Honor Killings
By Khan Bilal Khan

July 16, 2009

“Is it a crime to even think of getting married for a second time?” is the question that Sakina, 36, posed before the magistrate of the Malir Courts on Monday, in Karachi, Pakistan.

“What was I punished for?” she asks. The punishment that she is referring to was blackening of the face and shaving off her head, all because she, a divorcee, dared and actually dreamed of having a second marriage.

Thousands of women lose their lives in the name of honor and many are condemned to lives that make them pray for death.

Honor killing is the murder of a family or clan member by one or more fellow family members, where the murderers (and potentially the wider community) believe the victim to have brought dishonor upon the family, clan, or community. This perceived dishonor is normally the result of (a) utilizing dress codes unacceptable to the family or (b) engaging in certain sexual acts. These killings result from the perception that defense of honor justifies killing a person whose behavior dishonors their clan or family. Over 5000 women and girls are killed every year by family members in so-called 'honor killings', according to the UN.

It should be noted that the loose term honor killing applies to killing of both males and females in cultures that practice it. For example, during the year 2002 in Pakistan, it is estimated that 245 women and 137 men were killed in the name of Karo-kari in Sindh. These killings target women and men who choose to have relationships outside of their family's tribal affiliation and/or religious community.

Honor killings are also part of Italy's own history, where the idea of "honor" was an admitted legal defense until 1981. Prior to its reversal, an article existed in the Italian Criminal Code that provided a reduced penalty of imprisonment of only three to seven years for a man who killed his wife, sister or daughter to vindicate his or his family's honor.

Honor killings have also shown up more recently in the news. In London, a 70-year-old woman and her son were convicted July 26 for the honor killing of Surjit Kaur Athwal, who was murdered after threatening to get a divorce. Both the woman and her son face life sentences in prison.

Many cultures condone or at least tolerate a certain amount of violence against women. In parts of South Asia, Western Asia and Africa, for instance, men are seen as having a right to discipline their wives as they see fit. The right of a husband to beat or physically intimidate his wife is a deeply held conviction in many societies.

In a study in Ghana, close to half of all women and 43 per cent of men said a man was justified in beating his wife if she used a family planning method without his expressed consent.

Justification for violence stems from gender norms - distorted views about the roles and responsibilities of men and women in relationships. Worldwide, studies have shown a consistent pattern of events that trigger violent responses. These include: not obeying the husband, talking back, refusing sex, not having food ready on time, failing to care for the children or home, questioning the man about money or girlfriends or going somewhere without his permission.

In Sweden when Fadime Sahindal told police her life had been threatened, they gave her an alarm system. When she approached politicians for help, they told her to make peace with her parents.

And when she appealed in television interviews for aid in escaping a death sentence imposed by her father after she refused an arranged marriage, she provoked sympathy among Swedes — whose more liberal outlook she shared — but little willingness to get involved in a family matter. Now that she's dead, shot in the head by her father, the 26-year-old victim of an "honor killing" is drawing attention to the cultural double standards she battled.

The murder of a Turkish woman Hatin Surucu and the applauding of the crime by some students have left Berlin shaken and officials pushing for ethics class. 23-year-old Hatin Sürücü was gunned down at a bus stop by three of her brothers. Investigators suspect it was a so-called "honor killing," because her fundamentalist Turkish-Kurdish family strongly disapproved of her modern and "un-Islamic" life. She grew up in Berlin, was married off at 16 to a cousin in Istanbul, then a few years later returned to the German capital with her young son, moved into a home for single mothers, completed school and began to train as an electrician. She stopped wearing a headscarf. Living like a German got her killed.

The ritual of honor killing is also apparent in Christian dominated societies. Faten Habash's father wept as he assured his daughter there would be no more beatings, no more threats to her life and that she was free to marry the man she loved, even if he was a Muslim. All he asked was that Faten return home.

But the next weekend, as Faten watched a Boy Scouts parade from the balcony of her Ramallah home, the 22-year-old Christian Palestinian was dragged into the living room and bludgeoned to death with an iron bar. Her father was arrested for the murder.

Two days later, another ritual of killing unfolded a few miles away in Jerusalem.

Maher Shakirat summoned three of his sisters to discuss a family uproar after one of them, Rudaina, were thrown out by her husband for an alleged affair. Maher listened to Rudaina’s that she was not covering up the affair. Then he forced Rudaina to drink bleach before strangling her, who was eight months pregnant.

The murders of Faten Habash and the Rudiana were the latest in a series of brutal "honor killings" that have shaken the Palestinian community over recent weeks. The deaths have prompted demands for a change to laws inherited from the days of Jordanian rule that deem all women to be "minors" under the authority of male relatives and that provide a maximum of six months in prison for killings in defence of "family honor."

But those calls have met with resistance in parliament where religious Palestinian MPs argue that reform will lead to a collapse in the moral fabric of society. According to the Palestinian women's affairs ministry, 20 girls and women were murdered in honor killings last year and about 50 committed suicide - often under coercion - for "shaming" the family through sex outside marriage, refusing an arranged marriage or seeking a divorce. Another 15 women survived attempts to kill them.


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