Private Love, Public Eyes: Media, Family, and Honour Killings in India | Nandhitha Babuji

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Intimacy is often invoked as a private manner. It is the private emotions shared between two individuals, often cemented by affection and love. But sometimes, intimacies of certain ‘sorts’ seem to take centre stage in public discussions. People seem to have a say in these intimacies wherein boundaries of privacy are overlooked and crossed. This article deals with one such sort of intimacy that evoked honour-based killings. While honour killings can occur due to many ‘dishonouring’ situations, I focus on the shared romantic intimacy between men and women of different castes. My article considers how families and media intervene in the private intimacy of two individuals. By dealing with print media representation, I ask the question, ‘do these representations merely create awareness, or do they desensitize individuals to violence and normalize intrusion into private intimacies?’

Honour killing can be understood as violence perpetrated against an individual, usually women, based on an act deemeddishonourable by the family and members of a social group. These dishonourable acts can include premarital relationships, marital affairs, or marrying someone from a caste opposed by the family. All these cases of supposed dishonour represent instances of shared intimacy.

Honour killing in India dates back to ancient times. The basis of honour killing then and now is the caste hierarchy – the four varnas, which, ranked from highest to lowest in purity, are Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and finally Sudras. Back then it was a very rigid taboo to marry outside one’s caste; once broken, a woman would be killed by members of society. One of the most vivid examples of ancient honour killing was the self-immolation or Jauhar by women who, when it was clear the enemies in war were victorious, committed suicide to save themselves from dishonour at the hands of the enemies. While those forms of honour killings seem to have diminished, modernity has not cleansed the nation of these killings yet. Some of the worst cases of honour killings seem to be reported from the India-Pakistan partition between 1947 and 1950, when India and Pakistan became independent nations (Vesvikar and Agarwal 2016, 49). Women on both sides of the partition were raped and humiliated, and when they came back to their localities across the border, their families killed them to preserve honour.

Throughout history, family has played a central role in perpetrating honour killings through surveillance of children’s private intimacies and enforcing conformity. Among several societal causes of honour killing, one is the fact that individuals are not expected to make decisions independently. Everything is social. Similarly, intimacies are not private; instead, they are displayed and scrutinized on a public forum.

In 2000, the United Nations did a survey and estimated that there are around 5000 honour killings happening worldwide every year (UN 2009). When it comes to India, a 2010 study indicates roughly 900 reported honour killings in Haryana, Punjab, and Uttar Pradesh, with an additional 100-300 in the rest of the country. The interesting part is that legally in India, the ‘right to life’ preamble includes not only the right to marry but the right to marry out of choice. This is interesting because the law plays a significant part in the private matters of marriage in Indian families. However, as Perveez Mody aptly states, it’s a debate between perceiving ‘choice’ as individual or social. I argue that this very debate highlights how the Indian society has been breaching the privacy and intimacy of one’s own decision makings (Annavarappu 2013, 130).

Sex offenders regularly go unpunished in India. This is largely due to government apathy as well as the patriarchal society. Further, due to the fact that much of this violence of honour occurs within the family, crimes often go unreported. Additionally, even if reported, there are only few lawyers willing to take up the cases.

One of the major reasons that honour killings exist in India is the widespread practice of patriarchy. Patriarchy enables honour killings to not only exist but also go underreported. Patriarchy can be understood as a system where men maintain control and say over women in their roles as wives, mothers, sisters, daughters, and daughters-in-law. Violence is a form to maintain this status quo.

Patriarchy is the crux of this problem because it justifies the violation of intimate privacy between inter-caste couples and the subjugation of women. Beyond an experience and relationship, intimacy can also mean the ability to choose for oneself. Women, however, are deprived of this basic right. Honour killing – and fear of honour killing – is often motivated by the desire to control women’s sexuality. It is viewed as punishment for women who manifest sexual agency.

Having described the breach of privacy in the family context, I next show how intimacy is discussed, scrutinized, and broadcasted in media. This marks a double intrusion into women’s intimacy, first observed by the act of violence by the family and next by the act of talking about it in media.

The power of media is that it is ever-present. It finds itself in every space of our lives and with no distinction for what is private and what is public. However, the benefits of being at close proximity to happenings is that media has the potential to paint a very real, authentic representation. In the case of honour killings, this power of media can potentially be used to decrease violence and crimes through honest, real-time reporting.

Unfortunately, media personnel are often under-educated and ill-prepared to deal with certain topics, making their coverage insensitive and sometimes sensationalist. Portraying subjects like honour killing and women’s experiences in a patriarchal world require a certain level of sensitivity, including gender sensitivity. Gender insensitivity in media is a major problem because the patriarchy that rules the Indian nation is visible in Indian media too. Men are more likely to be in the position of shaping the narrative than women, which often results in the targeting of women as blameworthy. Media ethics is long forgotten, which, because of the power media has on society in general, has a negative impact on culture and the lives of individuals. How private intimacies and honour killings are described and depicted on the public stage has the power to shape public opinion. This only increases the influence that the public has on the intimacy between two individuals.

Although media can create awareness of social problems, it can also promote false ideas or problematic representations of a case. The drive to follow a ‘newsworthy’ template of news coverage makes it more likely that news will be altered to fetch higher TRP ratings and readership. The fascination with newsworthiness can lead to poor quality news coverage that can target and scrutinize women unfairly. This phenomenon, often referred to as ‘media circus,’ can also lead to ‘trial by media’, and/or ‘media activism.’  In looking at trends of sensationalisation and gendered media portrayals, the question I’d like to ask is whether news reporting creates ‘awareness’ or ‘desensitizes’ individuals’ minds to violence?

Although ideally media has a responsibility to ensure that reporting does not result in further violence, there is also another form of violence, termed ‘media violence’, which indicates the effects that violence in media has on the individual’s psyche. Here again the ‘language’ used to portray violence has a prominent role in shaping perceptions. Media content impacts the audience in different ways and levels. Violence is intriguing – it is almost always ‘newsworthy’. Be it in the news, movies, or video games, violence has the potential to arouse curiosity. However, the intensity and frequency of viewing violence can also desensitize an individual. One way audiences are desensitized is through the language used. The vocabulary used to describe violence and honour killings can determine the way women are depicted and, in turn, how they are treated. When individuals are depersonalized, violence is more likely to continue. So how do we ensure that the public conversation about violence does not further desensitize people? What is the right way to publicly talk about this private intimacy shared between individuals of different castes?

In 2011, the Indian Supreme Court declared death penalty for the crime of honour killing. Yet despite this, cases persevered. The first way to address this persistent problem is to change social attitudes towards women. Because patriarchy and the caste system are intertwined and mutually reinforcing, undoing patriarchy should also undo the caste system. Honour killing is not a social evil just because it ends the lives of individuals. It is also wrong because it is voyeurism over two people’s shared intimacy, including their bonds of trust and love. The intimacy created over time is forcefully exposed to the public’s unsolicited critiques and views. Yet, the discussion on a public forum can also be considered voyeuristic of that intimacy.

How do we begin to understand the boundaries between the public and the private? Who is entitled to these boundaries? Are some people more privileged when it comes to boundaries, and what is the role of gender and caste in this? These are some questions to ponder. Yet in this public forum, there is the potential to change for the better – to change the mindset and attitude towards women, caste, and honour killing. This needs to be done by changing the language of discussion.




Vesvikar, Meghna and Malvika Agarwal. ‘Honour Killing in India’. Perspectives in Social Work (XXXI), no.1 (2016): 48-62.

Annavarapu, Sneha. ‘Human Rights, Honour Killings and the Indian Law: Scope for a’Right to Have Rights’.’ Economic and Political Weekly (2013): 129-132.

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