In India, women continue to be killed for daring to assert their sexual freedom or their freedom to choose their own partners.
The video of a father holding the severed head of his daughter as he nonchalantly walks down the street has sent shockwaves around India on Thursday, a mere four days before International Women’s Day.
Sarvesh Kumar, from Hardoi’s Pandetara village in Uttar Pradesh, had thought it fit to behead his 17-year-old daughter over an alleged love affair she had with a man he disapproved of. In the video, he is matter of fact. There is no guilt or grief, just a practical narration of the events.
After catching his daughter in a compromising position with a man two days earlier, he had vowed not to touch food or water until he could kill the two. In the video, he explains that he couldn’t find the man, managing only to kill his daughter. “I locked the door and got it done,” he says in Hindi.
The clip has largely been removed from social media platforms due to its graphic content.
At a certain point in the video, he sets the severed head down on the ground. The ponytail on the girl’s head hangs limply; her eyes are closed. “I left the body in the house,” Kumar tells the man filming the video. He gives out the name of his daughter and the name of the man she was allegedly in a relationship with. He proudly explains how he killed her, and why. The man interrupts the narration twice to answer phone calls. He cooperates with the police when they search him, assuring them that “there’s no weapon on me.”
Incidents like this one are all too common in India, especially in patriarchal heartlands like Uttar Pradesh. Many women who choose to pursue relationships against their family’s wishes or outside of their religion or community risk fatal consequences from their male relatives. Honor, in this society, is linked to a woman’s chastity, and any deviation is punished severely.
In January, a 17-year-old girl and her 19-year-old boyfriend were allegedly murdered by the girl’s relatives in the Bareilly district of Uttar Pradesh. The following month, the IANS news agency had reported that another woman was burned alive in the state in Gorakhpur for her relationship with a Muslim man. A few days later, a man stabbed his brother-in-law for marrying the assailant's sister in Meerut.
And while their partners bear some of the brunt, too, studies have found that it is the women and girls who bear the maximum penalty from their families.
A 2016 report by the International Journal of Recent Scientific Research analyzed 50 honor killing cases in Uttar Pradesh and found that girls and women were killed in more than half the cases. In contrast, boys and men were killed in less than a quarter of the cases. It also found that most of the killings targeted younger females between the ages of 11-20 years old.
“To combat the epidemic of honor killings requires understanding what makes these murders unique. They differ from plain and psychopathic homicides, serial killings, crimes of passion, revenge killings, and domestic violence,” the study found, adding that these acts of violence were owing to predefined norms and cultures in a patriarchal society, where honor is equated with the way women behave.
The U.S. State Department’s 2019 Report on Human Rights Practices found that honor killings are "a problem, especially in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, and Haryana.” Uttar Pradesh, in particular, has topped the list of Indian states with the highest number of crimes against women in 2019, according to the most recent report by the National Crime Records Bureau.
But, in general, honor killings are grossly underreported in India.
According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), as many as 5,000 women and girls fall victim to honor killings every year, though some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) estimate the figure may be as high as 20,000.
While these crimes are treated as homicides in India, for too many that hasn’t been much of a deterrent. Honor killings often involve the silent complicity of family members and surrounding communities, and now, the Hardoi case serves as a stark and sobering reminder of why India continues to be one of the most dangerous countries for women.