Above the Law, Beneath Contempt



Honor killings—in which families murder their own children for defying the elders’ wishes for their marriage—have become so frequent in North India we hardly have time to absorb news of one before another is reported.

The Indian Supreme Court recently ordered the governments of six states (including Punjab and Haryana, two of India’s wealthiest) to end the practice. The number of victims reported each year varies (from four hundred to a thousand), but civil-rights groups claim even the higher figure is too low, because many such killings are called suicides or not reported at all.

The term “honor killing” implies a certain degree of virtue—a wronged citizen is forced by his own higher standards to take the law into his hands to protect his family’s name. Under an archaic community legal system, a khap panchayat, or village council, believes it can still order that an offending couple, or just the woman alone, be killed. The woman’s own family is expected to carry out the sentence.

The community is so united that those directly responsible have no problem admitting to the crime or claiming it was justified. In June, for example, a nineteen-year-old woman and her twenty-one-year-old boyfriend were beaten mercilessly in Delhi and finally...

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About the Author

Jo McGowan, a Commonweal columnist, writes from Deradoon, India.