“Why Muslims (and Others) Should Talk, Write and Do Something About Honor Crimes.”

6 Jan

“Why Muslims (and Others) Should Talk, Write and Do Something About Honor Crimes,”

Sherifa Zuhur, Institute of Middle Eastern, Islamic and Strategic Studies

I wrote this in response to a confusing discussion about honor crimes which causes me to fear that the anti-feminist and pro-Islamist bent of academia is diminishing our ability as scholars to come up with new approaches to longstanding social problems.

Some years ago, I discovered a wonderful body of volumes on Islamic law and legal codes in modern Middle Eastern and other Muslim countries at the Cleveland- Marshall School of Law library, thanks to the collecting of David F. Forte.  In it were some invaluable sources about Islamic criminal law and the formation of modern penal codes in various Muslim countries, and I also found and read Lama Abou Odeh’s dissertation which focuses on honor crimes. Her work was very helpful to me in writing a summary of information for a very interesting Turkish group of activists working on legal reform in the Middle East as part of a network called Sexual Rights are Human Rights (note the controversial title & the product written to help them is available here: http://www.wwhr.org/category/research-articles-and-reports/30314/gender-sexuality-and-the-criminal-laws-in-the-middle-east-and-north-africa-a-comparative-study-2005-in-english  )

The discussion of honor crimes began predictably by claiming that Muslims are no worse than anyone else in their oppression of women, and meandered to the inquiry: “Is Islam to blame for this situation?”

Since the practice of honor crimes continues to impact Muslim women, let us instead ask what can be done to impact this community and others like it to mitigate this practice. And since activists have recommended changes to laws, creating shelters or using protective custody, police training and more, we should continue to examine whether these endeavors are fruitful — now that police receive trainings (if they are) – and ask why these crimes continue.  Islam is not a person and cannot approve of the wickedness of human beings in misusing its name.   If people believe that “Islam” allows family vengeance for sexual misbehavior, then those misapprehensions must be addressed from childhood on.  If people instead believe that it is their Arab (or Pakistani, or Ethiopian, or Yemeni, Bangladeshi, etc.) “local values” which have been violated, then the error in such enshrined values must be addressed.

When a community posts a petition in five mosques in Deir al-Ghusun demanding that a family “reinstate the cultural and religious morals in his family” in complaint of his daughter’s behavior, everyone in that community and that family understood that an honor crime was demanded and would occur.  http://news.nationalpost.com/2013/12/19/anatomy-of-an-honour-killing-why-a-palestinian-community-demanded-a-father-murder-his-divorced-daughter/

Yet I now respond to scholars who take on the discourse of defense attorneys and argue that the community did not specifically call for a murder.   There was no need to do so, their intent is clear as daylight in the community’s definition of family honor which is constraint of females’ sexual behavior and reputation – all of which show how serious this problem is.  No police training, shelters, no harsher laws, media coverage were able to convince the family or community that their daughter has rights as a human being that outweigh their need to restore their honor.

This specific form of femicide linked to beliefs about women’s sexual behavior should be  a grave source of concern for those who study Muslim or Middle Eastern societies.   It should not be regarded as an unpleasant and unavoidable encounter which they revisit each year in classrooms or dismiss in publications.  Religion, culture and statutory discrimination under modern as well as tribal laws and shari`ah all combined to failed to criminalize, or wrongly exonerate the act of killing a female “antecedent” for honor (defined as sexual honor).  Just because Islamophobes like Pam Geller or the owner of the Atlas Shrugged site,  ‘Orientalists” or “neo-Orientalists” highlight or use women’s issues including honor killings in Muslim societies as a way of castigating “Islam”, we scholars should not cease analyzing these phenonena.

To some of the points raised:

** No, we cannot call these “intimate partner” murders because  they are often premeditated, carefully planned and enacted by brothers, fathers, and even mothers, and not only spouses, or spurned fiancés.

**There is a definitional problem with the term “honor killing”  in that a) killings of young women suspected of sexual activity before marriage (please note:  many are found to be virgins after being murdered as rumor and gossip are as damaging as actual zina`) b) those who try to escape from an arranged or impending arranged marriage and c) wives who are alleged adulterers (or again, merely breaking some other restriction like going outside the home, or being seen with another man) are all victims of honor crimes.  This confusion is relevant to the laws which exonerated or diminished sentences in cases of crimes of passion/or honor.

**Other customs such as mahr, expectations of virginity at marriage, the high costs of marriage, long engagement periods, arranged marriages gone awry, and more, (cousin’s presumed ‘rights’ to marry a cousin who might prefer someone else), beliefs that women should not drive, should not work, must wear hijab/niqab etc. also impact situations which develop into honor crimes.

**No, the numbers of honor crimes are not statistically insignificant.

One number frequently cited in many NGO-type of sources is about 5,000 killings per year.  However, this number primarily concerns category a) above because of the confusion over the meaning of honor crimes.  For several reasons their numbers could be as high as 10,000 per year or at least in certain years.   Honor crimes greatly increased in war situations in response to rape or other forms of sexual violence, so consider how many may have occurred in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, etc.  Just recently trials were held regarding the war crimes in Bangladesh in the ‘70s and  Also, in earlier sources authorities/police commented that the main non-natural cause of death for women (in Sudan, Iraq, Jordan, Palestinian territories — but the problem also involve Eastern Africa, Southeast Asia, Muslim states of the former USSR, the Middle East and South Asia) is honor crimes.  However, the police and coroners do not necessarily label such cases; they have to rule many deaths accidental, they can’t always identify victims whose families haven’t reported them missing, not all bodies are found, and there may be political reasons to suppress statistics.  One would have to go over all homicides of women in each country (they aren’t separated out for cause of death).  Like families whose honor has been “blemished” and do not report women missing, communities often know about missing women, and side with the murderers.

**Honor crimes may follow rape.  If rape carried no stigma for the victim, families would not pursue this course of action.  The older laws (and some existing ones) allowed a rapist to marry his victim, surely an unfair solution to the woman.   Defining honor as sexual honor and continuing to put a high monetary value on virginity are also at the root of the problem.

*Islamic or not.  Quite a few people who should know better were taught that honor crimes have no basis in fiqh, but this is really incorrect. Scholars were well aware of honor crimes and understood the links to `urf in all of the secondary categories of crimes in Islam (which demand rights to equal injury, talion or dhiyya.    We can’t be shocked that tribal councils condemn girls to rape when their male relatives offend, insult or molest a woman of another family, or marry them off in exchange marriages.   We cannot say such crimes are not “Islamic” in that the aim to control female sexuality is bolstered by laws and practices believed to be Islamic (whether they truly are or not or should be or not are different questions).  Also there is a definite link to the exonerations provided in modern criminal law for ‘crimes of passion’ as Lama Abu Odeh and others have explained.  Whether the ‘fault’ lies in the tribal/clan practices of killing the women whose honor was taken, or in the Ottoman code- or Napoleonic code-derived laws which allowed men the right to enact violence on female antecedents is by now a very complicated question.

In 2009, I was part of the United Nation DAW’s project on “traditional harmful practices” against women.  Honor crimes have a connection to traditional exclusions of women from public space; or FGM, early marriage, kidnapping.  Data was introduced showing the practice does impact women in Southeast Asia, and Muslims outside of the Middle East – Pakistan and Afghanistan, of course, but also Eastern Africa and other Muslim societies in Africa.  Egregious honor crimes have  also been committed by Muslims against Muslims in the U.S., UK, Canada, Sweden, etc.   Since the practice goes back to `urf, it is not surprising that it is also committed against non-Muslims who live in Muslim-dominant societies (i.e. Egypt, Jordan, Palestine) or in mixed societies (Ethiopia).  This sort of broad-brush discussion is not as useful as examining honor crimes in their local setting, because the response by law enforcement, or the community can’t be well-understood.  My paper from that (and only brief sections concern honor crimes)  http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/egm/vaw_legislation_2009/Expert%20Paper%20EGMGPLHP%20_Sherifa%20Zuhur%20-%20II_.pdf

*Are Islamists discouraging the discussion of honor crimes & other violence against women? I mentioned a little about Islamist groups’ approaches to honor crimes and violence against women in Sadiqi and Ennaji, ed. Gender and Violence in the Middle East (Routledge 2011).  For ex. the Hamas govt. instituted a hotline so women could call in to request police assistance with physical abuse.  For the most part, Islamists who enacted any type of programs to address violence against women did so by using techniques or programs used in the West.

However, ‘shaming’ the husband by calling the police could result in divorce or another beating, or even a murder, if the underlying social attitudes are not addressed.   And traditionalists as well as Islamists may believe in negotiating with abusers with the result that women are returned to their communities (and their deaths).  In Egypt, last year the Morsi government went to great lengths to disavow the U.N’s approach to violence against women, which was quite appalling.  The salafists are not supportive of reforms benefitting women, and would like to constrain them further.  Certainly some Islamists are aware that measures should be taken to protect women, but those speaking to their political base more frequently condemn feminists or anything that parallels “Western-style reform.  Would they move against lengthening sentences for murderers? Hopefully not.

*Social attitudes.  We know how individuals and families rationalize such violence.  There are pragmatic reasons:  Where murderers can have their sentences excused or reduced, they will continue to murder, hence the effort to reduce those exonerations which entered either Ottoman law or those laws modeled after French law.  And, peer- or community-influenced reasons:  Many studies have now been conducted showing that people are aware of honor killings and approve of them, just as some approve of physical violence against women and girls (which we now term family violence).  In Eisner and Ghunaim (2013), 40% of Jordanian boys and 20% of girls (N=456 ninth graders in Amman) believed that an honor crime against a daughter, sister or wife can be justified and is “morally right.” Such beliefs correlate with insistence on female chastity and other patriarchal beliefs.  (Aggressive Behavior, 9999, 1-13, 2013 and link on studyhttp://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/belief-that-honour-killings-are-justified-still-prevalent-among-jordans-next-generation-study-shows).  There have been many other such studies.  Also larger studies like Pew Forum’s 2013 study included a question on honor killings indicating that many people in certain countries thought it was justified when a woman committed the (sex-related) “crime.”. This study doesn’t cover all of the Muslim world – but did show high support in Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt and Jordan.

Communities are aware of, and many believe women deserve to be physically abused, (women as well as men).    Again, there are multiple studies but here is just one http://jiv.sagepub.com/content/25/3/518.abstract

The fact that families believe they ‘own’ women’s bodies and may abuse them is another part of the rationale underlying honor crimes.  Numerous links show male Islamic scholars recommending ‘physical discipline’ of women (wives, daughters, sisters, etc.).  Many also privilege the male’s position in marriage and cite numerous hadith re. women’s duty to please her husband, put his needs ahead of hers, endure his nastiness and never seek to retaliate “as Allah curses these women.”  https://www.facebook.com/notes/islam-and-life/general-guidance-for-the-muslim-wife/10150347814106018

One begins by claiming Islam “honors” women by instituting beatings.  Is he supposed to beat her heavily, or kill her? No. Of course, this cleric deviates from reality here in claiming men can only beat their wives if they refuse to sleep with them.  Men beat women for a wide variety of reasons; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ChnpaMK1oLQ

**Honor crimes are often hideous crimes.

One honor crime detailed in WWHR’s study on the reform of the penal code in Turkey  involved incredible torture of the victim who was pregnant out of wedlock with twins.  One of activists’ strategies there, as in other countries was  to try to tighten laws so that murderers don’t have any certainty of a brief sentences.  My understanding from Turkish activists was that they faced strong opposition to instituting penal code reform by the AKP, but it was accomplished.  How judges and others resistant to changes in their discretionary powers are to be reached is less clear.

Of deep concern is the fact that even when laws are less discriminatory to women, i.e. in the West; honor crimes are difficult to prosecute.  If Palestina (Tina) Issa’s 1989 killing had not been recorded by the FBI, her father might have prevailed with a self-defense argument and her mother might not have been convicted.

*Ten or twenty years after social scientists said honor killings had diminished, they continued.  They are often linked to rape as in this case in Syria.  One argument is that the clan or tribal values are rural-linked; well cities in many Middle Eastern and Islamic countries are full of migrants from the countryside (but it does not appear that long-time urbanites necessarily drop their attitudes concerning women’s honor).   In Syria, before the revolution an estimated 300 girls/women died per year in honor crimes (now the numbers could be much higher)  In this case, a 16 year old girl, Zahra was killed by her brother who said he was ‘ghasalat al-arr, washing away the shame.’  His family held a party the night he killed his sister to celebrate.  He would have erased her memory, but for Zahra’s husband who brought a civil case against him.  Ten months earlier, Zahra had been pressured into accompanying a man because of rumors her father was having an affair.  He took her to Damascus and raped her.   While in protective custody, her brother looked for a husband.  He told the other family she had been kidnapped, and Fawaz married her.  Only 5 weeks later, she was dead.  The case brought to life efforts to reform Article 548 of the penal code.  Fawaz resisted pressured to drop his case.    The journalist in the piece below comments: “In shawarma sandwich shops and juice stalls [in Damascus] most men had heard of Zahra, but more than half of them believed that the practice of honor killing is protected — or outright required — by Islamic law. A man named Abu Rajab, who ran a cigarette stall, described it as “something that is found in religion” and added that even if the laws were changed, “a man will kill his sister if he needs to, even if it means 15 years in prison.”  http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/23/magazine/23wwln-syria-t.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

When I was in a visiting position in Cleveland, Ohio one of my students alerted me to two killers of a young woman, Mathel Dayem – -she and they were part-time students on our campus.  http://www.cleveland.com/whateverhappened/index.ssf/2000/07/cousin_acquitted_in_killing.html

The two young men were holding court with their admirers on campus, after murdering her due to mistakes by the prosecutor and the rules of double jeopardy.  This was a working-class Palestinian family and even in the U.S. justice system her family could not obtain remedy.  Had she been living in her area of origin, who knows if her mother and immediate family would have even supported her.  The local imam, Fawaz Damra had married Mathel to her cousin (the one who killed her) despite her and her family’s ambivalence ot him.  She broke off the relationship, returned home and to work, then he and his cousin began threatening her, and then gunned her down in the street.  It really bothers me that Damra, the imam told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that it was Islamophobic to report on “honor killings” — that there ” is no such thing.”

When Amina and Sarah Said’s father killed them in Texas, another community leader, Mohammed Elmougy defended the practice saying  “the way we view it, we don’t look at it as violent … We look at it as a deterrent.”

At least 2 large American Muslim organizations condemned honor killings after Aasiya Hasan’s husband beheaded her. This was supposed to result in a wide campaign against violence against women.  But the topic is simply not discussed in many mosque communities, especially small ones.  Can women call in and report abuse or that they fear being killed?  There aren’t resources and why should women perceive any benefit to this over calling the police.

Aisha Gill, an attorney in the UK was part of a project to further criminalize honor crimes there where they involve girls from a variety of national origins.  http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/egm/vaw_legislation_2009/Expert%20Paper%20EGMGPLHP%20_Aisha%20Gill%20revised_.pdf   Layla Pervizat wrote her dissertation on honor killings, and here also suggests a multifaceted approach to them:  http://www.pagu.unicamp.br/sites/www.ifch.unicamp.br.pagu/files/colenc.04.a06i.pd

I hope that this trend or fad of calling those who engage in research on such ‘harmful practices impacting women “Orientalists” and so forth will cease.  Islamophobes have their information from the media.  Should the media really not report such cases? If 5,000 or even 10,000 deaths (or if we don’t even have the resources to determine the actual numbers) aren’t sufficient to see this as a serious problem, it must mean that (as with the huge death toll mounting in Syria) that the issue has no urgency, or that violence against women has become normalized.

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