Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Social Tradition of Honour Killing

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"Honour Killing"
Graphic design (Toronto: July 29, 2009) © Joachim Romeo D'Costa

Montreal's Afghan businessman Mohammad Shafia (56), his second wife Tooba Mohammad Yahya (39) and their son Hamed (18) have been charged recently with four counts of first-degree murder and four counts of conspiracy to commit murder in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, reports National Post.

They are charged for killing Zainab (19), Sahari (17), and Geeti (13) -- all daughters of Mr. Shafia and Mrs. Yahya -- and Mr. Shafia's undivorced first wife Rona Amir Mohammad. These four women's bodies were discovered in a submerged car near the Kingston Mills Locks on the Rideau Canal.

Mohammad's sister Diba Masoomi mentioned in a newspaper interview that Mr. Shafia "believed his daughter had dishonoured him and the family by having a romance with a young Pakistani man in Montreal." The police strongly believe that these were honour killings.

The police believe that it was a premeditated murder that happened in Kingston on their way back to Montreal from a visit to the Niagara Falls.

What is honour killing?

Honour killing means murder (by strangulation, hanging, setting on fire, poisoning, or other means) of a family member belonging to a close-knit male-dominated clan or community for bringing in dishonour on the family, clan or community. Usually, the murder victim is a daughter, sister, wife or mother who is perceived to have brought in dishonour through her unacceptable behaviour or sexual conduct.

This sense of honour is rooted in the age-old tradition and social custom that gives legitimacy and condones such killing. When a family is dishonoured, the tradition or social custom gives a male relative the sanction of killing the "strayed" woman to restore the family honour and good name in the clan or community.

Who does the honour killing?

A male member of the nuclear or extended family commits this murder. He could be one's own brother, father, uncle, grandfather, or nephew.

How can the close relatives commit such a heinous act?

The liberal western society with widespread nuclear families, having individualistic attitude and perspective and, at the same time, enjoying so much personal freedoms and rights guaranteed by the state, will find it difficult to understand the dynamics of honour killing.

To really understand honour killing one has to look at it from wider perspective and take into account the following dynamics:

  • This killing is prevalent in societies that are fiercely paternalistic and tribal with strong group mentality and loyalty. These societies think of and give importance to the group (family, clan or society) and not to individuals. So any defiance, disrespect or disobedience to the group is considered an unpardonable offense.
  • From the past, this has been a kind of safeguard to keep one's women loyal to one's family, clan or tribe so that outside or alien influence or rival party's interference may not infiltrate through these women. That's why the society supports this practice, that's why those countries' law enforcement agencies support or condone it.
  • In some Muslim societies, adultery or illicit sexual liaison is looked upon as a serious moral degradation and dishonour to a family. They practise the age-old tradition that was prevalent in the Old Testament times. In the Torah or Old Testament of the Bible we find that the 7th of the Ten Commandments of God explicitly prohibited adultery: "Thou shalt not commit adultery" (Exodus 20:14; Deuteronomy 5:18). "If a man is found sleeping with another man's wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die" (Deuteronomy 22:22). "If a man commits adultery with another man's wife -- with the wife of his neighbour -- both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death" (Leviticus 20:10).
  • Honour killing is the male assertion of control over women.
  • The powerful, the upper class or caste people do honour killing to cling on to their status, power and property.
  • In those societies, no jobs are readily available for women. They just cannot go out on their own to earn a living. There is no social security or old-age benefit. So, a woman, facing honour killing, just cannot go away and live elsewhere. In most cases, the country's law will not favour her.
  • Men think that they have ownership over women. Women are considered as chattel (movable property). So, males think that they can do anything with females.
Males unwilling to participate in honour killing are ostracized

The clan or society ostracizes the males, who are sympathetic to the straying female or refrain from vindictive murder. These males and their families are avoided by other members of the clan or society. They cannot participate in social functions or enjoy the benefits and security of belonging to the group. Their sons or daughters cannot marry within the group. Daughters will remain unmarried for the rest of her life. This is a tremendous shame on the part of the family in the sense that they failed to raise a good well-behaved daughter, sister, sister-in-law or daughter-in-law.

In case of emergency, none of the clan or tribe members will come to their aid -- either financially or giving protection from enemy. In case of normal death in the family, there will be no participation of the community in burying the dead. This is also considered to be a great shame and failure of the affected family.

So, why carry a life-long burden because of a female member of the family? It's easy to get rid of her and be acceptable to others.

Issues that trigger honour killing

  • Marital infidelity (adultery)
  • Pre-marital sex (fornication)
  • Sexual rumour (of having illicit liaison or sexual relations)
  • Incest (illicit sexual relations with an extremely close kin or relative)
  • Rape (even if it is done against her will, the female is considered to be unclean and spoilt -- none in the group will marry her, ever)
  • Sexual abuse
  • Mixing with or dating a male outside one's own clan, ethnic group, social class, or religion
  • Wearing more revealing or provocative dress
  • Being alone with a male not belonging to the family or clan
Dowry Deaths are honour killing, too

In Asia, Africa and Europe, the practice of dowry (a bride's giving of money, property or goods to her husband at marriage) was prevalent for many centuries. With increased education, enlightenment, spread of Christianity, Europe gradually could get away from the abuse and misuse of the dowry practice, but in Asia -- especially in South Asia (Bangladesh, India and Pakistan) -- and in some parts of Africa this practice with its bitter and deadly results are still continuing.

The bridegroom or his parents demand a dowry and, in a good number of cases, if the bride's parents fail to fulfill the demand, the bride is ridiculed, persecuted and, in extreme cases, killed. Then it is claimed that the bride committed suicide (by hanging herself from the ceiling, drowning or poisoning) or died accidentally by catching fire to her clothing when cooking!

It is honour killing in the sense that the honour of the bridegroom's family is lost because the bride's family failed to fulfill the promise of dowry given before the marriage. The bridegroom's family loses its face in the clan or society.

Countries that experience honour killing


Honour killing is frequent in countries from South Asia (Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan) to west Asia (Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Israel -- among the Palestinian community, Palestine --the West Bank and Gaza Strip), and some parts of north Africa (Egypt, Morocco). Immigrant communities from these countries to Europe (Britain, France, Italy, Sweden, Germany, Denmark and the like), North America (Canada and USA) and Australia have their own share of honour killings.

Resources on Honour Killing:

To learn more on the honour killing in different countries, you may visit the following blogs and websites:

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