Much of the discourse surrounding the Shafia murder case has circled around the use of the term “honour killing”. In the CBC radio episode Shafia-Muslim Reax, Alia Hogben (Canadian Council of Muslim Women) quite rightly states her dispondence with regards to the use of the term. She states that she would prefer for such killings to be referred to as “Femicide”. The murder of women or misogynistic murders. I happen to agree. Tribal patriarchy is alive and well everywhere. Domestic abuse and murder are universal problems however there are some cultural contrasts. Community acceptance and responses to such acts differs, as well as the fact that Femicide among conservative Muslims (and other South Asian cultures) is often perpetrated by more than one person. In this case the entire immediate family. To make matters worse, perpetrators of such crimes in these communities are often not sufficiently condemned by their peers. In the radio piece above, you will first hear the prosecutor Gerard Laarhuis being heckled by (what I can only assume) are members of communities where patriarchal values are strongly at play. Their rejection that the Shafia case was indeed a case of first degree murder, despite all of the evidence, is testament to that.
Shahla Khan Salter (Muslims for Progressive Values) emphasises that femicide is not a religious issue but a cultural one. I partly agree. “Honour killings” have existed before Islam, and they have and do exist in non-Muslim societies. Until quite recently they happened with a degree of regularity in European Mediterranean countries, because like Muslim cultures, those cultures too buy into the honour/shame dichotomy. We see the same among Middle Eastern Christians, and in some African countries with Christian majorities. Murders of this nature are perpetrated in Latin America, and they happen in India (and non-Muslim Indian communities in the West) – again because honour/shame is a prominent cultural theme. In all these cultures, most of this “honour” (of men, families, tribes etc) is bound to the (actual or perceived) sexual behaviour of women.
Femicides are not Islamically sanctioned
For those who seek to disassociate such murders from Islam through stating that “honour killing” are not a feature of Islam, this not so easy to do. How does one explain that the religious establishments in many Muslim majority countries openly support merely nominal sentencing for these crimes throughout the Middle East? Jordanian liberals have been trying for years to nullify a clause that allows for reduced sentencing in the cases of honour crimes. Who opposes this most vociferously? The clerical establishment. The Mullahs, the Muftis, the Imams. They have been instrumental in drumming up opposition to the nullification of such laws.
The Palestinian Authority uses an even older Jordanian penal code that largely exempts men from being charged altogether. How do Muslims explain the fact that research has shown that in many Muslim majority countries, a significant section of the population thinks that honour crimes are something sanctioned by religion? It’s great that some Muslims can identify and state that this wrong, but this doesn’t mean that every Muslim is in agreement with you.
Despite the fact that this is not an issue that is exclusively Muslim, despite the fact that it is not something that is sanctioned in the Qur’an or other Islamic texts, it is obtuse and dishonest to proclaim that religion has nothing to do with it. A religion is what its followers do. Islam is no different. When Islamic religious establishments lobby to have lenient laws for perpetrators of honour killings in Muslim majority states, honour killings become part of “religion”. When a significant part of the population thinks honour killing is religiously sanctioned, it is a part of religion. If we are to address the issue of honour crime head on (what I prefer to describe as femicide), we cannot disconnect Islam from these murders, particularly when 95% of honour killings in the West are perpetrated by Muslim fathers, brothers or their proxies.
Femicides are a cultural phenomenon
Cultural distinctions are important to make, however culture alone is not at the root of the problem. A particular common feature of many cultures is. There is not a single culture on earth where women aren’t killed for opposing male control. Yet, when a Caucasian woman is killed for cheating on her husband, or a Caucasian highschool boy turns a gun on his schoolmates after his girlfriend broke up with him, that is not referred to as an “honour killing” (nor should it be. It’s femicide. The target is a woman and anyone else who gets in the way is regarded as collateral damage by the perpetrator).
When people of colour commit the murder of a woman, it becomes exoticised and termed an “honour killing” when in fact, we should be least bothered by the feelings of shame/honour the perpetrator(s) harbour and call the crime what it is. A murder of women i.e. femicide.
Comparatively, when a Caucasian man (or in some cases, a woman) is driven by the same values of patriarchy, it is presented as a “tragedy”, “gun rampage” or “random act of violence”. This is what happened in the Tabitha Stepple case in Alberta, Canada. News reports began by talking about the deaths of the two baseball players who were with Tabitha at the time. Interviews of the grieving friends of the players were broadcast first and reports were almost entirely focussed on the loss of two baseball players and their sporting talent as opposed to pointing out that this was a case of femicide. The mention that the key target of this killing was a woman who had recently split from the man who killed her came rather late. Almost as an “addition” to the reports as opposed to the central message. This was a case of violence against women and femicide, yet not a single news report used such terms. (Stepple’s ex boyfriend had tracked her down and turned a gun on her and the two men with her at the time before turning the gun on himself and committing suicide.)
Femicide / Honour crime: Racism and misogyny in the public discourse.
Media outlets in North America need to overcome their innate misogyny and start telling the complete story when a woman is murdered for being a woman, as opposed to focusing on loss of male sporting talent. Lawyers, judges and media outlets, once again, need to fight this rather racist inclination towards labelling the murder of non-Caucasian women as “honour killings” (putting the focus on the perpetrator’s honour and his feelings) whilst simultaneously turning the same acts perpetrated against Caucasian women into “random acts”. To be clear, this does not absolve the Conservative Muslim communities or other communities within which these murders happen, of their responsibility to challenge patriarchal values and to stop femicide from being perpetrated. What it does mean, is that whenever a woman is killed for her free choices, it leads back to the same reasons regardless of the ethnicity or religion of the woman or the perpetrator(s). Patriarchy. An inability to see a woman as a complete human being who is entitled to make personal choices without the permission of the males around her. We must move away from this double standard. Killings of non-Caucasian women are not some exotic anomaly. Murder is murder is murder. We must stop making cultural excuses for the perpetrators of these crimes. Femicide is universal and must be condemned and tackled wherever it is found. However, the universality of femicide does not change the fact that 95% of such murders are perpetrated by Muslims fathers, brothers and their proxies. Femicides are disproportionately, a Muslim problem in the West. Changing the label to focus on what happened to the victim as opposed to the “honour” of the perpetrators does not absolve Muslim communities of their responsibility to change attitudes and stop femicide from taking place.
The term “honour killing” is a favourite among cultural relativists who subscribe to a racist brand of feminism (or are just plain racist) that creates cultural excuses for crimes such as domestic abuse, Female Genital Mutilation, violence and murder. Australian feminist Virginia Haussegger addresses this quite beautifully in an Intelligence Squared Debate (Melbourne, 2010). See below.
I would like to take a moment to thank Alia Hogben (whom I mentioned at the beginning of this post) for ignoring the CBC radio interviewer’s rather blatant attempt to silence her on the issue of femicide. Thank you for being brave enough to re- state your disapproval of the use of the term “honour killing”. As long as the term “honour killing” remains mainstream, we are essentially descrating the memory of murdered women by turning their deaths into an exotic story about the perpetrator’s “cultural” honour, as opposed to maintaining a focus on the universal humanity of victim’s of femicide. Murder of women motivated by a hatred of women.
When a man is killed for the colour of his skin (e.g. Stephen Lawrence, UK), do we call it a “racially motivated killing”? Or do we use the word “murder”? My proposal is for femicide to become synonymous in gravity of meaning with the word “murder”, since at present, the term honour killing doesn’t adequately describe the violence, the premeditation or the real motive. The fact that the victim was a woman. ”Killing” detracts from the seriousness of the crime as opposed to the term “murder”. If femicide is understood as murder of women, this will provide less justification to the perpetrators for their feelings of honour since their actions will focus on the demise of the victim and not the feelings of the perpetrator.
Penultimately, despite the universal nature of femicide, I must emphasise firstly, that I do acknowledge that men are also victims of such murders. Due to their sexual orientation, for being involved with someone’s daughter. And this is where we run into problems with the word “femicide”. However, perhaps we need to create new words to refer to all of the victims of such murders as opposed to focusing on the “honour” of the perpetrator?
Finally, I refuse to ignore the fact that some communities and cultures deal with femicide better than others. Conservative Muslim communities (particularly from South Asia) are certainly not among those. Neither in their homeland, nor when they emigrate to Western democracies. Abusive behaviour towards children, particularly female children as a method of discipline is widely accepted and unchallenged by their peers. Conservative Muslim women from the South Asia (of a variety of ages) are often guilty of deep, deep misogyny towards other females in their proximity. This is visible from the participation of Tooba Yahya (Mohammad Shafia’s wife) in the murders. This prevents young Muslim women in these communities from being able to turn to their mothers or other Muslim women for solace, since many such women will refuse outright, the idea of challenging the patriarchal norms that they have lived with all their lives.
Conservative Muslim women (particularly from South Asia) too have an integral responsibility in stopping this cycle from persisting. If they do not find the courage to reject their subordinate status and the mistreatment of other women as standard, their daughters and grand-daughters will re-live the horrors that they themselves have lived. The more independent a young Muslim woman becomes, the more she educates herself, the more problems she might face at home for voicing her opinions or deviating from cultural norms. Some Conservative Muslim communities in the West still hold true the notion that the honour and reputation of their family and their community rests mainly (if not solely) upon the sexual behaviour (real or perceived) of their daughter. This notion is maintained despite Muslim boys often being able to engage in whatever sexual behaviour they so wish.
Such double standards and the notion of female responsibility for honour must be challenged and rejected by all Muslims and communities where femicide is perpetrated. If the communities in question are to sincerely address the issue of femicide, they must acknowledge the above and challenge the tribal patriarchial values that deeply permeate the cultures of their communities. Nothing less will suffice. Values that put community perceptions of “reputation” above the personal development and happiness of their own children do not have a place in any home. Particularly those homes that wish to be free from emotional or physical abuse.
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