A. Lobo Gajiwala – Claiming the Right of Mercy in the Family

2. Property Matters

Thus the Jewish law regarding adultery was a form of “honour killing” still practiced in many parts of the world.[10] In India, women are killed when they are perceived to have brought dishonor to the family. In most instances their only “crime” is that they dare to love men who do not belong to the same caste or gotra (patriline). Village caste panchayatssanction such killings even though they are illegal, and the murderers are family members – fathers, brothers, and even grandmothers.

Whilst such killings are usually associated with Islam they are also observed in Sikh and Hindu families.  However, they have little to do with religion. They are more about the control exercised by the family, and are a patriarchal backlash against those who dare to shun traditional, patriarchal stereotypes. They surface even in immigrant populations who are unable to cope with the chasm between the patriarchal values of their country of origin and the changing lifestyles of their young.[11] On the flip side are women who are victims of “crimes of passion” which strangely attract lesser penalties and revulsion than “honour killing” even though the same dynamic operates in both, the transformation of rage into violence. 

The ‘property of man’ image manifests itself in other ways too. In many parts of the Islamic and Asian world, women are bought and sold at will, mostly to generate family income in a world of crippling poverty, but sometimes to further patriarchal agendas that need women to bear sons, and to  care for a man’s sexual and household requirements.[12] In India the dwindling sex ratio[13] has given rise to a roaring trade in bride trafficking and wife sharing in States like Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh that have the lowest sex ratios. Daughters are sold across State borders, resulting in an isolation that is made more acute by the different language, food, dress and culture, and the shock of frequently having to be a common wife to several brothers. Theirs is a life of slavery, abuse and frequently, eventual abandonment. And because they are now their husband’s property there is no going back to their maternal home. 

“The desire to marry and form a family” which forms the basis of Pope Francis’ Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (AL), takes on ominous overtones in such situations, and is definitely not “good news” for the wives (AL1). It is precisely because marriage is seen as the only future for a girl, that her life is so bleak. The practice of dowry[14] either gets her killed because she is a liability, or sent away from home to earn the dowry. Viewed from birth as paraya dhan (‘someone else’s property’) because she will grow up, marry and serve another family, she is deprived of an education and healthcare, neglected, and sometimes allowed to die. Incest is not uncommon, especially in the joint family,[15] At best these girls are off loaded into marriage before the age of 16.[16] Children themselves, many of these girls, experience marriage as a prison sentence, replete with marital rape, domestic violence, isolation, subservience to the point of slavery, and unplanned pregnancies that have fatal consequences for both mother and child.[17] It is difficult to envisage such families as a “setting in which a new life is not only born but also welcomed as a gift of God” (AL, 166). Difficult too, to see these families first and foremost as opportunities, not problems (AL, 7). In fact, Chapter four of Amoris Laetitia with its emphasis on “encouraging the growth, strengthening and deepening of conjugal and family love” (89) seems almost irrelevant in these contexts, because the basic ingredient, love, is missing. 

Amoris Laetitia however, is not blind to these inhuman situations. It admits that violence and hostility can exist in families, and recognizes their potential to breed “new forms of social aggression” (51).   Concern is expressed in the rejection of “older forms of the traditional family marked by authoritarianism and even violence” (53), and the “domination, arrogance, abuse, sexual perversion and violence that are the product of a warped understanding of sexuality (153). The document further emphasizes that “the verbal, physical, and sexual violence that women endure in some marriages contradicts the very nature of the conjugal union” (54), and denounces strongly, “the shameful ill treatment to which women are sometimes subjected, domestic violence and various forms of enslavement which, rather than a show of masculine power, are craven acts of cowardice” (54). In a welcome move, marital rape, although not explicitly named, is nevertheless condemned in the teaching that “a conjugal act imposed on one’s spouse without regard to his or her condition, or personal and reasonable wishes in the matter, is no true act of love, and therefore offends the moral order in its particular application to the intimate relationship of husband and wife” (154). Most important it advises women in difficult marriages that “being patient does not mean letting ourselves be constantly mistreated, tolerating physical aggression or allowing other people to use us” (92). On the contrary, in situations of chronic ill-treatment and abuse, humiliation and exploitation, disregard and indifference, it accepts that separation is inevitable and even “morally necessary” (241).  It can only be hoped that these insights will be developed and form part of the training recommended for priests and others engaged in the pastoral care of families (204, 229), so that they can bring about a paradigm shift in the approach towards problematic  marriages. 

[10] Honour based violence is prevalent in Central and South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, and some Easter European countries. In most of Western and Northern Europe, North America, Canada and Australia it is almost entirely associated with immigrant populations. Honor Based Violence Awareness Network. http://hbv-awareness.com  Accessed 10 April 2017.

[11] Britain saw a 29% rise in reports of honour based violence to police between 2013 and 2014, and a 25% rise between 2014 and 2015. Honour Based Violence Reports To Police Reveal Only Minority Of Alleged Crimes Result In Charge by Kathryn Snowdon  Posted  12/11/2016. This is particularly significant given the current refugee crisis and the trauma of translocation and social exclusion that many refugees are likely to face.

[12] Pakistani man exchanges daughter, 13, for a second wifeDecember 30, 2016.

[13] The sex ratio in the 0-6 years age group is 919 girls to 1000 boys (2011 Census).   and http://www.actionaid.org/sites/files/actionaid/child_sex_ratio_-_presentation_by_census_commissioner.pdf.

[14] Dowry refers to the cash, durable goods, and real or movable property demanded of the bride’s family. These demands frequently continue even after marriage making a woman’s life hell, sometimes leading to suicides or murder (‘dowry deaths’). Although the giving or taking of  dowry is punishable under the Dowry Prohibition Act (1969) justice is slow. According to the  National Crime Records Bureau, 87 per cent of  dowry deaths in the country are pending in courts. The practice is prevalent, even among well-to-do, educated Catholics. In Kerala which has the highest literacy rates for women at 92.98% and  India’s best sex ratio of 1084 females to 1000 males, dowry deaths, though less than the national average, are on the increase. Although women justify dowry as a form of inheritance, the reality is that they rarely have control of their dowry. See: Kerala: Dowry greed claims lives, T. Sudheesh, DECCAN CHRONICLE, Feb. 11, 2017. Also see: Kerala’s riches & rapes: One of India’s most progressive states, but crime data shockingly bad, 19 June, 2013, Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar. 

[15] ‘Crime in India-2009‘ report released by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) (Accessed 10 April, 2017). Victims find little support from mothers who are too afraid to confront their husbands or  are more concerned about protecting the reputation and future of their sons.

[16] 69% of all women in rural regions and 31% in urban areas are married before the age of 16. The median age at first pregnancy is 19.2 year, according to an annual statistics (accessed 21 May, 2015). According to a Unicef report (2012), one in two women are married before 18.

[17] Teenage mothers are neither physically nor psychologically equipped to handle pregnancy. See Unicef report  (accessed 21 May, 2015). According to a 2010 Report, India is home to the highest number of women dying during childbirth across the world, Sept. 16, 2010 Repeated pregnancies coupled with poor nutrition and intensive physical labour gathering firewood, fetching water, tending fields, take their toll. The infant mortality rate (number of infants dying before reaching one year of age) for 2013  is 41 per 1000 live births compared to single digit figures for most developed countries, according to the World Bank report  (accessed 21 May, 2015).