An honour killer confesses, ‘I know killing my sister is against Islam and it angered God, but I had to do what I had to do…people refused to talk to us. They told us to go cleanse our honor; then we were allowed to talk with them. Death is the only solution to end disgrace…society would not stop talking. They only stopped talking when she is dead.’
Cultural and social laws and practices are often used to control women’s sexuality and maintain the power relations between the two genders. Honour killing is one form of violence against women which has traditionally been used to restore the honor of a family, clan or community by killing a female who has dishonored the family. There are several ways of looking at honour killing; they can be seen as murders by families or family members of victims who have involved herself in an ‘inappropriate’ relationship or refuses an arranged marriage; or as a cultural practice where a male member of the family kills a female member for tarnishing the family image through adultery, pre-marital affair/sexual relations or even being victim of rape. However, although the practice has received widespread visibility in Muslim communities, there is no religious acceptance of such an act of extreme violence towards women in Islam. In addition there are reports of honour killings among other religious groups and towards sexual minorities such as gay, lesbian and transgender people, which somehow does not gain as much media attention as it does in Muslim communities and when the victims are women. Therefore I argue that honour killing is a social and cultural practice rather than a religious one which has a variety of victims.
The BBC reports that up to 12 honor murders happen every year in Muslim, Sikh and Christian families in the UK. Yet a number of crimes still remain unresolved or undetected. One of the big cases in UK was that of Kurdish young lady, Banaz Mahmood from Surrey in 2006. Banaz was killed by two hit men hired by her family. Her fault was that she left her abusive husband and fell in love with another man, whom the family disapproved of.
Apart from Muslim and Kurdish honour killings other commonly reported incidents in the UK are within the Sikh community. In 1998 a 70 year old woman arranged to murder her daughter in law who was a customs officer at Heathrow Airport for having an affair and planning to divorce her son. The victim was lured to India to attend a family wedding and was strangled to death and thrown into the river by her mother in law and husband. In 2007 both the mother in law and the husband were tried in court and were sentenced to life (Times of India, 2007). In 2009 another 28 year old Panjabi mother of two was killed by her India born husband, from whom she was separated. Her right hand was severed, which later made the authorities suspect this to be an honour killing as the Sikh wear the ‘kara’ (religious bracelets worn by Sikhs) in their right hand (Gulf News, 2009).
In December 2009, the Metropolitan Police declared that there has been a great rise in ‘honour’ crimes in the UK and 15% of the total numbers were young men and boys. One such incident happened in 2005, when a Pakistani co-owner of a taxi firm was killed in Manchester by his brother in law after he found out that the victim sexually assaulted his sisters (the victim’s wife and her sister) (Human Rights laws, 2008).
My research of honour crime cases around the world show that such crimes happen in every part of the world and in different cultural and religious communities. Countries reported of having record of honor killing are Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Brazil, Ecuador, Egypt, Palestine, India, Israel, Iraq, Pakistan, Morocco, Turkey, Yemen, Jordan, Uganda, Germany, France, Sweden, Scandinavia, UK, the US etc. Research shows that violence against women is not restricted to certain countries, classes or religion rather punishing women for ‘illicit’ or ‘immoral’ sexual behavior is common in most societies, only in Western societies women being killed by their husbands, ex-spouses or boyfriends for possessiveness, jealousy, suspicion and infidelity are termed as so called ‘crime of passion’. The main motivation behind all such crime against women is cultural and patriarchal beliefs that women are the property of male guardians. Though such beliefs may be more common among certain cultures and classes of people, there is no evidence of honor killing to be condoned by any religion of the world, including Islam. Among the reported cases of honour based violence some researches attempt to identify why and how the practice emerge in Kurdish Muslim communities (native to Southwest Asia).
‘A complicated issue that cuts deep into the history of Arab society… What the men of the family, clan, or tribe seek control of in a patrilineal society is reproductive power. Women for the tribe were considered a factory for making men. The honour killing is not a means to control sexual power or behavior. What’s behind it is the issue of fertility, or reproductive power.’
Maybe due to its origin in controlling reproductive power such crimes also happen against sexual minorities, who are unable to carry out reproduction naturally. A father was reported to have killed his son after finding out that he was gay in Turkey in January 2010. Thirty men were reported to be killed to preserve their family’s honour in Iraq in 2007 for being sexually deviant. Far away from the Arab society, certain ‘crimes of passion’ carry a very similar motif. For example in Brazil homosexuals or transgender people, both children and adults become victims of honour killing, reported as ‘crimes of passion’. In 2008, 190 homosexuals were killed in Brazil, one every two days. According to an IPS report, Brazil is the regional ‘champion in homophobic crimes,’ followed by Mexico, and the United States in 2008 (Frayssinet, 2009). David McConnell’s (2013) book American Honor Killings: Desire and Rage among Men, also tell a similar story of ‘gay panic’ among US men and narrate six real incidents where straight men murdered gay men who posed a threat to their masculinity. McConnell claims that legal ploy’s of calling these murders ‘hate crime’, ‘gay panic’ etc. does not take away the complexity of these murders where the killers saw a need for them to act as believers, soldiers, avengers, purifiers, and exemplars of manhood. Thus it is important that we try to study the link between different crimes against vulnerable groups in terms of their complex motifs, rather than unquestioningly accepting the disguised language that the legal system and the media deploy to frame certain crimes as ‘crimes of passion’, ‘hate crime’ or ‘gay panic’ in certain societies and blame a certain religion for all honour based crimes.
Victimization and discrimination of the defenseless is a worldwide phenomenon. So it is important to study honour crimes alongside the other discriminatory crimes against women, gay, lesbian, transgender and vulnerable men. Amendments in laws to protect vulnerable groups and give stricter punishment to the offenders are the first steps required to combat this struggle against honour crimes, just like other violence against at risk groups which may be given other names. Widespread public awareness and exposure of every crime against vulnerable groups in the media, to the legislators, relevant authorities and the public, will help to limit the crimes all around the world.
Frayssenet, F., (2009) ‘Rights-Brazil: Gay-Bashing Murders up 55 percent’, http://www.ipsnews.net/2009/04/rights-brazil-gay-bashing-murders-up-55-percent/ [Accessed: 26/5/13]
Huseini, Rana., (2009) Murder in the Name of Honor, One World: Oxford.
Gulf News ‘UK woman victim of Honor killing’ http://gulfnews.com/news/world/india/uk-woman-victim-of-honour-killing-1.529425 [Accessed: 25/5/13].
McConnell, D., (2013) American Honor Killings: Desire and Rage among Men. Akashic Books: New York.
Ruggi, S. (1998) ‘Commodifying Honor in Female Suxuality’ Available at: http://merip.org/mer/mer206 [Accessed: 25/5/13].
The Times of India (2007) ‘Honor killing by UK family’ http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2007-09-19/uk/27960424_1_honour-killings-surjit-family-members [Accessed: 25/5/13].
Nazia Hussein is a PhD student at the Centre for the Study of Women and Gender at University of Warwick, UK. Her expertise is in the area of gender in Bangladesh, gender in South Asian media , gender and culture, gender and religion (Islam), gender, globalization and modernity and gender and development. She has published her Master’s thesis in the Journal of Intercultural Studies, titled Color of Life Achievements: Historical and Media Influence of Identity Formation Based on Skin-Color in South Asia. She currently teaches on the module International Perspectives on Gender at University of Warwick. She also holds the position of Junior Lecturer at the Independent University, Bangladesh. She previously worked as a Gender Sector Specialist at BRAC, Bangladesh (NGO).