There is No "Honor" In Killing: The Problematic Language Used To Describe Violence Against Women

Cherise Charleswell I Women's Issues I Analysis I July 26th, 2016

The term "honor killing" is used to describe an act of murder against a relative, usually a girl or woman, who is perceived to have brought dishonor to the family's reputation by engaging in what is deemed an "immoral" act within their given culture or society. In this respect, they can be looked at as a form of domestic violence, one that is colluded and facilitated, not only by a family, but also the external members of the same community; patriarchal views are used to justify these murders. Also, in many cases, these murders are carried out based on rumors and unfounded suspicions, which resemble witch hunts. It is believed that the only way to restore the family's "honor" is through murder - or punishment by death. These "honor" killings have been carried out by fathers, brothers, and cousins; and female relatives, including mothers - out of fear and/or cultural indoctrination - often are complacent and remain silent about these murders. Even worse is the complacency of society, in that these murders often go unpunished. There are no arrests or trials carried out to seek justice for the deceased. Instead, it seems that the social norms justify the murders - finding the women guilty of inappropriate behavior and thus deserving of capital punishment.

Currently the practice is most commonly associated with regions (and cultures) in North Africa and the Middle East, and with those in the Islamic faith; however, these acts pre-date Islam, and have been carried out in other regions of the world. The practice has a long history, and this likely has much to do with the fact that women and girls, for many centuries, have been subjugated and treated as nothing more than property. It was carried out in the ancient world, including ancient Rome, where the pater familias, the senior male of a household, was afforded a number of rights that were not extended to Roman women, including the right kill a daughter or other female relative engaged in pre-marital sex, or a wife having extra-marital relations (Goldstein, 2002). In fact, the Roman law justified homicide "when committed in defense of the chastity either of oneself or relations". (Blackstone, 1966). The Hammurabi Code of the Babylonian civilization had a number of rules that pertained to adultery, and among these rules was that an adulterous wife must be tied to her lover and thrown in the river to drown. The specific text is as follows for laws 132 and 133:

[132] If the "finger is pointed" at a man's wife about another man, but she is not caught sleeping with the other man, she shall jump into the river for her husband.

[133] If a man is taken prisoner in war, and there is a sustenance in his house, but his wife leave house and court, and go to another house: because this wife did not keep her court, and went to another house, she shall be judicially condemned and thrown into the water.

While ancient civilizations in the Americas, such as the Aztec and Incas, allowed their own form of "honor" killings: Inca laws allowed husbands to starve their wives if they were suspected of adultery, while Aztec laws permitted stoning or strangulation as punishment for adultery (Goldstein, 2002). Honor-based murders were also codified and practiced in medieval Europe, where early Jewish law mandated death by stoning for an adulterous wife and her partner (Brundage, 1987). Catherine Howard, the fifth wife of England's King Henry VIII, was beheaded based on allegations of adultery, as was the fictitious character Desdemona, in Shakespeare's play, Othello.

Women's roles, and increased independence, sexual liberation, etc., did not begin to take root until the 19th century, and was not advanced until the latter half of the 20th century. For many women in the world, these things have not yet been achieved, and the persistence of "honor" killings is an example to this. The following are some of the recent and brutal murders that have been described as "honor" killings:

- The killing of a 26-years-old Pakistani social media star and model Fauzia Akeem, known as Qandeel Baloch, by her brother in the name of preserving their family's honor. Fauna challenged social norms with her glamorous photos and videos that she posted on social media on sites such as Instagram. Reports about her death stated that she was strangled and/or subjected to things that were far more sinister.

- The case of Mohammad Shafia an Afghani man residing in Ontario, Canada, who murdered his three daughters, Zainab 19, Sahar 17, and Geeti 13, after he deemed them to be treacherous. Shafia's anger stemmed from the fact that he felt ashamed that his eldest daughter married a Pakastani man, and he reportedly stated the following when speaking about his daughter's deaths, "I would do it again 100 times,"

- The 2008 movie, The Stoning of Soraya M., is based on the true story of an Iranian woman who was falsely accused of infidelity by her husband, because she refused his request for divorce so that he could marry a 14-years-old girl, only to be ostracized by her community, rejected by her sons, and ultimately sentenced to death by stoning. Soraya was subjected to beatings by her husband before he began the plot against her, and his need to rid himself of her was because he could not afford to support his wife, their children, and the other bride that he sought after. Soraya's story was recounted by her aunt, to a French journalist, and it provides an example of how barbaric these acts of violence against women are, while also illustrating how vulnerable women are in various societies and within their families. This vulnerability stems from the fact that a family's honor is tied to a girl's/woman's body, ultimately stripping them of their rights to decide how to adorn their body, in which settings to allow themselves to take up space, whose company they can keep, and most importantly who they share their bodies with. There was also the movie Sound of Tears, made by Cameroonian director Dorothy Atabong and set in Canada. The movie followed the lead protagonist, a young woman and immigrant, who made the decision to forego a pre-arranged marriage in order to run-off with the man who she loved, and whose child she carried; a man who happened to be White. The movie ends with her being murdered by her brother, and closes with a scene of her mother knowingly sitting in a chair, waiting to receive confirmation that the deed had been done.

These twisted and illogical beliefs allow people within these communities to deem the act of murder as "honorable", or capable of restoring honor, and these out-dated beliefs continue to be a problem in the modern world, where according to United Nations statistics, some 5,000 "honor" killings are reported a year, worldwide. This count, of course, does not include the murders that go unreported. Further, they are not a problem that only affects those living in the Middle East or Africa, as there have been cases taking place in the United States, Europe, and Canada. In 2015, a report found that there were 23 to 27 documented honor killings in the United States each year (again, does not capture what is undocumented). In 2009, a report released by the Council of Europe warned that so-called honor killings were far more extensive in Europe than previously believed. The Department of Justice of Canada has even launched a preliminary examination of so-called honor killings.

These acts of violence carried out against women by their relatives should not be referred to as "honor killings" because they are actually dishonorable in nature. There simply is no honor in carrying out brutal and premeditated murder. Therefore, I offer a few suggestions to replace the term "honor killings":

• Family-Directed Killings

• Patriarchal Killings

Masculinity So Fragile

What these acts of violence against women and girls, and in some cases men, particularly LGBTQ men, make clear is that masculinity is extremely fragile, in that the actions of another, and what they choose to say or do with their bodies, allows men to feel as if their masculinity has been diminished and their honor ruined. Any time someone chooses to tie their worth and dignity to the actions of another, it speaks to their fragility. It also speaks to their need to overcompensate and protect their fragile masculinity through the use of brute force and oppression.

Ultimately, masculinity is so fragile and readily becomes problematic because it is often steeped in patriarchy, which not only oppresses and negatively impacts women and girls, but also the men who have to uphold it. Patriarchy dictates to them what actions are deemed acceptable, such as what color clothes they should wear, how close they can respectfully sit next to another man, as well as making it shameful to cry or show any emotion. Consequently, patriarchy makes masculinity fragile, leaving men in a constant and daily battle to protect it. This constant assertion of manhood is often done at the expense of women and girls, and is carried out through oppressive and sexist cultural and social norms, and in some cases through public policy. An example of the political aspect would be laws such as those in Saudi Arabia which prohibit women from driving. To be clear, it is not an official or state law, but one that is upheld by societal views, based on deeply held religious beliefs of clerics who wield a great deal of power and influence. They argue that female drivers "undermine social values." There has been a great deal of pushback to these archaic beliefs, such as the 2011 campaign "Women2Drive" organized by women in Saudi Arabia, which encourage women to disregard the laws and to even dare to post images of themselves driving on social media in an attempt to raise awareness and spark dialogue for reform. Unfortunately, campaigns such as this have not been a major success, and women continue to face punishment for getting behind the wheel of a vehicle. In this case, masculinity is so fragile that the mere thought of women being able to move about freely without the approval and assistance of men is viewed as a challenge to their manhood - a manhood that once again depends on the actions of another.

So, this is what makes masculinity so fragile - the fact that it can be diminished and stripped away by the actions of another. It is extremely problematic in that the ways in which men must prove their masculinity- through specific labels and behaviors - often result in mental, emotional, and physical consequences for both men and women.

Your Honor Cannot Be Based on Ownership of Women's and Girl's Bodies

The most critical problem with "honor" killings is the fact that the entire concept of honor is based on ownership of women's bodies. The ability to dictate what the women in one's family does with their bodies, and being able to show or prove that they have adhered to these rules, and have not rebelled or done what is forbidden. Even when the forbidden involves them taking agency over their bodies and lives.

This cannot be stated in a more simple manner -- No one's honor can be based on the ownership of women's and girl's bodies.

A joke made by comedian Chris Rock comes to mind when thinking about this topic of honor-by-ownership. It is a joke where he shared that his "Only job in life is to ensure that his daughters stay off of a pole," or something to that effect. Basically, stating that his honor as a man and success as a father is inherently tied to his daughters' sexuality and personal decisions. One can only imagine what would occur if father's of the millions who engage in sex work, such as strippers, decided that their daughter's profession was so dishonorable that they too had to be punished by death. Another problem with the joke is that it exemplifies the sexist views held by many, and reinforced by both women and men. It is the same view that deeply condemns, vilifies, and looks down upon the strippers but not the men who spend their money and time to simply gaze at naked women's bodies. Their morality is not called to the table. Also, these views are the same that criminalize prostitutes while not applying the same degree of scrutiny and punishment to the johns that pay for sexual services. In many societies, including those in the Western World that likes to pretend it is more progressive, prostitutes - including those who are forced into sex trafficking -- are ostracized, while the men who exploit prostitutes are again often free from shame and public scrutiny. Many former prostitutes or those still engaged in this work often speak about this shame and how it affects their ability to return home to their communities, villages, etc. and ever have a "normal life." (More on thathere,here, and here)

These "honor" killings uphold a patriarchal dichotomy that views women as either Virtuous or Whores. There is no in-between, and worse yet men are not held to similar standards. They are not deemed to be whores based on the number of sexual partners that they may have had, or their chosen style of dress. In fact, the opposite occurs. Men are praised for their sexual prowess, and are often referred to as "lady's men" when their sexual exploits gain notoriety. Even within cultures where these "honor" killings take place, men are not condemned to death or shunned if they engage in premarital sex, sex with prostitutes, or sex outside of their marriages. These acts are acceptable because of the perceived belief that men have sexual needs and desires that must be fulfilled, while ignoring the fact that women may have the same. So, men can engage in dishonorable and immoral activities as long as they have control over women's bodies. This control can be used to ensure that their honor remains intact.

Before We Condemn Let's Discuss Western Hypocrisy

When hearing about these so-called honor killings it is easy to respond with condemnation, as well as xenophobic reactions about a certain culture and religion - particularly Islam - but the truth of the matter is that those responses are hypocritical. Violence against women, particularly rape culture, is just as problematic for women in the West, and within other cultures and societies. Sure, those carrying out these acts may not be carried out primarily by relatives (although incest, pedophilia, intimate partner violence is often carried out by relatives), it does not take away from the fact that women and girls are victimized by gender-based sexual violence. A recent study in the UK, referred to as the "Femicide Census," found that the vast majority of homicides and violence committed against women were due to the result of intimate partner violence (More on thathere, and here). These killings may not be motivated by a need to restore "honor," but they have commonality in the need to control women and their bodies. If the United States government would restore funding for gun violence research originally earmarked by the 1996 Dickey Amendment (which interestingly restricted the CDC from using its funding to "advocate or promote gun control"), I am quite sure that a similar pattern regarding homicide and women would be revealed. One-hundred and forty-one medical, public health, and social organizations, including the Southern California Public Health Association, for which I serve as President, have joined in on a coalition being led by Doctors for America, which is urging Congress to Restore Funding for Gun Violence Research. Letters have been sent directly to four senior members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committee. (See the press release from Doctors for America here)

The language used to discuss violence against women and girls is quite problematic globally, because it is steeped in patriarchy and masculine fragility which normalize victim blaming. Those who speak out against street harassment and molestation are simply told that they are being whiny and cannot take a compliment, even when that compliment involves another person believing that they have a right to place their hands on another's body. These arguments are being made despite the fact that women/girls have been killed for simply stating 'no' - for saying that they did not want to give a man their number or didn't want to stay in a relationship with a man. One of the most graphic examples of this occurred when a young woman was stabbed to death in the middle of a crowded commuter train in Chicago. At the root of these retaliatory acts of violence is the fact that these men felt not only rejected, but as if they had been dissed--and thus disrespected. In other words, they too believed that their honor was diminished.

Normalized language of violence against women/girls made it possible for people like Daniel Holtzclaw, a former Oklahoma police officer convicted in December 2015 of rape, sexual battery, forcible sodomy and other charges, to sexually abuse and exploit women; as well as for the exploitation of Celeste Guap in Oakland, California, who has spoken out about engaging in sexual acts (while under the age of legal consent) with dozens of police officers from throughout the Bay Area under the guise of protection. Guap's ordeal has led to a scandal that involves the resignation of a number of police chiefs. In each case, the women involved remained silent because of the way they are viewed in society, and referred to by the media. They are rarely seen as the victim, and in other cases victims are simply blamed for what has transpired against them. This is the basis of rape culture, and rape culture has become so toxic with the advent of social media that men have used these platforms to harass, stalk, and make threats of rape and murder against women (Examples of this problemhere,here, and here).

In consummation, the current language used to describe violence against women and girls is beyond problematic. It helps to perpetuate patriarchal views of ownership and control of women and their bodies, particularly in the use of the term "honor killings," which ties a man's perceived honor to the choices made by a woman, regarding her life and body. There is absolutely no "honor" in killing.


Matthew A. Goldstein, "The biological roots of heat-of-passion crimes and honour killings," Politics and the Life Sciences 21,2 (2002): 28-37.

William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, 1765- 1769, Book Four, Public Wrongs, (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1769, reprinted by Wildy & Sons Ltd., London, 1966): 181.

James A. Brundage, Law, Sex and Christian Society in Medieval Europe, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987, 55.