Honor Killings: The Frightening Reality
How far would you go to uphold your honor? In many communities and cultures around the world, the concept of honor greatly influences societal norms and ways of life. Many people believe they are required to act a certain way in order to protect their personal honor and avoid bringing shame upon their family. Today, in some communities, people will kill a family member (usually a woman) because they believe this individual has brought “dishonor” upon the family or community. But is there any way to justify honor killings? Arguments in support of killing to preserve honor fail to account for the barbarism and immorality of the practice. I strongly believe that we have an obligation to work for an end to honor killings.
The origins of honor killings are deeply rooted in religion, politics, and culture, which lead many to believe this practice is justified. Honor killings have existed for thousands of years. In the Roman Empire, the paterfamilias, the senior male within the household, had the right to kill an unmarried but sexually active daughter or an adulterous wife. In an even earlier era, ancient Assyrian law allowed a father to punish his daughter in any manner he deemed fit if she had been raped. As the concepts of human rights and gender equality became articulated, however, honor killings waned.
At present, honor killing victims are most often Muslim women. Yet, the practice of honor killings is present in several communities worldwide where the concept of shame dominates daily life. Actions that can bring dishonor differ within these communities. Honor killings can result from a woman’s refusal of an arranged marriage, choice of her own husband, or status as a victim of sexual assault. She might also be dressed in a way others consider inappropriate, pursue an education, drive, or have a profile on social media. Usually, before the actual murder takes place, the victim may encounter imprisonment within the home, battery, and torture. These actions can drive the victim to commit suicide, sometimes considered more “honorable” than the “dishonor” of one’s family.
For a school research project, I investigated the history of honor and honor killings in the Jewish and Muslim faiths. I found that in both of these Abrahamic traditions, customs and values can be manipulated to support honor killings; however, even stronger arguments can be made against honor killings.
THE CONCEPT OF HONOR IN JEWISH TRADITION
Within Jewish tradition and religious texts I discovered how and where the concept of honor is embedded. The Torah contains a few stories that represent honor killings or can be used as support for honor killings. One of the most notable stories is the rape of Dinah in Berashit Chapter 34: Dinah, Jacob’s daughter, went out to see the “daughters of the land” and was allegedly raped by Shechem. When Dinah’s brothers found out, they were outraged because they believed that Shechem had defiled their family as well as their sister. It is written in the Torah, “אֲחֹתָם דִּינָה אֵת טִמֵּא אֲשֶׁר” (Genesis 34:13), translating to “because he made Dinah their sister impure.” This quote can be interpreted to mean that he brought dishonor and shame upon Dinah and, by extension, the family of Jacob. Shimon and Levi, two of Dinah’s brothers, retaliated by killing Shechem, his father, and all the males in the city. The murders in this story can be considered honor killings because people were killed as a result of dishonor brought upon a family. However, the events of this story differ from a “typical” honor killing because the perpetrator and his family were killed rather than the victim. However, the story illustrates the importance placed upon honor in a society—as a matter to kill for.
Another story within the Torah that could be interpreted as an honor killing is the story of Pinchas in Bamidbar Chapter 25. When Aaron’s grandson, Pinchas, saw that Zimri, a Simeonite, was sleeping with a Midianite woman named Cozbi, he killed them both. Zimri’s sleeping with a non-Israelite dishonored the community; therefore, Pinchas chose to take matters into his own hands and killed them. Rather than receive condemnation for this zealous act, Pinchas was praised. God even granted him “שָׁלוֹם בְּרִיתִי,” a covenant of peace. In this story, it seems as though God rewarded Pinchas for killing someone who shamed the community. It can be argued that, by committing this murder, Pinchas was acting in the name of God.
The Torah also provides laws that can be used as justification for honor killings. Again, taking from Bamidbar Chapter 30, Moses gives B’nai Yisrael a set of laws handed down to him by God. These laws pertain to matters involving vows and women. First, Moses explains the laws of “בִתּוֹ בִּנְעֻרֶיהָ בֵּית אָבִיהָל אב,” or a daughter in her youth living in her father’s house (Numbers 30:17). These laws explain that if a daughter makes a vow to God, and her father denies or contradicts her intentions, then her declaration does not stand. Some people believe that this law can be used to validate honor killings because it gives a father the right to control his daughter’s decisions and life. Jewish tradition later explains that the father is only given power over his daughter until she is twelve and a half years old. According to Bamidbar Chapter 30, once the girl weds, the husband has power over his wife and her vows. The woman is seen as the subordinate figure and is not granted control over her own life. This law perpetuates an honor paradigm since it is interpreted as giving permission to the patriarch to dictate the choices of all the women in his family, including his daughter, wife, and sister. Many further interpret this power as the right to kill a girl if she dishonors the family.
In addition to the Torah, Jewish tradition and culture emphasize the value of honor. The concept of Kiddush Hashem, for example, which roughly translates to “sanctification of the [divine] name,” was coined in the Rabbinic period and refers to acting in the name of God. This term can be used when someone “dies for God” and becomes a martyr, or when someone acts fervently in order to protect God’s name. When someone commits an honor killing, he believes he is acting in the name of God. These people believe that it is their duty to take whatever measures are necessary to protect their family’s honor for God. They believe they are doing what God would want them to do; they believe they are acting according to Kiddush Hashem.
Another Jewish belief that represents the value of honor is the concept of tzniut, or modesty. Some people argue that modesty is a staple of Jewish life. Most people associate tzniut with clothing; but, while the way someone dresses is a large part of tzniut, it encompasses much more. How one dresses is the most physical representation of tzniut, but different levels exist. Some of the most common customs involve wearing clothing that covers the body (arms, legs, chest), and married women wearing wigs or headscarves. Another interpretation of tzniut is speaking and acting modestly. This varies between different sects of Judaism and within individual families. Nevertheless, it is the belief that one should act appropriately and honorably. While Judaism does not praise the idea of killing someone if she tarnishes her tzniut, it does show that modesty is an important value within Judaism. The value of tzniut mirrors the value of honor in Muslim communities. Both Jews and Muslims believe that a woman’s honor or modesty is something worth protecting.
THE CONCEPT OF HONOR IN MUSLIM/ISLAMIC TRADITION
Islam, like Judaism, offers support for honor killings within the religion’s beliefs. The Qur’an contains a number of verses that many people believe justify the actions of honor killings. For example, the Qur’an states:
“And kill them wherever you find them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out. And Al-Fitnah [disbelief] is worse than killing…but if they desist, then lo! Allah is forgiving and merciful. And fight them until there is no more Fitnah [disbelief and worshipping of others along with Allah] and worship is for Allah alone. But if they cease, let there be no transgression except against Az-Zalimun (the polytheists, and wrong-doers, etc.).” – Qur’an (2:191-193)
Some Muslims believe that when someone dishonors his or her family, he or she has turned against Allah and deserves to be punished. The above quote, then, could be used as justification to carry out an honor killing.
Another quote in the Qur’an, which people use as a reason to commit an honor killing, is “Those who believe fight in the cause of Allah” (Qur’an 4:76). This quote illustrates how perpetrators of honor killings generally do not believe that they are committing a crime because they believe they are acting in the name of Allah.
A notable connection between honor killings and the Qur’an is a parable found in Chapter 18. In the parable, a boy is killed because his parents feared that he would bring “disobedience and ingratitude” upon his family. They did not want him associated with their family, and they killed him so that Allah could provide them with a better son (Qur’an 18:65-81). A perpetrator of an honor killing no longer wants the victim associated with the family, whether it is a daughter, wife, or sister.
The stronger ties between Islam and honor killings lie not within the Qur’an but within customs, culture, and Shari‘a. Shari‘a is the moral and social code, and religious law of Islam. Shari‘a itself cannot be altered, but the interpretation of Shari‘a, called fiqh, can change. Many people believe that Shari‘a specifically justifies honor killings. Shari‘a does provide for arranged marriages, and does advocate death by stoning for extramarital sexual relations. Shari‘a also sanctions murder of anyone who oppresses Islam and condones punishment for marrying outside the religion. These laws and other interpretations of Shari‘a are used as the basis for carrying out an honor killing.
The strongest support for honor killing lies in the fact that, to some people, honor killings have become a societal norm. In 2013, the University of Cambridge conducted research to determine the prevalence of the belief that honor killings are justified. Researchers surveyed over 850 ninth grade students in Amman, Jordan, to discover whether they advocated for honor killings. One-third of the teens surveyed supported honor killings—half of the boys and one in five girls believed killing a daughter, sister, or wife who had dishonored or shamed the family was justified.
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE COIN
Though there is ample evidence in religious texts and support in cultural traditions to justify honor killings, evidence can also be found in both Jewish and Muslim traditions to condemn this unequivocally immoral practice. In the Jewish tradition, prohibition of murder can be found in the Ten Commandments: “Thou shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). Without qualification, this commandment states that murder is a sin. The Torah also says, “רעך דם על תעמוד לא,” which means “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:16). Not only do Jews have the responsibility to not kill, but they are also expected to stop others from killing. Jews cannot watch evil prevail in the world; they must take a stand and act against it. People of all faiths can draw wisdom from this edict: It is not enough that we not partake in an honor killing, we must work to end honor killings around the world.
Jewish tradition also does not specifically promote honor killings. For instance, women are given the right to refuse an arranged marriage. Also, even though honor is an important value within Judaism, there are punishments other than death for one who shames the family.
The Qur’an also contains verses that prohibit killing. It says: “Whoever kills a believer intentionally, their reward will be Hell, to abide therein forever, and the wrath and the curse of Allah are upon them, and a dreadful penalty is prepared for them” (Qur’an 4:93). Some proponents of honor killings argue that one who dishonors a family is no longer a believer. Yet, someone of the Muslim faith is considered a believer. This verse explains that killing someone is unjust, and one should be punished for committing this act. The Qur’an also states, “Whoever kills a human being, it is as if he had killed all mankind” (Qur’an 5:32). These verses illustrate that the Qur’an does not necessarily support the brutal actions of honor violence.
Honor killings are illegal in most countries. Murder is universally considered a crime, and therefore is deemed worthy of punishment. However, in Muslim countries, the practice of honor killings often ambiguously lies between state law and customary law. If honor killings are illegal under state law but not under customary law, effective punishment of perpetrators can be compromised. Many countries have started to take action against the practice of honor killings. Turkey is well known for the life-imprisonment sentences given to anyone involved in an honor killing. The Islamic Supreme Council of Canada issued a fatwa saying, “There is no justification for honor killings, domestic violence and misogyny in Islam,” and the All Pakistan Ulema Council issued a fatwa declaring that “killing of girls in the name of honor or dignity is terrorism and viciousness.” The laws of these countries prove that honor killings can be considered not only immoral but also illegal.
HONOR VIOLENCE ON THE RISE
Although we may like to believe honor killings are not common and are not happening in our communities, this is not the reality. Each year, 5,000 women die in honor killings, according to UN reports. Women’s advocacy groups contend the figure is actually 20,000. In Afghanistan, more than 50 women were murdered for honor during the summer of 2012. Honor violence has been reported in Canada, Great Britain, the United States, Sweden, Germany, France, Bangladesh, Brazil, Ecuador, Egypt, India, Israel, Gaza, the West Bank, Italy, Jordan, Pakistan, Morocco, Sweden, Turkey, Uganda, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran. Honor killings are on the rise, and it is up to us to stop them.
This past year in Afghanistan, an 18-year-old girl named Amina was killed by a gang of gunmen after running away to avoid an arranged marriage. While it is unclear who is responsible for this murder, many women’s advocates accuse Amina’s family for staging an honor killing. Even though Amina was with her uncle and brother at the time of the incident, neither of them reported it until the women’s ministry reported the crime.
In January 2008 in Texas, Yaser Said killed his two daughters, Sarah and Amina, because they both had boyfriends and were adapting to Western civilization. Their brother believed the girls were responsible for their own deaths; he stated, “They pulled the trigger, not my dad.”
In 2007, Miss Israel contestant Duah Fares (she later changed her name to Angelina) was forced to withdraw from the competition because of an alleged honor-killing plot. Angelina was the first Druze to compete in this pageant, and was threatened with death by her uncles and other members of the Druze community. Her sister, Maya, was later killed in 2011 in a possible honor killing. These are just a few examples of the honor killings that occur throughout the world.
Honor killings themselves are dishonorable, and do not solve any problems. Honor violence sheds light on the larger issues of gender inequality, and lack of free choice for women in some of these communities. Women themselves—not families and tribes—own their bodies.
So what can we do? People often fear that speaking out against honor killings is culturally insensitive, but condemnation of honor killings is not condemnation of a particular religion. It is inhumane in any religion to kill someone. As stated by Raheel Raza, activist and journalist, in the documentary film Honor Diaries, “We live in a country that has freedom of voice, let’s utilize it.”
There are many organizations that work to promote gender equality and combat issues such as honor killings that we can all support. For example, the Afghan Women’s Writing Project is an initiative to empower Afghan women to tell their own stories and truths. This organization has found that, by inspiring women to share their stories through writing, it promotes greater economic independence for the writers by strengthening computer literacy, writing skills, and self-confidence. It also sparks international conversations about the challenges these women face.
The AHA Foundation is another important organization. This foundation specifically works to end honor violence. The AHA Foundation’s activities include: compiling data on honor violence crimes, which are not currently tracked by US law enforcement or government agencies, publishing reports and articles and organizing conferences about the continued oppression of women and girls in the US, lobbying to expand and strengthen state and national legislation for the protection of women and girls, training of law enforcement and service providers, and connecting women and girls in crisis to appropriate services.
All these services are critical in the fight against honor killings and are key steps in making a change in the world.
As for taking a stand, you can do that every day in your personal life. You can keep up on the global women’s movement, about women’s rights in the work place here at home, the sexual assault that is rampant on college campuses these days, and make sure your voice is heard challenging the mindset that holds women responsible for violence against them.
Personally, I feel that education is the most important step in combatting these issues. Many people either lack awareness of these crimes or are misinformed. By sharing information and making people aware of the tragedies that are occurring today, we are encouraging people to join the fight, and are making a difference in this world.