China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2016/Apr

Honour killing

At this year’s Eighty-eighth Academy Awards ceremony in Hollywood, California, the United States of America, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy won an Oscar for her short documentary, A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, about a young Pakistani woman who survived an attempted honour killing and follows her quest for justice.

The teenaged girl named Saba, falls in love with and marries a man in defiance of family orders to enter an arranged marriage.

Her father and uncle drive her to a river’s edge, beat her, shoot her in the head, stuff her into a sack and dump her body into the water.

Only she doesn’t die. She manages to free herself from the bag and make it back to land.

Just what is honour killing? It is the murder of a family member or social group due to the belief on the part of the perpetrators that the victim has brought dishonour upon the family or community.

These killings are directed mostly toward women and girls, but have been extended to men.

This problem exists in many countries such as Pakistan, India, Brazil, Jordan and others where those who commit this atrocity are almost never punished (The Middle East Quarterly…Worldwide Trends in Honour killings, Spring 2010, pp.3-11).

In history

Matthew A. Goldstein, JD (Arizona), has noted that honour killings were encouraged in ancient Rome, where male members who did not take actions against the female adulterers in their families were actively persecuted.

The origins of honour killings and the control of women is evidenced throughout history in the cultures and traditions of many regions.

The Roman law of pater familias gave complete control to the men of the family over both their children and wives. Under these laws the lives of children and wives were at the discretion of the men in their family.

Ancient Roman law also justified honour killings by stating that women found guilty of adultery could be killed by their husbands.

During the Ching dynasty in China, fathers and husbands had the right to kill females deemed to have dishonoured them.

Among the native American Aztecs and Incas, adultery was punishable by death.

When John Calvin controlled Geneva, Switzerland, women found guilty of adultery were punished by being drowned in the Rhône River.

Honour killings have a long tradition in Mediterranean Europe. According to the Honour Related Violence-European Resource Book and Good Practice (page 234), “Honour in the Mediterranean world is a code of conduct, a way of life and an ideal of the social order, which defines the lives, the customs and the values of many of the peoples in the Mediterranean moral” (Wikipedia).


Widney Brown, the advocacy director of Human Rights Watch, said that the practice of honour killings “…goes across cultures and religions.”

Human rights advocates have compared honour killings to crimes of passion in Latin America (which are sometimes treated extremely leniently) and also to the killing of women for lack of a dowry in India.

Killing a wife or sister for tarnishing her honour or that of the family has not received approval from any Islamic scholar of any note, in either in the mediaeval or modern era. Many Muslim commentators, and organisations condemn honour killings as an un-Islamic cultural practice.

Tahira Shaid Khan, a professor of women’s issues at Aga Khan University, says that there is nothing in the Qur’an that permits or sanctions honour killings.

Kahn instead blames it on attitudes (across different classes, ethnic and religious groups) that view women as property with no rights of their own as the motivation for honour killings.

Why are they killing their own family members? They do it for family honour. If a woman marries without the consent of the family, her brother or a male member of the family, even the father will beat or torture her, have her gang-raped, strangled, stoned, stabbed or even bludgeoned to death.

In many countries, those who kill for honour are almost never punished. On the rare occasions that they are brought to trial, they end up serving only three months in prison at the most before being freed (Wikipedia).

Worldwide trends

To combat the epidemic of honour killings requires understanding what makes these murders unique. They differ from plain and psychopathic homicides, serial killings, crimes of passion, revenge killings and domestic violence.

The motivation is different and is based on codes of morality and behaviour that typify some cultures, often reinforced by fundamentalist religious dictates.

In 2000, the United Nations estimated that more than 5,000 honour killings occur every year. That number might be reasonable for Pakistan alone, but worldwide the numbers are much greater.

In 2004, at a meeting in The Hague about the rising tide of honour killings in Europe, law enforcement officers from the United Kingdom announced plans to begin reopening old cases to see if certain murders were, indeed, honour killing.

The number is routinely underestimated and most estimates are little more than guesses. Definitive or reliable worldwide estimates of these killings does not exist.

Honour killings are a family collaboration. Worldwide, two-thirds of the victims are killed by their families of origin.

Internationally, fathers play an active role in over one-third of the honour killings.

In Europe, two-thirds are tortured, while in the Muslim world, half are tortured.

Torturous deaths include rape or gang-rape before being killed, being strangled or bludgeoned to death, being stabbed many times (10 to 40 times), being stoned or burned to death, being beheaded, or having one’s throat slashed.

Fifty-eight per cent of victims are murdered for being too Western and/or for resisting or disobeying cultural and religious expectations, which means being seen as too independent, not subservient enough, refusing to wear varieties of Islamic clothing (including forms of the veil), wanting an advanced education and a career, having a non-Muslim (or non-Sikh or non-Hindu friends or boyfriends, refusing to marry one’s first cousin, wanting to choose one’s own husband, choosing a socially inferior or non- Muslim or non-Sikh or non-Hindu) husband, or leaving an abusive husband.

There were statistically significant regional differences for these motives.

What must be done

How can this problem be addressed? Immigration, law enforcement and religious authorities must all be included in education, prevention and prosecution efforts in the matter of honour killings.

Shelters for battered Muslim girls and women should be established and multilingual staff appropriately trained. Sometimes young Muslim girls are frequently lured back home by their mothers.

Clear government warnings must be issued to Muslim, Sikh, and Hindu immigrants: honour killings must be prosecuted in the west and perpetrators, accomplices and enablers must all be prosecuted.

Western judicial systems and governments have begun to address this problem.

The Canadian government informed new immigrants that the country’s openness and generosity does not extend to barbaric cultural practices that tolerate spousal abuse honour killings, female genital mutilation or other gender-based violence.

Those guilty of these crimes are severely punished under Canada’s criminal law (Middle East Quarterly).

Catholic doctrine

Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains forever in a special relationship with the creator who is the sole end.

God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one, under any circumstance, can claim for themselves the right directly to destroy an innocent human being.

The deliberate murder of an innocent person is gravely contrary to the dignity of the human being, to the golden rule, and to the holiness of the creator.

The law forbidding it is universally valid and obliges each and every one, always and everywhere…The Fifth Commandment forbids direct and intentional killing as gravely sinful. The murderer and those who cooperate voluntarily in murder commit a sin that cries out to heaven for vengeance (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2268).

Six days after Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy was awarded her Oscar, Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, vowed to change the country’s laws to try to stop the practice of honour killings after seeing her movie.

Hopefully, Sharif will stop other crimes such as the case in which a nine-year-old was rescued from being married off to a 14-year-old boy to settle a family dispute.

The wife of the girl’s brother had died from a health issue some weeks prior and her family suspected foul play, accusing the young girl’s family of murder.

Four village elders were arrested because they decreed the girl be given as a compensation marriage (South China Morning Post, 5 March 2016).