Understanding honour killings


National Post - Thursday September 22nd, 2011

The following is a condensed version of a speech delivered by National Post columnist Barbara Kay on Monday at the "Islamism's War Against Women" seminar in Toronto.

Every time I write about honour killings of girls or women in which the father or brother who killed them claimed, sometimes with pride, to be redressing family honour, I am sure to get one or two readers responding, "Oh, I wish you wouldn't use the word 'honour.' We should call them crimes of dis-honour, because that is what they are."

These respondents mean well. They hate seeing a word that they associate with high-mindedness, public service and devotion to duty linked with violence and criminality. But they are confusing honour with morality. Westerners often fail to grasp the distinction, because in the West honour codes have become vestigial, and rarely - or wrongly - invoked as a motive for behaviour (in November 2006, Stéphane Dion remarked that we should leave Afghanistan "with honour," but what he really meant was that we should abandon Afghanistan in the interest of reducing soldiers' deaths - in other words, leave Afghanistan with dishonour).

But the word hasn't quite disappeared from our vocabulary and honour codes do persist in groups who operate at the margins of civilized society, where the group's security is contingent on every individual member's willingness to submerge his individuality in a larger collective cause.

Sometimes honour is consistent with morality, and sometimes it isn't. In his book Honor: A History, cultural critic James Bowman defines honour, in essence, as "the good opinion of those who are important to you." Both the Mafia and the military are honour-driven, one to achieve immoral ends, the other for noble purposes.

In Bowman's definition of honour, the "good opinion of those who are important to you" divides along gender lines. Honour for men, he says, is always related to physical courage. Honour for women is always related to sexual behaviour. In the West, Christianity combined with older honour codes to produce the ideal of chivalry and the "gentleman," a code of honour according to which men respect and protect women in exchange for sexual virtue and fidelity. The chivalric code is now defunct, of course. And contemptuous as we are today of honour as a motivating force for behaviour, we tend to forget its former importance in our culture.

The first honour killing in JudeoChristian civilization is recorded in the Bible. In Genesis 34, we have the story of Jacob's daughter Dinah, who goes out to visit some women in her neighbourhood - she was probably about 13 or 14, marriageable age then - and was raped by Shechem, a local townsman, a prince of his tribe. Shechem was willing to marry her. Marriage would have been politic: Jacob's small clan was new to Canaan, and such a marriage would have cemented good relations with Shechem's longestablished people. But Dinah's brothers' collective sense of shame would not permit such a sensible outcome. They duped Shechem and his father, and in the end massacred Shechem and all his peers. A terrible crime in the name of honour. Committed by the very men whose offspring would bring the idea of universal justice and morality to the world. (Jacob was angry, but the episode concludes with the brothers asking if they should have allowed their sister's shame to go unavenged - and famously, the chapter ends with Jacob's silence.)

So we must keep a sense of perspective on this issue. Female-virtue based honour codes are a near-universal phenomenon in Western culture. Up until 1991 in Brazil, adultery-motivated wife killings were treated as non-criminal and were even called "honour killings." Until 1981 in Italy, honour was a legal defence for killing a woman, and fathers or brothers who killed their female relatives might only receive a three-to-sevenyear sentence. Until the 1970s, under the Code Napoléon, a crime passionel was a valid defence for murder in French law. In England, "provocation" - adultery - was a legal defence for men who killed their wives until 2009. A UN report in 2002 cited the penal codes of many nonMuslim countries - Argentina, Venezuela, Peru and Ecuador - that allow for partial or complete use of a defence of honour.

The crucial differences between these Western honour killings and the ones we are seeing today is that Western men murder adult women lovers or wives, not daughters; they act alone; and the killing is based in sexual jealousy, meant to punish one female. Honour-motivated violence in the Middle East and South Asia is a conspiratorial form of sexual terrorism, designed to warn other females in the community of what can happen to them if they challenge honour codes of behaviour, whose lynchpin is female virtue.

Social anthropologists make distinctions between societies whose members will accept curbs on their impulses because they are confident that injustices against them will be redressed by the legal system, and those societies where honour crimes flourish because of the absence of effective, uncorrupted law enforcement. In the latter, invariably patriarchal cultures where a woman's virtue bears the burden of the family's social fortune, immediate and disproportionate revenge is perceived to be necessary to restore social order.

Honour culture has bloomed amongst such disparate groups as Arab Bedouin, Scottish/English herdsmen of the Border country and cowboys of the Wild West. So even though in the present day about 95% of honour killings in the West happen to be perpetrated by Muslims, throughout history it is clear that honour-motivated violence against girls and women has less to do with one specific religion than with the role of dowries, and inheritance and the lack of a dependable legal system.

Today, however, we must deal with the unpleasant reality that honour killing has virtually disappeared in the West, but remains a problem amongst Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Christians in South Asia. Globally, the overwhelming number of honour-motivated crimes are a feature of Muslim countries, sometimes entrenched in law. Article 340 of Jordan's criminal code stipulates that "a husband or close blood relative who kills a woman caught in a situation highly suspicious of adultery will be totally exempt from sentence." Not "demonstrating" adultery, note, but only "highly suspicious."

Pakistan is the epicentre of the phenomenon. In honour cultures, even a rumour can be an incentive to violence. Recently a Punjabi father killed all six of his daughters because two of them were rumoured to have been flirting with boys. Because the reputation of two of them was compromised, all of them were damaged goods.

Westerners find it difficult to relate to such an attitude. We have been brought up as individuals, with the expectation that we will choose our own path in life. To understand honour culture, one must think of oneself not as an individual but as a role. You are not John or Julia; you are a son or a daughter, a brother or a sister, a father or a mother, a father-in-law or a mother-in-law. Your role dictates your behaviour and your obligations. When one steps out of the prescribed role to act as an individual, the smooth functioning of the family collective is threatened. Educating immigrants to accept their children, both boys and girls, as individuals and not as cogs in a cultural wheel, is the first and most important step in breaking the cycle of honour-motivated violence against girls and women.

bkay@videotron.ca