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Why does a man murder his wife?

From "honour killing" to "family annihilation", the underlying causes are often the same

A protest against honour killings in Lahore (Getty Images)
A protest against honour killings in Lahore (Getty Images)

In the UK we are increasingly familiar with reports of so-called “honour killings.” Taslima Nasreen, the exiled Bangladeshi poet, describes honour killings as follows:

An “honour killing” is a murder carried out by a family to punish a female family member who has supposedly brought dishonour upon the family, the acts which are the cause of dishonour can be:

- refusing to enter into an arranged marriage
- being the victim of a sexual assault or rape
- seeking a divorce, even from an abusive husband
- committing adultery or fornication
- pre-marital sex
- falling in love with men outside her tribe/caste
- flirting /chatting with men on Facebook

The mere perception that a woman has behaved in a way that dishonours her family is enough to trigger an attack on her life.

Historically, honour crimes featured as part of Greek and Roman culture. In today’s society, honour and provocation remain valid defences to murder, codified in law, in many cultures including South America. In the UK, we tend to associate these crimes with South Asian, North African and Middle Eastern cultures and to some extent with Eastern Europe.

There has been much discussion in the women’s sector and among police as to how separate a category of murder it is or should be. After all, it is murder and it is not helpful to exoticise or glorify it. On the other hand, there is a need for some specialist knowledge and expertise to be able to identify high-risk situations and respond appropriately.

There had been incidents of “honour crimes” where the police were criticised for their poor response or lack of one and so they embarked in a laudable attempt to improve their understanding of such cases. They situated so-called “honour killings” as murder like any other. Drawing on expertise from women’s rights experts however, they established some additional and particular characteristics relevant to prevention, policing and methods of investigation including the existence of complicity among much of the wider family and community in the rationale, execution and cover-up of the crime.

There are two key distinctions highlighted here. First, the perpetrator is not limited to the intimate partner or ex as is commonly seen in domestic homicides but can include the wider family or community. Second, the wider family, community and culture may approve, to some extent, of the murder. The implication of this latter point is that in other domestic homicides the crime is condemned, abhorred and incomprehensible.

Indeed there is an encouraging and understandable horror and rejection of the term “honour killing” in several parts of society. At the same time, there has been an association with these crimes as foreign, barbaric, primitive and alien. This has perhaps led to over-focusing on the perpetrators’ ethnicity. Picking out key identifying factors is undoubtedly helpful to the police in identifying, preventing and investigating such crimes and should be welcomed. But it causes us to lose sight of the fact that while the manifestation of the crime may differ slightly, its motivation is the same. It also obscures the fact that our own wider society also shares in empathy with the perpetrator for such crimes as is evident in their treatment by the media and the online comment pages.

In France, although the defence of “crime passionel,” commonly used to explain violence against women where infidelity is suspected, was abolished; it is still a term commonly used in domestic homicides.  Similarly in the UK, despite the fact that in 2010 the provocation defence was abolished and replaced with “loss of control” there is still acceptance of a wife’s infidelity as material to whether a finding of murder or manslaughter will be made. Take the case of Jon Clinton who bludgeoned and stabbed his wife to death after he learned of her affair. He was originally sentenced to 26 years for murder but in January 2012 the appeal court quashed the conviction and ordered a retrial saying that his wife’s infidelity was material to his “loss of control” defence and so he should have been allowed to be tried for the reduced charge of manslaughter. (Interestingly at his retrial for manslaughter he entered a surprise plea of murder accepting that there was no excuse for his conduct).

In a judgement in July 2012, David Leeman, who had shot his wife six times after learning of her affair, was cleared of murder and convicted of manslaughter. In 2008, Wayne Forrester was convicted of murder after he hacked his ex to death when she changed her Facebook status to single after they split up. While, in his case provocation was rejected, he had argued in his statement his sense of humiliation as material saying he felt “totally devastated and humiliated by what she had done to me”.  The comments under articles describing this case included some to the effect that she should have realised how her actions would provoke and upset him. In all three of the British cases the relationship was controlling and violent. In all of the cases the relationship was breaking up whether from infidelity or not. 

Recently, commentators have noted an apparent increase in the number of cases across Europe of men killing their children, sometimes their partners and sometimes themselves.  The Americans call it “family annihilation", a term catching on over here. In that the end result is the destruction of large parts, if not the entirety, of the “family unit”, this may be accurate but the appropriacy of the term is questionable as it does not reflect the motivation. In all of these cases there are two over-riding factors.

First, there is usually some tension around the relationship as in the cases above. This may be that the marriage/partnership is breaking down, the man is controlling and jealous, the man fears or learns that she is having an affair. Maybe the woman wants a divorce or after splitting up the woman has started a new relationship.

It often coincides with some other dents to his status as “a man”. Maybe he has lost his job, his health and strength or his business are failing, he is facing bankruptcy or he is about to shamed and exposed for criminal or fraudulent activity. In each case his role as the head of the family, husband and father, the breadwinner, a strong protector and defender and a fine upstanding man are under attack. He feels himself disrespected and “dishonoured” and chooses to expunge any or all who could testify to this. To that extent one could call it an “honour crime” even though the perpetrator is the immediate partner.

In the media reporting of the cases there is often considerable focus on the alleged infidelity of the woman or suggestions that she was a bad wife, bad mother or that she had upset and provoked him, resulting in a degree of victim blaming. The reports also focus at length on the man, his career, his achievements and on what a lovely family they were and what a great Dad he is, resulting in a degree of empathy with him and his reaction to his shame and fallen status as “a man” – or his “dishonour”. This may not constitute utter approval of the offence but it is illustrative of a degree of tolerance, understanding and empathy and at odds with any sense of universal condemnation for it.

“Domestic homicide”, “murder”, “family annihilation”, “honour crimes” – there are a multiplicity of names and manifestations but the unifying factor is the underlying cause. Society has created gender roles in such a way that a man’s sense of his identity, status, power and role  – his “honour” – depends on it being propped up and reinforced by the compliance and conformity of those, particularly women, around him.

When the Pakistani women’s human rights lawyer and activist, Hina Jilani says, “The right to life of women… is conditional on their obeying social norms and traditions”, she may have been talking about South Asia but its application is universal.

Heather Harvey is research and development manager at Eaves for Women