Honour killing

Summary: a euphemism for extra judicial killing to protect the reputation of a family. Ancient and widespread, but information other than anecdotal exceptionally hard to find.

“Honour” crime is a euphemism for violence whose object is to protect the reputation of a family. According to a useful summary in the BBC ethics guide “Honour killing is the murder of a person accused of ‘bringing shame’ upon their family.” It has a long history, at least from Roman times, and is a global phenomenon. Any number of cases are reported, often with detail. A global figure of around 5,000 killings a year is often quoted. But it is exceptionally difficult to pin it down in a comprehensive report.

The main reason is that it is associated with shame, in some respects even more of a taboo than FGM. Like FGM it is not condoned still less encouraged by any of the world’s great religions, although the perpetrators may believe that it is, and the perpetrators may have the sympathy of the community in which they live, extending to personal sympathy for those who feel obliged to do the killing, and to readiness to help them escape justice. In a case 60 years ago in the Abu Dhabi ruling family the killer, the victim’s brother, enjoyed widespread sympathy but drank himself to death. In the past it has been recognised by law in many countries, not always in the sense that it is permitted, but that “honour” is some mitigation of culpability. Such laws have gradually been changed, most recently in Afghanistan last month. There is a summary of the history from Roman law and the Napoleonic code to the present in Wikipedia at link.

The victims are predominantly women, and it is not easy to separate it completely from other forms of violence against women, including murder. The perpetrators may see it as an extension of patriarchal and paterfamilias rights which are or were recognised in most or all religious and legal systems. Women and girls are killed for suspected adultery, for being in a relationship, for refusing an arranged marriage, for adopting Western dress or lifestyle, for being rape victims, sometimes for more trivial reasons. Probably the majority of male victims are homosexual (transsexuals are also targeted), and again it is not easy to separate honour killing from other homophobe practice.

The UN seems to have done little or no work on the subject, though a report last year to the UN Human Rights Council argued that it should be regarded as amounting to arbitrary execution; “Global statistics show that almost half of female homicide victims are killed by family members or intimate partners, compared with just over five per cent of male victims.”

Given the lack of systematic research there is little alternative to reliance on anecdotal evidence. But this may give a distorted picture. For example in the British (and similarly other Western) media most cases which come to light have a British angle, occasionally that the crime is committed in Britain, more often that it concerns a family partly in Britain and partly elsewhere. These cases create the impression that honour killing is largely an Indian and Pakistani phenomenon (involving Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs).

As for the Middle East and North Africa, there is no doubt that the practice has existed from time immemorial and still exists. But the only estimates we have seen, like the “global statistics” quoted above, lack any research basis. According to the BBC report “It’s thought that up to 12 honour killings happen every year [in the UK). They usually occur within South Asian and Middle Eastern families.” There is a scrappy country-by-country report in the Wikipedia article already quoted. It refers to a 1995 report that honour killings in Egypt were estimated at about 52 in that year. In 2015 a Kurdish NGO stated that about 500 honour killings per year were reported in hospitals in Iraqi Kurdistan. A UN office in Basra reported 47 honour killings in 2006. In Jordan an NGO classified 18 cases of murder in 2006 as honour crimes. In Lebanon the number of honour crimes was believed to be 40 to 50 per year. The Palestinian Authority reported 27 honour killings in 2013. Estimates for Syria suggest over 200 killings a year, for Saudi Arabia a single case in 2008 is mentioned. Figures for Yemen are high but out of date. Figures for the Maghreb are said to be lower than in the Middle East and South Asia (and the large community of North African origin in France are reportedly not responsible for many honour crimes).

Some preliminary unpublished research in the Saudi media shows that many more unexplained deaths of princesses of marriageable age are reported than of princes, frequently with no cause of death given. The famous “Death of a Princess” affair 40 years ago was almost certainly an honour killing; Princess Mish’al bint Fahd bin Muhammad, a granddaughter of the King’s elder brother, was shot without trial. In 2009 an unnamed Saudi princess successfully appealed against rejection of her request for asylum in the UK, claiming she would be stoned to death for adultery if she returned to Saudi Arabia.

Many human rights and women’s rights NGOs touch on the subject. Three which pay it particular attention are Switzerland-based Surgir, Memini, and HBVA (Honour Based Violence Awareness Network), the last two founded by Deeyah Khan, a Norwegian film director and human rights activist of Afghan/Pakistan descent.

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