Cultural Misconceptions and the Fight Against Honor Killings

In July, Ahlem was murdered by her father outside her family home in Amman, Jordan.  Witnesses saw her run into the street, bleeding from the neck and screaming, followed quickly by her father.  He then threw a concrete brick at her head, killing her instantly.  Witnesses claim that the woman’s father then sat by her dead body drinking tea until authorities arrived[1]. In May, an 18-year-old Afghani girl ran away from home with her boyfriend in order to escape an unwanted marriage proposal[2]. The local police discovered her and notified her family.  Within two hours she was dead, strangled with an electrical wire and stabbed to death.  Similar stories appear throughout the Middle East and other countries, including large numbers of incidents in India and Pakistan. Families, placing a profound value on the chastity of their daughters, wives and sisters, murder or harm them to preserve family honor.  Such crimes are often called ‘honor killings’, and remain a persistent problem.

What are Honor Killings?

Honor killings are femicides motivated by preservation of family honor or social status. “Most honor killings occur in countries where the concept of women as a vessel of the family reputation predominates,” explains Marsha Freeman, the director of the International Human Rights Action Watch[3]. In other words, some societies associate women’s behavior and misbehavior with the dignity of the family’s name, and will punish women according to the degree of their misconduct in order to salvage status within the group. The most extreme punishment is murder, but honor crimes may also include acid attacks, beatings, forced isolation, dowry deaths, brides being murdered due to an insufficient dowry, and crimes of passion, a general term for male criminal behavior resulting from aggression, heartbreak, disappointment, or similar motivating emotions.

Honor-based crimes and killings are not new, nor are they confined to one culture or region of the world. Such crimes even occurred in Ancient Rome, where senior male family members had legal right to kill unmarried, sexually-active daughters or unfaithful wives. In biblical times, Jewish law permitted public stoning of adulterous women.  Sharia law also permitted stoning of adulterous women and allowed married men to divorce without witness if they cite adultery. In Western societies, honor-based violence included dueling, beheading for adultery, and other family feuds.  In Latin America, Incan law permitted death by starvation as punishment for infidelity[4]. Thus, the desire to defend group or individual honor and the belief that this honor is embodied in female behavior have persisted throughout history and across all cultures.

Prevalence

Today, honor killings are most prevalent in the Middle East. In Jordan, between 15 and 20 women are murdered in honor killings each year, despite government efforts to curb such crimes[5].  In 2019, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) recorded the murders of 238 Afghan women, and 96 were labeled as honor killings[6]. The women’s rights NGO Asuda for Combatting Violence against Women in Iraqi Kurdistan estimates that 24 cases of honor killings occurred in Iraq in 2019[7]. In 2016, there were 23 killings of Palestinian women and girls across Palestinian territory, many of which they said were based on “honor”, or the killer claimed it was[8]. In Turkey, an estimated 1,000 honor killings occurred between 2003 and 2008[9]. Countries like Saudi Arabia lack official records for reported honor killings, but evidence suggests honor-based crimes still persist. 

Combating Honor Killings

Despite these sobering statistics, recent protests and legislation indicate a desire to address and combat honor killings. After Ahlem’s death, over five hundred demonstrators gathered in Amman to protest her death and the lack of legal retribution for these types of crimes, despite restrictions implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic. Similar protests took place in Palestine, demanding the official investigation of another murder, a young woman killed by trauma injuries after posting a video with a boyfriend[10]. These protestors also utilize social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter to mobilize their efforts and raise awareness globally. 

In regards to the legal framework, many countries have sought to amend codes on gender-based violence. Jordanian law previously stipulated that, “a man who discovered his wife or a female relative committing adultery, and who killed or injured one or both of them, would be exempt from penalty”[11]. In 2017, after great efforts from prosecutors and a media campaign against honor killings spearheaded by Queen Rania, the law was amended. The new law eliminated special exceptions to gender-based violence, yet negative cultural perspectives still persist.

Entertainment media also generates greater awareness of gender-based violence and honor killings. In October, the Jordanian television channel Roya Drama released a short drama series involving gender-based crime[12]. The show follows an investigator’s journey to solve a young woman’s murder. She allegedly went to the doctor’s office and never returned, but her injuries pointed to an honor killing. The investigator carefully interrogates the woman’s husband, father, and brother and the depth of the investigation seems to convey Jordanian desire to increase reports and arrests for gender-based crimes.

Changing Culture, Not Religion

While honor-based violence is most prevalent in the Middle East, it is important to distinguish between cultural and religious motives. While talking with Ruba, a 27-year-old Jordanian woman, she urged me to, “remember that honor crimes come from tribal identity and culture, not from Islam.  Islam teaches peace and equality between peoples, but tribalism teaches to defend and preserve one’s family”.

Ruba’s plea highlights the Western misconception that Islam is inherently violent. Thus, understanding that honor crimes predate Islam is essential. Speaking of ancient tribal values, Sharif Kanaana of Birzeit University explains, “What the men of the family, clan, or tribe seek control of in a patrilineal society is reproductive power. 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”[13]. As Sharif explains, religious devotion does not motivate such crimes, but rather the desire to protect kinship ties and preserve posterity. 

Hope for the Future

While honor killings persist in the Middle East, they have decreased significantly over the years. Civil protest, legal reform, and media campaigns have helped to raise awareness and increase reporting of such crimes. Local and international organizations also run women’s shelters, maintain hotlines, and educate women about their legal rights. As society continues to develop and protect women, honor-based crimes should continue to decrease.

-A.M.G.


[1] Bulos, Nabih. 2020. “After woman’s brutal killing by her father, Jordan asks at what price ‘honor’?” https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2020-07-28/jordan-honor-killing-protests-violence-against-women (Nov 6, 2020).

[2] Ahmadi, Nemat, and Frud Bezhan. “Horrific Murder Of Teenage Girl Again Puts Spotlight On Afghanistan’s ‘Honor’ Killings.” https://www.rferl.org/a/horrific-killing-of-teenage-girl-puts-spotlight-on-afghanistan-s-honor-killings/30599545.html (Nov 5, 2020).

[3] “Thousands of Women Killed for Family “Honor”.”2002-02-12T10:33:34-0500. Nov 9,. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/2002/02/thousands-of-women-killed-for-family-honor/ (Nov 6, 2020).

[4] Government of Canada, Department of Justice. 2013. “Historical Context – Preliminary Examination of so-called Honour Killings in Canada.” https://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/rp-pr/cj-jp/fv-vf/hk-ch/p3.html (Nov 7, 2020).

[5] “Human Rights Report: Jordan.” 2017. https://www.state.gov/reports/2017-country-reports-on-human-rights-practices/jordan/ (Accessed Nov 9, 2020).

[6] Refugees, United Nations High Commissioner for. “Refworld | Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC).” Nov 9,. https://www.refworld.org/publisher/AIHRC.html (Nov 6, 2020)

[7] “ASUDA – Empowering Women to Lead.” https://asuda.krd/ (Nov 6, 2020).

[8] “OHCHR: Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women considers the report of the State of Palestine”. 2016.

[9]  “2003 County Reports on Human Rights Practices: Turkey” 2003. https://2009-2017.state.gov/j/drl/rls/hrrpt/2003//index.htm

[10] Daraghmeh, Mohammed. “Palestinian women protest after suspected honor killing.” https://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/palestinian-women-protest-suspected-honor-killing-65337861 (Nov 9, 2020).

[11] Obeidat, Raghda. a. “Jordan’s Struggle to Erase the Stain of Honor Crimes.” . https://news-decoder.com/honor-crimes-jordan-reform/ (Nov 5, 2020).

[12] دخلت عيادة دكتور واختفت بعد ذلك”.. جريمة غامضة وإعترافات متناقضة! – تحقيق أمني.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3pLco10aelU (Oct 30, 2020).

[13] Government of Canada, Department of Justice. 2013. “Historical Context – Preliminary Examination of so-called Honour Killings in Canada.”

3 thoughts on “Cultural Misconceptions and the Fight Against Honor Killings

  1. Mews News says:

    thank you for posting this, I liked that you clarified the differences between religion and tribal culture. The tribe uses honor killings to protect the family. Tribal culture needs to tell the men not to act violently against the women.

  2. V Hudson says:

    Great blogpost! I notice the UAE is cracking down on honor killings, too, by mandating the same punishment as for any other type of murder. Progress!

  3. Valentine M Moghadam says:

    Rana Husseini, stalwart feminist journalist and longtime advocate (since the latter 1990s) for tough measures against honor killings, should get most of the credit for bringing the matter to the attention of Jordanian public and the authorities. And yes, honor killings persist in areas with patrilineal tribal identities. Regards, Val Moghadam

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