Women's Empowerment and Leadership Development for Democratisation
Originally published on the Violence is Not Our Culture campaign website, here
What is an ‘honour killing’?
An “honour killing” is a murder committed against a woman for actual or perceived “immoral” behaviour that is deemed to have breached the ‘honour code’ of a household or community. These so called ‘honour codes’ are the product of deeply rooted patriarchal social and cultural prejudices, whereby women are perceived and forced to bear all responsibility for maintaining communal honour. As such, women are expected to remain modest, pure, obedient, virginal at marriage and must subjugate their personal autonomy and freedoms in order to uphold the honour of the family and community, while male members of society are not bound by the same degree of rules and expectations.
The most common excuse for ‘honour killings’ is suspicion of ‘intimate’ relations between a woman and a man, whether (alleged) adultery, sex outside of marriage, or simply becoming close companions. Even women that have been victims of rape and sexual assault are targets of ‘honour killings’, as certain communities legally and/or culturally equate these violent acts with sex outside of marriage. Yet women and girls have been killed for more trivial reasons as well, such as simply being in the presence of a male who is not a relative, refusing to agree to an arranged marriage, for falling in love with someone who is unacceptable by family standards, for seeking divorce, or for trying to escape marital violence. Sometimes, the mere perception that a woman has behaved disobediently, thus shaming her father, brother, uncle, or cousin, has been reason enough to make a brutal attack on her life.
These killings of women are a grave and serious violation of International Human Rights Law. They are disturbing examples of how local laws and customs, embedded within highly patriarchal value-systems, consistently assign more guilt to women than to men in any act perceived to violate ‘norms’ of sexual and moral behaviour. Women constitute the vast majority of all known victims of violent punishments such as stoning, whipping or other abusive punishment for alleged sexual transgressions.
Where do ‘honour killings’ occur?
While the media tends to present so-called ‘honour killings’ – which have the most dis-honourable intention of causing harm to women – as predominantly prevalent in Muslim countries, documented cases from around the world testify to thousands of women being murdered every year in the name of ‘family honour’. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights acknowledges that so-called ‘honour killings’ have occurred in Great Britain, Brazil, India, Ecuador, Israel, Italy, Sweden, and Uganda as well as in Muslim nations such as Turkey, Jordan, Pakistan, and Morocco. In Latin America, ‘crimes of passion’ committed by men are not classified as murders and are instead treated leniently or completely excused. The abuse of women’s human rights cuts across boundaries of culture and religion.
Is ‘honour killing’ a human rights abuse?
Honour killings’ are an extreme and brutal abuse of human rights, violating the most basic of human rights—the right to life—as well as every other article in the International Convention on Human Rights (1948). The presence of laws that treat ‘honour killings’ leniently is also a brazen disregard of the International Convention of Civil and Political Rights (1966), protecting individuals against the use of the death penalty except for the most serious of crimes.
Honour killings’ also violate the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979). Article 1 of the Convention states that “For the present Convention, the term ‘discrimination against women’ shall mean any distinction, exclusion, or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on the basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.” Article 2 states that
“States Parties condemn discrimination against women in all its forms, agree to pursue by all appropriate means and without delay a policy of eliminating discrimination against women and, to this end, undertake:
(c) To establish legal protection of the rights of women on an equal basis with men and to ensure through competent national tribunals and other public institutions the effective protection of women against any act of discrimination;
(f) To take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to modify or abolish existing laws, regulations, customs and practices which constitute discrimination against women;
(g) To repeal all national penal provisions which constitute discrimination against women.” This UN charter has been signed by 185 countries world wide - over ninety percent of the members of the United Nations – including most countries where ‘honour killing’ occurs. ‘Honour killings’ violate both the wording and the spirit of this law. Moreover, other “crimes of honour” that restrict women’s autonomy (including physical abuse of women, forced marriages, coerced marriages of a women and her rapist, virginity testing and restrictions on women’s freedom of movement) similarly contradict the International Conventions on Human Rights, the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women.
What is the relationship between ‘honour killing’ and Islam?
The notion that Islam condones ‘honour killing’ is a misconception. Murder in the name of honour is not prescribed by any interpretation of Sharia. In fact, many laws that excuse ‘honour killings’ (see below) do not trace back to Islamic law, but are rather derived from the Napoleonic code. Article 324 of the Napoleonic Penal Code states that murder committed by a husband on his wife is excusable in the case of adultery. This law, as implemented in many nations, has been misappropriated and entangled with various cultural notions of “honour”. As a result, such interpretations of an ‘honourable motive’ have been broadened by cultural context, and has served to perpetuate ‘honour killing’ and honour-based violence in these societies. Furthermore, reputable Islamic scholars and clerics have spoken out against the practice of ‘honour killings.’
As Katherine Zoepf reported in the New York Times, (September 23, 2007): “Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, the top Shiite cleric and spiritual leader of Hezbollah, issued a fatwa banning honour killing and describing it as “a repulsive act, condemned and prohibited by religion.” And earlier this year, Egypt’s grand mufti upheld a fatwa stating that Islam permits a woman to have her virginity “refurbished” through hymen surgery, which would allow her to marry and would eliminate the need to cleanse the so-called stain on her family’s honour. He even appeared on national television to advise Egyptian women considering the procedure. Although the ruling has been assailed by conservative scholars, it has been welcomed by those who hope it will prevent future honour killings.” Other respected Islamic scholars and clerics have continued to speak out against ‘honour killings’ in many other countries.
Are ‘honour killings’ condoned by the state?
Yes. In some countries, ‘honour killings’ are considered murders, and perpetrators are punished according to the penal codes regarding murder. However, in many countries, national legislation legitimizes the killing of women by their relatives. For example:
In Haiti: Article 269 of the Penal Code states that “in the case of adultery as provided for in Article 284, the murder by a husband of his wife and/or her partner, immediately upon discovering themin flagrante delicto in the conjugal abode, is to be pardoned.” Yet a wife who kills her husband upon discovering him in the act of adultery is not excused.
In Syria: Articles 548, 239, 240, 241, and 242 of the Syrian penal code grant immunity or a significantly reduced sentence to a man who murders a female relative.
Similarly discriminatory laws exist throughout Latin America, Africa and Asia. Such biased and discriminatory laws not only contradict international law but national constitutions whereby women and men are to be treated equally before in all matters concerning the law. They further legitimizing and promoting the perpetration of killings in the name of honour. Furthermore, certain laws even provide additional incentives for male relatives to encourage or force those under the age of 18 to murder their mothers, aunts and sisters. Many such cases have been documented. These laws serve to reinforce a prejudiced mentality amongst all members of society, including the police and judiciary. Bias against women within these institutions allow the perpetration of violence against women to continue on an immense scale. Human Rights Watch reports that in Guatemala, and elsewhere in Latin America, police rarely investigate or follow up on the hundreds of murders of women in Latin America each year because they are assumed to be “crimes of passion.”
Why don’t countries revoke these discriminatory laws?
Many campaigns dedicated to the eradication of ‘honour killings’ have attempted to change articles in national constitutions or legislation that condone honour-based violence, with limited success. However, as a result of the increased politicization of culture and religion in recent years, governments are increasingly afraid to combat hard-line and conservative elements in their societies. In Jordan, for example, efforts to establish a law prescribing harsher punishments for men who kill female relatives received support from members of the royal family, yet Parliament rejected it in 2003 after conservative groups opposed it. For fear of offending these conservative groups, governments continue to subjugate women’s rights and place women’s lives at risk in order to cater to select members of society. Governments are violating their international and constitutional responsibilities to the women living within their borders by sending the message that killing, beating and maiming women is acceptable under certain circumstances.
Shouldn’t we just accept one’s culture and freedom of belief with ‘honour killings’?
There is no excuse for the killing of women in the name of any ‘religion’, ‘culture’ or ‘tradition’. ‘Religion’ and ‘culture’ cannot and must not be invoked as excuse for the killing of women, because religion and the laws which derive from it are always subjective interpretations. Culture is not static, but constantly re-created and re-defined by the various interests of groups in positions of power in a society at any given time. There is no excuse for the killing of women. Murder is a brutal violation of the most basic human right – the right to life – and any practice which harms women or impinges upon their agency and autonomy contradicts fundamental rights, such as the right to security; the right to freedom from violence; from inhuman, degrading treatment and punishment; from terror; the right to choose a marriage partner; and the right to not face discrimination under the law. As long as impunity exists, the misappropriation of culture and religion will continue to threaten women’s safety. No ‘culture’ has the right to kill and harm women based on their perceptions of morality or honour. The freedom of belief does not mean freedom to kill. ‘Honour killings’ are a brutal example of how culture and religion are being misused to perpetuate violence against women.