Women’s Rights

How India’s Honor Culture Perpetuates Mass Rape

In India’s countryside, where the absence of law and order creates a breeding ground for revenge, village councils can order women to be gang-raped to restore another family’s honor.

Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters

Most of us have heard of the term “honor killings,” which are committed against women who are thought to have dishonored their families through their sexual or romantic choices. We often speak of the link of honor and murder. What about rape?

In Hindi, a common way to refer to rape is “izzat lootna,” which translates into being robbed of one’s izzat, or honor. Far from being the woman’s honor that is stolen, it is the men—husbands, fathers or brothers—who often see themselves as the real victims.

Punishments can reflect this. Last week, a village head presiding over a kangaroo court ordered the rape of a 14-year-old girl in the North Indian state of Jharkhand to punish her brother, who had sexually assaulted a female villager. In order to satisfy the husband of the initial victim, the village chief decided that he would carry out the retaliatory rape. Restitution for his wife did not seem to concern anyone.

This is the latest rape case to have shocked India, a country that has attracted international scrutiny over its treatment of women ever since the Delhi gang-rape of December 2012, which left a young student dead and sparked mass protests in the capital.

Unlike the Delhi gang-rape, which was not “sanctioned” by family, community or state, this attack was approved by community leaders. Behind it, the logic of honor was at play.

Outdated views on family honor—which see women as its repository—have a lot to answer for. When women are seen as a source of honor, they risk being doubly victimized. Once, by their families and communities, who zealously restrict their freedoms so that they are beyond reproof, and a second time if they become targets of those seeking revenge.

The most notorious enforcers of honor codes are unelected “village councils,” referred to as khap panchayats in Hindi. These run kangaroo courts, which issue severely restrictive decrees aimed at women, such as forbidding them from wearing jeans, owning cellphones and stepping out of the house unaccompanied. All of these rules are aimed at preserving the honor of the women and, by extension, their families.

In January this year the head of one such village council in West Bengal sentenced a 22-year-old woman to be gang-raped for having a relationship with a man outside of her community. The “punishment” was carried out by 13 neighbors whom the victim had known all her life. The community’s strict policing of honor codes was pushed to an extreme.

Notions of revenge and honor have always been intertwined. This can cause women to end up as collateral, even when they themselves have committed no wrong. This was the case last year when unelected heads of a village council in the state of Uttar Pradesh ruled that a 24-year-old woman should be gang-raped to punish her brother, who had eloped with someone’s wife. In addition to the green light for the rape, the village council also ordered the woman to marry one of her attackers.

Just why is rape such a powerful way of seeking revenge? The reason, again, lies in notions of honor and shame. If you are raped, the pressures of honor compel you and your family not to speak about the crime. Unlike murder, which does not carry this stigma, rape and its perceived shamefulness make it hard for women and their families to seek justice. Many might not see the point. According to one common saying, “A girl’s honor is like glass, once it is broken it cannot be fixed.”

In situations of conflict, using rape as a way to attack the honor, and thus the morale, of one’s enemy is common. In the past two decades, there have been numerous instances in which inter-communal clashes between Muslims and Hindus in India led to mass rapes of women. One of the most recent examples of this was the riots in Muzaffarnagar last September, where reports of sexual assault and rape were rife.

In military conflict, rape also features heavily. Soldiers in India’s conflict zones—such as Kashmir and North-Eastern states like Manipur—have been accused of brutal, mass rapes of women living in these territories. They are protected from prosecution by the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act.

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Indeed, in conflict situations the rhetoric around honor often intensifies. Amit Shah, who was appointed the president of the ruling BJP this week, stirred controversy in the run up to the elections when, while campaigning for now-Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Muzaffarnagar, said that the elections are “about badia (revenge) and protecting izzat (honor).” Such thinking does not bode well for women, who are primary targets in honor-seeking attacks.

The absence of law and order creates the perfect breeding ground for revenge. When the police do their jobs, most people would not seek justice through khap panchayats. Similarly, if the state were better at addressing grievances, that would help reduce the number of riots that further expose women to risks.

Ultimately, though, it is the underlying reasons for rape that must be addressed. Women will be safer when honor is no longer tied to their sexual “purity.” One member of a khap panchayat in Haryana, who was defending the decision to ban cellphones for women, said last year, “this might seem drastic, but we believe that this is the only way to stop honor killings in this region.” In other words, his solution to end the killings is to protect honor better. No dishonor, no murder.

No one is served by such policing of honor, least of all women. Things will change the day when dishonor falls on the rapist, not the rape victim. Only then could the outdated notion of honor actually serve to protect women. Until then, it is their enemy.