21 Oct 2010

`Honor Killings’ Rife In Islamic World

Baltimore Jewish Times - March 27, 2009

The murderous marginalization of women in the Islamic world

by Kenneth Lasson | Special to the Jewish Times

When the decapitated body of Aasiya Zubair Hassan was found early last month in Orchard Park, N.Y., there was widespread speculation that the gruesome death was an “honor killing” based on Islamic religious or cultural beliefs. The dead woman had recently filed for divorce from her husband, Muzzammil Hassan, whom police promptly arrested and charged with second-degree murder.

It is, of course, ironic that the defendant had founded a Muslim-American television station to help fight Muslim stereotypes and noteworthy that the Muslim community strongly protested suggestions that the murder was either motivated or condoned by Islamic tradition.

But there is good reason to believe so.

At least three similar murders have occurred in the United States over the past year and thousands have been reported worldwide.

As unfathomable as it is to Western minds, “honor killing” occurs frequently. Though largely a vestige of traditional patriarchy and not explicitly approved by Islamic law (Sharia), it remains part of the fundamentalist culture. In that world, a man’s honor consists of two primary components: his reputation, as determined by his own actions in the community, and the chastity or virtue of the female members of his family.

When the latter is threatened because of the perceived sexual misconduct of a female member of the family, many believe the family’s honor can be regained only by doing away with the person at fault. The decision to kill is often sanctioned by a group of family elders. The deed is usually performed by a relative — a husband, brother, uncle, father or son of the woman who allegedly sullied the family’s honor.

For some, the practice of honor killing represents a kind of social umbrella that allows for a wide range of other often-violent acts against women and girls, including torture and female infanticide.

It should go without saying that such behavior violates virtually all established norms of legal and civilized society. But the phenomenon of honor killing is not rare, nor is it exclusive to the predominantly Islamic countries.

As waves of people from the Middle East have immigrated to Europe and America over the past generation, their culture has traveled with them. Honor killings occur as well in Israel and other democratic nations, including Great Britain, Canada, Germany, Italy and the United States.

On New Year’s Eve 2008, two sisters, 17-year-old Sarah and 18-year-old Amina Said, were found dead in a taxicab outside a hotel in Irving, Texas. The vehicle belonged to their father, Yaser Abdel Said, an Egyptian-born cabdriver who reportedly was upset by his daughters’ Westernized habits, and who quickly disappeared. A capital murder warrant was issued for his arrest and he remains at large.

Early last summer, in upstate New York, an immigrant from Afghanistan was charged with attempted murder after repeatedly stabbing his 19-year-old sister. He was reportedly “infuriated because his younger sister was going to clubs, wearing immodest clothing and planning to leave her family for a new life in New York City.” She was a “bad Muslim girl,” he told investigators.

A few weeks later in Atlanta, a Pakistani immigrant strangled his 25-year-old daughter with a bungee cord because she allegedly was determined to end her arranged marriage and had gotten involved with a new man. Her father told police that “extramarital affairs and divorce are against his Muslim religion” and that’s why he killed her.

These are not especially new phenomena. In November 1989 in St. Louis, the FBI inadvertently taped the entire episode of a teenage girl being killed by her Palestinian father and Brazilian mother. (The feds were looking for evidence of terrorism, which they also found.) In a ghastly eight-minute sequence, the girl is stabbed 13 times with a butcher’s knife while being held down by her mother, who is heard screaming “Die! Die quickly! Quiet, little one! Die, my daughter, die!”

The moment was captured in a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ellen Harris titled “Guarding The Secrets: Palestinian Terrorism and a Father’s Murder of His Too-American Daughter” (Scribner’s 1995).

No Outcry

Both Jewish law (Halachah) and legend, while often criticized for treating women as subservient to men, take a decidedly different view of their role in society. Jewish tradition releases women from certain religious obligations because of the important roles they play as wives and mothers. The home is viewed traditionally as a holy place, where women bring in spiritual light (symbolized weekly with the kindling ofShabbat candles.) They are celebrated as “women of valor with a worth higher than rubies.”

Israeli historian Avraham Grossman, in his book “Pious And Rebellious” (Brandeis), describes the many positive characterizations of Jewish women, especially during the Middle Ages. One of the most prominent was by Rabbi Gedaliah Ibn Yihya, a 16th-century Italian sage who wrote a remarkable book discoursing at great length about the virtues of women, especially “their wisdom, decency and uprightness.”

Islamic tradition appears to stand in sharp contradistinction, certainly in its modern manifestation.

The Arab community in Israel, which makes up about 20 percent of the country’s total population, offers a more open window on that society that is veiled in secrecy elsewhere. In the past few years, dozens of young women have been victimized by honor killings as a result of having offended their families’ strict Islamic code of behavior. In the Arab-Israeli town of Ramle, seven women — all members of the same extended family — were killed over the past seven years in one neighborhood alone.

Earlier this year, a 15-year-old Israeli-Arab Muslim from Kalansawa, an Arab village northeast of Tel Aviv, admitted murdering his 20-year-old sister because she allegedly tarnished the family’s honor by seeking to take on Western customs like dating and buying a cell phone. Eight other women belonging to the 2,000-member Abu-Ghanem clan have been murdered by their male relatives in the past decade.

Some time ago, Suha Arraf, an Arab feminist working for the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem who had done a study of honor killings in Israel and the Palestinian territories, noted the accepted legitimacy of such acts in that culture: “If a woman defiles the family honor and is not killed, the men are not considered real men. The society respects this, especially women.”

How can, and should, one respond to this kind of assault on basic human rights? Article 1 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

Since in many parts of the world the right to life of women is conditioned upon their obeying social norms and traditions, however, and since much of the non-Islamic public is ignorant of the existence and scope of honor killings, they continue to occur frequently. Broadcasting this fact would seem to be a logical first step.

But knowledge itself has its limitations: People are primarily concerned with their own lives and families. Data readily available on the Internet is often lost in the sheer immensity of cyberspace. Thus, media coverage of honor killings has been relatively limited. Scholarship on the subject goes widely unread. Women’s rights organizations appear to be more concerned with things like equal pay and opportunity.

Meanwhile, litigation and legislation, in response to this ancient and modern atrocity, have both proven to be fraught with frustration. A number of international declarations, treaties, conventions and laws that have sought to address the problem often fail for want of ratification or — more frequently — for lack of effective enforcement.

The responsibility to enforce international human rights law rests with each sovereign state. There is currently no international court with exclusive jurisdiction over such matters. The International Criminal Court deals with crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide. The only trans-national body to oversee such crimes is the European Court of Human Rights, established by the European Union, but it is limited to that region of the world.

Women’s rights, while generally continuing to improve in America and some other Western nations, appear to be regressing among many countries that are predominantly Islamic. While in the relatively recent past, for example, women in some Islamic countries were able to choose whom they married, to obtain a divorce, to attend school and to work, the situation has changed, and now more than ever Islamic women live in constant fear both for their safety and lives. The primary causes of this regression are the absence of strong central governments, in whose stead are a growing roster of countries controlled by tribal leaders and warlords.

At present, a number of Islamic nations are controlled by religious clerics and tribal chieftains. There is virtually no separation of church and state. Grossly discriminatory religious and tribal views are imposed upon women, regardless of whether they share in the beliefs and practices of the religion.

Although many Islamic women become victims of gender-based violence simply for having been born female, they are marginalized and discriminated against in a variety of other ways as well. For example, strict standards are set for how they shall dress and act, including to whom they may speak and whom they must marry.

The arranged marriages that are forced upon many of them sometimes occur at as young an age as 11 years. They are raped, physically abused and mutilated. The suicide rate among Islamic women has increased dramatically over the past five years.

While the Koran does not call for execution of those who commit illegal sexual relations, such as adultery, it does provide for their punishment by severe flogging: “a hundred stripes — and let not pity for them detain you in the matter of obedience of Allah, if you believe in Allah and the last day, and let a party of believers witness their chastisement.”

In predominantly Muslim countries such as Pakistan and Jordan, prior to marriage a woman’s virginity is still considered the property of her male relatives, whose duty it is to guard it. If the woman is merely suspected of infidelity, whether consensual or forced, she may be beaten, mutilated, tortured, raped or killed in order to restore family honor. In most cases, the woman’s brother or husband carries out the punishment, with little fear of retribution.

Meanwhile, the perpetrators of honor killings are permitted a so-called “defense of honor,” under which those convicted are treated leniently.

Beyond Reasonable Doubt

A United Nations study reports that at least 5,000 women worldwide are murdered each year in honor killings for alleged infidelity. The true number of honor killings occurring worldwide remains unclear, largely because they are often treated as private family affairs. It is unknown how many women are maimed or disfigured for life in attacks that fall short of murder.

Punishment for such crimes is rare.

Honor killings occur for more trivial reasons as well, such as when a wife is slow to serve a meal, or when her husband dreams that she has betrayed him.

Women who pursue their claims in court frequently lose because of the inherently male-biased judicial system. Victims of domestic violence are frequently told they will bring dishonor to their families by reporting such crimes and are discouraged from contacting the police.

Worse, victims who have reported the crimes are often subjected to further abuse at the hands of the police who are supposed to protect them. Sexual assault by the police is a frequent occurrence. Women often do not report these crimes because, if they cannot prove rape, they must have been willing participants and therefore promiscuous.

In these cases, a woman must prove rape “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Unable to substantiate the rape claim against the police, a large number of rape victims are charged with adultery.

Most take place in predominantly Muslim countries. In Jordan, for example, honor killings may account for one-third of all violent deaths each year. In Pakistan, the incidence of honor killing annually has reached epidemic proportions. During the past 10 years, thousands have been reported.

(Somewhat ironically, Pakistan is one of the few nations for which substantial data on honor killings is readily available. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, more than 1,500 cases of honor killings were reported there between 2000 and 2005. Of the victims, 97 percent were female, 63 percent were married, 37 percent were single, 26 percent were minors and 2 percent were male. Of those accused of committing the crime, 35 percent were the victims’ brothers, 26 percent their husbands, 24 percent were in-laws, relatives, neighbors or employees, 9 percent were their fathers, 5 percent were their sons, 52 percent were reported to police and 17 percent were held or arrested.)

Perhaps less understandable are honor killings in countries with Western alliances, where sensitivity about human rights abuses are ostensibly more heightened.

But in Saudi Arabia, supposedly a close ally of the United States, a young woman in Riyadh was murdered by her father for chatting online on Facebook. Caught in the middle of a conversation with a man, she was beaten and shot.

One might expect to hear at least some discussion of the Saudi Arabian practice of wife beating, which (as in other Islamic nations) is both culturally accepted and often even encouraged. In 2007, for example, a prominent Saudi cleric appeared on television to teach Muslim men how to properly beat their wives.

The cleric made certain to instruct his viewers never to beat the face: “Beating in the face is forbidden … even if you want your camel or donkey to start walking, you are not allowed to beat in the face. If this is true for animals, it is all the more true when it comes to humans.” (Meanwhile, another Saudi preacher has attracted more than 6,500 people to join his movement banning the use of Facebook on all local Internet servers in the kingdom.)

Yet official protestations from American foreign policymakers and others are hard to find.

Moral Imperatives

Last year in Germany, a 23-year-old woman, born in Turkey but raised in Berlin, was forced at age 16 to marry her Turkish cousin. Wishing to follow “Western ways,” she had discarded her Islamic headscarf, enrolled in a technical school to become an electrician, and had begun to date German men.

A phone call from her relatives summoned her to a bus stop in Berlin, where she was shot to death. She was survived by a 5-year-old son. Her three brothers were arrested and charged with murder. At their school the brothers were applauded; their classmates were quoted as saying, “She only had herself to blame; she deserved what she got — the whore lived like a German.”

In the United Kingdom, many young Arab women are forced into marriages and subjected to honor-related violence. The problem appears to have worsened over the past five years, especially in towns with large immigrant populations, such as Stoke-on-Trent.

In the United States, immigrant women who are fearful of being deported and facing death at home in the name of family honor must fight to gain asylum. This is not an easy process, however; besides requiring the sympathy and knowledge of an immigration lawyer, testimony from an expert witness often is needed as well.

What are the moral imperatives here, and the reasoned responses? If we are to accept the fact that honor killings violate international law and should be considered repugnant to modern civilization, what meaningful and effective responses can be provided by Western democracies?

A number of social, economic and political factors serve to complicate matters and limit the range of options. Countries with large Islamic communities — including Australia, Britain, Canada, Germany, Italy and the United States — are often constrained by domestic considerations.

For example, a recent wave of honor killings in Germany, accompanied by extremist preaching in German mosques, has led government officials to speak out against various multi-cultural initiatives and there have been moves in the legislature to expel Islamic extremists who condone such activity. However, the high concentration of Islamic migrant workers, combined with their poor economic conditions, make the situation tense and fluid.

Other international issues — above all, the oil trade — likewise serve to deny Western nations the full political and economic leverage required to deal most effectively with human rights abuses in the Islamic world.

The United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) is the only international treaty guaranteeing women’s human rights. CEDAW was unanimously adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1979. Although the United States is the only industrialized nation that has not ratified the treaty (part of the opposition comes from what is perceived as its pro-choice content), in fact U.S. law is already in substantial compliance.

It is interesting, however — and somewhat embarrassing — to note that, although the National Organization for Women has posted articles about honor killing and other forms of serious violence against women in the Islamic world, its primary focus remains on domestic issues, and not on international relations and U.S. foreign policy.

Religious leaders, who should condemn honor killings as morally wrong and unjustified by any theological principle, would do well to work more actively and directly with women’s rights advocates, particularly if they perceive members of their congregations at risk.

Few do so, however; some because they are normally paid by the communities they represent, others because they tend to maintain conservative and patriarchal viewpoints. Some advocacy groups have pushed for a legal remedy: Requiring clergymen who perform marriages involving under-age or unwilling women, without having conducted private and non-coercive discussions to ascertain their willingness, to be prosecuted.

Forced marriage, they argue, should be treated as a serious crime, utilizing if necessary charges of rape, child rape, abduction or sex trafficking.

Such arguments to date have gained little traction. Thus, although there is a clear moral imperative to combat violence toward women, local, national and international responses to honor killings have been largely ineffective.

Until and unless the perpetrators of honor killings are apprehended and brought to swift trial, the murderous marginalization of women will surely continue and the idea of modern justice in human rights will have been paid little more than tragically apathetic lip service.

Kenneth Lasson, a frequent BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES contributor, is a law professor at the University of Baltimore.

This article was found at:



UN estimates 5000 women and girls murdered annually in so-called 'honour killings'

Shameful 'honour' murders crimewave spreads globally, advocates say numbers much higher than official figures

Honour killings may be culturally driven, but the cultures that practice it are all religious

Can public shame and dishonour bring an end to the sexual terrorism of honour killings?

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