Such backward views have no place in society
We are aware of the term “honour killing” since international news channels have done thorough reporting on the menace among the South Asian diaspora in Europe. Just recently, there has been such a death in Brahmanbaria in Bangladesh where a teenage girl of 16 was killed by her brother, father, and uncle.
Reportedly, the girl, who had a romantic relation, was seen one night by her uncle. Most probably, the girl was discovered by her uncle in an intimate situation with her lover which ignited fury, eventually leading to her killing.
The decomposed body was found a few days later and as per reports, the father, brother, and uncle admitted their involvement in the crime.
Such ghastly events where youngsters are killed by their own family members rattle us from time to time; while we get the reports of such crimes, the follow-ups to such events are rare. It won’t be surprising if there isn’t any follow-up report on this tragic incident. Chances are high that we will never know what happens to the killers.
But this crime has several dimensions, one of which is the issue of “honour” or to be precise, the futile importance attached to the matter of saving face against perceived social ignominy. As John Dryden once said: Honour is an empty bubble.
When cultural evolution is deliberately ignored
In the Brahmanbaria killing, the girl in question had committed the sin of getting into a romantic liaison. While urban Bangladesh has tried to adapt to evolving social norms, many rural communities doggedly cling on to outdated concepts about man-woman relationships.
While in such communities marrying off an underage girl is not deemed illegal, the development of a romantic bond is condemned. The crime of falling in love is graver than having the daughter give up her studies and married off to become a mother by the age of 16.
In the decades after liberation, the portrayal of romance in our films, drama, and cinema was covertly influenced by a conservative social creed. This meant pre-marital man-woman relation had to be presented with a distinctly platonic touch.
As we were growing up in the late 70s and 80s, the act of denouncing movies that revolve around romance was common among the elderly. The term “prem” (love affair) triggered an ambivalent reaction within society.
One may find it hard to believe but liberal-minded parents and guardians had an antipathy to the word and even if their daughter had married after a romantic relation, the norm was to hush up the pre-marital link and try to convince society plus relatives that the marriage was arranged.
Prem carried and still carries a pejorative sound to it.
The Bangla expression “prem kore biye” or marriage following a period of romance was not something accepted in most educated families simply because romance had always been looked at as a rebellious act. Sorry to say, this society has always adored docility/submissiveness among the young.
Almost 50 years after liberation, the outlook may have changed in the cities, but in rural parts, rigid views still remain. One of the reasons why such dogmatic views exist is due to the inability to address adolescent complexities with a rational approach.
The teenage mind needs to be understood
It’s not an exaggeration that while there has been a transformation in all aspects of social life in Bangladesh, understanding the teenage mind still remains elusive.
Unfortunately, the unbending beliefs of the past about right and wrong, along with black and white definitions about what is permissible and what is not, are applied arbitrarily in the case of millions of teenagers.
Shockingly, even the most educated parents do not realize the grey areas of adolescence -- a complex period when the teenage mind undergoes turbulent emotions. One is either clean or sullied, there is no middle ground. Social intricacies plus countless imponderables are brushed aside with disdain.
We do not know if the girl in Brahmanbaria was involved physically with her boyfriend but even if we take it that she was, the uncle should have tackled the matter through counselling. Whether we like it or not, premarital intimacy is very much part of modern-day existence; since this phenomenon is here, the approach towards it needs to cut out the violent reactions.
Once, the most disciplined child was extolled because she/he had diligently listened to everything the parents had ordered. In fact, when we were young, the compliant boy was presented to us as an example to follow. And yes, by our own educated parents.
“Look at him, he trembles in fear in front of his parents,” was actually an endorsement to the quality of being completely subservient.
But as psychologists have regularly underlined: Total enslavement of the mind as a child often sows seeds of sadism, making the victim grow up into a serial abuser. In other cases, a rule-bound life makes a dreary adult, unable to become innovative.
In our desperation to project a conservative social veneer, the need to acknowledge thorny issues is kicked into the long grass. Teenagers are prone to making mistakes, though an open discussion within the family sphere can clarify plenty of misconceptions that cloud adolescent minds.
The human nature will automatically tilt towards items that are forbidden. Therefore, before restrictions are placed, parents/guardians must discuss adolescent concerns freely.
For too long we have been circumscribed by blinkered definitions of honour. So much is the obsession with the term that the universal truth, that humans are fallible, is forgotten. Transgressions by teenagers are normal, total submissiveness is not.
To end with Oscar Wilde: “Disobedience is man’s original virtue; it’s through disobedience that progress has been made.”
Towheed Feroze is a journalist and teaches at the University of Dhaka.