As “dynamically interrelated” concepts, the maintenance of honour and the evasion of shame can be perceived as a cyclical process – “honour relates to the behaviour expected of members of a particular community, while shame is associated with transgressions against these expectations”. As a public display of patriarchal power, underlying these killings is the often collective need to police women’s sexuality and freedom. Whilst men maintain their honour through the exertion of power and dominance, women must be chaste, modest and obedient – as the property of male relatives, “women embody the honor of the men to whom they ‘belong’”. A form of “social currency”, honour is often perceived as a “highly valued and zealously protected asset”. Where women are seen to violate religious or cultural norms with regards to sexual relationships, dress and communication with men, the perpetrator often believes the only way family honour can be preserved is by killing or harming the victim. However, “honour” is a nebulous concept, which in fact renders it “especially powerful” according to the UN Special Rapporteur”, “because it exists beyond reason and beyond analysis”.
Alarmingly, honour killings are on the rise in Pakistan, with the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan recording 280 murders from October 2016 to June 2017, although figures are often deemed to be “grossly underreported”. In October 2016 social media star Qandeel Baloch was strangled by her brother for posting provocative selfies on social media. Following the protests after her death, and the documentary about her murder, an anti-honour killing law was passed, which guarantees mandatory prison sentences of 25 years and eradicates the possibility of families legally pardoning the perpetrators. Before the new law was passed, the perpetrator could be pardoned by relatives of the victim, which may encompass compensation known as Qisas (blood money) and Diyat (retribution) law, thereby enabling perpetrators an escape route and the ability to evade the judicial system entirely. But this new law appears to have made little difference – “harsher punishments do not automatically translate into justice for women”. As the judiciary is left to determine whether a murder is defined as a crime of honour, defendants can simply declare that another motive was at the heart of the killing and therefore still be pardoned. Thus, in spite of the implementation of harsher sentences, honour killings continue to occur in Pakistan. In June 2017 a tribal council ordered the honour killing of Naghma, a 13-year-old girl who was accused of “running away” with men. In September 2017, a teenage Pakistani couple were electrocuted in a suspected honour killing after it was found out that they had planned to elope. Astoundingly, a 13 year old girl in Somalia was stoned to death after it was found that she had been raped by three men.
Furthermore, the use of torture and brutality against women is often condoned by public officials; in an implicit fashion, those who seek to reclaim this “property” through violent and coercive means are granted legal and social allowances. In the Middle East many murders are reframed as suicides by the courts and security authorities in order to prevent prosecutions. Where honour killings are allowed to occur, governments are breaching their responsibilities towards women. It is vital that states uphold their obligation under Article 4 Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women – “states should condemn violence against women and should not invoke any custom, tradition or religious consideration to avoid their obligations…”
Often embroiled in an excessive focus on culture, honour based killings should be viewed as a form of domestic violence as opposed to something that only occurs in minority communities where “outdated” notions of justice prevail. It is crucial that honour killings are framed “as part of a larger spectrum of violence against women” and not dismissed by cultural stereotypes. A disproportionate focus on culture diverts attention away from individual perpetrators and the undercurrent of patriarchal values which serve to justify the occurrence of honour killings. Contrary to the way it is framed in the media, honour based killings are not confined to certain religions, cultures or geographical regions; there have been instances in the UK, Brazil, Italy and America where perpetrators were of Roman Catholic or Irish Traveller descent. During 2010-2014 more than 11,000 instances of honour crime were recorded by the UK police.
One of the most often cited cases in the UK is that of Shalifea Ahmed who was just 17 when she was suffocated by her parents in front of her siblings for refusing to marry a man from Pakistan and living a “Western” lifestyle. When Shalifea was killed, Cheshire police refused to characterise her murder as an honour killing in order to stress that cultural rights do not excuse acts of brutality. Seeta Kaur is another British national feared to be a victim of honour killing – Seeta was placed under huge pressure during her marriage to give one of her sons to her childless brother and sister in law. Seeta’s husband regarded this promise as a matter of honour. Whilst in India on a family holiday, Seeta died and after seeing significant bruising around her neck, her family fear she was murdered, yet Indian police failed to launch a full investigation and UK police claim they have no jurisdiction to investigate further as the crime occurred abroad.
According to the United Nations, “honour-based violence represents a form of systematic institutionalized misogyny; the international community has a duty to do far more to combat it”. Whilst legislation is a central component to invoke change, it must be complemented by the education and emancipation of women. It is imperative that we truly recognise that honour killings are a huge problem to be tackled on a global scale and to acknowledge that they have become a “pervasive, spreading infection of what must be recognised as a mass crime”.
Written by: Francesca Esposito
Contax Law supports Francesca Esposito in her journalism so that she can express her voice on a subject she highly values. Francesca graduated from the University of Warwick in 2015 with a 2:1 in the Bachelor of Laws (LLB) and spent her third year studying abroad in the Netherlands at Universiteit Utrecht. She was awarded a Distinction in the Master of Laws (LLM) at University College London, specialising in Criminal Justice and Social Welfare. As an avid writer, Francesca has had several articles published and has also had positions on editorial boards for legal publications both in the UK and overseas.
Francesca is extremely passionate and captivated by the field of Human Rights, driven by her study of Gender and the Law during her LLB, which motivated Francesca’s desire to scrutinise the human rights violations faced by individuals around the globe.