Dec 24, 2015

Honor Killings: Cultural or Religious?

In 2014, The Washington Post reported that 1000 women every year were dying in Pakistan as a result of honor killings. The Post also asks, "It's the year 2014. Why is this still happening?"

Honor killings target primarily women, because of a prevailing belief that only through the murder of an offending family member can honor be restored to the rest of the family. If a woman is raped in an honor culture, she is not the victim, she is the offender. In Pakistan many women are stoned (although there are no references to stoning in the Qu'ran), and some are shot in cold blood.
One mom and dad allegedly killed their 15-year-old daughter with acid because they said she looked at a boy and they "feared dishonor."
"There was a boy who came by on a motorcycle," her father told BBC. "[My daughter] turned to look at him twice. I told her before not to do that; it's wrong. People talk about us."
The mother added, "She said, 'I didn't do it on purpose. I won't look again.' By then I had already thrown the acid. It was her destiny to die this way."

The Post says that the reason is rooted in sexual inequality in countries where honor killing is practiced, and the punishment has survived through some interpretations of sharia (Islamic law) that say adultery is punishable by stoning. In countries where stoning is legal and widespread men may have the means to hire a lawyer or flee the country, but women seldom have such options.

[A family member of a stoning victim in Lahore, Pakistan. Photo credit: ThinkProgress, "Telling the Stories of the Victims of Honor Killings"]

In PBS' Speak Truth To Power, journalist, feminist, and human rights defender Rana Husseini echoes some of The Post's comments in her writing about honor killings in Jordan. Women who have been raped are considered to have compromised their family's honor, and fathers, brothers, and sons see it as their duty to avenge the offense - not by pursuing the perpetrators, but by murdering the victim.

TL;DR of Ms. Husseini's post follows (any errors will be mine):

  • In the name of honor, a 16-year-old girl was killed by her family because she was raped by her brother. He assaulted her several times, then threatened to kill her if she told anyone. When she became pregnant she had to tell her family. The family arranged an abortion and married her to a man 50 years her senior. When he divorced her six months later, her family murdered her.
  • When Ms. Husseini went to speak with the family, two uncles told her that the girl was "not a good girl." Ms. Husseini inquired why the rapist, the girl's brother, had not been punished. The uncles were surprised at her insinuation that they had killed the wrong person, and then began asking Ms. Husseini questions to infer that she, also, was not a good girl.
  • Ms. Husseini notes that in Jordan, these crimes are isolated and limited; any woman who speaks to any man will not be killed. The crimes do cross educational and class boundaries, though.
  • She also observes that many people assume, incorrectly, that the crimes are mandated by Islan, but they are not. She says that Islam is very strict about killing, and in the instances where it is counseled it is when adultery is committed within a marriage.
  • Honor killings are part of a culture, not a religion, and occur in Arab communities in the United States and many countries. Ms. Hussein also says that change for the better is occurring in Jordan, following King Hussein's Thirteenth Parliament, in which he mentioned women and their rights - the first time a ruler had emphasized women and children. King Hassan is now following his father in adding women's rights to the constitution and is working toward amending laws that discriminate against women.

[Ayaan Hirsi Ali; photo credit Shino Fukada, AP in The Atlantic]

In Honor Killings in America, in The Atlantic, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a survivor of honor violence including female genital mutilation and arranged marriage, writes of her AHA Foundation's work to address honor crimes in the US. She gives examples such as the young woman, an American citizen, who was taken to her family's native country in the Middle East to marry a complete stranger against her will, because her parents feared she was becoming too "Americanized."

Ms. Ali says that we don't know how many honor killings occur in the US because officials don't distinguish honor violence in their records. In 2000 the UN Population Fund estimated the annual worldwide number of honor killings as high as 5,000, but this number could be too conservative due to underreporting. 

The number is also expected to rise with immigration trends over the last ten years showing a significant increase in the number of people moving to the US from countries such as Somalia, with high honor-violence rates.

Ms. Ali concludes by saying:
There is no reason to tolerate human-rights violations in the United States. No religion, culture, or tradition that can be invoked to justify violence against women and girls. You do not need to agree with me about the origins of this problem to recognize its urgency. You just need to agree with me that harming girls is wrong, regardless of faith and tradition.

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