CAIRO, Egypt -- Nora Ahmed was on her honeymoon when her father cut off her head and paraded it down a dusty Cairo street because she had married a man of whom he did not approve.
Begum Gadhaki was sleeping next to her 3-month-old son when her husband grabbed a gun and shot her dead. A neighbor had spotted a man who was not a family member near the field where she was working in Pakistan's Sindh province.
Ahmed Ali used a cane to beat his wife across the stomach until she died after she returned home to their tiny village in Yemen from a two-day absence she refused to explain.
Hundreds of women like Ahmed, Gadhaki and Ali perish every year because their male relatives believe their actions have soiled the family name.
They die so family honor may survive.
A MAN'S POSSESSION
Honor killings are based on a "suspicion of immorality on the part of the victim," the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said.
But women have no way to know what behavior could be their death sentence. They have been killed for being too friendly to a brother-in-law. Having "arrogant" body language. Sitting next to a man on a bus.
Honor killing exists mostly in Muslim countries, even though Islam does not sanction the practice.
The United Nations says such killings also have occurred in Britain, Norway, Italy, Brazil, Peru and Venezuela. At least one case has been reported in the United States.
It is an ancient practice sanctioned by culture rather than religion, rooted in a complex code that allows a man to kill a female relative for suspected or actual sexual activity.
"It's 100 percent tradition," according to Madiha El-Safty, a sociology professor at the American University in Cairo. "It's associated with the value of sexual chastity of the woman."
The law is usually on the man's side, often letting him go unpunished or with a light sentence. The community commonly treats the murderer as a hero and considers the killing a duty, not a crime.
Cultures where the practice exists hold that a woman is a man's possession and a reflection of his honor. It's the man's honor that gets tarnished if a woman is not virtuous.
"A woman in Arab societies is an object for sex and reproduction. As long as she is an object, she is owned by a father, a husband, a brother," said Salwa Bakr, an Egyptian feminist and writer. "The way she uses her body is not her business but the business of those who own her."
Ahmed Abbad Sherif, a prominent, conservative tribal leader in Yemen, insists "it's because women are weaker than men."
"If she's immoral, it's the man's duty to kill her," Sherif said matter-of-factly. "Otherwise, he will be despised by the rest of the tribe."
Feminists, activists and human rights defenders have quietly begun work to end honor killings.
"Men worry about their honor and dignity as if women had none," said Azza Suleiman, an activist at the Center for Egyptian Women's Legal Assistance. "They have stripped us of our honor and appointed themselves its protector."
From early childhood, girls are taught about "eib," shame, and "sharaf," honor. They dress modestly, lower their eyes when walking in public and are segregated from boys if they're lucky enough to be sent to school.
And everywhere girls go are reminders that their most important mission in life is to remain virgins until they marry.
Among some tribes in Yemen, guests wait outside the newlyweds' bedroom. Custom calls for the bridegroom to emerge and fire his gun, signifying his bride was a virgin. In other tribes, a towel smeared with the woman's blood is paraded on sticks through the village amid ululations and, occasionally, the beatings of drums.
But virginity before marriage and demure behavior afterward are no guarantee of safety.
Women have been shot, burned, strangled, stoned, poisoned, beheaded or stabbed for falling in love with the wrong person or even for being raped. …