It is impossible to ignore the fact that so-called ‘honour’ crimes are predominantly associated with Muslims, as part of a general public stereotype in which Muslim women are seen as uniquely oppressed, and Islam as an exceptionally misogynistic religion. Newspapers cover ‘honour’ killings in gory detail, often describing the perpetrators and victims as Muslim in their headlines and body copy; TV coverage deploys stock footage of veiled women walking past minarets to a soundtrack of calls to prayer, ethnicising and exoticising ‘honour’ crimes as foreign and horrific, another aspect of xenophobic attitudes which seek to depict minority communities as backwards and barbaric. All of these cues give the impression that ‘honour’ crimes are not merely committed by Muslims, as sadly many of them are, but are an intrinsic aspect of Islam itself, within an atmosphere of distrust of Muslims and the rise of extremism.
It’s understandable then, that recent articles have suggested that ‘honour’-based violence that there is no relevant difference between acts of intimate partner violence, and ‘honour’-based violence besides the religious and ethnic identities of the communities where it occurs; to see the ethnicising of ‘honour’ crimes as part of a broader current of xenophobia. ‘When domestic abuse involves an Asian perpetrator and victim, it is almost always labelled an honour crime,’ says Huma Qureshi.
However, the distinction between other forms of violence and ‘honour’ based violence is clear enough in countries where ‘honour’ crimes continue to receive reduced sentences, in countries such as Iraq, Syria and Jordan; or where women killed for ‘honour’ crimes are buried in unhallowed ground, as in the kari graveyards of Sindh. In the West, those who abuse or kill their relatives claiming ‘honour’ as a motivation are unlikely to receive any such sympathy, so to divide crimes on the basis of the motivations of the perpetrator seems to have rather less significance: people may attempt to justify or excuse abuse on many grounds, from honour to frustration: judging motivations is surely a matter for the courts rather than the media.
But there is more to ‘honour’ crimes than their supposed motivation: they differ also in manifestation, and the most important aspect of this is collectivity. This means that there is more than one perpetrator involved, and in many cases an active collaboration between several persons to commit an act of violence. Five years ago this month, Du’a Khalil Aswad was stoned to death in an ‘honour’ killing in Northern Iraq, in front of hundreds of witnesses, who captured the grisly act from start to finish on their mobile phones. And this collectivity occurs in less spectacular cases: Ghazala Khan (nine perpetrators), Banaz Mahmod (five perpetrators) and Rukhsana Naz (two perpetrators) amongst many other cases with indicators of collective perpetration. This is the central issue which makes the protection of people fleeing honour-based violence challenging: the networking power of a collective who are determined to trace a fugitive are formidable, rendering the task of finding a secure location for a potential victim very complex. Although it may not be clear from media reports, the recently released figures showing a rise in ‘honour’-based violence in the UK are based upon a definition of collectivity – crimes are flagged as ‘honour’-related if a person reports that they are in fear of a collective of family and community members rather than a single individual during standard police risk assessment protocols [PDF, Question 20].
Recognising the collective nature of honour crimes is essential for tailoring the appropriate responses and protection measures that need to be in place for potential victims. Activists against honour crime are caught in a dilemma: on one hand, it is essential to raise awareness in order that the needs of potential victims are recognised and met, while on the other, certain aspects of media coverage only increase ethnic tensions which discourage women from coming forward. Moreover, the sole identification with Islam can lead to a failure to recognise women who don’t fit the stereotype, leaving them at risk of violence. In the interests of potential victims it is unwise to allow the discussion of ‘honour’-based violence to be co-opted for political ends, either by those who wield it as a stick with which to beat minority populations, or by those who deny its existence, but to strive towards increasing understanding without increasing discrimination against minorities, which can only create further barriers for women seeking help.
Cross-posted at the Honour-Based Violence Awareness Network