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Honor Killings: Everything You Should Know, and Why They Aren't Honorable

@KenRoth via Twitter

Every once in awhile the media erupts in outrage over the honor killing of a girl or woman — usually in South Asia. These stories, intermittently covered by international media outlets, are actually part of larger, global issue: honor based violence.

However, these acts of violence that we have come to call honor violence and honor killings, have no honor in them. There simply is no honorable basis for violence of any kind, but in particular, there is no basis for the kind of systemic violence against women that occurs in the name of honor.

What is honor-based violence?

Honor-based violence is violence, plain and simple.

But it is violence perpetrated with the goal of restoring or protecting the honor of oneself, family, or community. Due to social norms that devalue women as individuals and human beings, honor violence is mostly — though not exclusively — committed against women and girls. It is committed as a punishment and redemption for the perceived shame or disgrace a woman has brought upon her family and/or community.

The victim’s family members, who believe they have been disgraced, are generally the perpetrators of honor violence, so it is sometimes compared to domestic violence. However, acts of domestic violence do not typically have the same shame or honor motivation and are usually committed by an individual. Honor violence, on the other hand, may be committed by several people or result from a collective effort, and aims to secure familial control over a girl or woman’s behavior.

Acts of honor-based violence include female genital mutilation, acid attacks , forced marriage, as well as many other forms of physical, sexual, and psychological abuse.

Read more: 12 Myths About Female Genital Mutilation Debunked

But the most extreme form of honor violence is honor killing — the murder of girls and women by their own mothers, fathers, and brothers. Both immediate and extended family members, seeking to reclaim their honor, are frequently involved in the killings. Honor killings may also be ordered by community leaders or tribal councils, a pressing problem in Pakistan.

What could be shameful enough to warrant a death sentence?

Nothing. There is nothing a person can do that justifies honor violence. Yet girls and women are branded a disgrace and subsequently punished for so many reasons.

A young Pakistani woman refused to marry the man her family chose for her, a man who was also her cousin. Instead, she eloped with a man she chose for herself. She was three months pregnant when a group of 20 people beat her to death with bricks — the mob included her father, brothers, and the cousin she jilted.

An Iraqi immigrant held a knife to his daughter’s throat while her mother and sister tied her down and beat her — because she spoke to a man. This was their way of preserving her virginity for her arranged marriage.

A father in Arizona ran his own daughter over with a Jeep for being “too Westernized” because “she liked make up ... hoped to be able to support herself” and rejected an arranged marriage to a man in need of a green card.

A tribal council ordered the murder of a Pakistani 15 year-old-girl because she helped her neighbor elope — she was drugged, strangled, and then burned to death.

Another 15-year-old girl died from severe burns on her face and chest after her own parents attacked her with acid. She had engaged in “illicit relations” with a boy and “wasn't coming to her senses so [her] parents threw acid on her to save their honor,” CNN was told.

These are only a handful of examples of murder and violence for so-called honor. Deviating from cultural or traditional norms and expectations — including choice of clothing, education, and employment — can incite honor-based violence. Expressing sexuality, having contact or engaging in sexual activity with the opposite sex (including rape), choosing one’s own spouse, rejecting an arranged marriage, fleeing a forced marriage, wanting to leave a marriage — all allegedly bring shame and dishonor to one’s family.

Men are also victims of honor killings. When a man elopes with a woman, marries her against her family’s will, or marries a woman who has rejected an arranged marriage, he may be considered complicit in dishonoring her family. Gay men have also been murdered for bringing shame to their family through their sexuality.

But not one of these actions justifies the use of violence.

Read more: The dangers of falling in love with the ‘wrong’ person

Where is this happening?

Though media attention often focuses on honor killings in the Middle East, South Asia, and Muslim-majority countries, violence of this nature is certainly not limited to those regions. Honor killings have been reported not only in the UK and the US, but also in Sweden, Germany, France, Italy, Turkey, and Uganda.

It’s estimated that 5,000 women are murdered globally each year in the name of honor. In India, approximately 1,000 women are victims of honor killings every year. In Pakistan, which bears the brunt of international criticism, that figure is closer to 1,100 — the victims were commonly shot or attacked with acid.

Read more: From Acid Attack to Fashion Week: How One Victim is Fighting Back

Between 2010 and 2014, over 11,000 incidences of honor based violence, which includes cases of female genital mutilation and forced marriage, were committed in the UK; instances of honor violence are also rising in the US.

Read more: Child Marriage: Everything You Need to Know

As our world becomes increasingly globalized and people migrate, they also assimilate. The adoption of values outside of traditional cultural values by their can be difficult for older generations to accept and is sometimes deemed shameful. This is not a problem that’s going away anytime soon and is becoming an increasingly global issue — unless we challenge the social norms that support these practices and tackle the roots of this problem.

Why is it so hard to stop?

There are a few ways in which the root causes of honor killings and violence are fundamentally misunderstood. So here is the truth:

1. It is not about religion, it’s about culture.

International coverage of honor killings and violence tends to focus on incidents in countries like Pakistan, India, and Muslim communities, so it is easy to misattribute this kind of violence to religious beliefs. However, no major religion advocates committing murder to reclaim honor and revered religious leaders regularly condemn the practice as a “repulsive act, condemned and prohibited by religion.”

The concept of “honor” in this context is closely tied to virginity, fidelity, and modesty — which are considered virtues in some religions. But “honor”-based violence has no basis in religion. It is a cultural practice based on people’s interpretation of those virtues and how to enforce them; in some cultures, it is also legitimized by tribal justice systems.

“Honor”-based violence is driven by cultural norms that consider girls and women to be the property of men. It is perpetuated by the idea that a woman’s body is a vessel of her family’s honor, rather than her own to do with as she chooses, and a systemic view of girls and women as inferior to boys and men.

These murders are motivated by the belief that a girl is merely a symbol of her family’s honor and that symbol can be tarnished. “Girls are born only to stay at home and to bring honor to the family by following family traditions,” said the brother (and proud killer) of social-media star and victim Qandeel Baloch. And in this view, girls and women are expendable when that honor is tarnished and the symbol is tainted.

Read more: Pakistani Social Media Star Murdered in 'Honor Killing'

But a human being, a life, is much more than a symbol.

2. We can’t accurately gauge the size of the problem.

Most of the figures on honor-based violence and killings are gross underestimations. Since not all countries and justice systems distinguish between honor-motivated crimes and domestic violence or homicides committed for other reasons, it is difficult to obtain an accurate count of honor based violence and honor killings. Additionally, there are not always reporting mechanisms in place and even countries that have laws criminalizing honor-based violence and killings have loopholes that allow these crimes to go unreported and unpunished.

Though honor killings are illegal in Pakistan, the law is poorly enforced and it still has one of the highest incidences of these murders. Because honor killings are often carried out by family members, there may not be outside witnesses to the crime, meaning that it is up to the perpetrators to turn themselves in. They are then more likely to pass the murder off as suicide or death by natural causes.

A lack of accurate data on how many incidents have occurred and where they have occurred poses a challenge to addressing the problem.

3. The problem can’t be solved by creating laws alone, we have to challenge social norms.

When Turkey cracked down on honor violence by imposing life sentences for honor killings, cases of “honor suicide” began to rise. The families of “dishonorable” girls merely saw the law as forcing them to choose “between sacrificing a son to a life in prison by designating him to kill his sister or forcing their daughters to kill themselves,” the New York Times was told.

Under current Pakistani law, the victim’s family can forgive her murderer — and are often forced to do so by other family members or are willing to do so as the perpetrator is likely a family member as well.

Read more: Pakistani Government Bans Killer of Social Media Star from Being Pardoned

While creating new laws to address honor-based violence is crucial, the ideology of this honor is deeply entrenched in culture. Pakistani policemen and investigative authorities from the same culture may not necessarily motivated to enforce the law because they accept these social norms.

In countries where honor culture is not prevalent, law enforcement authorities may not understand the nature of the problem and incorrectly handle cases. In many instances, if a girl or woman seeks help because she fears for her life, she may find safety with her family; this is particularly true for children. But the perpetrators of honor-based violence are generally family members, so sending a girl or a woman back to her family might essentially be issuing a death sentence.

In order to stop this practice there need to be strict laws prohibiting honor based violence, but there also needs to be a change in the social norms that support the violence and an awareness of how to appropriately deal with victims.

4. We are lending it validity by using the word honor

A photo posted by Komal Malik (@komalkmalik) on

No act of violence can or will restore honor to a human being — so we need to stop validating these actions by inserting honor into the terminology. To use the word honor in reference to these murders is to adopt the perspective of the attackers rather than the attacked. Honor violence is used as a means of forcing girls and women into obedience, a way to control their lives and their bodies — but there is no honor in stripping someone of their freedom or taking a life.

Following the death of a 15-year-old girl, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan has said that honor killing “is not only un-Islamic but also inhuman ... It is not honor killing, it's just plain murder.”

Read more: Stand with Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and tell world leaders: There is no honor in honor killings.

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

Though it is critical to recognize that the motivation behind these murders may differ from others in order to stop this practice from continuing, it is equally important to recognize that honor-based violence is still just violence.

Let’s stand up for girls and women because there is no honor in honor killings.

About Our Partner

CHIME FOR CHANGE is a global campaign founded by Gucci in 2013 to convene, unite and strengthen the voices speaking out for girls and women around the world. The campaign uses innovative approaches to promote gender equality. Co-founded by Beyoncé Knowles-Carter and Salma Hayek Pinault, CHIME FOR CHANGE works with a coalition of partner organizations, including the Kering Foundation, Facebook, and Hearst Magazines.