Imagine a young woman, around sixteen years of age, raised in a society where her only purpose is to serve the men in her life, her father and brothers. Every day she cooks and cleans for them; she obeys their every wish and command. There are specific rules for her in this society, special rules that do not apply to the males. These rules are really just restrictions placed on her behavior and lifestyle. A male family member, such as a brother, must accompany her if she wishes to leave the house. Never mind that her brother might be a lot younger than she is. But she knows, she must be modest and obedient; that’s the only way to keep the honor of her family.
Honor is the key word here. A concept, entirely manmade, that has come to hold utmost importance in certain societies. Women and girls have been bestowed this responsibility of “keeping honor” with absolutely no input on their part. They do not get to decide how this honor is defined or even what threatens it. Women do not get to decide how to dress. There are limitations to where they are allowed to go, whom to befriends, and even the men they marry. In other words, women have little power in deciding their own fates. The men in the family arrange marriage. A woman may very well not love her groom; in fact she may not know him at all. If she refuses the marriage she is beaten up. Often times, if a woman attempts to take her own power back, if she refuses a marriage or breaks one of the many codes of conduct established for her, she may be beheaded by members of her own family. Her death is justified on the basis that, she disgraced her family and therefore, deserved to die. Her murder is what they (ironically) call an “honor killing.”
Human Rights Watch defines honor killings as acts of vengeance, usually resulting in death, committed by male family members against female family members (“Violence against Women” 2001). The violence is always gender-based and usually perpetrated by a brother or a father against a female family member. What distinguishes honor killings from other crimes of the same nature is that it is justified on the basis of a woman “dishonoring” her family by engaging in what is considered immoral or unacceptable forms of behavior. These “unacceptable forms of behavior” will be discussed a bit later.
According to the BCC, it is estimated that more than 20,000 women are victims of honor killings worldwide each year (Maher 2013). This number is merely an estimate as honor killings are not usually classified as such by local authorities and are rarely prosecuted (Chesler 2010). Many deaths from honor killings are reported as suicides in order to conceal the reality. This also skews the numbers. Furthermore, some researchers, such as Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, argue in favor of using the term “femicide” instead of “honor killing.” She argues that the term “honor killing” is used by police and media in order to “culturalize” and dismiss the gravity of killing women (Shalhoub-Kevorkian 2012). While I agree with her argument and believe she has a valid point, I will be using the term “honor killing” as I believe it is more descriptive. Calling it “honor killing” makes it clear that these murders are in the name of saving face. However, doing so should not take away from the seriousness of these criminal acts. Honor killings should be discussed, understood, and analyzed without being justified or being dismissed on any grounds. The act of honor killing is a clear human rights violation; it is a clear attack on women, and it shall not be excused, accepted, or left un-dealt with in the name of culture or cultural relativism.
In communities where honor killings happen, the reputation of the family is of utmost importance. Why? Because, reputation dictates social status (Awwad 2001). The family’s honor is the responsibility of female family members and they maintain it by being obedient to men and by following social norms established by men. Therefore, if a woman “dishonors” her family by somehow going against a social norm, the only way to restore the family’s honor is to kill her. In most cases, many members of a family plan the act of “honor killing” together, at times even through a formal “family council” (“Introduction” n.d.). There are two particular victim populations: one made up of very young women (average age being seventeen) and the second, women whose average age is thirty-six (Chesler 2010). In both cases, the murder is carried out by the victim’s own family members: brother, father, or husband.
Honor killings happen all over the world. They are not unique to any one place, ethnicity, or religion. They are in fact, products of patriarchal, patrilineal, and patrilocal societies centered on the family unit. Most Middle Eastern societies tend to fall into this description; therefore, honor killings are more common in that region than in others (Awwad 2001). According to the UN, honor killings have been reported in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Pakistan, the Syrian Arabic Republic, Turkey, Yemen, and other Mediterranean and Persian Gulf countries, but they also take place in Western countries such as France, Germany, and the United Kingdom (“Working Towards”). According to Sharif Kanaana, a professor of Anthropology at Birzeit Uiveristy, honor killing emerged in the pre-Islamic era and can be traced back to Ancient Rome (Awwad 2001). The purpose of the honor killing is to put power in the hands of men. It is a cultural practice most closely associated with patriarchy. It is not associated with Islam in form, though it is common in Islamic societies. However, to link honor killings to Islam, or any religion of the Middle East, will only manage to undermine the ideological complexities of gender dynamics which are characterized by patriarchy and patrilineal orientation (Awwad 2001). Honor killings, as defined in this post, are rampant all over the world and women everywhere can be, and are, affected by it.
In 2009, a woman by the name of Hanmig Goren from North London testified against her husband in court. Her husband had killed their fifteen year old daughter for falling in love with a man twice her age and from another branch of Islam (Shafak 2012). She had disgraced her family and her father decided she must die as a result. There are many cases such as this one. Oddly enough, family’s honor is often linked to the sex organs of daughters and wives. As a result, many women are killed for “sexual impropriety” which could mean an extra-marital affair, being too promiscuous, or even being the victim of rape (Chesler 2010). If shame is brought upon the family, the women are to blame, even if this shame is a result of the wrongdoing of a man, such as rape, against a female child or teenager(Baker, et al. 1999). This victim-blaming complex is the result of the belief that a woman’s virginity belongs to her father and then should be gifted to her husband (chosen for her by her father). A woman’s body, in essence, belongs to the men around her.
There are a variety of reasons why an honor killing might occur. At its most basic, it is an act of vengeance towards women who refuse to follow established social norms. A woman can be targeted for refusing to enter into an arranged marriage, being the victim of a sexual assault, seeking a divorce, or committing adultery (“Violence against Women” 2001). The mere perception that a woman has behaved in a way that “dishonors” her family is sufficient enough to trigger an attack on her life. The attacks are not in response to the dishonorable act as much as they are in response to public knowledge of the act. Meaning, violence against women will only occur if her illicit activities become publicly known (Awwad 2001). Women on whom suspicion has fallen are not even given an opportunity to defend themselves. Once the rumors and gossip start, the only way for the family to avoid losing face in the community is to seek immediate revenge and commit a killing (“Broken Bodies” 2001). In these societies, individualistic autonomy is seen as a threat to the collective family and its reputation. Therefore, if a woman is too independent, not subservient enough, refusing cultural norms, or having unapproved friends or boyfriends, she is bringing shame to the entire family. The only way to erase the shame is to immediately punish her by death.
Those in power establish and reinforce ideologies that are most beneficial to them. Hegemony and ideology further the creation of a “truth” that will benefit the segment of the society that has the most power (Johnson 1997). Keeping women subservient to men keeps men subservient to the state. Therefore, sexism as an ideology is not only condoned by the state, but reinforced by it. Sexism as an ideology has influenced, facilitated, and even given legitimacy to existing penal codes regarding honor killings. The state has often displayed an ambivalent approach to the issue. As described by Shalhoub-Kevorkian, in some places police award certain men the title of ‘honorable’ and consult them when abused women call for police help. This alliance between men and the state results in women going to the police for help only to be given back to their family by force, then killed. Furthermore, abused women described how when they tried to ask for help from the Israeli police, officers were not only uninterested in their victimization but took advantage of their vulnerability by sexually harassing them, neglecting them, or ridiculing them (Shalhoub-Kevorkian 2012). Not only is the state refusing to combat honor crimes, it is also contributing to it.
In many places, such as Jordan and Syria, lenient penal codes have provided legal loopholes for perpetrators of honor killings (Awwad 2001). “It is an unholy alliance that works against women: the killers take pride in what they have done, the leaders condone the act and protect the killers, and the police connive the cover up (Culture of Discrimination n.d.). Behaviors, like extramarital sex, are often criminalized so that the kill can more easily be justified. The state encourages this violent behavior because “internal violence is an optimal way to destroy the “collective consciousness” of the group (Shalhoub-Kevorkian 2012). It keeps members of the society from requesting freedom or resisting oppression. Honor killings further the interests of oppressive patriarchal regimes. If men are busy monitoring women’s behaviors and launching attacks on women, the state can get away with a lot more. Femininity and masculinity in these societies are constructed in such a way that gives men complete power and control. At the same time, women are virtually powerless and have no part in constructing or challenging social norms. Most honor killings are rarely prosecuted as such. Even in the West, many people including the police shy away from calling it an “honor killing”. This makes it so that the act is easier to repeat as it is rarely acknowledged and rarely prosecuted. Honor killings are often not condemned by the major religious and political leaders in the communities (Chesler 2010). On the contrary, they remain silent. This conspiracy of silence hinders progress in annihilating the practice.
To combat honor killings we must first break the walls of silence. Better knowledge of the crime is required and desperately needed by feminist organizations and human rights campaigns. Without this knowledge, it is difficult to best eradicate the practice. Laws should be put in place and enforced to ensure that those who commit these honor killings are prosecuted justly. States must do a better job of providing protection for all of their citizens, including women and girls. Public campaigns should be launched that ask members of these cultures to question the legitimacy of such crimes. The state, religious authorities, and activists should come together to educate, prevent, and prosecute honor killings.
But beyond all of that, societal consciousness as a whole needs to be shifted. Honor killings are proof that in many parts of the world the feminine is oppressed. It is not just the woman that is attacked but also her femininity. Feminine energy, whether it be in a woman or a man, is under attack by patriarchal societies. Vandana Shiva’s feminine principle comes to mind as she recognized that until there is a balance between masculine and feminine energies in the world, women (and their oppressors) will not be free. Men must be taught to respect and value women as equal individuals and not as machines to masterbate and reproduce with.
The ideologies that give way to crimes such as honor killings need to be addressed. Patriarchal, patrilocal, patrilineal societies put the man above the woman. Men are more important; therefore, women are less than human. If women are less than human, then their deaths do not matter. Manufactured notions of purity are placed above human life. Disgustingly, women are punished for the crimes of men in instances of rape and abuse.
The very same misogynistic/anti-woman values, beliefs, and ideologies that give way to the murder of women elsewhere, give way to the murder of women at home. “In the US, 1,500 women are killed by their spouses, boyfriends, or intimate partners every year in what are called crimes of passion” (Kumar 2015). These are honor killings by definition and this is an alarming number. Furthermore, it illustrates that femicide, including honor killing, is not exclusive of any one region or religion.
It happens right here, too.
At the heart of these heinous crimes is a type of moral policing that is reserved only for women. Women are expected to be subservient to men and the patriarchal order. Toxic misogynistic views of what it means to be a woman and made-up notions of purity and chastity are forced upon women, who are then punished by death should they rebel or refuse.
For women who have been victims of honor killings and honor crimes, society has failed. It is society itself that has allowed for harmful sexist beliefs to pass. It is society that polices women’s behavior, then punishes them should they choose not to follow it. It is society that allows for lenient penal codes to allow for men to get away with rape, assault, and even murder. It is society that needs to change. Both laws and ideologies are in need of revising. The role of the woman in society and in the family needs to be acknowledged and valued. A woman’s right to life, and a right to determine how to live that life, need to be acknowledged and valued. Furthermore, it needs to be protected to the fullest extent of the law. After all, women are people, too, and there is absolutely no honor in killing.
Awwad, A. M. (2001). Gossip, Scandal, Shame and Honor Killing: A Case for Social Constructionism and hegemonic Discourse. Social Thought and Research, Vol. 24 (No. ½), pp. 39-52.
Baker, N.V., Gregware, P.R. & Cassidy, M.A. (1999). Family killing fields: Honor rationales in the murder of women. Violence Against Women, 5(2), 164-184.
“Broken bodies, shattered minds: Torture and ill-treatment of women”. Amnesty International.
Chesler, P. (2010). Worldwide Trends in Honor Killings. Retrieved from meforum.org
“Culture of Discrimination: A Fact Sheet on “Honor” Killings”. Amnesty International. Amnestyusa.org
“Introduction – Preliminary Examinatino of so-called honour Killings in Canada”. Justice.gc.ca
Johnson, A.G. (1997). The gender knot: Unraveling our patriarchal legacy. Temple University Press.
Kumar, Deepa. (2015). Liberation at Gunpoint: The Politics of Feminist Imperialism. Retrieved from wearemany.org.
Maher, Ahmed. (2013). Many Jordan teenagers ‘support honour killings’. Bbc.co.uk
Shafak,E. (2012). Honour killings’: murder by any other name. Retrieved from thegaurdian.com
Shalhoub-Kevorkian, N. (2012). The Politics of Killing Women in Colonized Contexts.
“Violence Against Women and “Honor” Crimes”. Human Rights watch.
“Working towards the elimination of crimes against women committed in the name of honour” (PDF). Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.