Islam

Are Honor Killings Simply Domestic Violence?

| by Middle East Forum

PHOTO: Amina Said (L), 18, and her sister Sarah, 17, were shot dead by their father Yaser at their home in Irving, Texas, in January 2008. Said was upset by his daughters' "Western ways" and was assisted in the killing by his wife, the girls' mother. The victims of honor killings are largely teenage daughters or young women. Unlike ordinary domestic violence, honor killings often involve multiple family members as perpetrators.

Phyllis Chelser, Middle East Quarterly

On February 12, 2009, Muzzammil Hassan informed police that he had beheaded his wife. Hassan had emigrated to the United States 30 years ago and, after a successful banking career, had founded Bridges TV, a Muslim-interest network which aims, according to its website, "to foster a greater understanding among many cultures and diverse populations." Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III told The Buffalo News that "this is the worst form of domestic violence possible," and Khalid Qazi, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council of Western New York, told the New York Post that Islam forbids such domestic violence. While Muslim advocacy organizations argue that honor killings are a misnomer stigmatizing Muslims for what is simply domestic violence, a problem that has nothing to do with religion, Phyllis Chesler, who just completed a study of more than 50 instances of North American honor killings, says the evidence suggest otherwise.

Background and Denial

Families that kill for honor will threaten girls and women if they refuse to cover their hair, their faces, or their bodies or act as their family's domestic servant; wear makeup or Western clothing; choose friends from another religion; date; seek to obtain an advanced education; refuse an arranged marriage; seek a divorce from a violent husband; marry against their parents' wishes; or behave in ways that are considered too independent, which might mean anything from driving a car to spending time or living away from home or family.

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Fundamentalists of many religions may expect their women to meet some but not all of these expectations. But when women refuse to do so, Jews, Christians, and Buddhists are far more likely to shun rather than murder them. Muslims, however, do kill for honor, as do, to a lesser extent, Hindus and Sikhs.

The United Nations Population Fund estimates that 5,000 women are killed each year for dishonoring their families.[2] This may be an underestimate. Aamir Latif, a correspondent for the Islamist website Islam Online who writes frequently on the issue, reported that in 2007 in the Punjab province of Pakistan alone, there were 1,261 honor murders.[3] The Aurat Foundation, a Pakistani nongovernmental organization focusing on women's empowerment, found that the rate of honor killings was on track to be in the hundreds in 2008.[4]

There are very few studies of honor killing, however, as the motivation for such killings is cleansing alleged dishonor and the families do not wish to bring further attention to their shame, so do not cooperate with researchers. Often, they deny honor crimes completely and say the victim simply went missing or committed suicide. Nevertheless, honor crimes are increasingly visible in the media. Police, politicians, and feminist activists in Europe and in some Muslim countries are beginning to treat them as a serious social problem.[5]

Willingness to address the problem of honor killing, however, does not extend to many Muslim advocacy groups in North America. The well-publicized denials of U.S.-based advocacy groups are ironic given the debate in the Middle East. While the religious establishment in Jordan, for example, says that honor killing is a relic of pre-Islamic Arab culture, Muslim Brotherhood groups in Jordan have publicly disagreed to argue the Islamic religious imperative to protect honor.[6]

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Yotam Feldner, a researcher at the Middle East Media Research Institute, quotes a psychiatrist in Gaza who describes the honor killing culture as one in which a man who refrains from "washing shame with blood" is a "coward who is not worthy of living ... as less than a man."

Therefore, it is no surprise that the Jordanian penal code is quite lenient towards honor killers. While honor killing may be a custom that originated in the pagan, pre-Islamic past, contemporary Islamist interpretations of religious law prevail. As Feldner puts it: "Some important Islamic scholars in Jordan have even gone further by declaring honor crimes an Islamic imperative that derives from the 'values of virility advocated by Islam.'"[7]

Islamist advocacy organizations, however, argue that such killings have nothing to do with Islam or Muslims, that domestic violence cuts across all faiths, and that the phrase "honor killing" stigmatizes Muslims whose behavior is no different than that of non-Muslims. For example, in response to a well-publicized 2000 honor killing, SoundVision.com, an Islamic information and products site, published an article that argued,

Four other women were killed in Chicago in the same month ... They were white, African-American, Hispanic, and Asian … Islam is not responsible for [the Muslim woman's] death. Nor is Christianity responsible for the deaths of the other women.[8]

In 2007, after Aqsa Parvez was murdered by her father in Toronto for not wearing hijab (a head covering), Sheila Musaji wrote in the American Muslim, "Although this certainly is a case of domestic violence … 'honor' killings are not only a Muslim problem, and there is no 'honor' involved."[9] Mohammed Elmasry, of the Canadian Islamic Congress, also dismissed the problem. "I don't want the public to think that this is an Islamic issue or an immigrant issue. It is a teenager issue," he said.[10]

Indeed, denial is rife. In 2008, after Kandeela Sandal was murdered for honor by her father in Atlanta because she wanted a divorce, Ajay Nair, associate dean of multicultural affairs at Columbia University, told the media that "most South Asian communities in the United States" enjoy "wonderful" relationships within their families and said, "This isn't a rampant problem within South Asian communities.

What is a problem, I think, is domestic violence, and that cuts across all communities."[11] In October 2008, Mustafaa Carroll, executive director of the Dallas branch of the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), dismissed any Islamic connection to a prominent Dallas honor killing, labeled as such by the FBI, arguing, "As far as we're concerned, until the motive is proven in a court of law, this is [just] a homicide." He continued, "We [Muslims] don't have the market on jealous husbands ... or domestic violence … This is not Islamic culture." [12]

Case studies suggest otherwise.

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