Are Honor Killings Simply Domestic Violence?
By Phyllis Chesler
Background and Denial
Families that kill for honor will threaten girls and women if they refuse to cover their hair, their faces, or their bodies or act as their family's domestic servant; wear makeup or Western clothing; choose friends from another religion; date; seek to obtain an advanced education; refuse an arranged marriage; seek a divorce from a violent husband; marry against their parents' wishes; or behave in ways that are considered too independent, which might mean anything from driving a car to spending time or living away from home or family. Fundamentalists of many religions may expect their women to meet some but not all of these expectations. But when women refuse to do so, Jews, Christians, and Buddhists are far more likely to shun rather than murder them. Muslims, however, do kill for honor, as do, to a lesser extent, Hindus and Sikhs.
The United Nations Population Fund estimates that 5,000 women are killed each year for dishonoring their families. This may be an underestimate. Aamir Latif, a correspondent for the Islamist website Islam Online who writes frequently on the issue, reported that in 2007 in the Punjab province of Pakistan alone, there were 1,261 honor murders. The Aurat Foundation, a Pakistani nongovernmental organization focusing on women's empowerment, found that the rate of honor killings was on track to be in the hundreds in 2008.
There are very few studies of honor killing, however, as the motivation for such killings is cleansing alleged dishonor and the families do not wish to bring further attention to their shame, so do not cooperate with researchers. Often, they deny honor crimes completely and say the victim simply went missing or committed suicide. Nevertheless, honor crimes are increasingly visible in the media. Police, politicians, and feminist activists in Europe and in some Muslim countries are beginning to treat them as a serious social problem.
Willingness to address the problem of honor killing, however, does not extend to many Muslim advocacy groups in North America. The well-publicized denials of U.S.-based advocacy groups are ironic given the debate in the Middle East. While the religious establishment in Jordan, for example, says that honor killing is a relic of pre-Islamic Arab culture, Muslim Brotherhood groups in Jordan have publicly disagreed to argue the Islamic religious imperative to protect honor.
Yotam Feldner, a researcher at the Middle East Media Research Institute, quotes a psychiatrist in Gaza who describes the honor killing culture as one in which a man who refrains from "washing shame with blood" is a "coward who is not worthy of living ... as less than a man." Therefore, it is no surprise that the Jordanian penal code is quite lenient towards honor killers. While honor killing may be a custom that originated in the pagan, pre-Islamic past, contemporary Islamist interpretations of religious law prevail. As Feldner puts it: "Some important Islamic scholars in Jordan have even gone further by declaring honor crimes an Islamic imperative that derives from the 'values of virility advocated by Islam.'"
Islamist advocacy organizations, however, argue that such killings have nothing to do with Islam or Muslims, that domestic violence cuts across all faiths, and that the phrase "honor killing" stigmatizes Muslims whose behavior is no different than that of non-Muslims. For example, in response to a well-publicized 2000 honor killing, SoundVision.com, an Islamic information and products site, published an article that argued,
In 2007, after Aqsa Parvez was murdered by her father in Toronto for not wearing hijab (a head covering), Sheila Musaji wrote in the American Muslim, "Although this certainly is a case of domestic violence … 'honor' killings are not only a Muslim problem, and there is no 'honor' involved." Mohammed Elmasry, of the Canadian Islamic Congress, also dismissed the problem. "I don't want the public to think that this is an Islamic issue or an immigrant issue. It is a teenager issue," he said.
Indeed, denial is rife. In 2008, after Kandeela Sandal was murdered for honor by her father in Atlanta because she wanted a divorce, Ajay Nair, associate dean of multicultural affairs at Columbia University, told the media that "most South Asian communities in the United States" enjoy "wonderful" relationships within their families and said, "This isn't a rampant problem within South Asian communities. What is a problem, I think, is domestic violence, and that cuts across all communities." In October 2008, Mustafaa Carroll, executive director of the Dallas branch of the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), dismissed any Islamic connection to a prominent Dallas honor killing, labeled as such by the FBI, arguing, "As far as we're concerned, until the motive is proven in a court of law, this is [just] a homicide." He continued, "We [Muslims] don't have the market on jealous husbands ... or domestic violence … This is not Islamic culture." 
Case studies suggest otherwise.
Domestic Violence versus Honor Killing
Domestic violence is a significant problem in the United States. Between 1989 and 2004, 21,124 women died at the hands of an intimate; 8,997 men died in domestic violence during the same time period. Because the U.S. Department of Justice does not catalogue the victim's or murderer's age, religion, ethnic background, or immigration status, it is not possible to know what proportion of these killings are honor-related.
Unni Wikan, a social anthropologist and professor at the University of Oslo, defines honor killing as "a murder carried out as a commission from the extended family, to restore honor after the family has been dishonored. As a rule, the basic cause is a rumor that any female family member has behaved in an immoral way." While honor killings are just a minority of total domestic violence in the United States and Canada, they constitute a distinct phenomenon. (See Table 1.) A 2008 Massachusetts-based study found that "although immigrants make up an estimated 14 percent of the state's population, [they, nevertheless,] accounted for 26 percent of the 180 domestic violence deaths from 1997-2006."
Lenore Walker, author of The Battered Woman Syndrome, agreed that fundamentalist immigrants control and patrol their women very closely. "Given the strict rules, there are a lot of things to kill them for," she said. Walker confirmed the difference between the victim-perpetrator in honor killings and ordinary domestic violence:
Other discrepancies exist. Walker observed that Western men are more apt to kill little boys than girls in their family. "Women with postpartum depression kill their babies, and men may kill babies by shaken baby syndrome," she explained. She did not "know of any batterers who are helped to commit the murders by their brothers or cousins or other family members. Occasionally, the man's relatives may be in the house when the murder goes down, but that is quite rare in my experience."
The press has reported a number of honor killings in the United States, Canada, and Europe. These cases show the killings to be primarily a Muslim-on-Muslim crime. (See Table 2 and Table 3.) The victims are largely teenage daughters or young women. Wives are victims but to a lesser extent. And, unlike most Western domestic violence, honor killings are carefully planned. The perpetrator's family may warn the victim repeatedly over a period of years that she will be killed if she dishonors her family by refusing to veil, rebuffing an arranged marriage, or becoming too Westernized. Most important, only honor killings involve multiple family members. Fathers, mothers, brothers, male cousins, uncles, and sometimes even grandfathers commit the murder, but mothers and sisters may lobby for the killing. Some mothers collaborate in the murder in a hands-on way and may assist in the getaway. In some cases, taxi drivers, neighbors, and mosque members prevent the targeted woman from fleeing, report her whereabouts to her family, and subsequently conspire to thwart police investigations. Very old relatives or minors may be chosen to conduct the murder in order to limit jail time if caught.
Seldom is domestic violence celebrated, even by its perpetrators. In the West, wife batterers are ostracized. Here, there is an important difference in honor crimes. Muslims who commit or assist in the commission of honor killings view these killings as heroic and even view the murder as the fulfillment of a religious obligation. A Turkish study of prisoners found no social stigma attached to honor murderers. While advocacy organizations such as CAIR denounce any link between honor killings and Islam, many sheikhs still preach that disobedient women should be punished. Few sheikhs condemn honor killings as anti-Islamic. Honor killings are not stigmatized.
Table 1: Differing Characteristics of Honor Killings and Domestic Violence
Table 2: North American Honor Killings, Successful and Attempted
Legend: M = Muslim; S=Sikh
In these cases, the average age of the victims was 21.5, and 10 of the 14 were daughters. Importantly, more than half the cases involved multiple perpetrators. Nor is there a significant difference between honor killings in North America and Europe. Neither the average age (20) nor the percentage of daughters as victims in the European cases is significantly different from those in the North American cases. (See Table 3.)
Table 3: European Honor Killings
Legend: M = Muslim; S=Sikh
In both North America and Europe, family members conducted honor killings with excessive violence—repeatedly stabbing, raping, setting aflame, and bludgeoning—in more than half the cases. Only in serial-killing-type scenarios are Western women targeted with similar violence; in these cases, the perpetrators are seldom family members, and their victims are often strangers. Despite the obfuscation of Muslim advocacy groups, these case studies show that honor killings are quite distinct from domestic violence. Not all honor killings are perpetrated by Muslims, but the overwhelming majority are. Ninety percent of the honor killers shown in Tables 2 and 3 were Muslim. In every case, perpetrators view their victims as violating rules of religious conduct and act without remorse.
While the sample size is small, this study suggests that honor killing is accelerating in North America and may correlate with the numbers of first generation immigrants. The problem is diverse but originates with immigration from majority Muslim countries and regions—the Palestinian territories, the Kurdish regions of Turkey and Iraq, majority Muslim countries in the Balkans, Bangladesh, Egypt, and Afghanistan. Pakistanis accounts for the plurality. The common denominator in each case is not culture but religion.
Conflict of Cultural Moralities
The problem the West faces is complex. Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus view honor and morality as a collective family matter. Rights are collective, not individual. Family, clan, and tribal rights supplant individual human rights.
In these groups, intellectuals and elites handicap the absorption of immigrants arriving from countries where honor is a communal virtue. For example, accusations of Islamophobia stymie discussion and policy formulation when policymakers seek to address problems occurring among Muslim immigrants. Still, there are legal interventions underway in Europe, home to between twenty and thirty million Muslim immigrants and their descendents, as opposed to perhaps four million in the United States and Canada. Honor-related violence is, therefore, more visible in Europe than in North America. In 2004, Sweden held an international conference on honor killing, calling for "international cooperation" on the issue. Conference participants concluded:
There have since been local conferences in England, France, and Germany. British law enforcement has begun to hide women in a program equivalent to the U.S. Federal witness protection program. Great Britain has passed legislation to empower police to rescue British female citizens whose families have kidnapped and forcibly married them against their will, usually in Pakistan; the police will return them to Britain if the brides request it. There is a special police unit that deals with the forced, arranged marriages of children. A new movement has also arisen in England, "One Law for All. A Campaign against Shari'a Law in Britain," launched by Maryam Namazie, an advocate opposed to honor killing and other honor-related violence. She has launched this movement to oppose the use of Shari'a courts because they discriminate against women. Additionally, schools in the Netherlands have been asked to be "more alert to honor violence," following research conducted for the Ministry of Integration.
U.S. law enforcement has made tremendous progress over the last forty years on issues related to violence against women. However, there are not yet any shelters for battered Muslim, Hindu, or Sikh girls or women who fear that they will be murdered for honor. A regular shelter for battered women does not specialize in honor killings, nor are there any provisions for foster families—Muslim or otherwise—who can protect girls targeted for murder by their biological families. Critics would oppose any such intervention, however, as a form of cultural oppression, for many victims may have to forfeit their identities in order to remain alive.
It will be more difficult to save adult Muslim women from honor killing because an adult immigrant may not have any regular contact with people outside her immediate family. Only if she survives injuries that require medical attention will she have contact with strangers who may try to help her rescue herself.
Religious education may also be necessary. According to this study, 90 percent of honor murders in the West are committed by Muslims against Muslims. The perpetrators may interpret the Qur'an and Islam incorrectly, either for malicious reasons or simply because they are ignorant of more tolerant Muslim exegesis or conflate local customs with religion.
Here, Muslim-American and Muslim-Canadian associations might play a role so long as they cease obfuscation and recognize the religious roots of the problem. Now is the time for sheikhs in the United States and Canada to state without qualification that killing daughters, sisters, wives, and cousins is against Islam. A number of feminist lawyers who work with battered women have credited pro-women sheikhs with helping them enormously. Sheikhs should publicly identify, condemn, and shame honor killers. Those sheikhs who resist doing so should be challenged.
As with issues relating to terrorism, law enforcement and civil servants must be mindful of which Muslim community activists they seek to engage. Many self-described civil rights organizations—CAIR or the Islamic Society of North America, for example—lean towards more radical interpretations of Islam. Groups such as the American Islamic Congress and the American Islamic Forum for Democracy advocate for gender equality and human rights,  but because their efforts against radicalism antagonize Saudi Arabia and other sources of funding, they often lack resources. Given alternative funding, they might be willing to assist in an effort to educate Muslims against honor murder.
U.S. and Canadian immigration authorities should also be aware of the issue. They should inform potential Muslim immigrants and new Muslim citizens that it is against the law to beat girls and women, that honor killings are crimes, and that both the murderers and their accomplices can and will be charged. Cultural equivalency will provide no excuse as it sometimes does in more permissive societies such as Great Britain and the Netherlands. As long as Islamist advocacy groups continue to obfuscate the problem, and government and police officials accept their inaccurate versions of reality, women will continue to be killed for honor in the West; such murders may even accelerate. Unchecked by Western law, their blood will be on society's hands.
 Citation for honor murders drawn from Ellen Francis Harris, Guarding the Secret: Palestinian Terrorism and a Father's Murder of his Too-American Daughter (New York: Scribner, 1995); James Brandon and Salam Hafez, Crimes of the Community: Honor-Based Violence in the U.K. (London: The Centre for Social Cohesion, Jan. 2008), p. 13, 44; The Cleveland Plain Dealer, July 22, 26, 2000; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Sept. 13, 1999; CBC News, Apr. 22, 2004, Mar. 1, 2005; The Indian Express (New Delhi), Jan. 30, 2005; The Asian Pacific Post (Vancouver, B.C.), July 24, 2003; Soundvision.com, Sound Vision Foundation, Bridgeview, Ill., May 6, 2002; The New York Daily News, July 31, 2002; Stabroek News (Georgetown, Guyana), Dec. 3, 2003; Canwest News Service (Don Mills, Ont.), July 8, 2008; The Rochester Chronicle and Democrat, Apr. 25, 2004, July 17, 2008; The Washington Times, Jan. 3, 2008; The Dallas Morning News, Jan. 6, 9, 2008; The Chicago Tribune, July 8, 2008; CNN, July 7, 2008; The Daily Mail (London), May 2, June 12, 2007, Jan. 8, 2008; The Observer (London), Oct. 8, 2000, Nov. 21, 2004, June 20, 2006; The Daily Telegraph (London), Jan. 28, 2002, Feb. 27, 2005; CNN.com, Oct. 2, 2003; BBC News, Sept. 30, 2003, May 4, Nov. 19, 2004, Apr. 8, 2006, Jan. 8, 2008; TechCentralStation (TCS Daily), Feb. 2, 2005; Time (European ed.), Oct. 11, 2004; CULCOM: Cultural Complexity in the New Norway, Feb. 17, 2006; Expatica (Amsterdam), Dec. 1, 2003, Apr. 27, 2005; The Times (London), Nov. 18, Dec. 4, 2004, Jan. 21, 2007, Feb. 3, Mar. 29, 2008; HiA Report, Humanity in Action Foundation, Washington, D.C., June 29, 2006; Deutsche Welle Radio (Bonn), May 1, 2005; The Guardian (London), May 8, 2003, July 15, 2006, May 24, 2008; Stern Magazine (Hamburg), Oct. 4, 2007; Associated Press, June 27, 2006; The Independent (London), May 7, 2003, Feb. 21, 2007; The New York Times, Dec. 19, 2004, Dec. 4, 2005, Aug. 26, 2006; The Evening Standard (London), May 14, 2007; United Press International, July 3, 2003; The Sun (London), Jan. 23, 2008; FOX News, Jan. 5, 2007; International Herald Tribune (Paris), Dec. 1, 2005; The Daily Times (Lahore), July 3, 2004.
 "Chapter 3: Ending Violence against Women and Girls: 'Honor' Killings," The State of World Population, 2000, United Nations Population Fund.
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