The term ‘honour killing’ is ‘racist’, and should be banished, say Canadian Muslims

IN 2007 Canada decided to set aside funds for a campaign to investigate and combat the growing number of killings of mainly Muslim women in the country.

Until recently, religio-cultural violence – universally known as “honour killings” – were virtually unknown in the country.

According to this report, only three known victims were killed between 1954 and 1983. But since 1999, 12 women have died in honour killings.

Click on cartoon for a horrifying account of an honour killing of three Muslim women in Canada in 2009.

Click on the illustration for a horrifying account of an honour killing of three Muslim females in Canada in 2009.

Every year, according to United Nations reports, 5,000 women worldwide are killed for reasons of “honour” that relate to matters of modesty and obeyance, though most experts maintain the numbers are far higher. And the number of victims of honour violence, which can involve beatings, acid attacks, or locking a woman in her home, is literally incalculable.

In the UK alone, more than 3,000 such honour crimes occurred just in 2010, according to a study by the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organization (IKWRO). The vast majority of those crimes, the organisation states, were committed by Muslims, though Sikhs and Hindus have also been known to commit honour-related crimes.

But Canada’s efforts to stop this phenomena is being opposed … by Muslim women! They are claiming that the term “honour killing” is racist, with many speaking out against the government’s new focus on these crimes.

One outspoken opponent is Itrath Syed, who is pursuing a PhD in Islamophobia in Vancouver. She said:

When women of colour are killed, we ask these larger questions around their culture. We ask what’s wrong with their entire people – their culture, their religion – instead of a particular person.

Writing for the Investigative Project, Abigail R Esman said:

What is so tragic about this remark is not just the half-dozen or so ways in which it is patently untrue, but that it seeks to nullify the horror that is honour violence, to deny the profound distinctions between honor crimes and other forms of domestic violence and femicide.

And she pointed out:

What Syed really was referring to was religion, not race. Or rather, the implication that domestic abuse in Muslim families is related to Islam, and that Muslim families are therefore treated differently than everybody else. It’s a common accusation, and an ongoing question: are honour crimes culturally-based, or founded in interpretations of the Koran?

It’s a bit of both, according to Carla Rus, a psychiatrist in the Netherlands who specialises in working with victims of both domestic abuse and honor violence.

Honour violence involves a kind of ideology, which you don’t find in domestic violence. In [Islamic] cultures, where church and state are not separated, it’s difficult to distinguish whether honour violence comes through cultural or religious motives – culture and religion are inseparable in those cases.

Esman pointed out that understanding how dramatically honour violence differs from other domestic abuse is, however, critical – a point that the recent Canadian funding aims to address, as do similar efforts in the UK and the Netherlands.  As Phyllis Chesler, author of the landmark study, Worldwide Trends in Honour Killings, has noted:

Westerners rarely kill their young daughters, nor do Western families of origin conspire or collaborate in such murders.

Similarly, domestic abuse in Western families does not involve brothers murdering their sisters, as happens in cases of honour killings. To the contrary, siblings most often protect one another.

Moreover, Esman emphasises, while domestic violence may relate to a man’s sense of self-respect, reputation, or “honour” among his peers, it does not – despite what some Muslims argue – reflect his sense of religious honour or his sense, as patriarch, of responsibility for his family’s perceived insults to his god.

Yet it is precisely this mindset which incites much honour-based violence and murder – and not only on the part of the father or husband. Frequently, religious devotion and patriarchy places pressure on other family members – siblings, aunts, uncles, spouses or even mothers of a victim – to commit the act, often under threat.

That fact underscores two other critical points that opponents to Canada’s focus on honour killings apparently do not wish others to see – or perhaps are too culturally blinded to see: Ordinary domestic violence is nearly always spontaneous, while honour violence (and especially honour murder) is almost always calculated, often planned out over time through numerous family meetings. And the horrific reality is that, these women simply have nowhere to run: no mothers who will shelter them from the husbands they are trying to escape, no sisters or brothers to protect them from their fathers – no one. (Indeed, the sisters and brothers are often recruited to assure a girl hiding from her family to come home, that all is forgiven. But this assertion is almost always a ruse; once she returns, the child is usually killed within days.)

Which is precisely why funding for, and attention to, understanding and preventing honor violence is so very critical, not only in Canada, but everywhere in the West. It is why women – and especially Muslim women – should be welcoming it, even demanding more.

She concluded:

And yet, countless Canadian (and other) Muslim activists and apologists remain far more devoted to shaping public vision of their culture – even if it means disguising the truth – than to protecting the lives of their Muslim sisters. In some cases, they may go so far as to contend that the very notion of ‘honour killings’ is a ‘Western propagated myth’. Indeed, one Muslim women’s advocate, Rubaiyat Karim, told Women’s e-News that, ‘Immigration policy can be very inclusionary and preach the language of multi-culturalism. But if we really want to talk about multiculturalism, we need to address the Orientalist mentality of government’.

She’s wrong. What we really need to address is the refusal of some Muslim families to advance beyond medieval and barbaric religio-cultural practices – and to stop excusing them when they don’t. Not to do so is to abandon thousands of women, not just in Canada or the United States, not just in countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, but in every country, every city, every town across the world. We cannot let that happen.