Today, July 14, would have been Shafilea Ahmed’s 36th birthday. She isn’t here to celebrate it, however, because she was murdered by her parents 19 years ago in a so-called "honor killing". She was 17. 

The UK's National Day of Remembrance for Victims of Honor-Based Abuse takes place each year on July 14 to commemorate Ahmed and the many other victims of so-called "Honor-Based" Abuse (HBA).

HBA was first officially recognized in the UK after the 2007 murder of Banaz Mahmod, killed by relatives after leaving an abusive marriage. Over the past five years, cases of HBA reported to the UK police skyrocketed by a staggering 81% and it is estimated that up to 15 so-called "honor" killings occur in the country every year. 

On the one hand, the increase is partly due to progress in classifying acts of violence as HBA and the empowerment of survivors to come forward. However, experts believe this is just the tip of the iceberg and that the real figures are likely to be much higher. 

The UK is far from the only country home to such violence. HBA is a global problem and "honor" killings have been reported worldwide — including in the US, Sweden, Germany, France, Italy, and Spain.

Samia Sarwar was shot to death in 1999 for attempting to divorce her cousin, who was allegedly abusive. Nine relatives of Ghazala Khan were arrested and convicted of helping to plot her murder in 2005 in Denmark. In Belgium, Sadia Sheikh's honor killing by her brother in 2007 made headlines twice: once when it happened, and again when the entire family was sentenced for it. Ahmet Yildiz was killed for living openly as a gay man in Turkey in 2008. A particularly high-profile incident was the murder of Pakistani celebrity-by-social-media, Qandeel Baloch, who was killed by her brother in 2016 "for dishonoring the Baloch name." Shockingly, however, he was released after six years on a legal technicality that allows a victim’s mother to pardon the crime. These are just a handful of the names we can remember today and every day. 

HBA punishes those that are deemed to have brought shame on their family or community through not conforming to traditional expectations. It can take the form of female genital mutilation (FGM), emotional abuse, physical abuse, house arrest, social ostracism, and forced marriage. 

Here’s what you need to know to get schooled on the issue. 

1. There’s No Honor in Honor-Based Abuse. 

There simply is no honorable basis for violence of any kind, but in particular, there is no basis for the kind of systemic violence that occurs in the name of honor.

“I do not even wish to use the phrase ‘honor killing’: there is not the faintest vestige of honor in killing a woman in this way,” the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has said.

As Barrister Charlotte Proudman and Dexter Dias QC have written: “The term 'honor killing' not only cedes too much power to the perpetrator, but is offensive to survivors and women. Instead, we need to see the crime through the eyes of those attacked, because these acts of gender violence attack something more than women's bodies, something precarious and precious: the challenge by thousands of courageous young women around the world to oppressive patriarchy and stultifying social convention.”

However, the term HBA is used in order to identify and measure the scale of such violence in order to provide a strategic and tailored approach to tackling it. 

2. It’s a Form of Gender-Based Violence.

HBA is a form of gender-based violence (GBV). As such, the majority of its victims are women and girls, but it can also affect men and boys.

GBV — defined by the UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR as “harmful acts directed at an individual based on their gender” — is estimated to affect 1 in 3 women worldwide. Yet, reliable data on GBV, as with HBA, is still not available as crime records only cover incidents that are reported, and so often massively underestimate its actual scale.  

3. Communities of Color Are Particularly at Risk.

Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) people are particularly vulnerable to HBA because of a complex range of factors, including concepts of family honor. 

The Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation (IKWRO) has argued that it arises from “the culmination of an ideology of male dominance [and occurs when] the independence of [the] younger [generation] clashes with the cultural conservatism of elders who wish to maintain dominance.”

HBA is more prevalent within communities from South Asia, the Middle East, and North and East Africa. Reports to specialist charity for victims and survivors, Karma Nirvana, come in from Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Orthodox Jewish, and occasionally traveller communities. 

Black and South Asian feminists have warned against framing HBA as a problem of religion or culture, because of the dangers of othering, essentializing, and racial stereotyping which can arise from so doing.

In the UK and Sweden, research shows that social service and criminal justice systems have often characterized these murders as "cultural traditions" rather than as extreme forms of violence against women. This attitude, and a general misunderstanding of the gender underpinnings of these crimes, has led to inadequate legal and social protection for girls and women who are under threat of crimes related to honor.

When Aasiya Zubair was murdered in Buffalo, New York, by her husband, for instance, some journalists immediately jumped to the conclusion that it was an honor killing — but it wasn’t. Since then, the surrounding Muslim community has been fighting the misconception that such violence is sanctioned by Islam. As former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan has said, murdering someone in the name of honor “is not only un-Islamic but also inhuman.”

Instead, understanding and specialist support is required to tackle the issue among marginalized communities where HBA is particularly present. 

4. At Least 5,000 Women & Girls Worldwide Are Murdered Each Year in 'Honor' Killings.

The UN estimates that 5,000 women and girls are murdered each year in honor killings around the world.

Organizations and advocates working in the field, however, argue that this figure is underestimated, putting the number at least four times higher.

Murder is the most extreme form of HBA and therefore a small percentage of overall cases

In fact, over the year period from March 2020-21 2,725 HBA-related offences were recorded by the police in England and Wales. 

5. It’s Often an Invisible Problem. 

Data such as crime records only cover incidents that are reported, and so are likely to massively underestimate the actual occurrence of violence. 

Why? Because HBA often goes unreported due to fear of recurrence or reprisal, shame, or perceptions of honor within families. 

6. It’s a Global Problem.

While there are parts of the Middle East and South Asia that are considered “honor killing hotspots,” HBA is certainly not limited to those regions. 

There is no single ethnic, cultural, or religious indicator of honor-based violence, reports the Honor Based Violence Awareness Network (HBVA ), a digital resource that studies HBA.

7. It Often Goes Unpunished.

Part of the reason why HBA persists is because there is rarely any form of punishment for perpetrators. 

In 2014, the human rights NGO International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) noted that honor-related crimes are rarely investigated, and the laws against them are rarely enforced in many countries.

Responses vary from country to country but in some places, crimes considered to have been justified by honor are considered lesser crimes. In Iraq, Syria, and Jordan, "honor" crimes have lower sentences. Additionally, informal courts in some parts of the Middle East and South Asia actually encourage "honor" killings

Meanwhile, in some countries, women deemed at risk of "honor" killing are occasionally imprisoned “for their protection” and may end up serving life sentences for no criminal act of their own, but for the potential crimes against them. 

Global Citizen Explains

Demand Equity

‘Honor-Based’ Abuse: 7 Things You Need to Know

By Tess Lowery