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Thousands of Women Killed for Family "Honor"

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
February 12, 2002
 


Hundreds, if not thousands, of women are murdered by their families each year in the name of family "honor." It's difficult to get precise numbers on the phenomenon of honor killing; the murders frequently go unreported, the perpetrators unpunished, and the concept of family honor justifies the act in the eyes of some societies.

Most honor killings occur in countries where the concept of women as a vessel of the family reputation predominates, said Marsha Freemen, director of International Women's Rights Action Watch at the Hubert Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.

Reports submitted to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights show that honor killings have occurred in Bangladesh, Great Britain, Brazil, Ecuador, Egypt, India, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Pakistan, Morocco, Sweden, Turkey, and Uganda. In countries not submitting reports to the UN, the practice was condoned under the rule of the fundamentalist Taliban government in Afghanistan, and has been reported in Iraq and Iran.



But while honor killings have elicited considerable attention and outrage, human rights activists argue that they should be regarded as part of a much larger problem of violence against women.

In India, for example, more than 5,000 brides die annually because their dowries are considered insufficient, according to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). Crimes of passion, which are treated extremely leniently in Latin America, are the same thing with a different name, some rights advocates say.

"In countries where Islam is practiced, they're called honor killings, but dowry deaths and so-called crimes of passion have a similar dynamic in that the women are killed by male family members and the crimes are perceived as excusable or understandable," said Widney Brown, advocacy director for Human Rights Watch.

The practice, she said, "goes across cultures and across religions."

Complicity by other women in the family and the community strengthens the concept of women as property and the perception that violence against family members is a family and not a judicial issue.

"Females in the family—mothers, mothers-in-law, sisters, and cousins—frequently support the attacks. It's a community mentality," said Zaynab Nawaz, a program assistant for women's human rights at Amnesty International.

Women as Property

There is nothing in the Koran, the book of basic Islamic teachings, that permits or sanctions honor killings. However, the view of women as property with no rights of their own is deeply rooted in Islamic culture, Tahira Shahid Khan, a professor specializing in women's issues at the Aga Khan University in Pakistan, wrote in Chained to Custom, a review of honor killings published in 1999.

"Women are considered the property of the males in their family irrespective of their class, ethnic, or religious group. The owner of the property has the right to decide its fate. The concept of ownership has turned women into a commodity which can be exchanged, bought and sold."

Honor killings are perpetrated for a wide range of offenses. Marital infidelity, pre-marital sex, flirting, or even failing to serve a meal on time can all be perceived as impugning the family honor.

Amnesty International has reported on one case in which a husband murdered his wife based on a dream that she had betrayed him. In Turkey, a young woman's throat was slit in the town square because a love ballad had been dedicated to her over the radio.

In a society where most marriages are arranged by fathers and money is often exchanged, a woman's desire to choose her own husband—or to seek a divorce—can be viewed as a major act of defiance that damages the honor of the man who negotiated the deal.

Even victims of rape are vulnerable. In a widely reported case in March of 1999, a 16-year-old mentally retarded girl who was raped in the Northwest Frontier province of Pakistan was turned over to her tribe's judicial council. Even though the crime was reported to the police and the perpetrator was arrested, the Pathan tribesmen decided that she had brought shame to her tribe and she was killed in front of a tribal gathering.

The teenage brothers of victims are frequently directed to commit the murder because, as minors, they would be subject to considerably lighter sentencing if there is legal action. Typically, they would serve only three months to a year.

In the Name of Family Honor

Officials often claim that nothing can be done to halt the practice because the concept of women's rights is not culturally relevant to deeply patriarchal societies.

"Politicians frequently argue that these things are occurring among uneducated, illiterate people whose attitudes can't be changed," said Brown. "We see it more as a matter of political will."

The story of Samia Imran is one of the most widely cited cases used to illustrate the vulnerability of women in a culture that turns a blind eye to such practices. The case's high profile no doubt arises from the fact that the murder took place in broad daylight, was abetted by the victim's mother, who was a doctor, and occurred in the office of Asma Jahangir, a prominent Pakistani lawyer and the UN reporter on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions.

In April 1999 Imran, a 28-year-old married woman seeking a divorce from her violent husband after 10 years of marriage, reluctantly agreed to meet her mother in a lawyers' office in Lahore, Pakistan. Imran's family opposed the divorce and considered her seeking a divorce to be shaming to the family's honor. Her mother arrived at the lawyer's office with a male companion, who immediately shot and killed Imran.

Imran's father, who was president of the Chamber of Commerce in Peshawar, filed a complaint with the police accusing the lawyers of the abduction and murder of Imran. The local clergy issued fatwas (religious rulings) against both women and money was promised to anyone who killed them.

The Peshawar High Court eventually threw out the father's suit. No one was ever arrested for Imran's death.

Imran's case received a great deal of publicity, but frequently honor killings are virtually ignored by community members. "In many cases, the women are buried in unmarked graves and all records of their existence are wiped out," said Brown.

Women accused by family members of bringing dishonor to their families are rarely given the opportunity to prove their innocence. In many countries where the practice is condoned or at least ignored, there are few shelters and very little legal protection.

"In Jordan, if a woman is afraid that her family wants to kill her, she can check herself into the local prison, but she can't check herself out, and the only person who can get her out is a male relative, who is frequently the person who poses the threat," said Brown.

"That this is their idea of how to protect women," Brown said, "is mind boggling."

Ending Violence Against Women

Violence against women is being tackled at the international level as a human rights issue. In 1994 the UN's Commission on Human Rights appointed a special rapporteur on violence against women, and both UNICEF and the UN Development Fund for Women have programs in place to address the issue.

But the politics of women's rights can be complex. Last year the special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions was criticized by a coalition of member countries for including honor killings in her report, and a resolution condemning honor killings failed to pass.

Amnesty International is preparing to launch a worldwide campaign to halt violence against women in 2003.

But a lot of the work needs to be done at the local level.

"Police officers and prosecutors need to be convinced to treat these crimes seriously, and countries need to review their criminal codes for discrimination against women—where murder of a wife is treated more leniently than murder of a husband, for instance," said Brown.

Countries that don't recognize domestic violence as a crime at all need to bring their penal codes up to international standards, she said, adding that increased public awareness and greater education about human rights would also help.

Some progress has been made.

In a National Geographic documentary (which airs beginning Wednesday, February 13), Michael Davie investigated honor killings in Pakistan, where it is estimated that every day at least three women—including victims of rape—are victims of the practice.

The case of one of the victims Davie examined is heartbreaking but also hopeful. Zahida Perveen, a 29-year-old mother of three, was brutally disfigured and underwent extensive facial reconstruction in the United States. She is one of the only survivors in Pakistan to successfully prosecute the attacker—her husband.

"The reason honor killings have emerged as a human rights issue is that it's the only way ultimately that it can be addressed," said Freeman. "Naming the problem and bringing international attention to it highlights the refusal of some of these governments to shine any kind of light on their failure to protect their own citizens.

"Change can't happen if it's just people working inside the system; they're overwhelmed. International campaigns and media attention give them some ballast and the ability to say 'Look, the world is watching what is going on here,' and provides support for making change in their own countries."
 

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