Faced with a rising number of reported cases of honor killings in Western countries, there is an increasing need to clearly understand the nature, motivation and rationale behind these crimes.
Honor killings are often framed as being condoned by Islam, as the bulk of reported cases are concentrated in Middle Eastern countries. This is furthered by the fact that most reported cases in Western countries are Muslim-on-Muslim crimes.
Yet the phenomenon is not a religious one, it is rather one rooted in the region’s cultural context.
The crimes are based on a cultural tradition focused on tribal honor that pre-dates Islam, and which is amplified through the mass proliferation of warped interpretations of the religion.
This miscomprehension of the Qur’an was most recently demonstrated following the Shafia trial in Kingston, Ontario. In February, members of the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada signed a fatwa condemning honor killings, domestic violence and misogyny, in an attempt to counter misinterpretations of the religious text. While a fatwa holds no legal binding, it is morally binding for all Muslims.
“If anybody [thinks] that honor killing is allowed in Islam, or domestic violence is okay or misogyny is okay, we are saying no, you are dead wrong,” said Syed Soharwardy, a Calgary-based imam of the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada, while announcing the measure.
Honor killing as a phenomenon must itself be clarified first, however. Unni Wikan, a social anthropologist and professor at the University of Oslo, defines an 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.”
Women are targeted based on allegations of dishonor for a wide range of reasons, as “dishonorable” behavior is not specifically codified. It may include a woman’s infidelity, premarital sex, her seeking divorce, being a rape victim, or her unsupervised interaction with men outside the family—even if this interaction is strictly platonic.
Families in the Middle and South East—especially across lower socio-economic classes—are often insular with a sense of collective identity pervading the community. An individual’s actions are thought to reflect on the immediate family and its standing within the larger social group; the importance of maintaining this reputation amplifies.
Honor in traditional pre-Islamic Arab societies is conceived as being a composite of the honor of a social unit such as a family and the honor of the women within this social unit, dependent on her chastity and sexual purity. This idea holds true across the region and is used to justify punishing women who are accused of breaching family honor and who are rarely allowed to prove their innocence.
Yet this practice is far removed from Islam, as the Qur’an states that an individual’s guilt cannot be transferred to another person or group. Note also that while rape victims are often targeted for being sexually impure, their rapists are only ever minimally punished. This is similarly contradictory to Islam, which encourages increased compassion for rape victims, not punishment.
Public disavowal of honor killings as by the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada is rare, as religious scholars and even officials in Middle Eastern countries tend to implicitly condone the crimes, either subscribing to the cultural tradition themselves or hesitating to challenge widely held and longstanding beliefs.
As these societies are often patriarchal, there may also be related to a fear of men losing control over women and their actions. The fear of punishment in this context can be seen as a control mechanism and scare tactic to repress women, who are granted limited agency in society.
While this dynamic has been changing for higher socio-economic classes where women are often free agents in urbanized cities, only loosely confined by conservative cultural codes, it persists for the majority of the population: those in the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum.
Indeed, politicians and police officials in these regions often dismiss honor crimes, based on their belief that the concept of women’s rights is a foreign one to patriarchal communities. They state that honor killings occur only among the uneducated and illiterate among the society, whose attitudes cannot be changed.
Such nonchalance works to perpetuate a gross human rights violation that is steeped in misconceptions and social pressure.
Perpetrators of honor crimes in Middle and South Eastern communities have reported that they feel pressured by their social circles to punish their victims, as refraining from killing is often thought of as further debasement. Often, other members of the family aid and abet the murderers, subscribing into the cultural mentality that they have been socialized into.
"Females in the family—mothers, mothers-in-law, sisters, and cousins—frequently support the attacks. It’s a community mentality," Zaynab Nawaz, a program assistant for women’s human rights at Amnesty International, told National Geographic.
However, honor killings extend beyond those within Muslim societies, with cases of honor-based violence being reported in countries including India and within Sikh immigrant communities in Britain.
With India’s exclusionary caste-system still in place, caste transgressions serve as the impetus behind the country’s rising rates of honor crimes. Faced with the increased mobility afforded by modern cities within the country, inter-caste interaction has increased and has met with extreme retaliation from traditional conservative groups. Here, honor crimes are attempts at maintaining kinship structures that do not work within an urban context.
While there are no definite statistics available for the number of honor killings worldwide, the United Nations has estimated a figure of 5000 such deaths per year. However, women’s groups in the Middle East and South-west Asia contest this figure, speculating that that the number of victims is at least four times the number.
This discrepancy may be based on the prevalence of media censorship in many Middle Eastern countries, as seen through Egypt’s false claims of being free from honor killings. Iraq, Jordan, Pakistan and Turkey have reported the highest rates of honor killings over the past years, which may similarly allude to their relatively freer media. Further, the same crimes in Western countries are often lumped together with other forms of domestic violence, making it difficult to arrive at a close estimate of honor killings worldwide.
As honor killings are most closely related to a collective cultural mentality within patriarchal societies, and justified through misinterpretations of religious text, public disavowal by religious scholars is arguably the remedial strategy that appears most effective.
These crimes are implicitly justified when these members of societies, thought to possess the most comprehensive understanding of the religion—and consequently, possessing extensive social influence for this knowledge—refrain from speaking out against these crimes. They play a part in the persistence of these human rights violations.
While international human rights-based organized such as Amnesty International work to generate awareness and exert international pressure on countries, they lack the cultural influence religious scholars possess.
Although tangible effects remain to be seen, the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada’s fatwa holds intense potential as a precedent for religious leaders worldwide to follow, in an attempt to reverse the global rise in honor based violence.