Finding ‘izzat’ (honour) in cowardly murder
Some important Islamic scholars in Jordan have gone even further by declaring honour-crimes an Islamic imperative that derives from the ‘values of virility advocated by Islam’
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) in its recent annual report said, “At least 943 women were killed in the name of honour in the country, of which 93 were minors.” While reliable worldwide estimates of honour killing incidence do not exist, a UN study in 2000 suggested there were as many as 5,000 women and girls killed each year by a family member as part of some so-called honour crime. These incidents involved Muslim, Hindu and Christian families in South Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and as far away as Ecuador and Brazil. Such crimes are also showing up in Canada, the US and Europe among immigrant communities. Britain, Italy and Germany have all convicted people for the so-called honour killing of a close family member in the past four years.
Honour killing is defined as ‘a murder carried out as a commission from the extended family, to restore honour after the family has been dishonoured. As a rule, the basic cause is a rumour that any female family member has behaved in an immoral way’. Consequently, a violation of a woman’s honour requires severe action, as a Jordanian tribal leader explains matter-of-factly: “A woman is like an olive tree. When its branch catches woodworm, it has to be chopped off so that society stays clean and pure.” Worldwide, the ‘chopping off’ methods ensure that honour-killing victims do not die instantly but in agony. Torturous deaths include: being raped or gang-raped before being killed; being strangled or bludgeoned to death; being stabbed multiple times; being stoned or burned to death; being beheaded, or having one’s throat slashed.
A recent BBC Panorama poll of 500 young British Asians primarily of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin supported the ‘honour code’. Two-thirds of those polled agreed that families should live according to the concept of ‘honour’. Out of those, 18 percent felt that certain behaviour by women that could affect their family’s honour justified physical punishment. When asked if they felt there was ever a justification for so-called ‘honour killings’, only three percent said that it could be justified. Unsurprisingly, however, when divided by sex, six percent of young Asian men said that honour killings could be justified compared with just one percent of Asian women surveyed.
It is true that physical and sexual violence against women is unfortunately something that afflicts every society. Globally, six out of 10 women experience physical and/or sexual violence, mostly committed by a husband or an intimate partner, says UN Women. The violations are vast and varied, including serious domestic violence, which includes incest, child abuse, marital rape, marital battering, marital stalking, and marital post-battering femicide in the west. The illegal abortions of female foetuses, the immolation of young brides by their in-laws for not fulfilling dowry demands, women who are sold and trafficked as brides, kept as slaves and beaten and raped by their husbands and ‘shared’ among brothers is prevalent in India.
Honour killings, however, are unique, based on codes of morality reinforced by fundamentalist religious dictates and reflecting the culture’s values aimed at regulating female behaviour –values that the family, including the victim’s family, is expected to enforce and uphold. Honour killings are a family collaboration; fathers give the verdict, mothers support the decision, remain silent or simply cannot control the course of events, and brothers often commit the crime. An honour killing culture has been described as one in which a man who refrains from ‘washing shame with blood’ is a ‘coward who is not worthy of living…as less than a man’.
The long and sordid history of oppressing women in the name of religion includes Islam, but is not limited to Islam. Through the centuries, so-called honour killings have become deeply rooted in cultural and social norms, and not just in Islamic communities but around the world. Recently, however, the honour murder phenomenon has become a social plague in many Muslim societies. Despite its clear pre-Islamic pagan origins, contemporary Islamic authorities usually refrain from unequivocally condemning it. Some important Islamic scholars in Jordan have gone even further by declaring honour-crimes an Islamic imperative that derives from the ‘values of virility advocated by Islam’.
The main accusations directed at honour killings victims are: 1. Being ‘too western’ and/or resisting or disobeying cultural and religious expectations. 2. Committing an alleged ‘sexual impropriety’; this refers to victims who had been raped, were allegedly having extra-marital affairs, or who were viewed as ‘promiscuous’ (even where this might not refer to actual sexual promiscuity or even sexual activity). It is the mindset that women have no right to decide on their lives and that once a decision is made for women, the family takes any challenge to that decision as a challenge to cultural and family values. The ‘enabling culture’ that allows honour killings to continue includes the incomprehensible silence of others — family, friends and even neighbours — who choose to turn a blind eye in such cases.
A landmark judgment by the Indian Supreme Court in an honour killing case called such killings a slur on the nation and a barbaric, feudal practice that ought to be stamped out. The apex court directed courts to view such cases as a ‘rarest of rare’ category for awarding the death penalty to the convicts: “This is necessary as a deterrent for such outrageous, uncivilised behaviour. All persons who are planning to perpetrate ‘honour’ killings should know that the gallows await them,” the court judgment said. The deterrent effect of the death penalty should reduce the incidence of honour killings worldwide, as perpetrators would think twice before they plan and carry out these horrific murders.
This is not to doubt or underestimate the deeply ingrained, sinister socio-psychological forces at work here, which only education can empower people to question, undermine and eventually eliminate a cultural mindset within which honour killings crimes are committed, a mindset itself born from ignorance and the very result of a lack of education in the first place. The government should do more to ensure that women subjected to violence, harassment and discrimination have effective access to justice. Law enforcement and religious authorities must all be included in education, prevention, and prosecution efforts in the matter of honour killings.
The writer is a banker and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org