Amongst other communities, Sikhs have been mentioned in connection with “honour killing”. What exactly is the Sikh view about this monstrous practice which usually targets women?
So far as the Sikh religion is concerned, “honour” and “killing” do not go together. There is no honour in taking life, although, loss of life can result from self-defence or defence of others. There is a difference. As per the Guru’s instruction, even for defence, a Sikh man or woman should use minimum force (of arms if need be) only as a last resort, when all other means have failed. Real loss of honour (patt) for a Sikh is to forget the True Name of the Timeless Creator. The Gurbani "tuk" - Je jeevai patt lathhi jai. Sabh haram jeta kicch Khai" - is often misquoted (out of Gurbani context) and misinterpreted. That context from the previous "tuk" is, "Only he is truly living in whose mind the Lord resides, Says Nanak, none else is really alive. [Therefore] If someone lives [without Waheguru awareness] he leaves this world dishonoured. All that he eats to live is forbidden food (haram)." (GGS p 142)
A better understanding of what is meant by “honour” is needed. The background is crime of "honour killing" by otherwise sensible and even "respectable" people. Culture and even misunderstood religion, may have something to do with this. Although, in the UK, people with Muslim and Sikh backgrounds have been mentioned, the crime of honour killing is quite common in many eastern and middle-eastern cultures. So, it is a misconception that it exists amongst the Panjabi Muslims or Sikhs only.
I recall that in one murder case the question asked was, if swearing at a Sikh would provoke him to kill. We have cases of parents from different religious backgrounds killing their daughters - not their defaulting sons disgracing own families mind you, but daughters ! - for the sake of "family honour". This targeting of girls also says something about the position of women in such societies.
As mentioned above, a Sikh cannot take human life under any circumstances whatsoever. That has to be the starting point from the Sikh religious or Sikhi perspective. The sword of a Sikh sant-sipahi (saint-warrior) is for defence, and that only when all other means have failed. The pointer here is towards "intent to take life". Even in self-defence the intention must remain just that (i.e. self-defence) and no other. That one or more lives may be lost could also be the regrettable outcome of collective "dharam yudh" by the Sikh community to defend human rights and to protect the innocent and the weak.
So what is "honour" when any perceived “attack” on honour provokes one to react violently or even result in pre-meditated murder as in the case of parents killing their daughters in certain cultures. The Panjabi words which readily come to mind are "izzat" or "anakh izzat", "aan shaan", "patt", and the related concept of "parda" ("parda dhakna"). "Patt" is perhaps the closest to what we have in mind. "Satgur Sikh ka parda dhakai" also refers to the Guru protecting one against own weaknesses.
The topic of “honour killing” has also been discussed on cyber forums. Questions have been raised about (mercy) killing in certain circumstances to defend “honour”. For example, documentaries record the terrifying events of 1947 partition of the Indian sub-continent, when Sikh women preferred death at the hands of own family men rather than falling into the enemy hands. Is killing to save “honour” justified in those circumstances? This is a very difficult question.
Perhaps, reflection on the Sikhi concepts of accepting God’s Will (bhana mannana), and treating life as sacred would provide the answers. The Sikh way is that evil has to be faced and defeated and not avoided. Sikh men and women must be prepared mentally and physically (tiar-bar-tiar Khalsa) to face and resist evil.
During the 18th century Sikh freedom struggle, Sikh women fought side by side with men and made great sacrifices, which are remembered in the daily Sikh Ardaas (supplication). It is when the Khalsa way is forgotten that women are treated as weak and unable to defend themselves. Sikh women brought up in the Khalsa tradition should not have to face the terrible choice faced by their sisters in 1947.
In Guru Granth Sahib, honour is often referred to as “parda” (meaning “cover”) which, if lifted, would reveal one’s inner weaknesses. All human beings are fallible. Therefore, a Sikh, while striving to live an honest and truthful life, prays to the Guru, to keep his “parda” (i.e. save his honour). This concept of “honour” (“parda”) in Guru Granth Sahib can be the topic of a separate discussion.
"Patt" or "anakh izzat" (honour) is not a Sikh religious but a cultural trait and not necessarily peculiar to the Panjabis only. "Patt" is respect in the community., When "patt" is attacked the reaction can be violent even from a sane and ordinarily law-abiding person. Such an urge to violence when insulted, must be controlled, or one should be prepared to face the legal consequences.
When one feels that his or her "patt" is under attack one may react violently. Or, one may fear that the "parda" (social respect/cover) is going to come off and even take another’s life in such circumstances. For example, due to cultural background, a western person is likely to be more tolerant about own daughter going out with, or marrying, someone from another religion or ethnic background. The reaction of someone with eastern background would be less tolerant.
However, religion or culture can offer no defence for "honour killing". It is entirely for the lawyers to put in a plea if there are any mitigating circumstances in a criminal case. The sentence may or may not be reduced.
Community counseling, faith in the Guru’s teaching, prayer and a sense detachment while doing one’s duty towards different relationships in a family, can help those who find themselves in situations which result in any form of violence. An understanding community can pre-empt violence to save one’s misconceived sense of “family honour”.
All civilized communities should openly condemn all forms of “honour killings”, while diverting more resources to the moral and character building education of the young and the vulnerable. Sikhs should not lend any community sympathy or support in cases of “honour killing” because, according to Sikh religious tradition, there is no honour in taking life .