India is likely the product of a clash between traditional and modem values, intensified by high economic growth and increasing social mobility. The spike may also reflect growing media coverage of this crime. The democratically elected government of India has taken important, if long overdue steps to combat the practice of honor killing, and some progress has been made.

Not so in Pakistan where officials at all levels of government are either unable or unwilling to cope with honor killings. For Pakistan and many other Muslim countries, which have yet to experience the social stresses of rapid modernization or build the kind of political institutions that can eradicate a practice so deeply rooted in traditional beliefs - especially as Islamists now dominate - the worst may be yet to come.

THE SOCIAL MILIEU

Honor killing is the premeditated murder of a relative (usually a young woman) who has allegedly impugned the honor of her family. It tends to predominate in societies where individual rights are circumscribed by communal solidarities, patriarchal authority structures, and intolerant religious and tribal beliefs. Under such conditions, control over marriage and reproduction is critical to the socioeconomic status of kinship groups and the regulation of female behavior is integral to perceptions of honor, known as maryada in many Indian languages and as ghairat in Urdu and Pashto.

In such an environment, a woman who refuses to enter into an arranged marriage, seeks a divorce, or fails to avoid suspicion of immoral behavior will be viewed by her family as having dishonored them so grievously that her male relatives will be ostracized and her siblings will have trouble finding suitable spouses. Killing her is the only way the family can restore its honor, regardless of whether she actually is or can be proven guilty of the alleged offense. In sharp contrast to other forms of domestic violence, honor killings are frequently performed out in the open, and the perpetrators rarely act alone. Unni Wikan, a social anthropologist and professor at the University of Oslo, observed that an honor killer typically commits the murder "as a commission from the extended family."4 The lead author of this article documented this in 20095 and 201 06 for honor killings both in the West and in Muslim-majority countries.

Though neither Islam nor Hinduism directly sanctions honor killing, both play a role in legitimizing the practice in South Asia - if for no other reason than that such societies have not prosecuted this crime, have issued light sentences, or have failed to use their religious authority to punish and abolish it. …