Enough is enough: Putting an end to “honour”-based violence against women and girls

After a shocking week of violence, "honour"-based crimes must be recognised for what they are – crimes against women created and fostered by a patriarchal society.

Pakistani protesters against honour killings. Photo: Getty
Pakistani human rights activists protest against the killing of pregnant woman Farzana Parveen for marrying a man she loved. Photo: Getty

It has been a shocking week for violence against women in Pakistan, reflected in the number of horrific cases picked up by international news networks. National and international outrage was first sparked by the murder of Farzana Parveen, who was stoned to death outside Lahore High Court. Footage of the murder was broadcast to the world by onlookers who videotaped it on their mobile phones. Police officers can be seen failing to intervene in the deadly attack, which reportedly lasted for around fifteen minutes. The attack began soon after Farzana arrived to testify against her father's claim that she had been kidnapped and coerced into marriage. Her father, the only person arrested thus far for the murder, told police that Farzana had "dishonoured" her family for marrying against their wishes. Meanwhile, in the Indian State of Uttar Pradesh, two girls (aged fourteen and fifteen) were assaulted, murdered then hanged from a mango tree. Protests against perceived police inaction in the case ensued: two officers have now been arrested and a further two fired for failing to investigate when the father of one of the girls first reported them missing.

These murders are only the latest among many crimes committed in the name of "honour". "Honour"-based violence encompasses a wide range of physical violence (including assault, maiming and killing), coerced suicide (including by enforced self-immolation), starvation, forced marriage of women (often to a man who has already raped her), forced abortion, removal of children, female genital mutilation, forced virginity, forced hymen repair, and the curtailment of liberty, basic rights and/or education. Reports submitted to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights document the continuing occurrence of "honour" killings in Bangladesh, Brazil, Britain, Canada, Ecuador, Egypt, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Pakistan, Morocco, Sweden, Turkey, Uganda andUSA. The United Nations Population Fund estimates that between 5,000 and 10,000 women are killed in the name of ‘honour’ each year.

So called "honour" killings occur across a wide range of social, religious, ethnic and cultural groups. Although cultural and religious norms and traditions are often invoked to justify these crimes, it is imperative not to associate "honour"-based violence with one specific culture, country or religion. Instead, we must challenge popular stereotypes that suggest, for instance, that HBV derives from Islamic beliefs. Claims that honour killings are "unique" often result in the dismissal of these crimes as mere cultural aberrations; instead, these murders must be understood as part of a broader problem that affects all societies. Only by understanding that "honour"-based violence emerges from patriarchal beliefs and gender inequality can we begin to address this and other forms of violence against women and girls.

The vast majority of murders committed in the name of "honour" are perpetrated by men who use the trappings of religion and cultural tradition to legitimise the violence they perpetrate against female family members. In communities and societies that subscribe to codes of "honour", there are strict rules and norms dictating what people must and must not do. These norms are sharply divided along gender lines. Indeed, most norms focus on regulating female sexual behaviour and availability. Families and communities strive to ensure that ‘honour’ codes are strictly observed by all members because real or perceived transgressions are often seen to "stain" the "honour" of the transgressor’s entire family, kin-group or community. Violence against the transgressor is believed to "cleanse" the collective "honour" of the family and community, so it is often seen as necessary or even good. Thus, "honour" crimes reinforce and are, in turn, reinforced by patriarchal norms and traditions. One of the key traditions is a strict code of silence about such crimes when dealing with outsiders or the police.

My own research on gender-related killings of  women and girls in the Indian sub-continent and Iraqi Kurdistan shows that "honour" codes (and associated patriarchal views about the subordinate position of women) are embedded in broad and pervasive ways of thinking that revolve around gendered values and traditions that legitimise men’s control of women’s bodies and behaviour. These traditions and values heavily restrict the lives and activities of women, with any perceived "deviation" likely to attract some form of retribution or punishment. Punishment is often visible or public as it is only by punishing – and being seen to punish – those who transgress the "honour" code that a family’s reputation can be restored in the eyes of the wider community or society. Thus, "honour"-based violence, including ‘honour’ killings, do not just represent punishment for individuals but show other women and girls what is likely to happen to them if they do not conform to patriarchal social expectations as regards their behaviour and life choices. Until recently, practices that are harmful specifically to women have rarely been understood as stemming from norms and traditions that afford men control over all aspects of life while women are given little power to make their own choices. In the West, practices like female genital mutilation have often been viewed as an expression of the broadly atavistic nature of certain ethnic cultures. When the cause of "honour"-based violence is attributed to supposedly immutable and intrinsic traditions and religious beliefs, little attention is paid to the perpetrators of these crimes, either as culpable individuals or as part of male-dominated social structures.

To date, the norms and values associated with using violence to restore lost "honour" have only been recognised as a specific violation of human rights in specialist circles. However, there is a strong argument that states have a responsibility to prevent "honour"-based violence, including by taking action on the broader issue of how gender inequality often leads to the infringement of women’s human rights. While international treaties and conventions challenge both gender inequality and violence against women, the application of international law in individual countries is dependent on each state’s motivation to comply with their treaty-based obligations. To implement international human rights instruments, countries must amend their domestic legislation and develop new institutional processes (e.g. as regards how so-called "honour" killings should be investigated and prosecuted, much of which relies on police officers’ attitudes towards victims). However, for any of this to happen, there must be strong social and political commitment to establishing gender equality and protecting women’s rights.

Governments and other actors continue to differ in the degree to which they view "honour" killings as an issue that must be urgently addressed through preventative and educational initiatives. Thus, while attention to the issue has been growing since the early 2000s, this has rarely resulted in concerted or consistent national or international action.

"Honour"-based crimes must be recognised for what they are - crimes against women created and fostered by a patriarchal society. They represent a gendered form of violence not unique or specific to certain cultures or ethnic/religious groups,  but the product of social environments where the control and subordination of women by whatever means necessary is not only acceptable but even often encouraged. Programmes to prevent violence against women and girls cannot succeed until societies challenge the unequal power structures governing relationships between women and men. In other words, effective preventive work must address the root cause of the problem: inequality and discrimination.