Dishonorable killings

So-called honor killings take the wind out of a form of cultural relativism that I refer to as absolute cultural relativism. According to absolute cultural relativism, anything that goes on in a particular culture, and is justified within that culture, cannot be questioned or changed by insiders or outsiders. For insiders, such questioning is cultural heresy; for outsiders it is ethnocentrism.

An antidote to absolute cultural relativism is critical cultural relativism, which promotes the posing of questions about practices and beliefs by insiders and outsiders in terms of who accepts them and why, and who they might be harming or helping. In other words: Who benefits, who loses? [Note: I present these terms in my cultural anthropology texts as a way to get students to think more analytically about the very important concept of cultural relativism.]

Image: Flickr creative commons licensed content. If only India, and indeed the whole world, was a domestic violence free zone.

When death, torture and structural violence are involved, it’s time to relegate absolute cultural relativism to the sidelines and bring to the fore critical analysis and discussion among insiders and outsiders. As far as I know, murder is not legal in any country in the world, including murder of one’s own kin for purposes of protecting family honor.

An article in The New York Times describes an alleged honor killing of a young unmarried Hindu woman in her family home in Jharkhand state, eastern India.

The article links the possible murder to Hindu caste values, which forbid marriage of woman to a man of a lower caste category — in this instance, the woman was of a Brahmin family and was engaged to a man of the Kayastha category, which is lower. Not only that, she had apparently engaged in premarital sex, another serious problem from the point of view of family honor.

What the article doesn’t say is that honor killings of daughters and wives by family members occur among people of other religions as well, including Christianity, that are not driven by caste purity. More deeply than particular religious values is the widespread existence of lethal patriarchy: male dominance in all domains of life — economic, political, social, sexual — that it justifies, even actively supports, murder of women and girls.

There can be no way, in this world, that anyone can get away with murder by saying that “it’s part of our culture” to kill a daughter or wife who breaks cultural rules. As if it’s their right and duty to kill.

Unfortunately, local police and the judicial system are often on the side of the killers.

Amnesty International now keeps track of so-called honor killings, but it’s likely that cases are severely under-counted. Nevertheless, any and all efforts to keep shining a very bright light on the problem of honor killings and related forms of patriarchy are essential.

See also this post on the blog Women Against Shariah.

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