Honour Killing

The recent killing of Shafilea Ahmed by her parents has put the issues of honour killing and multi-culturalism in the UK squarely back on the front burner, with some commentators calling for the abandonment of the term ‘honour killing’ on the grounds that ‘honour killings are just (sic) murder – it’s as simple as that’

It is true that the term ‘honour’ may be used in defence by the accused, and has been used by police forces as an excuse not to interfere out of respect for ‘their’ culture. To this extent these commentators have a point; but their point reflects a specific culture-centric understanding of the term ‘honour’. In the English-speaking world the term is almost exclusively applied to individuals who experience or create honour….or sometimes lose it … as in ‘he died defending his honour’ or sometimes ‘hers’.

The term ‘honour’ in the context of honour killing references the integrity of the family group or community, which is perceived to be threatened by an individual’s behaviour and which can be restored by the removal of that individual.

What do societies where honour killing occurs with some frequency have in common? The first thing to be said that it is not religion: whilst honour killing is often mistakenly believed to be an Islamic practice or a practice condoned by Islam in actual fact honour killing is forbidden in Islam. There is also little evidence of the practice in several Muslim-majority countries such as Indonesia or Malaysia, and conversely it occurs in non-Islamic countries in the southern Mediterranean, and South Asia.

The common characteristic of societies where honour killing occurs is that they are strongly patriarchal and women are precious assets for their family group. The persistence and continuity of that structure depends upon the ability of the women of the family to bear legitimate children, hence the emphasis on control by the family of women’s sexual and reproductive powers. In such societies the rights and status of the individual are subordinate to those of the family group. In strongly patriarchal societies women are often legally minors throughout their lives, merely changing from being the property of their father’s family to being the property of their husband’s family, without acquiring any political or economic voice, and with no possibility of independent action as an individual.

Honour killing is one extreme manifestation of woman’s commodification in patriarchal, honour-based societies; some others are honour suicide whereby members of the family force the perceived transgressor to take her own life; Female Genital Mutilation designed to control sexuality; widow inheritance by the deceased’s male relative; widow-burning, virginity testing and female foeticide as well as less dramatic manifestations such as payment of brideprice and dowry.

Of course men also may dishonor the family group and have to be removed though this aspect has received little attention. (We trust that Prince Harry’s recent transgressions will not result in such sanctions, but had it been William who knows?) History is replete with heirs who were found wanting physically, mentally or morally and who met convenient ends.

The term ‘honour’ tells us about motivation, and probable perpetrators …with emphasis on the plural. This information should inform not only punishment meted out but also preventative activities.

Honour killing can be triggered by a woman or girl talking with an unrelated male, consenting to sexual relations outside marriage, being the victim of rape, or refusing to marry a man chosen by the family. Even a suspicion of the woman’s committing any of these transgressions can be sufficient trigger. Most often the woman is killed by her father, brother or uncle, though other women of the family are usually also complicit in the action. The actual perpetrators of these crimes may be praised for having restored the family honour and if brought to justice usually receive a reduced sentence on the grounds that “honour” is regarded as an extenuating circumstance. Very often to ensure judicial leniency an under-age male is selected to commit the crime. In some societies committing an honour killing may be regarded as a “rite de passage” indicating and guaranteeing social maturity.

Typically honour killings are premeditated and long- planned, rather than being impulsive and because of the relationship of victim and perpetrators frequently do not involve sexual violence.

In most countries honour killings usually fall under laws dealing with murder but in many instances rules of defense relating to provocation and extenuating circumstances can be found in their penal codes. These provisions usually originate from old colonial penal codes Spanish, French or Ottoman where honour killings are accorded similar treatment as are “crimes of passion”, in that sentencing is based not on the act itself but on the feelings of the perpetrator. If defense of family honour is regarded as an extenuating circumstance, killing in the name of honour may incur a sentence of a few months only.

Although honour killings are sometimes treated as “crimes of passion” they are very different. The latter are usually committed by a husband or sexual partner against a woman and possibly the man with whom she is thought to be having an affair. Crimes of passion are usually committed by an individual against his/her sexual partner, and relate to individual sexual access rather than to group ownership of reproductive potential.

A 2005 decision of a Danish court in dealing with an incident of honour killing is regarded as an important milestone as both the person who committed the murder and the accomplices were punished.
In September 2005 18-year-old Pakistani girl, Ghazala, was shot dead by her brother in the middle of a street in a small town near Copenhagen. She had married a young Afghan man without notifying her family. Her spouse was also injured in the attack.

Those found guilty in this case, and their sentences are as follows:
Brother: 16 years imprisonment for murder of his sister and for causing injury to her spouse
Father: life-long imprisonment for provocation and coordination of murder
Aunt: 14 years imprisonment and deportation for coordinating a fake peace-making meeting and entrapping the couple
Uncle: 16 years for planning the murder and the fake meeting
Family friend: 10 years imprisonment for tracking Ghazala and helping with the murder
Brother’s friend: 10 years imprisonment for assisting with the meeting and the murder
Taxi driver: 8 years for driving the murderer to the scene
Aunt’s friend: 14 years imprisonment and deportation for planning the murder and for helping to track down Ghazala

Honour Killing is of course murder but the ‘honour’ label is useful to the understanding of both the crime and the punishment. Both intended victim and perpetrators are aware of it’s imminence for weeks, months or years before it happens and there is no excuse for the police or anyone else to be taken by surprise.