At the age of 21, Sarika Pandey discovered that while she had expected to grow into adulthood and independence, she actually had no voice of her own. That, despite her convent schooling and management degree, neither her body nor her spirit was free. The trigger for this revelation was the fact of Pandey wanting to marry a man of her choice - Salim Aslam. To her outwardly modern, high-caste family, it was simply unacceptable. The 'us or them' threat worked for a while, but one morning Pandey made up her mind and walked out of her home. What followed taught her how little women have truly gained, despite the outward appearances of a modernising nation.

First came the coercions and the threats, then Hindu hardliners stepped in to decry the 'defiling of their girls' by Muslim boys. A case of kidnapping was registered against Aslam, a kurki notice issued and the entire family had to be on the run for six months. It was a marriage that caught Lucknow's voyeuristic curiosity like few other things and the day Pandey was produced in court to record her evidence many of the curious turned up for a peek. Six years into her marriage, she still cringes at the horror of those days. "My greatest fear was for my husband. To see my own brother and other male relatives hovering around the court premises terrified me, but I was determined to speak the truth. My in-laws lost their business and their home. And for what? We had not done anything illegal. We were within our religious and Constitutional rights, but we realised that social structure is above all. It extracts its price."

Pandey was lucky. She got away relatively easy in a country where each year many women are forced into marriages, ostracised for marrying out of their caste/religion, or worse still, killed for the violation of social custom.

The curbs on a woman's right to choose who to have a relationship with, and/or marry - or not to marry - often manifest themselves in myriad ways. Spurned lovers flay acid on the faces of girls they are besotted with; brothers slit the throats of sisters who dare to bring 'shame' to the family; panchayats decree that violators be ostracised, paraded naked, or worse - killed; couples are hounded so ferociously that they decide to end their lives; or often the man deserts his wife under familial pressure and remarries ... the list is endless and the examples everyday.

Where the state has intervened, changes have been yielded grudgingly, but sexual autonomy remains a firm no. The honour of the family rests in the virginity of its daughters.

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In June this year, a 45-year-old Kanpur woman's face was blackened and her head shaved by her own brothers who suspected her of having an affair while her husband was away. This May, in Hardoi district, some 100 kilometres from Lucknow, a rejected lover turned into a human bomb to kill his former girlfriend on her wedding day, only to end up being severely injured by the explosives which went off unexpectedly. In January a Meerut girl gulped some pesticide to escape the taunts of her family which objected to her relationship with another girl. The girl survived only to have her private hell turn into a media circus.

The same month another Meerut girl was killed by her brother when she was lying in a hospital recovering from an earlier failed murder attempt by the same brother. The family's reaction was stoic; the girl's father - who helped the boy escape after the crime - reasoned that there was no logic to losing to son after having lost a daughter! In December last year, a 15-year-old Lucknow girl was married off to a man twice her age after the man promised to help her father clear off a Rs.30,000 debt.

The denial of choice often operates under an elaborate garb of tradition. In Rajasthan, for instance, the nath prataha, a custom that allowed a woman to remarry, with the family into which she was marrying paying a certain amount of money to her husband, is now used to sell women repeatedly. Certain communities of the state deny their daughters the right to marry, for they must get into the flesh trade to look after families, often while the men fritter away the earnings on gambling and drinking.

A widespread crime

And no one is quite sure how many women are being abused in this manner. According to statistics from the National Crime Records Bureau, in 2004, the total number of crimes against women reported was 1,54,333, up 9.8 per cent from 2003. The total number of women murdered during the period was 8119. Of these 4006 murders were of women between the age groups of 18 to 30 (that is 46 per cent). Since honour killing is not a listed crime, one can only deduce what percentage of these murders fall into that category. One could try to fit them into the category of 'murders due to love intrigues', which were 7.5% of the total in 2004. Another category within which they could be viewed are 'murders due to casteism', of which 35.9 per cent happened in Bihar. In 2004, 15,672 females were kidnapped, of which 9,622 (or 61.4 per cent) were kidnapped for marriage-related reasons, possibly another way to count honour killings.

Jagmati Sagwan, an Assistant Secretary of the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) who has been working in 10 Haryana districts since 1985 on the issue, asserts that there are six to seven reported cases in any given month. She also refers to a statement by the state's DGP that 10 per cent of all murders of women are honour killings. "We have been trying to build opinion and awareness but the biggest block is the family which believes ladki ko sambhalna (to set the girl on the right path), is its most important duty," she says of a region where flare-ups are seen even at marriages that violate gotra and regional sanctions.

Tulika Srivastava, Founder, Association for Advocacy and Legal Initiatives (AALI), Lucknow debunks the assertion that any one region in the country is particularly prone to honour killings. "The trend is rampant in any patriarchal structure. Power rests in property and the sexual control of women. Land is valuable because it is fertile. Ditto for women. In UP, in the western belt, particularly Muzzafarnagar is in the news only because non-governmental organisations have played up the matter. Even the police there are now willing to recognise and register such crimes", she says. But elsewhere there is a cloak of secrecy and an unwillingness to accept that such violations could exist in our society. One Justice of the Supreme Court in fact stated on record that honour crimes did not exist in India, "because this is not Pakistan".

Expert opinion however is firm that autonomy for women is unacceptable. Where the state has intervened, changes have been yielded grudgingly, but sexual autonomy remains a firm no. The honour of the family rests in the virginity of its daughters and that measure is unlikely to change soon. Strangely the law has also become a stick to beat consenting couples looking to marry. The Special Marriages Act, 1954 is a much abused example. The Act mandates that the parties intending to get married give a notice to the Marriage Officer not less than 30 days preceding the marriage. That notice is to be pasted in a Marriage Notice Book which is to be open for inspection at all reasonable times, without fee, by any person desirous of inspecting the same, so that objections to the union can be registered. It is often 'social do-gooders' who then take it upon themselves to notify the families concerned.

In those rare instances where inter-caste and inter-religion marriages gain acceptance, the unspoken demand is that the woman give up her identity for a new religion and/or name. Moreover this is not an issue that is left open to familial negotiations; the concerned communities step in to do their negative bits. To marry the man of her choice, a woman needs to be subjugated, her identity destroyed so that she meshes into the new family she has chosen as her own.

Geetha Devi, senior lawyer practicing at the High Court of Karnataka, recalls the case of a couple looking for a way to get married without giving up their separate religious identities. The families had consented but the moral pundits were aghast and the marriage had to be called off. She also points that though Hindu-Muslim unions attract social criticism, honour crimes per se are not rampant in the southern states. "But it won’t be long before it percolates, just like dowry and ostentatious weddings which we have borrowed from the north," she notes.

In July this year, a Supreme Court bench of Justices Ashok Bhan and Markandeya Katju, while quashing criminal proceedings against one Brahm Kumar Gupta who had eloped with Lata Singh and ended up with a case of kidnapping against him, noted that the country was getting ruined by the caste system and the filing of such false cases was "not in the national interest". The bench asked the police to shield such couples from societal and familial pressure and take stern action against those who use threat and violence against them. The court also noted that the ferocity against such marriages was shocking given that neither the Hindu Marriage Act nor any other law put a bar on the same and that such marriages were in fact good for national integration.

Geetha Devi cautions against an overdose of optimism on the SC's observations. "The SC direction will not be followed till a government order is issued. Moreover it needs to be incorporated in the police manuals. Crimes against women, and especially inter-relations between the family are not priority matters for the police which has been saddled with ostensibly more important tasks like VIP protection. But the direction is effective to the extent that now a couple can ask for protection as a matter of right."

Legal intervention, however, is by itself insufficient, note many advocates for women's rights. A slew of measures that include perceptive building, sensitisation of legal and police officials, reforms of state institutions, education to women, community mobilisation, the provision of shelter homes for women, enhancing budgets for women friendly interventions are just a few of the threads that need to be woven into a complete and adequate basket of solutions. Until that happens women's voices on one of the most critical decisions of their lives are likely to remain muffled and unheard.