Like a ruthless dictator clinging to power, this culture-rooted crime stubbornly continues to claim victims.
A few weeks ago, four women from a remote village in Pakistan were feared killed by their families for allegedly violating ‘tribal honour’. They had been filmed singing and clapping at a wedding while two men danced. The decree for them to be killed is said to have come from tribal elders. Despite a previous Supreme Court order, authorities were unable – or unwilling – to ensure the safety of these women and others in similarly vulnerable situations. Following days of investigation and the intervention of activists and state officials, the fate of these four women remains unclear.
It is important to note that there is no direct link between honour killings and Islam. They are as common in western Punjab, which is part of Pakistan and predominantly Muslim, as they are in eastern Punjab, a part of India and mostly Sikh and Hindu. Indonesia, home to the largest population of Muslims in the world, has virtually no honour killings. But although honour killings have no basis in Islam, they do impact Muslims because they are committed mostly in South Asia and the Middle East, whose populations are largely Muslim. Europe, North America and Australia have also had their own troubling cases, usually committed by South Asian or Middle Eastern immigrant men.
Honour killing can be defined as a form of extreme status anxiety and a manifestation of a culture of male domination and sexual repression
Honour killings belong to a group of violent crimes that primarily target women, although there have also been instances of boys and men who have been targeted for their suspected or actual homosexuality. Steve Taylor, an author and psychology lecturer, explains that in cultures where honour killings occur, women are seen as representing the ‘honour’ of the family. Any woman who deviates from the code of behaviour, therefore, could sully her family’s reputation. He identifies the psychological roots of honour killing as being a form of extreme status anxiety and a manifestation of a culture of male domination and sexual repression.
Status anxiety is something that most of us can relate to – it’s the fear of being perceived badly or as inferior by others in our social group, and the desire to protect our status. This is what drives us to buy things we can’t afford, exaggerate our accomplishments and pressure ourselves and our loved ones to behave in ways seen as more socially acceptable. When this spurs violence or murder for fear of a family name or reputation being regarded poorly by society, status anxiety is at an extreme.
Societies that fall victim to honour killings tend to value women less than men. Men in these communities are the heads of families, the sole decision makers and the leaders in every other significant way. This leads to the complete control of women, including their sexuality. It’s no coincidence that honour killings most often involve a woman who has fallen in love with someone deemed undesirable, or dressing or behaving in a manner judged sexually provocative. A line from In Her Honor, a documentary film on honour killings, illustrates long-held beliefs on this issue. ‘A man is like a piece of gold; when he is dirtied he can easily be washed clean. But a woman is like silk; when she is dirtied she cannot be cleaned and must be destroyed.’
A prominent community leader in Pakistan tells of a father whose daughter had run off with a man from another village. The father approached the community leader, asking him to mediate between the two families so that his daughter would return to her family. The father promised that he would no longer object to his daughter being with the man, and explained that he just wanted her to get married properly and with dignity rather than eloping. He swore on the Qur’an that no harm would come to her if she returned. The girl agreed, and came back home. A few days later, she was dead.
Murders such as these cannot be allowed to continue. In the long run, increasing levels of education, empowering women and greater awareness of the crime of honour killing are measures that will lessen and eventually eradicate its scourge in all societies.
In the short term, politicians, activists and religious leaders must take the lead in pressuring communities to no longer abet, tolerate or excuse this crime. Appropriate sentences need to be handed down to perpetrators of honour-related violence, both as punishment and as a deterrent to potential offenders. As the informal leaders in many of these societies, clerics in particular have a critical role to play in condemning such practices. Tribal leaders and clerics who incite or pass decrees promoting honour killings should be charged with abetting murder.
Finally, the media has a crucial role to play. Police and other authorities are often reluctant to get involved in cases of honour killings, because they see the issue as a family dispute. This is not unlike how authorities, even in countries not prone to honour-related killings, are often apprehensive of intervening in cases of domestic violence. It is a cruel irony that in many societies, a person who inflicts violence is more likely to be punished if his victim is a stranger, rather than his wife or daughter. In such instances of authority inaction, the media can be an effective tool for airing these stories and rallying public support to pressure governments and local authorities into taking action. At an individual level, we can all play a role by using social media.
The UN estimates that 5,000 people are killed each year in honour killings. That amounts to around 14 deaths a day. In an age of revolution and uprising against dictators and an embracing of freedom, the next tyrant on the ‘to overthrow’ list ought to be honour-related violence.