Mississauga, Ontario, Canada. December 10th, 2007.
Sixteen-year-old Aqsa Parvez was strangled to death by her father and brother. Family tension had been high in the weeks prior to her death. She’d been living with a neighbor. Her friends said she wanted to run away. None of her family understood her. They were very devout Muslims.
They killed her because she refused to wear the hijab outside. Her father felt that without her hijab, she was not only naked but made him feel naked in front of his community.
She was killed to conserve her family’s honor.
Honor killings have long been a dark thorn in Indian culture. The term “Honor Killing” is used to describe acts of murder committed against men and women who have brought a perceived dishonor to their family. The majority of cases involve violence against women. The “dishonor” comes from a variety of scenarios. In reported cases, women have been killed for falling in love with people out of their caste, having sexual relations at a young age, to even wearing certain types of prohibited clothing. The communities in which these killings happen perpetuate the belief that the perpetrator brought shame on the family and allow the murders to occur.
I never gave honor killings much thought. The fact that they happened in India and in generally strict traditional places seemed obvious to me. They were bound to happen in places where men controlled women and where freedom and equality were foreign notions. When the honor killing of Aqsa Parvez happened in Mississauga, Canada, at a school close to where I lived, the issue hit home.
As an Indian born and raised in Canada, I’ve seen Indians move to Canada and watched as they’ve struggled to adapt to the culture here. And some old school methods, traditions, and attitudes just don’t cross over. I attempted to make sense of it all. How could one commit a murder to conserve family pride? Wasn’t the act of murder itself more shameful than the reasons these murders were committed in the first place? I saw the whole episode as an example of culture clash and soon brushed it off. These were extreme cases. No normal family was like that.
The Indian Honor Attitude
The reality of honor killings only really hit me when I noticed how visibly frightened a friend of mine got when she learned her father was coming to pick her up from the McDonald’s we were hanging out at. As soon as she learned of this, she told us to shift to the other table. She told us not to look at her when we spoke. She told us not to say goodbye when she left. When her father arrived in a blue minivan, she simply got up and left her empty table without a word. We didn’t hang out as much after that.
This has led me to conclude that the real horror of honor killings is not in the actions committed, but the attitudes informing those actions. The attitudes are a very common reality in NRI households, whether they are Hindu, Muslim or Sikh. Just ask NRI teenagers or twenty-somethings whether they disclosed their first relationship to their parents and you’ll find most hid them out of fear of parental disparagement and disgrace. You Indians reading this know what I’m talking about! This fear is caused by the “honor attitudes” of your parents. It is prevalent in almost all NRI societies, probably to a much stricter degree than it is in India. Abroad, NRIs no longer live in their own cultural environment; their environment no longer has cultural signifiers to remind their children to remain pious and honorable so parents become more insecure and thus stricter.
Whatever this attitude is – let’s call it the “Indian Honor Attitude”– an honor killing is the extreme manifestation of it. Only few parent-child relationships reach this extreme but many exist in the realm of it. The scary part: those families that suffer from the “honor attitude” can involve physical and mental abuse, extreme fear, depression, social anxiety and the inability to build proper social skills for the children affected. NRI daughters (and to a certain degree NRI sons) face the pressure of not shaming their families. On top of that they must bring honor by getting good grades, getting a good job, and marrying respectable candidates.
Dissecting the Indian-Honor Attitude
According to Dr. Sharif Kanaaneh, the “honor” comes from the belief that it is the man’s responsibility in the family to control his clan – his wife and children. Any dishonor from them reflects on him worse. In Aqsa Parvez’s case, the fact that she didn’t wear a hijab outside made her father feel vulnerable to shame. If the clan behaves dishonorably, it is a sign that the man cannot control them. Thus, the man will commit acts of physical and verbal abuse to bring his clan in line, culminating in the extreme act of an honor killing to redeem his honor.
But fathers aren’t the only ones consumed with the Indian honor attitudes: mothers, uncles, aunts, and siblings have also been charged with being zealous honor keepers. The honor attitude itself is informed by culture and society. At its heart, it is an impulse of self-preservation that factors in class, caste, social status, family name, and to a much lesser degree than might be believed, religion.
A common misconception held by critics and authorities is that religion plays a huge role in honor killings. Critics of Islam have especially used the issue of honor killings to attack it. Let me set the record straight: the problem of honor killings has little to do with religion. Instead, it is a phenomenon of culture and society. The only part religion plays is that it acts as a catalyst on these honor attitudes. It amplifies, exaggerates and blows up the feeling of the shame since religion is perceived as the source of authority dictating that shame, dictating the judgment on the family. But what most families don’t realize is that the source of the shame is actually other families’ judgments upon them and, in most cases, their own insecurity in the social strata. It is the community that enforces the “shame”, or a belief in it.
The Indian honor attitude is entrenched in traditional Indian culture and most Indians have faced at least mild forms of it from their parents. The unlucky ones have experienced honor killings. Here’s the attitude at it’s worst.
Stacking the Stats: The Honor Attitude In Action
Honor killings claim the lives of five thousand women around the world each year. But women aren’t the only one’s targeted. It would be foolish to say honor killings only involve women. In India, their male suitors are also killed. This usually happens when the boy’s family is poor and the girl’s family is rich. The rich family, rather than killing their daughter, simply murders the poor family because no one will notice or care. Usually they pay off the authorities.
In India, honor killings are common in the northern regions, mainly Punjab, Rajasthan, Haryana, and Bihar. It is in the rural highly populated and highly traditional places where some of the worst examples can be found. Honor killings aren’t tame or painless. They don’t involve a ritual death of any sort. There’s no presiding priest or imam. You don’t need an edict from a temple. Because of this, honor killings can be just as brutal and creative as any murderer’s imagination. In India, victims have been set on fire, axed, clubbed, shot, poisoned, drowned. A rich family in Bhagalpur invited their poor son-in-law’s family over for dinner once and there the poor family was shot and beheaded and thrown into the river Ganges. Caste politics have led to some of the most grisly murders. In Bhagalpur, a poor boy wrote a simple love letter to his “sweetheart” of a higher caste. The high caste family found him, beat him to a pulp, paraded him through the streets, and then threw him under a train as his mother begged for his life.
Sometimes Indian family politics, as legit as the family may seem, play out like scenes from The Godfather. In the Sikh community in Vancouver, B.C, one case involved the daughter’s family sending their Gujarati son-in-law to India to meet the extended family. The son-in-law never returned. His family still waits. In another Sikh related Vancouver honor killing, Malkit Kaur Sidhu, a woman of impeccable reputation, ordered the death of her daughter Jassi. Jassi was in India at the time. Malkit Sidhu did it through a cell phone long distance call, her exact words to her daughter’s kidnappers, “Kill her.” She did it to restore her family’s honor when Jassi married a lowly rickshaw driver without the family’s permission.
So, with all these statistics on honor killings, what’s the message? It’s this; honor killings may be a reality for a minority, but the attitudes that inform them are a reality for a majority. It is the Indian honor attitude that most young NRIs face everyday from their traditional parents and family. This is no longer just an issue for violence against women but a mental health issue for NRI youth everywhere.