Killing for “Honor” – and Control of Women

Issues of gender-based violence (GBV) are not tied to any one region of the world or to any particular religious or cultural group. So-called "honor killings" or "honor crimes" are but one extreme and horrific form of violence against women and are executed for instances of rape, infidelity, flirting, or any other behavior even perceived as violating community norms or traditions of behavior and disgracing the family's honor. Any action construed as violating codes of chastity, disrespect towards men, the family, or the "traditional" way of life warrants an "honor" killing.

In the eyes of the communities where these murders occur, it is not only expected, but actually required, of male family member to kill their female family member, usually a wife, sister, or daughter. To do otherwise is to be viewed as less than a "real man." Such is the danger, and destructiveness of strict and inflexible gender roles and stereotypes where women are viewed as passive, pure, and in need of constant "protection" and supervision, and men are expected to be dominant, controlling, and violent.

An Amnesty International statement notes, "The regime of honor is unforgiving: women on whom even only suspicion has fallen are not given any opportunity to defend themselves, and family members have no socially acceptable alternative but to remove the stain on their honor by attacking, brutalizing, mutilating, and, usually, killing the woman."

This reads like a terrifying Stephen King novel. But tragically, it is very real throughout the world.

The term "honor killing" communicates the perspective of the perpetrator, and thereby carries an implicit justification. Some women's rights advocates therefore prefer the terms "femicide," "shame killings," or "so-called honor killings," as MADRE observes.

The organization "Gendercide Watch" uses the term "gendercide" and defines these barbaric acts against women as "acts of murder in which a woman is killed for actual or perceived ‘immoral' behavior…. marital infidelity (actual or alleged), refusing to submit to an arranged marriage, demanding a divorce, speaking with men outside of the family, failing to serve a meal on time, or ‘allowing herself' to be raped."

Yes, in many places in the world, the victim is blamed for this terrible crime against her, and, in the other cases, for what are truly small, routine, and innocent acts of daily life.

The underlying purpose of gendercide is to maintain men's power in families, communities, and entire societies by denying girls and women basic–and internationally recognized–rights to make their own independent decisions about issues such as marriage, divorce, and whether and with whom to have sex. "Honor crimes" are now a recognized form of violence against women in international human rights laws and treaties.

Gendercide is sometimes assumed to be sanctioned by Islam since these shocking attacks appear to most commonly occur in the Middle East. But while the perpetrators of gendercide (in some countries, they are out of prison in few months and are treated as heroes in their communities) may use religious justification for their acts, no sanction for such murders is granted in Islamic religion or law and these crimes are not rooted in any religious text. In fact, they appear to have originated in customary law that pre-dates both Islam and Christianity.

This form of brutality against women is a global phenomenon. The United Nations Population Fund estimates that a minimum of 5,000 women and girls become gendercide victims every year.

These killings span communities, religions, and countries as diverse as Afghanistan, Albania, Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Ecuador, Egypt, France, Germany, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Palestinian Territories, Saudi Arabia, Sweden, Syria, Turkey, Uganda, the United Kingdom, the United States, Venezuela, and Yemen.

Rana Husseini, journalist, feminist, and award-winning human rights defender, broke the silence and shame surrounding gendercide in her country of Jordan in 1994. As the new crime reporter of The Jordan Times, she started to investigate "crimes of honor" and was appalled by what she learned.

In the name of honor, a 16-year-old girl was killed by her family because she was raped repeatedly by her 31-year-old brother. She discovered she was pregnant, her family arranged an abortion, and then they married her off to a man fifty years her senior. When her husband divorced her six months later, another brother murdered her. (In some cases, the woman is forced to marry the rapist; this was impossible in this situation because the rapist was her brother.) The young woman was actually accused of being the seducer; her family repeatedly stated that she had tarnished the family image by committing an impure act. ‘Blood cleanses honor,' the killers say.

Her revolutionary series of reports on the horrors of gendercide exposed these crimes against women to her country and the world; the secrecy was ended and, in fact, the new Jordanian constitution has begun to recognize women's rights.

Avenging family honor is a product of societies in which women's bodies-specifically their hymens-have become a brutal tool in the control of women. A woman's honor, purity, and virginity are seen as the property of the community and the men around her and must be guarded at all times. The woman is guarded externally by her behavior and dress code, and internally by keeping her hymen intact.

While international law calls on governments to protect women, it is the states themselves who are far too often complicit in the violence of gendercide. Many countries do not yet recognize gendercide as murder; instead, the state frequently offers vastly reduced sentences (if any at all) for the "honor" rape, mutilation, and killing of women and girls. In the small, rural, and isolated areas where gendercide is often observed as being most prevalent, tribal elders dominate the cultural behavior and morés of their communities and are absolutely key to involve in changing attitudes towards women and in bringing about laws that will end gendercide.

Even with ongoing death threats, established and emerging human rights groups continue to challenge the foundation of gendercide as they also strive to protect women and girls who are in danger. Organizations such as BAOBAB for Women's Rights in Nigeria and The Jordanian Women's Union are examples of dynamic organizations who believe that empowering, and protecting, women through shelter, counsel, education, literacy training, and legal awareness are the best ways to fight discrimination and social oppression. Recently, officials in the Kurdish region of Iraq stated that they are "seeking to end the ancient tribal tradition of so-called ‘honor' killings related to premarital or extramarital sex and out-of- wedlock pregnancies."

Combating all gender-based violence, including gendercide, requires listening to, and supporting, the leadership of our sisters in Muslim countries–and everywhere. It is critical to focus on gendercide as violence against women and not allow these discussions, particularly in the West, to disintegrate into anti-Muslim and anti-Islam racist diatribes. So-called honor killings, after all, are yet another extension of the madonna-whore view of women and girls that we experience so often in the US and are, in fact, seen very clearly in the actions and statements of the anti-choice/ anti-contraceptive/anti-women's movements here. In the US, women having abortions are still often seen as promiscuous and as sluts (recently discussed by Amanda Marcotte). Strict gender roles, stereotypes of men and women, the fear of women's power and sexuality, and the control of women through violence are global phenomena and certainly are not the doing of any one country, religion, tradition, or culture.

We must use our voices to speak out for women's lives and dignity and seek to end gender-based violence wherever it is occurring.

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  • invalid-0

    I’ve spent years trying to figure out why it is men hate women so much. Nearest I can tell, men are extremely insecure. Their insecurity increases their control behaviors. They have to be in control to feel secure and like “real” men. And they call us the “weaker sex.”

  • invalid-0

    I suppose its the kind of males you females are in contact with and what culture you choose to embrace.
    I do not see why men should respect a woman who will kill her unborn to “keep him” or to “please him”. She has made herself disposable when she showed no compassion for life in her. Why would they respect when women now are so self righteous they can not meet him on a respectful basis. Women are so eager to assert their feminism “we don’t need men” attitude that we no longer treat them with basic human decency that we would treat a female friend. All humans have their downfalls, mine personally is a spiteful tongue and a sweet tooth, who are we to think that men should rise to a higher level than us? Why are we so worthy that they continually have to prove them selves to us? Our society has become so smart they’ve actually dumbed themselves down. Its quite redundant. There are some things stats, books and science cannot tell us. Nature just shows. Men are meant to be leaders. Not that we can not lead as well, but that for the order of things. Men are only as scummy as women. I know I am not the only one who have seen them.
    I am only 28 but I do not agree with the femi-nazi ideas.

  • invalid-0

    This is an excellent article and summarises the phenomenon very accurately. I’d like to point out, however, as the site manager of the International Campaign Against Honour Killings, that while so-called ‘honour’ codes always revolve around the patriarchal control of women’s bodies, they do not always target women exclusively. While women are by far the most affected there are many male victims, regarded as ‘honour theives’, are killed on the orders of the woman’s family in reprisal for an unnaproved relationship.

    In Pakistani ‘honour’ killing known as ‘karo-kari’, for example the woman is often murdered first and the man afterwards (if he hasn’t taken the opportunity to escape). In Kurdistan the family of the female may pressure the males family to kill him on their behalf. For those reasons, I don’t like the term ‘gendercide’ or ‘femicide’ personally, although I do 100% agree with the questioning the term ‘honour’ in what, to me, are the equivalent of lynchings.

  • invalid-0

    Not all men are meant to be leaders, and not all women are meant to be mothers.

    There are many women who are leaders, and there are many men who should never be fathers.

  • invalid-0

    despite your age, your comments are quite ignorant.Read the article again – and slowly – so you can comprehend the ideas the author has put forth.

  • invalid-0

    Most of Hitler’s goons were men.The term femi-Nazi is senseless.Just like Islamo-fascist is.Nazis generally follow men.i don’t know of any leaders of American Nazis who are women.As for honor killings , honor is the last thing anyone who commits a crime of this magnituse against a woman should be mentioning.It is shameful and cowardly to mureder women for pety offenses and men or women who do such should reflect inwardly on just what the justification of such is.Being a member of a culture different than ours is not a rational excuse.Being a certain religion is neither a justification or a reason.Before we attempt to do anything about what happens elsewhere , however ,I suggest we clean up our own ceasepool of rapists and mureders and other abusers of wom en.women in some parts of the U.S. have few resources available to deal with abuse.A glance at my local newspaper’s arrest column says the problem is epidemic.Yet there is a need for more available resources to deal with abused women.+ˇ

  • invalid-0

    In some societies, we have the evil of “honor killings” whose horror is so eloquently described in this article. In other societies, this may be uncommon but we have the prevalence of what might be considered a different form of honor killings – ones that have nothing at all to do with what the killed one has done by her/himself. (and in some, both are prevalent.) I refer to abortion. It is done to protect the “honor” of not appearing pregnant, of not embarassing family, of maintaining status that might seem threatened by having a baby, etc. And worldwide, one of the most important reasons is prevent the dishonor of having a female baby. In some societies, the male-female ratio has become quite skewed because of so many unborn babies being aborted simply because they are the “wrong” gender – female.

    We must uphold the dignity and rights of each human being, regardless of gender, physical condition or where they are in the life cycle.