Culture & Society

  • Issue 96 / November - December 2013

    (Dis) Honor Killings: How Islam Can Help Prevent Them

    Kim Soltani

    It has been claimed that many crimes against women are carried out in the name of Islam, and that the religion condones the poor treatment of women. For the purpose of this essay, "honor killings" will be examined from both a cultural point of view and from an Islamic perspective. Whilst in some cases, an honor killing may appear to have a link to Islam, it is in fact the lack of Islam, and especially its selective application in the case of some Muslim societies, that leads to an erroneous and misguided view of what honor killings really are and their base causes. In reality, honor killing is not a problem of some Muslim societies only – it exists in very similar forms in many cultures and territories. It is the same disoriented psychology based upon personal desires and a lack of self control that underlies murder and violence against women around the world.

    Honor killings are not a new type of murder or unique to any particular time or place. They are not associated with Islam, and there is no difference in their base causes or those of Femicide and crimes of passion. Several religious and cultural traditions have held the view that women are second class citizens compared to men; that their place in society is to benefit men; or that they are possessions to be dealt with in a manner befitting a man's choice. In Ancient Rome, "honor played an important part in the structure of Roman society… justifications for honor killings can be found in the family law of the Roman Empire" (Shah-David, 2011 p. 191). The legal differentiations between honor killings and other forms of homicide are based in Roman law. The father, or pater familias (head of the family), had jus vitae ac necis (power of life and death), thus no punishment could be imposed on a father or husband for killing their female family members (Bettiga-Bourerbout, 2005). It is also said that Judeo-Christian religious tradition claims men and women were punished because of Eve's decision to eat the forbidden fruit; women were punished further by being made subservient to men, and made to suffer through the pain of child birth and menstruation (Azeem, n.d.). Yet as Shah-David claims, killing in the name of honor is also found in other societies, such as Hindu communities and in Sardinia and Sicily. Despite these incidences, "this does not mean that Roman Catholicism encourages it" (2011 p. 191). In Australia, in a case of a Western Caucasian couple, a man strangled his wife, and community members claimed, "It is an honor killing…to avenge his male pride, to reassert his status in the world. He saw himself as the patriarch of the family and refused to accept her right to leave." (The Age, 2006). The question must be asked why Islam remains as justification for femicide and why its occurrence is amplified when committed in Muslim societies.

    Islam calls people to unburden themselves from the restraints and false claims of the material life and to return to God and the true way of life. As such, a society with material values will stand against such an ideal (Abushouk, 2006). Honor killings are a cultural practice, just as the Western media magnifying their occurrence is also cultural. It is statistically recorded that crime incidents against women in some Western countries are drastically higher when compared to Muslim and some non-Western countries. (Nation Master, 2011). These statistics support that Islam is not behind the underlying attitudes of violence towards women.

    Honor killing is the murder of a person who has supposedly brought dishonor to a family and where a public display condemning that person is required to restore family respect. This supposed shame is most commonly attributed to a family member who commits – or is accused, or suspected of committing – an indecent sexual act. Even rape is sometimes considered to "blacken" a woman's chastity, and thus tarnishing her family's honor. There is a belief that blood will remove the stain upon the family. This means the death of the woman – and sometimes, though less often, the death of the man, too. These deaths are very often public.

    Honor killings may also occur when a woman will not enter into a forced marriage, seeks to obtain a divorce, or acts in any way which may be considered sexually promiscuous and a male family member feels dishonored by such displays (Merry, 2009). Being "too Western" is also a reason given to justify this type of crime (Chesler, 2010).

    However, Islam gives very clear instructions about behaviors regarding women, adultery, divorce and legal testimony; these instructions go against any justification for honor killings. Women are considered the spiritual equal of men, their responsibilities towards God the same. There are differences between a man and woman regarding their respective worldly duties, but there is plenty of evidence in the Qur'an and in the practice of the Prophet that women should be treated fairly and gently. They are to be treated with a deep respect, going so far as to lay heaven under a mother's feet (Hadith, Ahmad Nasai), and are entitled to receive honor and the best form of care: "The best among you is the one who is the best towards his wife" (Muslim).

    Therefore, the relationship between men and women is to achieve mutual benefit and pleasure, and to help each other achieve their purpose in life. With regard to adultery, both men and women are equally responsible. Even though couples are encouraged to stay together, divorce is still halal (permissible) in Islam if a man and woman feel they cannot be equitable to each other and if they have exhausted all possible solutions. As such, claiming that wanting a divorce is grounds for dishonor and murder cannot in any way be ascribed to Islam. The Qur'an also states that four reliable witnesses be brought to testify against a women they claim is impious (An-Nisa 4:15). This is far from a support for honor killings on grounds of suspicion. A lack of Islam and cultural reasons can be the only other basis for this rationalization. And many people – both Muslim and non-Muslim – have expressed concern over "Western values" spreading through the Islamic world (Abou El Fadl, 2005). Sexual promiscuity may be seen as encouraged by Western media and Hollywood. Yet the concerns people express over this is by no means an excuse or justification for murder, but rather an example of why Islamic values must be holistically implemented, especially in Muslim's lives.

    Any justification for killing in the name of honor goes against true honor from God. Culturally developed and encouraged desires have an influence over people and their self-control, allowing a justification and belief to develop that they have a right and responsibility to commit heinous acts. No example in Islam can support honor killing. Therefore, we see that it is a cultural practice caused by the incorrect or incomplete application of Islam in Muslim societies. There are many examples, as given above, which prove that honor killing or other forms of femicide are among many very serious human problems. It is a grave form of human violence, and a true and comprehensive interpretation of Islamic values proves that Muslims can, and must, positively contribute to solving this problem, not the other way around. If some disgraceful practices are being attributed to Islam, it is not because they are part of Islam but because some Muslim communities are simultaneously practicing and propagating a blend of Islamic, contemporary, and Jahiliyyah (pre-Islamic ignorance) teachings. Islam is a holistic religion; a person's life, death, actions, beliefs, feelings, obligations, and their very nature is addressed in the Qur'an and the Prophet's practice. Through the revealed scriptures and the examples of the Prophets, God has taught humanity about our vices and virtues, but also how to overcome and strengthen them so we can achieve balance and happiness. A proper understanding of how to achieve this balance entails a thorough, rather than partial, reading of the wonderful sources at our disposal.

    Kim Soltani is a student of Islamic Studies at the Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilisation, Charles Sturt University, Sydney, Australia.


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