[TRIGGER WARNING: rape, sexual assault, abuse]
On July 30 this year, twenty-three-year-old Meenakshi Kumari and her fifteen-year-old sister were condemned to be raped and paraded naked by their Indian village council after their brother eloped with a married woman.
The sisters and their family are of the underprivileged Dalit caste—a group whose members were previously referred to as “Untouchables”—meaning they are at the mercy of the local council in Baghpat, Uttar Pradesh, which pledges to “avenge the dishonour” inflicted by the young man.
The council, referred to as khap panchayat, consists of only high-caste men. Despite the fact that India’s Supreme Court has technically outlawed these unelected, all-male councils, the groups still exist and exert social power in small villages such as that of the Kumari family.
This punishment was ordered after their brother, Ravi, eloped with a married, higher-class woman from the Jat caste named Krishna. According to the condemned woman, her brother and the married woman were in love for the past three years. Nevertheless, the woman was married to a man of her social status against her wishes. A month later, she eloped with Ravi.
She was sent back to her parents following torture and pressure from her family, pregnant with her lover’s child.
Since their sentencing, the family has fled their home to hide in New Delhi. The Jat community allegedly ransacked their house in Uttar Pradesh following their escape.
One of the sisters says she can’t return to her village because “she fears village elders will want to take revenge on her.” She told Daily Mail: “How will we ever return home or to our village? If we ever return they will harm us or rape us. If not today then in the future.”
Meenakshi petitioned India’s Supreme Court for protection. The brother has since allegedly been arrested under a false narcotics charge and is currently in prison. Though he was granted bail, his family was too scared to return to their home to arrange the documents for his release.
The family has gained national attention following Amnesty International petitioning for justice and collecting over 200,000 signatures. According to Amnesty, the sisters’ father has gone to the National Human Rights Commission and the National Commission for Scheduled Castes about harassment by the police and the family of his son’s lover.
The national controversy facing the Uttar Pradesh region—and really the entire country—has brought Indian police to consider arresting the councilmen who sentenced the Kumari women.
Some members of the family’s village, though, claim that the sisters’ story is completely fabricated.
The BBC published an article titled “Did India village council really order rape of two sisters?”
According to local police, no such order was ever given by the local council. Furthermore, Krishna’s family claims, “She never went willingly. There was no love affair,” despite Meenakshi’s claim that “the whole village knew that my brother and that woman were in love.”
Krishna spoke to a BBC reporter, but only under the authority of two male relatives who watched the interview take place.
According to the BBC, Krishna argued she “‘barely knew the man,’ she [said with] her eyes fixed on the ground. ‘I didn’t even know his name. He tricked me into going with him saying he’ll get me a job. Then he kept me against my will.’”
The writer of the piece admitted, “It’s difficult to judge whether she’s speaking of her own free will but her answers appear a bit rehearsed.”
The piece ends on an arguably strange note with the following paragraph: “The controversy has shifted the focus, perhaps unnecessarily, on whether the village council passed a brutal order rather than on a young couple facing social pressure because they belong to different castes.”
Despite the interviewer blatantly saying that Krishna seemed restricted in terms of what she could say, the article ends with a statement that essentially says the real issue at hand is that low-class people in general can’t marry those outside their social circle.
Is it not clear that the police of the region are not to be trusted?
The Additional Superintendent of Police said, “We believe that the woman went with the man willingly, but in our investigations we didn’t find any evidence that a village council meeting took place and order passed against anyone as reported.” Does this not reflect the local authority’s clear lack of urgency regarding the rights of these women?
Aren’t the strict social divisions fertile grounds for outrage at the poor people in this situation, namely the poor women?
One anonymous resident of the village reports: “We’ve read in the newspapers that a British MP has expressed concern over the so called shameful treatment of women in our village…The reports are completely false.”
One man says plainly, “We feel dishonoured.”
Honor is the crux of this controversy, as it has been in many cases before.
As adamantly as the villagers are that they treat their women with respect—specifically the two sisters in question—this isn’t the first case of women being sentenced to gang rape in India. A hauntingly similar case from 2014 featured a similar punishment—though this time it was followed through. When a young man from a small village in the Indian state Jharkhand was accused of sexually assaulting a married woman, the village leader ordered his fourteen-year-old sister to be raped by the husband of the woman who was initially assaulted.
The woman’s husband dragged the girl away into the forest. Villagers simply watched.
This incident followed a case in a West Bengal village in which an unauthorized council ordered the gang rape of a woman after she “fell in love” with a man from another community, as well as a case in which a woman was gang raped as retribution for her brother’s adultery and forced to marry the husband of the brother’s lover.
Honor is so highly valued in this Indian culture that some honor punishments and killings are enacted by the victim’s own family.
In response to a spike in honor killings, Human Rights Watch officially called for India to prosecute those who enact honor violence based on religion, castes, and other socio-economic factors in 2010. The South Asia director for HRW stated, “Officials who fail to condemn village council edicts that end in murder are effectively endorsing murder. Politicians and police need to send these councils a strong message to stop issuing edicts on marriages.”
In 2011, India’s Supreme Court made the punishment for those who inflict honor killings the death penalty, referring to the crime as a “barbaric slur” on India. Some Indians disagree with the decision; perhaps this is just another extension of the barbaric “eye for an eye” justice that the local, unofficial councils depend so heavily on.
Nevertheless, khap panchayats continue to have sway throughout India, despite the fact that they have no official authority.
If the real police in Meenakshi’s village seemed dismissive or suspicious to the BBC when asked about the sisters, there’s a good chance that they’re at least indirectly on the side of the council by staying silent and inactive.
As in every country, laws need to be enforced by real bodies of power for people to be safe and well treated. On top of legislation, there needs to be efforts for education to change the culture. Sexual assault may be illegal and honor killings may be punishable by death; but if the local authorities turn a blind eye, they are validating misogyny and violence against women and consequently allowing it to continue despite legislation meant to stop it.
Even if honor killings and punishments stopped in India, they’d still take place in various other countries, mostly in the Middle East and South Asia.
1,000 women die in honor killings every year in Pakistan. According to the Washington Post, eighty-three percent of Pakistanis support stonings for adultery while only eight percent oppose it.
One thoroughly disturbing account from 2012 featured a Pakistani couple that threw acid on their fifteen-year-old daughter after she “turned to look at [a boy who came by on a motorcycle] twice.” The girl’s mother claimed, “It was [my daughter’s] destiny to die this way.”
Twenty Jordanian women a year are killed in the name of familial honor, a statistic that fails to reflect the countless deaths that go unrecorded. In a 2011 study, 80.9 percent of parents polled believe that the female is equal to the family’s honor, 55 percent believed a woman should be accompanied by her brother when out of the house, and 66% are opposed to women having equal rights to men with regard to being outside the home unaccompanied.
In Yemen—a country in which more than half of all females are married off before they’re eighteen years old—a tally of women who are murdered for the sake of honor doesn’t exist. The only year that a statistic exists for is 1997: over 400 women died from honor killings.
Honor killings run deep in rural communities around the globe such as that of the Kumari family.
According to Rachel Alcock, Amnesty UK’s Urgent Action Coordinator, “These Khap courts routinely order vile sexually violent punishments against women. India’s Supreme Court has rightly declared such orders illegal. The government of Uttar Pradesh has an urgent duty to keep this family safe.”
What are these women and their families to do if they not only can’t return home, but also can’t trust the police to defend them?
And why are honor killings and punishments dismissed by—or at the very least pushed out of view—not only local authorities, but also Westerners?
In the film Honor Diaries, a documentary available on Netflix that features women who’ve personally endured the struggles of being female in Muslim-majority societies, Raquel Saraswati brings the issue of Westerners justifying—and consequently excusing—honor killings by saying it’s part of the perpetrators “culture,” a reaction that Saraswati deems “racist.”
Nazanin Afshin-Jam responds, “I think [Westerners] are confused over these issues. I think they think they have to be ‘culturally sensitive.’ They don’t understand that it’s a case of human rights and that cultural relativism has no place when a woman’s right is being abused.”
Manda Zand Ervin summarizes the discussion in the documentary with the question, “Why is everyone afraid to say that Muslim women are deprived of their humanity?”
Americans often tiptoe around the issue of honor punishments, reacting to these abused women as though they are simply spectacles and representations of backwards, underprivileged countries. Westerners perpetuate racism by writing off rampant violence and abuse against women as cultural; nothing gets solved when we are scared to call honor killings murder rather than customary, simply for fear of being politically incorrect.
The Kumari women were sentenced to gang rape because of misogyny and a tradition of violence against women. Not Indian culture.
Richard Dawkins, famed author and atheist, commented on the disgusting incident, saying: “This time it really truly IS nothing to do with Islam…They’re female: property of their brother. Raping them’s punishment for his stealing another man’s female property.”
We must start seeing honor punishments and killings for what they truly are instead of dismissing them, covering up racism and American superiority with the word “culture.”
When we call widespread abuse, sexual assault, and murder “culture,” we are generalizing an entire nation by barbaric acts that do not define the countries they occur in.
We are also attempting to distance ourselves from these tragedies by blaming them on geography and antiquated foreign customs, simultaneously denying that these tragedies happen in the West—though that is not the case.
[image via x]