Are Honor Killings Simply Domestic Violence?

Article excerpt

On February 12, 2009, Muzzammil Hassan informed police that he had beheaded his wife. Hassan had emigrated to the United States 30 years ago and, after a successful banking career, had founded Bridges TV, a Muslim-interest network which aims, according to its website, "to foster a greater understanding among many cultures and diverse populations. " Erie County district attorney Frank A. Sedita III told The Buffalo News that "this is the worst form of domestic violence possible, " andKhalid Qazi, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council of Western New York, told the New York Post that Islam forbid such domestic violence. While Muslim advocacy organizations argue that honor killings are a misnomer stigmatizing Muslims for what is simply domestic violence, a problem that has nothing to do with religion, Phyllis Chesler, who just completed a study of more than 50 instances of North American honor killings, says the evidence suggests otherwise. - The Editors

Published in the Spring 2009 Middle East Quarterly, pp. 61-69.

by Phyllis Chesler

When a husband murders a wife or daughter in the United States and Canada, too often law enforcement chalks the matter up to domestic violence. Murder is murder; religion is irrelevant. Honor killings are, however, distinct from wife battering and child abuse. Analysis of more than fifty reported honor killings shows they differ significantly from more common domestic violence.1 The frequent argument made by Muslim advocacy organizations that honor killings have nothing to do with Islam and that it is discriminatory to differentiate between honor killings and domestic violence is wrong.

Background and Denial

Families that kill for honor will threaten girls and women if they refuse to cover their hair, their faces, or their bodies or act as their family's domestic servant; wear makeup or Western clothing; choose friends from another religion; date; seek to obtain an advanced education; refuse an arranged marriage; seek a divorce from a violent husband; marry against their parents' wishes; or behave in ways that are considered too independent, which might mean anything from driving a car to spending time or living away from home or family. Fundamentalists of many religions may expect their women to meet some but not all of these expectations. But when women refuse to do so, Jews, Christians, and Buddhists are far more likely to shun rather than murder them. Muslims, however, do kill for honor, as do, to a lesser extent, Hindus and Sikhs.

The United Nations Population Fund estimates that 5,000 women are killed each year for dishonoring their families.2 This may be an underestimate. Aamir Latif, a correspondent for the Islamist website Islam Online who writes frequently on the issue, reported that in 2007 in the Punjab province of Pakistan alone, there were 1,261 honor murders.3 The Aurat Foundation, a Pakistani nongovernmental organization focusing on women's empowerment, found that the rate of honor killings was on track to be in the hundreds in 2008. 4

There are very few studies of honor killing, however, as the motivation for such killings is cleansing alleged dishonor and the families do not wish to bring further attention to their shame, so do not cooperate with researchers. Often, they deny honor crimes completely and say the victim simply went missing or committed suicide. Nevertheless, honor crimes are increasingly visible in the media. Police, politicians, and feminist activists in Europe and in some Muslim countries are beginning to treat them as a serious social problem.5

Willingness to address the problem of honor killing, however, does not extend to many Muslim advocacy groups in North America. The well-publicized denials of U.S. -based advocacy groups are ironic given the debate in the Middle East. While the religious establishment in Jordan, for example, says that honor killing is a relic of pre-Islamic Arab culture, Muslim Brotherhood groups in Jordan have publicly disagreed to argue the Islamic religious imperative to protect honor. …