Although the overwhelming majority of honor killings worldwide occur within Muslim communities, one would not know this by reading the mainstream media. Fearful of being labeled "Islamophobic," the American press has given only glancing attention to the widespread, honor-related ritual murder of Muslim women in the Middle East and South Asia while treating periodic honor killings among Muslim immigrants in the West as ordinary domestic abuse cases.
Over the last few years, however, the media has published a flurry of articles about Hindu honor killings in India, the only non-Muslim-majority country where these murders are still rampant. Apologists for Muslim culture and civilization rushed to herald the upsurge in Hindu (and Sikh) honor killings as evidence that the practice is "a universal problem, not an Islamic issue."
While India is indeed a striking exception to Islam's near monopoly on contemporary honor killings, the following preliminary statistical survey shows Hindu honor killings in India to be different in form and commission from those of Muslims in neighboring Pakistan.
Though no less gruesome, the Hindu honor killings seem largely confined to the north of India and are perpetuated by sociocultural factors largely specific to India. The millions of Indian Hindus who have immigrated to the West do not bring the practice along with them.
The recent spike of honor killings in India is likely the product of a clash between traditional and modern values, intensified by high economic growth and increasing social mobility. The spike may also reflect growing media coverage of this crime. The democratically elected government of India has taken important, if long overdue, steps to combat the practice of honor killing, and some progress has been made.
Not so in Pakistan where officials at all levels of government are either unable or unwilling to cope with honor killings. For Pakistan and many other Muslim countries, which have yet to experience the social stresses of rapid modernization or build the kind of political institutions that can eradicate a practice so deeply rooted in traditional beliefs - especially as Islamists now dominate - the worst may be yet to come.
The social milieu
Honor killing is the premeditated murder of a relative (usually a young woman) who has allegedly impugned the honor of her family. It tends to predominate in societies where individual rights are circumscribed by communal solidarities, patriarchal authority structures, and intolerant religious and tribal beliefs.
Under such conditions, control over marriage and reproduction is critical to the socioeconomic status of kinship groups and the regulation of female behavior is integral to perceptions of honor, known as 'maryada' in many Indian languages and as 'ghairat' in Urdu and Pashto.
In such an environment, a woman who refuses to enter into an arranged marriage, seeks a divorce, or fails to avoid suspicion of immoral behavior will be viewed by her family as having dishonored them so grievously that her male relatives will be ostracized and her siblings will have trouble finding suitable spouses.
Killing her is the only way the family can restore its honor, regardless of whether she actually is or can be proven guilty of the alleged offense.
In sharp contrast to other forms of domestic violence, honor killings are frequently performed out in the open, and the perpetrators rarely act alone.
Unni Wikan, a social anthropologist and professor at the University of Oslo, observed that an honor killer typically commits the murder "as a commission from the extended family." The lead author of this article documented this in 2009 and 2010 for honor killings both in the West and in Muslim-majority countries.
Though neither Islam nor Hinduism directly sanctions honor killing, both play a role in legitimizing the practice in South Asia - if for no other reason than that such societies have not prosecuted this crime, have issued light sentences, or have failed to use their religious authority to punish and abolish it.
Hindu society is divided into religiously mandated castes, membership in which is hereditary and effectively permanent. At the lowest rung of the ladder are roughly 150 million Indians who are called Dalits (the oppressed), commonly known in the West as "untouchables." Although many Dalits have reached high political office, notably former president K. R. Narayanan,[ they are still held in low regard by many other Indians.
According to Hindu religious law and tradition, marrying or having sexual relations with a member of a different caste is strictly forbidden. So, too, is romantic involvement with someone from the same sub-caste (gotra), a proscription that contrasts notably with Muslim cultures where first cousin marriage is widely accepted.
The vast majority of Hindu honor killings target young Indians suspected of violating one of these two commandments. In northern India, the murders are often explicitly sanctioned or even mandated by caste-based councils known as 'khap panchayats'.
Although the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 made inter-caste and intra-gotra marriages legal, both remain unacceptable to the large majority of Indian Hindus. According to a 2006 survey, 76 percent of the Indian public oppose inter-caste marriage. In some areas of the country, any marriage not arranged by the family is widely regarded as taboo. "Love marriages are dirty … only whores can choose their partners," one council leader told an Indian reporter.
Although Islam does not specifically endorse killing female family members, some honor killings involve allegations of adultery or apostasy, which are punishable by death under Shari'a (Islamic law).
Thus, the belief that women who stray from the path can be rightly murdered is consistent with such Islamic teachings. The refusal of most Islamic authorities to unambiguously denounce the practice (as opposed to merely denying that Islam sanctions it) only encourages would-be honor killers.
While the Qur'an preaches the equality of all Muslims (or at least all Muslim males), and Islamic leaders frequently bemoan the evils of India's caste system, vestiges of caste identification are evident among some Pakistani Muslims, who are descended from Hindus who were forcibly converted to Islam in the Middle Ages and were part of India before 1947.
Although Hindu honor killing is a gruesome and sordid affair, it differs in many important respects from honor killing in neighboring Pakistan and other Muslim countries. Indian Hindus murder men for honor more often than do Pakistani Muslims, and they murder for reasons mainly related to concerns about caste purity.
Perhaps the most striking characteristic of Hindu honor killings is the fact that Indians abandon the horrific practice when they migrate to the West whereas many Pakistani Muslims carry it with them. Part of the explanation may lie in their different patterns of acculturation upon immigrating to the West.
Young Hindus in the West are no less prone to violate traditional social codes than young Muslims, and their parents may be no less furious when they do, but Hindu families in the West do not feel the same degree of public humiliation and shame as they might experience back in India.
They are eager to preserve their cultural identity but not at the expense of alienating their adoptive
The absence of dreaded 'khap panchayats' no doubt mitigates the consequences of dishonor.
Due in part to the spread of radical Islamist ideology, Muslim immigrants in the West are either radicalized or socialize predominantly within Muslim-only communities, and their conception of honor reflects this.
Even affluent young women of Pakistani descent in the West can face the credible threat of death or severe bodily harm.
Actress Afshan Azad, who played Padma Patil in the Harry Potter film series, was beaten and threatened with death in 2010 by her Pakistani father and brother for dating a non-Muslim. If she can be victimized, anyone can.