Violence against women or gender-based violence is defined by the Committee on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women as “violence that is directed against a woman because she is a woman or that affects women disproportionately”. (HTPHOTO)
Violence against women or gender-based violence is defined by the Committee on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women as “violence that is directed against a woman because she is a woman or that affects women disproportionately”. (HTPHOTO)

A misplaced idea of honour enables violence against women

The prevailing gendered notions of honour remain at variance with the gender-just society that the Constitution seeks to establish. The constitutional principles of non-discrimination and equality are in tune with India’s international obligations as a party to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women.
By Amita Punj
UPDATED ON MAR 08, 2021 09:35 AM IST

Multiple efforts at preventing, eliminating and redressing violence against women (VAW) have had limited success. Securing violence-free homes, workplaces and other public spaces for women has been an onerous task, among other reasons, on account of it meandering through the realm of what people see as honour. We all have been witness to frenzied groups perpetrating VAW with the specific objective of dishonouring a particular community in ethnic or communal strife. Saving or restoring “family honour” tends to promote tolerance, acceptance, even justification for honour killings. Honour metamorphoses into a barrier to the elimination of VAW if it constitutes the foundational premise of such law. Even if it does not constitute the foundational premise, operationalisation of the law within such a culture of honour contradicts the purpose of law.

Internationally accepted understanding of VAW falls into a quagmire when juxtaposed with the socially and culturally determined notions of honour. Violence against women or gender-based violence is defined by the Committee on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women as “violence that is directed against a woman because she is a woman or that affects women disproportionately”. Gender-based violence violates women’s human rights and the infringement of human rights constitutes an affront to humanity. The inviolability of humanity stands eroded when expected to be judged through the prism of honour. First, the notion of honour is socially and culturally determined and is thus ever shifting. It is incapable of offering an unconditional basis for any conception of justice or righteousness.

Second, on account of being constructed within and through the existing social structure, the notions of honour or dishonour embody and reflect social hierarchy and prejudices. The notion of honour thus has a tendency to perpetuate hierarchy rather than usher in a transformation or deliver social justice. Finally, the ideology of gender attributes respect/honour to women not on the basis that they are human beings and thus worthy of respect, but on whether and to what extent their actions are in accordance with what is socially allowed for them, what is socially expected of them, and what is socially valued in them.

The prevailing gendered notions of honour remain at variance with the gender-just society that the Constitution seeks to establish. The constitutional principles of non-discrimination and equality are in tune with India’s international obligations as a party to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women. Despite this, it’s appalling to find legal norms pertaining to VAW or their operationalisation meandering the realm of honour, in complete contravention of international standards.

Many instances of the meandering of legal norms through the realm of honour relate to sexual offences. For instance, the exclusion of marital rape from the category of sexual offences raises the question of whether rape is an offence against the bodily integrity of a female or an affront to her honour. One of the presumptions on which one may exclude marital rape from the category of sexual offences is that the socially determined honour of the female remains unblemished. What adds to the malaise is the judicial meandering into the realm of honour. The recent remarks by a Supreme Court (SC) bench holding out the promise of “help” to a person accused of rape if he wanted to marry the girl, in this context, are worrying. Can the violation of bodily integrity be lawfully redressed through the social arrangement of marriage? Even where in its substance or its assumptions, the law seeks to usher in gender justice, as in rape by an unknown person, its interpretation and operationalisation in the gendered culture of honour makes it frail.

Everyone is constitutionally entitled to legal redress for violations of their rights and for that the SC still remains the last hope for the marginalised. And it must rely on law, not a misplaced sense of what constitutes honour, in providing justice.

Amita Punj is associate professor, National Law University, DelhiThe views expressed are personal

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