Honour and Violence: honour-based violence and honour-killing can happen anywhere
Updated: 3 days ago
Image: Honour-killing animated by figurine toys. Photography by Zi Ling & Eldarin Yeong.
Why do people harm or kill their closed ones in the name of honour?
If we have a close look at the definition of ‘Honour’ it will give us clues about the motivations of the perpetrators.
‘Honour’ is closely related to terms like ‘high respect’, ‘great esteem’, ‘morality’ or ‘privilege’ (1). It is a rather ‘neutral’ word and is not culture, ethnicity, nationality, or religion bound (2). It is a collective of opinions, values, and ideologies which serve the structure and activities of a family, team, group, community, or nation. So for the perpetrators, violence is an unquestionable action to take when their power or interest gets challenged. [Anthropologist Alan Fiske wrote two wonderful books on how society functions and why violence has its purpose (3, 4).]
This doesn’t define what exactly these values and opinions are. And they can differ from culture to culture, society to society.
In the West, we tend to think that honour-based violence is only to do with certain cultures or societies. And it often involves child marriage, female genital mutilation or strict religious practice. But the truth is, honour-based violence can happen almost to anyone anywhere at any time. Forced marriage, in particular, affects a wide range of communities. This includes the Irish, Eastern European, Turkish, Roma, Arab, Kurdish, Latin American, Iranian, African, South and South-East Asian (5).
There is no cultural superiority here. Not all societies or cultures that highly regard honour are violent. A culture that discriminates against women can also produce rich art, music and literature (6).
If we look into English history and literature, we can find plenty of references about honour-based violence. The executions of Henry VIII’s two wives, for example. And his daughter, Elizabeth I, who imprisoned her lady-in-waiting for the marriage without her consent.
Shakespeare’s writings are filled with honour-based violence. You may remember Hermione’s trial in The Winter’s Tale? Posthumus’s banishment in Cymbeline? Leonato’s shame towards Hero in Much Ado About Nothing? Bertram’s marriage in All Well That Ends Well? And the entire plot of Romeo and Juliet!
And it is not just the Tudors. In our modern days, there are numerous reasons to alienate one from the rest. Adopting a new faith. Changing one’s gender. Having a non-heterosexual relationship. Wearing make-ups or shorts. Dating someone from a different background. Being a teenage mum. Failing a family business. Dropping out of college. And the list goes on. Whether violence would occur in these circumstances really depend on several factors. Such as the frequency of practice of violence among these people, the determination of perpetrators in committing the violence, or the compliance of others, etc. (7). The loss of honour can prompt the wider community to throw opinions at the family, and thus impel them to restore honour (8).
The punishment doesn’t have to be ‘severe’ enough to call it violence. It can simply be withdrawing one’s passport or mobile phone, freezing bank card, or threatening to disown. Women’s Aid has compiled an extensive and useful list of signs to watch out for (9).
There are still debates about whether men killing wives are crime of passion or honour-killing. It is loosely agreed that honour-killing is a collective decision and not a result of sudden and temporary absence of self-control (10, 11, 12, 13). The boundary is thin. Scholars and law-makers in many countries still find it problematic (14, 15). Italian writer Cinzia Tani argues that the concepts of the two were indistinguishable in Italy until recent decades (16).
That’s to say that honour-based violence is a complicated crime, and cannot be seen without the political, social, economic contexts. Complex human feelings and thoughts cannot be easily analysed. Different terms may serve the interests of the law and social work, and to avoid stereotypes (17). However, it is hard to miss the fact that our current limitations and conceptualisation of honour-based violence has caused confusions and injustice for the victims (18, 19).
2. Gill, Strange and Roberts (2014). ‘Honour’ Killing and Violence: theory, policy and practice. Palgrave and Macmillan UK. Introduction, p8.
3. Fiske (1991). Structures of social life: the four elementary forms of human relations: Communal sharing, authority ranking, equality matching, market pricing. New York: Free Press.
4. Fiske and Rai (2014). Virtuous Violence: hurting and killing to create, sustain, end and honour social relationship. Cambridge University Press. P77-92.
5. Sharp. Forced Marriage in the UK: A scoping study on the experience of women from Middle Eastern and North East African Communities. P8. http://www.refuge.org.uk/files/1001-Forced-Marriage-Middle-East-North-East-Africa.pdf
6. Mojab and Abdo (2004). Violence in the Name of Honour: Theoretical and Political Challenges.
7. Fiske and Rai (2014). Virtuous Violence: hurting and killing to create, sustain, end and honour social relationship. Cambridge University Press. P77-92.
8. Cohan (2010). Honor Killings and Cultural Defense. California Western International Law Journal. Volume 40: No.2.
9. Recognising domestic abuse: https://www.womensaid.org.uk/information-support/what-is-domestic-abuse/recognising-domestic-abuse/
10. Taş-Çifçi (2020). Honour Killings and Criminal Justice: Social and Legal Challenges in Turkey. Routledge. Introduction.
11. Pope (2012). Honor Killings in the Twenty-First Century. Palgrave Macmillan US. Chapter 2: p17-29.
12. Barat (2015). Commentary Open Access: A Legal Deinition for Honour Crimes. Journal of Civil and Legal Sciences 4: 147.
13. Meetoo & Mirza (2007). There is Nothing ‘Honourable’ about Honour Killings: Gnerder, Violence and the Limits of Multiculturealism. Womens’ Study International Forum 187.
14. Welchman and Hossain (2005). ‘Honour’: Crimes, Paradigms, and Violence Against Women. London, Zed Book Ltd. ‘Murders of Women in Lebanon: Crimes of Honour Between Reality and The Law’.
15. Gill, Strange and Roberts (2014). ‘Honour’ Killing and Violence: theory, policy and practice. Palgrave and Macmillan UK. Chapter 7.
16. Momigliano (2010). Honour Killing by Any Other Name: to consider honor killing within Muslim communities a crime unto itself overlooks the patriarchal roots of much of the intimate partner violence perpetrated in the Western World. The Nation. https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/honor-killing-any-other-name/
17. Manjoo (2014). Statement by Rashida Manjoo: United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences. https://www.unodc.org/documents/justice-and-prison-reform/IEGM_GRK_BKK/Statement_on_Gender-related_killings_for_Bangkok_meeting_November_11_2014.pdf
18. Taş-Çifçi (2020). Honour Killings and Criminal Justice: Social and Legal Challenges in Turkey. Routledge. Chapter 5.
19. Aujla & Gill (2014). Conceptualizing ‘Honour’ Killings in Canada: An Extreme Form of Domestic Violence? Sociology.