The concept of “honour” is intriguing. In essence, it relates to a sense of pride, respect and dignity attached to the very existence of a social being but endeavours for its sustenance have been extremely violent. To understand why a concept so noble has led to inhumane actions against certain sections of society, two issues have to be dealt with: the paradox of traditional values and changing times, and the patriarchal connection.

First, the traditional concept of honour belongs to what Lord Bhikhu Parekh calls in his essay “The modern conception of right and its Marxist critique — a pre-modern society,” where there was no concrete individualisation of rights. Rights belonged to the realm of community/society. Honour like rights was a communal virtue in such a society and was viewed as a collective matter. There was no scope of a clash between individual rights and norms of societal honour. But post-17th century, in the modern conception of rights, the individual was regarded as its primary bearer. Since then, on the one hand, individuals have become aware of their rights, powers and capacities; and on the other, they have got detached from social background and relations. Communal ties and customary bonds got loosened. With every new generation, individuals became more independent and self-assertive, especially with respect to their own lives and related decisions.

The concept of rights evolved with changing times but the concept of honour lingered on with its feudal, paternalistic, communal presence. Thus, for a long time now, a large number of individuals have wanted to step out of the rigid, constrictive and suppressive clutches of this vestigial honour, which is a misfit in today's social context.

Also, traditions evolve and change with time. Over the years, each new experience shapes up traditions according to the needs and perspective of society. They are not concretised orders which have to be followed till eternity. Traditions evolve out of the ways of life and so, they have to change with the changing ways of life.

‘Sati Pratha' was once a social norm and every ‘virtuous' woman was supposed to voluntarily burn herself alive on the funeral pyre of her husband. But today, it is not just illegal but considered to be one of the most inhumane practices. Thus the traditional concept of honour has to be re-defined, keeping in mind the process of individualisation that has very effectively taken place in society, giving more space for individual volition.

Secondly, what is even more perplexing about the concept of honour is the rigidity defining its contours with respect to women. Catherine Mac Kinnon, a renowned feminist, wrote, “Male dominion is perhaps the most pervasive and tenacious system of power in history...its force is exercised as consent, its authority as participation, its control as the definition of legitimacy.” The regime of honour is ruled by such male dominion. The fate of women who have been charged with compromising the honour of the family or society with acts like marrying without the consent of the family and outside the caste, being the victim of sexual assault, seeking a divorce, refusing to cover hair, faces, or bodies, dating or behaving in ways that are considered too independent, has usually been sealed in blood to reaffirm male dominion in the garb of upholding such honour, so much so that honour seems to be a male term now. Men seem to be the guardians of honour — personal, familial and social. Women seem to be the debasers. In this regime of honour, women's existence is reduced to a manifestation of honour or dishonour for men. Interpretations of honour are strongly connected with female chastity and conformity with the dictums prescribed by the other half of society. As a result of highly internalised patriarchal conditioning, coupled with legitimacy for coercion to enforce compliance, violence has become a tool that men use to restrict “transgressing” women in the name of honour. This violence is represented as “honour crimes” which, many a time, have social approval and endow the perpetrator with a “tragic virtue” which aims at diluting the gravity of the crime.

The present concept of honour is based on sheer power dynamics — the need to control. In this context, the constitution and role of khap panchyats cannot be overlooked. There is hardly ever a woman or young person present during the meetings of these panchayats. It is the old guard of the dominant castes of the village that passes dictums calling them consensual decisions. This one-dimensional perspective of society represented in such panchayats consolidates physical, mental, social and cultural control by this dominant section.

Violence in the name of honour must be combated as an obstacle to the enjoyment of basic human rights. The fundamental rights and individual acts of enjoyment of these rights should not be looked upon as degradation of honour. Honour crimes against women must be addressed from a rights-based perspective treating women as equal subjects of rights as men are.

(The writer is a former national general secretary, NSUI and former president, Delhi University Students Union. email: ragini_nayak@yahoo.co.in)