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Using the oppressor’s language

india Updated: Jun 27, 2010 00:59 IST
Sumana Ramanan
Sumana Ramanan
Hindustan Times
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Over the past few months, HT has been carrying various stories about so-called ‘honour killings’.

It was recently used in a story from Uttar Pradesh about a man strangling his 18-year-old daughter for eloping with a boy and in another from Punjab about the murders of a new bride and her mother-in-law by the girl’s family, who were against the marriage.

Feminists have long objected to the phrase’s unqualified use. They argue that the word ‘honour’ has positive connotations and shifts at least some part of the blame from the perpetrator to the victim, mostly a woman, and the larger culture. Readers’ objections run along similar lines.

I asked a group of senior editors at HT-Mumbai what they thought of this critique. All of them more or less agreed with it. “There can never be any honour in killing,” said Sujata Anandan, HT-Mumbai’s political editor. “We are using the term rather loosely, which lends legitimacy to murder, plain and simple, and romanticises growing brutality and intolerance in Indian society.”

What the editors found hard to agree on was what to use instead. Anandan suggested that the newspaper use ‘caste killing’ to describe murders where caste tensions are clearly at play, as they seem to be in a large number of murders now being described as ‘honour killings’.

For his part, Soumya Bhattacharya, HT’s Mumbai editor, said that the newspaper might think of using scare quotes around the word ‘honour.’ This would convey that the newspaper does not believe honour is in any way a mitigating factor.

Both suggestions seem reasonable, and are, in fact, not mutually exclusive. The newspaper could do both, i.e. use ‘caste’ for murders in which that is an issue and scare quotes for the others.

I have one more thought, however — not about the handling of such stories but about the reporting. In how many cases that newspapers describe as ‘honour killings’ — with or without scare quotes — are the cultural dynamics of honour really at work in the first place?

Social science research suggests that many cultures do have the concept of honour killings. But it is not monolithic: its history, practice and meaning vary from culture to culture.

For instance, Sharif Kanaana, a Palestinian anthropologist, believes the practice emerged in the pre-Islamic era and has deep historical roots in Arab society. He argues that it is “an attempt by the men of a family or clan to control women’s reproductive power…because women are considered a factory for making men.” (http://www.merip.org/mer/mer206/ruggi.htm.)

Tahira Shahid Khan, a Pakistani gender studies academic, has a different analysis. “Women are considered the property of the males in their family, and the owner of the property has the right to decide its fate,” shewrites. (http://eomag.com/01.04/honor_killings.htm)

But as non-experts without the luxury of being able to do two years of ethnographic research before deciding whether or not a particular community has an honour code, journalists should avoid labels as far as possible.

What we need is detailed reporting — about the backgrounds of the perpetrators, of events that led up to the murder, of views of neighbours and friends, etc — in other words, the journalistic equivalent of what anthropologist Clifford Geertz called “thick description.”