Honor as Property

Article excerpt


This Article is the first to use a property lens to explore the social construction of honor within legal systems around the world. The Article makes the claim that the law in many countries has implicitly treated honor as a form of property and has made legal and social allowances for men who seek to reclaim honor property through violence. The Article expands the boundaries of the existing scholarship concerning honor-related violence by exploring the intersections between social constructions of honor and social constructions of property. Using a property lens to analyze the relationship between honor, patriarchal control, and law provides a deeper understanding of the motivations for this form of gender-based violence. The Article also assesses the implications of this new theoretical model and concludes that honor must be refrained to position women as potential holders of honor property and to disassociate honor from the social regulation of women's sexuality.


Throughout the world, honor operates as a form of social currency. (1) It is a highly valued and zealously protected asset. (2) Although not alienable, honor functions informally as a form of property. (3) Honor exists in some form within most communities and often operates to constrain women's behavior. (4) Although a common misperception links honor primarily with cultures in the Middle East, honor functions in similarly gendered ways around the world. (5)

This Article makes the claim that the law in many countries has implicitly treated honor as a form of property and has made legal and social allowances for men who seek to reclaim honor property through violence. Within communities in which honor is highly valued, honor property is held collectively by a family and controlled largely by male members of the family. (6) The value of honor property depends primarily on the degree to which female members of the family conform their behavior, sexual and otherwise, to social expectations. (7) Although women are not typically seen as holders of honor property, women play a significant role in determining its value to the family as a whole. (8) Notably, the claim here is not that women are, themselves, a form of property. Women are agents who make decisions about their own sexuality, and those decisions either inflate, preserve, or decrease the value of familial honor property.

Because the value of honor property fluctuates based on women's behavior, other family members, often males, seek to aggressively monitor and control the behavior of the women in the family. (9) In its most extreme form, control over women's behavior manifests in honor-related violence, including murder. (10) In some countries, the law perpetuates this implicit understanding of honor as property by reducing penalties for those who commit crimes in an effort to reclaim honor. (11)

I realize that it is problematic to discuss "the law" or "legal systems" without exploring the myriad differences between legal systems and the differences in resources and power within and among countries. The purpose of this Article, however, is not to explore deeply the legal system of any particular country. Rather, the Article establishes a general architecture that reflects the ways in which honor operates as a gendered source of property in many different countries and in many different legal systems.

Drawing on the rich scholarship that has illuminated examples of honor-based violence, primarily in the Middle East, I provide here a new, property-based lens through which to explore honor as a common social regulatory device, one that operates not only in the "East" but around the world. The Article also draws on examples from the United States and other countries in the global North. These northern examples of honor as a regulator of women's sexuality help to establish the global architecture of honor. The examples counter the Orientalist tendency to recognize honor as a constraint on women only in the global South. …


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