The language of ‘honour’

Shafilea Ahmed

Shafilea Ahmed’s sister claimed in court she saw both her parents take part in her murder

The terms ‘honour’ killing and ‘honour’-based violence (HBV) as they are used in the English speaking world have often been criticised. The criticism relates to two main points, firstly that ‘honour’ has positive connotations in English and can be seen to legitimise violence, and secondly, that demarcating certain crimes as having a basis in ‘honour’ separates them from other acts of violence, often with little more distinction than the ethnicity and religion of the perpetrators of the victim and the perpetrators, feeding a xenophobic discourse. These points are certainly worth raising, but there are pragmatic reasons why ‘honour’ remains a useful term.

Firstly, while there is definitely a tendency in the press to call an act of violence an ‘honour’ crime even when the most significant aspect of collectivity is missing, it is necessary in terms of the provision of protection for authorities to distinguish between threats against a vulnerable person which involve a single potential assailant, and those which involve a collective. The recent trial in the case of Shafilea Ahmed suggests that both parents played a part in her death, an example of collaboration which is common to many so-called ‘honour’ killings. It is essential, where the threat of violence is collective, that the police assess the risks and respond appropriately to the heightened need for protection, and to do so they need to be able to identify those who are at risk. ‘Honour’ can be described as the justification of the perpetrator, and it is clearly distasteful to be seen to support a value system which legitimises violence. However, this is same the language which any potential victim would use when reporting risk. If a girl tells the police she is at risk of ‘honour’ killing, or that her family have threatened violence against her because she has ‘shamed’ them, authorities need to understand the terms she is using in the sense she herself is using them; to interpolate an alternative term between a person seeking help and the authorities is more likely to increase the misidentifications of persons at risk than inculcate positive social change. Any proposed change in terminology would also jettison the awareness that has been raised around the issue using current terminology, which is inadequate in any case, with authorities still not identifying the risks of honour killings.

Secondly, while ‘honour’ is a word with positive connotations in English, it must be remembered that this is not indigenous terminology: ‘honour’ is a placeholder used to translate a complex lexicon of words from other languages, such as izzat, sharam, namus and sharaf. Changing the word used to translate ‘izzat’, for instance, has little effect on the connotations of ‘izzat’ to a speaker of Hindi, Punjabi or Urdu. While a change in language could be used to express the rejection of an idea that any act of violence could be considered ‘honourable’, it is more than likely very clear to most perpetrators of HBV that these forms of violence are considered abhorrent by most Europeans, of all ethnicities, through media coverage and the punitive sentencing seen in recent cases. If this has not discouraged perpetrators, who tend to reject mainstream European mores in any case, it is unlikely that changing the term by which English-speakers refer to aspects of their value system would have enough of a positive impact to justify a diminution of the awareness we have developed, or introducing a terminological lacuna between potential victims and state services.

Changing the language we use to describe such crimes is a luxury we cannot afford when young lives are on the line.

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