Human rights abuses committed against women — most often by male relatives — in the name of “family honor” are called “honor crimes.” They include battery, torture, mutilation, rape, forced marriage, imprisonment within the home, and even murder. These crimes are intended to “protect the family honor” by preventing and punishing women’s violations of community norms for behavior, particularly sexual behavior. Women who have been abducted, arrested, or raped are often blamed for shaming their families and may also be targeted for “honor killing.” The underlying purpose of “honor crimes” is to maintain men’s power in families and communities by denying women basic — and internationally recognized — rights to make autonomous decisions about issues such as marriage, divorce, and whether and with whom to have sex.
“Honor crimes” are sometimes assumed to be sanctioned by Islam since they occur most commonly in the Middle East. But while perpetrators of “honor crimes” often cite religious justification for their acts, these crimes are not rooted in any religious text. “Honor crimes” originated in customary law that pre-dates Islam and Christianity. They span communities, religions, and countries, including Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, Ecuador, Egypt, Guatemala, India, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Palestine, Peru, Syria, Turkey, and Venezuela.
In some countries, “honor crimes” passed from customary law into formal legal systems and penal codes enacted by European colonialists. “Honor crimes” are often treated like so-called “crimes of passion” in Western jurisprudence in that sentencing is based not on the crime, but on the feelings of the perpetrator. For example, in 1999, a Texas judge sentenced a man to four months in prison for murdering his wife and wounding her lover in front of their 10-year-old child.1 As in an “honor killing,” adultery was viewed as a mitigating factor in the case. But while individualistic societies such as the US tend to locate honor in the individual, communities that condone “honor killings” locate honor in the family, tribe, or clan. “Honor killings” are therefore often carried out with public support — sometimes even by those who are grief-stricken by the woman’s death.
Like “crime of passion” the term “honor killing” communicates the perspective of the perpetrator, and thereby carries an implicit justification. Some women’s rights advocates therefore prefer the terms “femicide,” “shame killings,” or “so-called honor killings.”
“Honor crimes” are a recognized form of violence against women in international human rights law2, violating women’s rights to life and security of the person; freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment; and the right to equality before the law and equal protection of the law. “Honor crimes” also violate rights guaranteed to women by the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), such as the right to freely choose one’s spouse and the right to equality in marriage. CEDAW’s General Recommendation Number 19 defines gender-based violence as a form of discrimination against women and makes explicit reference to “honor crimes.” CEDAW obligates States to protect women from gender-based violence, including violence committed by family members and to prevent, investigate, and punish acts of violence against women. The Convention also requires States to disqualify “honor” as a legal defense for acts of violence against women. The UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women echoes these obligations and states that, “States should condemn violence against women and should not invoke any custom, tradition or religious consideration to avoid their obligations with respect to its elimination” (Article 4).
But while international law calls on States to protect women, states themselves are often complicit in “honor crimes.” For example, Iraqi law does not recognize “honor killing” as murder. Instead, it offers vastly reduced sentences for the rape, mutilation, and killing of women on the grounds of “honor.” Moreover, in many communities, local or tribal leaders who condone “honor crimes,” rather than government, are the true authorities. For example, in Pakistan, “honor killing” has been declared illegal thanks to women’s advocacy efforts, but the law is rarely enforced.
“Honor crimes” are often described as an ancient and unchanging facet of “culture.” Like all human behavior, “honor crimes” do have a cultural dimension, but like culture itself, “honor crimes” are shaped by social factors such as poverty and migration, government policies, and institutional discourses that change — and can be changed — in ways that can either help combat or promote “honor crimes.”
Consider Iraq, where US actions have caused a sharp rise in “honor crimes.” The US destroyed the Iraqi state, leaving people more reliant on conservative tribal authorities to settle disputes and mete out “justice,” including “honor killings.” The occupation has empowered extreme social conservatives, who exploited both the power vacuum created by the invasion and a climate of rising poverty, violence, and insecurity to impose a reactionary social agenda, including support for “honor crimes.” Although the US is obligated as the occupying power to protect Iraqis’ human rights, including the prevention and prosecution of “honor crimes,” it has not done so. In fact, the US appointed reactionary leaders who condone “honor crimes” to the Iraqi Governing Council in 2003. Meanwhile, the US has refused to protect or support progressive Iraqi political currents working to combat “honor crimes” (such as MADRE’s partner, the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq) because these women also oppose US occupation.
Since the US bombing of Afghanistan in 2001, the Bush Administration has resurrected the hackneyed colonial notion that Western intervention is intended to “save” Muslim women from their oppressive societies. Few Muslim women believe this (the line is really intended for people in the US). Women in Muslim countries know that their work against “honor crimes” — and for women’s rights generally — has always been undermined by European colonialism and, more recently, by US intervention. That’s because foreign rulers prefer to see conservative, repressive local leaders for whom “honor crimes” are a facet of the status quo that maintains their power. These people have proven to be reliable junior partners in the project of controlling colonized and occupied peoples.
The fact that the US has used women’s rights as a rallying point for its wars is sometimes used to fuel the claim that women’s rights is “foreign” to the Middle East and a tool of Western domination. We hear that claim from conservatives in Muslim countries who oppose women’s rights. We also hear it from some in the US who worry that advocating Middle Eastern women’s rights imposes “American values” on those countries. But that view ignores more than a century of Arab women’s political struggle, organizing, jurisprudence, and scholarship aimed at securing rights within their societies.
The assumption that women’s rights is a “Western” concern is not only historically untrue, it’s also overblown. After all, the intellectual foundations of civilization — writing, mathematics, and science — are “Eastern.” Are these pursuits therefore “foreign” and inappropriate in the West? Human rights, feminism, literature, and science are all aspects of our common human heritage. We should be suspicious whenever one is said to “belong” — or not belong — to a given people, especially when that designation is used to maintain abusive power structures and deny people rights.
At the same time, we need to recognize that in the US, any discussion of “honor crimes” occurs in a climate of extreme hostility towards Muslim countries; often these discussions are little more than racist diatribes. That’s why strategies against “honor crimes” need to also combat anti-Arab racism and recognize the ways that sexism and racism have been conscripted into the US “war on terror.” Perhaps most importantly, combating “honor crimes” requires listening to and supporting the leadership of women in Muslim countries — women who are struggling for rights within their countries and for their countries’ right to freedom from US intervention.
2. “The Status of Women in Iraq: An Assessment of Iraq’s De Jure and De Facto Compliance with International Legal Standards,” American Bar Association Iraq Legal Development Project, July 2005, p. 32.