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No Honour In Honour Killings

By Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta

Hindustan Times
21 February, 2004

Some time ago, I wrote wondering about the reason why Saddam Hussein didn’t own up to the fact that he didn’t have WMDs, while getting hammered by sanctions and finally invaded. I mean, it just didn’t make sense and what I hypothesised then was that it was more to save face and keep his “honour” that he kept on claiming insistently that he did have WMDs. Weird stuff, eh? Look where that got him, captured like a rat in a hole, unceremoniously shaved and paraded in front of the world’s cameras. That hankering after honour was rather pitiful, if one ignores the death and destruction that he wrought on his people as a result. A news story about this Turkish Kurdish theatre group who staged a play on honour killings in South East Turkey caught my eye a couple of weeks back, while I was idly flipping through the Guardian. The play is based on the real event of the brutal murder of Semse Allak. Both got me interested to delve more into this honour business. How can it be associated with killing? The results were rather shocking and horrifying. It is much more than just saving face, it is a heinous crime, which does not give honour nor face to the perpetrators, they should be hiding their faces. So what’s this all about?

Let’s start with the standard definition. Honour killings are murders of women by family members excused by removing some imputed stain on the family’s honour. This has to be distinguished from the crimes of passion as they are known in Latin America, dowry deaths as known in places such as India or the far more numerous rape and murder cases of women in USA or other countries. This is looking particularly at honour killings, which are peculiarly different than passion crimes, rape and murder, bride burnings or dowry deaths. This has to do with honour as opposed to passion, materialistic tendencies or simply sexual dysfunction.

This “stain” on the family honour comes from a variety of alleged offences, such as allegations of premarital or extramarital sex, refusing an arranged marriage, attempting to obtain a divorce from an abusive husband, or simply talking innocently with any man who is not a relative. As is with these things, it’s only when the allegation become exposed and public the stain on the family honour is perceived as such. Note that this allegation is not in a legal sense. It just needs a bunch of moronic people getting together and gossiping, or somebody wanting to spread a rumour or something equally stupid like this for the charge to spread. Forget about the facts of the case. In many cases, just the allegation is enough to trigger this honour killing as has been shown by the numerous autopsies of the victims proving they were mostly still virgins.

There are several aspects to this honour killing issue. First is the sheer geographic spread of this phenomenon; second are the tribal reasons behind people perpetrating honour killings, thirdly is the fact that this is not religiously sanctioned and fourth is the factor that education and exposure to women’s rights issues is the so-called solution. Honour killings occur in a distressingly large swathe of the world, from North Africa, Middle East (including Palestine, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, the Gulf Countries, and Iran), Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Isolated incidents have also been reported from the UK, Sweden, USA and Germany but these were carried out by Kurdish and other Arab immigrants to these western countries. So we are talking about a rather large territorial base where these crimes are committed.

It can be gruesome, and I think it is far worse for the unfortunate women who survive the attempts. While getting killed is no joke, just look at this picture of a lady whose eyes, nose and ears were cut off by her husband ( or the frequent pictures that we see of women who have had acid thrown at them. In Sweden, a father shot and killed his own daughter after she refused to marry her father’s arranged choice of a man completely unknown to her from Turkey. Another lady in Pakistan, Samia Imran Sarwar, was shot dead in her lawyer’s office in Pakistan by an assassin hired by her uncle and father because she wanted to divorce her abusive husband. The story of 16-year-old Kifaya Husayn of Jordan, who was killed by her elder brother, is particularly bewildering. What was her crime? She was raped by another of her brothers while her uncles judged that she had to die to save the family honour. Just how can any man’s honour lie between the legs of a woman as a crude Arabic expression claims? I don’t get it, but that’s for later.

This practice is very old, there are reports that pre-Islamic tribal members would bury infant baby girls alive to avoid the possibility that they may bring shame on their families one day in the future. If one recalls the stories of the Arabian tribes, specially in the Saudi Arabia region, in the pre-oil culture, the tradition of attacking and stealing other tribe’s horses, camels and women was an old established one. For a tribe to lose its women in a raid was extremely shameful. The tribe considered the loss of women as being a total loss of face and honour. So is this just tribal in nature? People say that honour killings are usually committed in remote rural and poor areas. It is said to be perpetrated by people who are uncultured and driven by tribal tradition. So the explanation seems to be that because people are uneducated and uncultured, their women get killed because of family honour. It is actually not true, more people are getting killed in urban areas where one would expect more refinement, exposure to women's rights, education and better economic situations.

Quite frequently, it is said that this practise has religious roots. I am not sure that this is true and while I am certainly not an Islamic scholar, I can personally do or cajole my editors to help me carry out internet searches. Islam clearly forbids killing without legal justification. It is even worse to kill a believer, “Whoso slayeth a believer of set purpose, his reward is Hell for ever. Allah is wroth against him and He hath cursed him and prepared for him an awful doom.” (4: 93). Even if a woman is accused of adultery, there need to be four male witnesses with good behaviour and reputation to validate that charge. Furthermore only the state can carry out judicial punishments, but never an individual vigilante. While I have not gone deeply into the hadith (of which many are questionable) or the various schools of Islamic jurisprudence, the evidence seems to be clear that neither the Quran nor the Sunnah show any justification for this. Recall the situation with Aisha when she was left behind looking for her necklace while the caravan moved on, and she spent a lot of time alone with young handsome Safwan, one of the rearguards of the army, while catching up with the caravan. Prophet Mohammad, her husband, asked both about their conduct and was satisfied with their innocence, which drew the line under the entire episode despite the gossip and scandal. So, I am sorry, there does not seem to be any religious justification for this heinous crime. So how come so many Islamic / Muslim parliaments and religious leaders do nothing to stop this?
In almost all the Muslim countries which I mentioned, cases of honour killings are not classified under the usual category of murderous crimes. The Palestinian Authority law allows honour killing. In Pakistan, after Samia’s murder, members of Pakistan’s upper house demanded punishment of the LAWYERS for daring to help her. None of the political establishment condemned the attack and the clergy wanted the lawyers to be put to death for trying to help Samia. Furthermore, the Senate rejected a resolution condemning the honour killings in the country. While Pakistani President Musharraf has repeatedly said strong words against honour killings, no law has yet been passed nor any resolutions in parliament. In other words, nothing has changed.

In Jordan, it is even codified in law. Article 340 of the criminal code says, "A husband or a close blood relative who kills a woman caught in a situation highly suspicious of adultery will be totally exempt from sentencing." While article 98 guarantees a lighter sentence for male killers of female relatives who have committed an "act which is illicit in the eyes of the perpetrator." The reaction to attempts to repeal article 340 is interesting, In 2000 the Jordanian parliament had long ‘informed’ discussions, scratched their heads, thought extensively and hard, and after 3 minutes, rejected the proposal.

The leading political party, Islamic Action Front, had this to say about it: “It’s an effort to destroy our Islamic, social and family values, by stripping the man from his humanity, not allowing him to get angry when he is surprised by his wife committing adultery”. Go figure. It’s much the same in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Egypt and other countries. Turkey’s laws are going to be changed under pressure from the EU, but I do not hold out much hope for the other countries which are full of these obscurantist religious leaders and madmen in power. Shakespeare said :”Mine honour is my life, both grow in one, Take honour from me, and my life is done.” The problem seems to be in the way men define their honour and take away their women’s life instead.

So what can be done about this? My first gut reaction was visceral. The more I read about this phenomenon, the more visceral the reaction became, like a fervent desire that these murderers be castrated or be given acid showers. I suspect that it will be a long hard grind. One wonders when they will get a Raja Ram Mohon Roy who can stand up in parliament and say, enough is enough, next time somebody does this honour killing, the full force of the law will come down on them and the press/civil society will condemn this ghastly act. It will require constant education; women’s shelters and changes in the law. Sadly enough, both the women and men need to be educated.

According to a survey carried out by the Palestinian Human Rights Monitor, some rather distressing results came forth. On the question whether women should have the same rights as men, the answer was “strongly disagree” by 35 per cent of the men and sadly 23 per cent of the women. One in four women didn’t think so, while 1 in 3 men didn’t think that women should have the same rights. In many honour killings, the women of the family actively participated in killing their own daughters or sisters. When the women themselves participate in such a disgusting crime, how can one blame only the men? When will people realise that killing is wrong? That killing for such ‘trivial’ reasons- which are obscene in the eyes of God/Allah as well as mankind – is absolutely detestable?

All this to be taken with a grain of salt!

(Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta, currently working on a doctorate at Kings College in International Relations and Terrorism, also holds a Doctorate in Finance and Artificial Intelligence from Manchester Business School. He works in the City of London in various capacities in the Banking Sector. He also lectures at several British Universities.)