Parental love is the sickest justification for Fathima’s murder by her father in Kerala

Social media comments about 14-year-old Fathima’s murder by her father Abees over her interfaith relationship show how “honour”, even today, justifies the horrific crimes that “loving families” commit to protect it.
Deceased Fathima, father Abees
Deceased Fathima, father Abees
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“The agony a parent goes through while bringing a child up cannot be explained in words. He [the father] would have suffered so much,” reads a comment on a social media news post about a teenager’s death. Without context, one would imagine this is a eulogy to the grief of the father who has lost his precious child. But it is not. The deceased teenager, a 14-year-old girl named Fathima from Kerala’s Aluva, was forced to swallow pesticide by her father Abees after she refused to back out of an interfaith relationship with a classmate. Battling death for almost ten days, she succumbed on November 8. 

When such horrific crimes happen, we often try to make sense of them in our own ways  – reverse engineer circumstances to look for logic, emotion, anything that explains what may have happened. Who we seem to identify with in cases like these reflects our own biases, and several social media comments on this incident are eager to declare solidarity with Abees, Fathima’s 43-year-old father who allegedly struck her with an iron rod before force feeding her pesticide. It is hard to understand how such a horrific crime becomes justifiable in anyone’s eyes, but as you sift through more comments, the answer becomes clear – for many, nothing holds more value than “honour”.

“If this had happened in any other state, it would have been called an honour killing,” reads another comment. As the problematic coinage itself explains, “honour killings” are murders committed to preserve the construct of “honour”, which mandates that one must not “mix outside their caste/faith”. 

In 2022, when the Mammootty starrer Malayalam film Puzhu was released, there was widespread discourse about caste killings. In the film, Mammootty’s Kuttan, a dominant caste man, murders his sister Bharathi (Parvathy Thiruvothu) after learning that she is pregnant with her husband Kuttappan’s child. Kuttappan (Appunni Sasi) is a Dalit man, and Kuttan distances from his sister the day she decides to marry him, only to murder her later. 

One of the criticisms Puzhu faced was that its protagonist was not “realistic”. “Do men like this even exist in ‘progressive’ Kerala?” critics questioned. Some claimed that though murder was an extreme step, it was not unreasonable to ‘disown’ a ‘wayward family member.’

Against popular perception, several such cases have been reported in Kerala, the most discussed being from 2018, when Kevin, a 23-year-old Dalit Christian man was abducted and murdered by the relatives of Neenu, a 21-year-old Catholic woman. The case culminated in a protracted legal battle, after which the culprits were awarded a double life sentence. Though Neenu’s fight for her deceased partner and the subsequent court verdict set a strict warning for caste killings in the state, it is clear from the social media reactions to Fathima’s murder that the insistence on “honour” even today justifies the horrific crimes “loving families” commit to protect it.

In Fathima’s case, Abees was blinded by the belief that killing his daughter is more “honourable” than watching her have affection for a boy from a different faith. That she was only a 14-year-old, a minor girl enamoured by newfound love, it seems did not stop Abees, an educated, "worldly and wise" engineering professional, from taking the extreme step. And across social media, he has many supporters, one of whom commented, “Parents bring up children with many dreams. But when these very children defy parents and live a wayward life, parents are forced to take such grave measures. So children should obey their elders and live a disciplined life.” This warrants the question – is a parent’s love transactional, acting against which could invite murder? If yes, should we not interrogate the criminal biases that push us to annihilate children just because they fell in love with someone of their choice?

In a disturbing climax scene from director Vetrimaaran’s short titled Oor Iravu from the 2020 Tamil Netflix anthology Paava Kadhaigal, Prakash Raj’s character is seen seated calmly in the verandah of his house as his heavily pregnant daughter (Sai Pallavi) screams in pain after drinking poisoned water from him. She is locked in a room as she slowly succumbs to a painful death, while Prakash Raj reminisces how he brought his daughter up with love, despite which she married a man from a different caste, thereby “betraying” him. The stone-cold stillness on his face is unnerving to recall. To think that such brutality can be justified in the name of pride or parental love is unbecoming of anyone with even a slight blot of a conscience. But for someone blinded by faith, empathy too is transactional.

If we closely examine the psychology of those who extend support to Abees and characters like those of Prakash Raj and Mammootty in films, it can be seen that they are trying hard to avoid ‘social shame’. It is considered ‘shameful’ for a girl to firstly have affection towards a boy, and secondly to even think that she is free to love someone outside her caste/faith. She must, at all times, be an ‘obedient repository of her family’s caste/religious pride’. Her agency is a trade-off between her conduct and how far it is acceptable to her family. She must not, even for a fleeting minute, think that she has an individual choice, and this is ensured by institutionalised faith that draws clear, endogamous boundaries which cannot be breached. 

Further, some comments also highlight the belief that the actions of women reflect on the men who “guard” them, be it the father, or any other male family member. Hence, when a woman crosses a boundary, she also “drags these men down with her”, legitimising their “anger”.

As faiths and religious heads wax lyrical about the love of family and the magnanimity of human forgiveness, many like Fathima are pushed to death at the hands of their own kin.

Some redeeming voices on social media rightly point out that Fathima’s death highlights the lack of familial sensitivity in handling adolescent emotions. Many quote Khalil Gibran, saying one’s offsprings are not one’s possessions. But most others are in agreement with Abees, because to them, this 14-year-old child “betrayed” her father, and that is a “crime which must be punished with death.”

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