The History of Honor Killings in Asia

In many of the countries of South Asia and the Middle East, women can be targeted by their own families for death in what is known as “honor killings.” Often the victim has acted in a way that seems unremarkable to observers from other cultures; she has sought a divorce, refused to go through with an arranged marriage, or had an affair. In the most horrifying cases, a woman who suffers a rape then gets murdered by her own relatives.

Yet, in highly patriarchal cultures, these actions – even being the victim of a sexual assault – are often seen as a blot on the honor and the reputation of the woman’s entire family, and her family may decide to maim or kill her.

A woman (or rarely, a man) does not have to actually break any cultural taboos in order to become an honor killing victim. Just the suggestion that she has behaved inappropriately may be enough to seal her fate, and her relatives will not give her a chance to defend herself before carrying out the execution. In fact, women have been killed when their families knew they were completely innocent; just the fact that rumors had started going around was enough to dishonor the family, so the accused woman had to be killed.

Writing for the United Nations, Dr. Aisha Gill defines an honor killing or honor violence as “any form of violence perpetrated against females within the framework of patriarchal family structures, communities, and/or societies, where the main justification for the perpetration of violence is the protection of a social construction of ‘honour’ as a value-system, norm, or tradition.” In some cases, however, men may also be victims of honor killing, particularly if they are suspected of being homosexual, or if they refuse to marry the bride selected for them by their family.

Honor killings take many different forms, including shooting, strangling, drowning, acid attacks, burning, stoning, or burying the victim alive.

What is the justification for this horrific intrafamilial violence? 

A report published by Canada’s Department of Justice quotes Dr. Sharif Kanaana of Birzeit University, who notes that honor killing in Arab cultures is not solely or even primarily about controlling a woman’s sexuality, per se.

  Rather, Dr. Kanaana states, “What the men of the family, clan, or tribe seek control of in a patrilineal society is reproductive power.  Women for the tribe were considered a factory for making men. The honor killing is not a means to control sexual power or behavior. What’s behind it is the issue of fertility, or reproductive power.”

Interestingly, honor murders are usually carried out by the fathers, brothers, or uncles of the victims – not by husbands. Although in a patriarchal society, wives are seen as the property of their husbands, any alleged misbehavior reflects dishonor on their birth families rather than their husbands’ families. Thus, a married woman who is accused of transgressing cultural norms is usually killed by her blood relatives.

How did this tradition begin?

Honor killing today is often associated in western minds and media with Islam, or less commonly with Hinduism, because it happens most often in Muslim or Hindu countries.  In fact, however, it is a cultural phenomenon separate from religion.

First, let’s consider the sexual mores embedded in Hinduism. Unlike the major monotheistic religions, Hinduism does not consider sexual desire to be unclean or evil in any way, although sex just for the sake of lust is frowned upon.

However, as with all other issues in Hinduism, questions such as the appropriateness of extramarital sex depend in large part upon the caste of the persons involved. It was never appropriate for a Brahmin to have sexual relations with a low caste person, for example. Indeed, in the Hindu context, most honor killings have been of couples from very different castes who fell in love. They might be killed for refusing to marry a different partner chosen by their families, or for secretly marrying the partner of their own choice.

Premarital sex was also a taboo for Hindu women, in particular, as shown by the fact that brides are always referred to as “maidens” in the Vedas. In addition, boys from the Brahmin caste were strictly forbidden from breaking their celibacy, usually until around the age of 30.

They were required to devote their time and energy to priestly studies, and avoid distractions such as young women. However, I could find no historical record of young Brahmin men being killed by their families if they strayed from their studies and sought the pleasures of the flesh.

Honor Killing and Islam

In the pre-Islamic cultures of the Arabian Peninsula and also of what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan, society was highly patriarchal. A woman’s reproductive potential belonged to her birth family, and could be “spent” any way they chose – preferably through a marriage that would strengthen the family or clan financially or militarily. However, if a woman brought so-called dishonor on that family or clan, by allegedly engaging in premarital or extramarital sex (whether consensual or not), her family had the right to “spend” her future reproductive capacity by killing her.

When Islam developed and spread throughout this region, it actually brought a different perspective on this question. Neither the Koran itself nor the hadiths make any mention of honor killing, good or bad. Extra-judicial killings, in general, are forbidden by sharia law; this includes honor killings because they are carried out by the victim’s family, rather than by a court of law.

This is not to say that the Koran and sharia condone premarital or extramarital relationships. Under the most common interpretations of sharia, premarital sex is punishable by up to 100 lashes for both men and women, while adulterers of either gender can be stoned to death.

Nonetheless, today many men in Arab nations such as ​Saudi Arabia, ​Iraq, and Jordan, as well as in Pashtun areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan, adhere to the tradition of honor killing rather than taking the accused persons to court.

It is notable that in other predominantly Islamic nations, such as Indonesia, Senegal, Bangladesh, Niger, and Mali, honor killing is a practically unknown phenomenon.  This strongly supports the idea that honor killing is a cultural tradition, rather than a religious one.

Impact of Honor Killing Culture

The honor killing cultures that were born in pre-Islamic Arabia and South Asia have a world-wide impact today. Estimates of the number of women murdered each year in honor killings range from the United Nations’ 2000 estimate of about 5,000 dead, to a BBC report’s estimate based on humanitarian organizations’ counts of more than 20,000. Growing communities of Arab, Pakistani, and Afghan people in western countries also means that the issue of honor killings is making itself felt across Europe, the US, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere.

High-profile cases, such as the 2009 murder of an Iraqi-American woman named Noor Almaleki, have horrified western observers. According to a CBS News report on the incident, Almaleki was raised in Arizona from the age of four, and was highly westernized. She was independent-minded, liked to wear blue jeans, and, at age 20, had moved out of her parents’ home and was living with her boyfriend and his mother. Her father, enraged that she had rejected an arranged marriage and moved in with her boyfriend, ran her over with his minivan and killed her.

Incidents like Noor Almaleki’s murder, and similar killings in Britain, Canada, and elsewhere, highlight an additional danger for the female children of immigrants from honor killing cultures.  Girls who acculturate to their new countries – and most children do – are extremely vulnerable to honor attacks. They absorb the ideas, attitudes, fashions, and social mores of the western world. As a result, their fathers, uncles, and other male relatives feel that they are losing the family honor, because they no longer have control over the girls’ reproductive potential. The outcome, in too many cases, is murder.

Sources

Julia Dahl. “Honor killing under growing scrutiny in the U.S.,” CBS News, April 5, 2012.

Department of Justice, Canada. “Historical Context – Origins of Honour Killing,” Preliminary Examination of so-called “Honour Killings” in Canada, Sept. 4, 2015.

Dr. Aisha Gill. “Honour Killings and the Quest for Justice in Black and Minority Ethnic Communities in the UK,” United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women. June 12, 2009.

Honor Violence Factsheet,” Honor Diaries. Accessed May 25, 2016.

Jayaram V. “Hinduism and Premarital Relationships,” Hinduwebsite.com. Accessed May 25, 2016.

Ahmed Maher. “Many Jordan teenagers ‘support honour killings,” BBC News. June 20, 2013.