Back in 2007, the mother-in-law and husband of Surjeet Athwal were sentenced to life for arranging for her murder in Punjab. The Surjeet case was widely described as an ‘honour’ killing in the press, on the basis that Surjeet was engaged in an affair and sought to leave her husband. One right-wing blog displayed a picture of Bachan Athwal, the mother-in-law, in traditional Sikh dress, entitled ‘Muslim Granny Kills Daugther-in-law for Honour’ above an anti-Muslim diatribe. When I attempted to correct the blogger, he informed me that Sikhism was a branch of Islam – at which point I decided he didn’t deserve the compliment of rational opposition. Such a co-option of ‘honour’ to an anti-Muslim agenda is widespread. I will not link to Pamela Gellar but you are welcome to google her.
Undoubtedly ‘honour’ has become another ingredient in the simmering pot of Western xenophobia, routinely used to denigrate minoritised communities, and deployed with wild inaccuracy. The murder of Aasiya Hassanwas widely described as ‘honour’-related whereas her killer was a man with a history of domestic violence, and had killed her as she attempted to exit the relationship, a pattern which is familiar to all researchers of domestic violence, and that there was no indications of the collectivity which is associated with ‘honour’ crimes.
The basis of the identification then, was not based in the structure or motivation of the crime, but in the Muslim identities of the murderer and victim, and in the method by which the murder was carried out. Aasiya had been beheaded, which chimed with Islamist practices, allowing for an association between Islamist violence and ‘honour’ violence, a potent and toxic blend of signifiers. Meanwhile, the murder of Sparkle Rai, killed by hitmen hired by her Indian father-in-law who thought his son’s choice of marriage with an African-American woman brought shame to his family, passed without comment. Although the ‘honour’ motive was far less ambiguous here than in the Hassan case, the ethnicities of the actors did not fit the xenophobic script.
As I discussed in an earlier post, the co-option of ‘honour’ into xenophobic discourse has, in some cases, led to a culture of denial by anti-racists, where the distinctive features of HBV are submerged in the deep dank sea of violence against women. Whereas for my purposes the most significant aspect of HBV versus IPV has been collectivity – due to the challenges of achieving protection for a woman confronted by multiple assailants within a system which is set-up to deal with women confronted by one abuser – some NGOs have countered with an argument that says, in effect, all crimes within minoritised communities are collective. Firstly, I fail to see that such a pronouncement makes much improvement: for one thing, rather than diminishing the Othering nature of the distinction between HBV and IPV, it represents a rather promiscuous extension of HBV to all VAW within all Asian communities, meaning that if there is, as I argue, a requirement for enhanced protection measures for crimes with a collective base, then that these can be considered applicable on an ethnic basis rather than as something to be discerned case-by-case based on informed risk assessment and case evaluation. Secondly, it was not my experience that the violence which IKWRO deals with is universally collective: that some, and indeed probably the majority, of the cases in which IKWRO intervenes, the violence shares the single perpetrator model of IPV with the majority of women in the country. While in some cases experiencing IPV may lead to a risk of HBV if the victim determines to exit the violent relationship against family wishes, there is no necessity behind this relationship, and plenty of women achieve divorce with full support from their families.
So I determined to investigate whether it was possible to make a definition on an empirical basis. I read 40 casefiles, picking 20 at random from the category which had been marked as IPV by their caseworker and 20 from the category HBV. I marked down the nature of each case, whether ‘honour’ discourse was prominent in the speech of the victim and the caseworker, and the identities of the perpetrator or perpetrating group. And I found that in the majority of cases, the single-perpetrator model was the predominant form of abuse. Abusers did benefit from the ability to use the discourse of ‘honour’ over their victim’s head by threatening to report misbehaviour to her family – a strategy which was not always successful. One abusive boyfriend tried to instigate violence against his former girlfriend by showing explicit mobile phone photographs to her brother; he was beaten up himself for his cheek and the young woman escaped with little more than a stern talking-to by her father. It is in the nature of abusers to capitalise any abuse tactics which present themselves: abusive men often threaten wives with insecure immigration statuses that they will deported if they attempt to escape abuse. The nature of these threats says more about the fear they are intended to provoke within their recipient than the actual practices of UKBA; similarly, the nature of threats based in ‘dishonouring’ a woman cannot be taken as an indication that HBV will ensue.
On aggregate, collective crimes were slightly more common than individual crimes (given that I had not selected proportionately this is no indicator of the overall distribution of IKWRO’s casework). Those committed by a woman’s own relatives were far more likely to involve ‘honour’ as a stated motivation, whereas those committed by husband’s networks, including relatives and friends, were not universally described or experienced as ‘honour’ crimes despite the presence of collectivity.
While ‘honour’ crimes amongst the groups with which IKWRO works are predominantly seen as those committed by the victim’s relatives (shown in Kardam, Taysi and Sır), this is not the only pattern: some cultures transfer the custodianship of ‘honour’ from one family to the other at the point of marriage, thus granting the license to commit HBV to the husband and his collective, such as in Albania where it is ritualised through the gift of a bullet at the time of marriage. My interpretation is that violence by a husband’s collective may be a result of diasporisation: families who send their daughters overseas lose the ability for surveillance and supervision which is intrinsic to the guardianship of ‘honour’, leaving the slack to be taken up by the husband and his networks.
Overall, I find that it is possible to draw a clean distinction between IPV and HBV without drawing on West/East dichotomies, because there are clear patterns of individualistic partner violence within the sample. There is a more ambiguous patterns of collective violence, where violence committed by a victim’s own family is clearly ideated as ‘honour’-related, while collective violence is less clearly conceptualised. Differences between violence emanating from a victim’s own family, and that of her husband’s family and friendship networks needs more scrutiny, and hopefully I will be posting a follow-up in due course.
[ETA – follow up is here]