In certain societies with deeply entrenched misogyny, violence, sexual abuse and grievous assaults targeted at women are often perpetrated with impunity under the silhouette of tribal customs and traditions with their roots in religion. A despicably evil instance of such violence is what is, rather sinisterly, euphemized as “honour killing”, a ghastly practice in which families, who perceive that their daughters have disgraced them in some way (mostly by choosing to marry a man of their own, and not the family’s, choice), “reclaim” their “honour” by murdering the said daughters. This practice is popular in various Arab-Islamic countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and others; although it is by no means restricted to Islamic communities and occurs in other societies steeped in a culture of patriarchal authority and perverted sense of “honour” (such as in certain parts of India), a staggering 91 percent of “honour” killings worldwide are committed in Islamic households, including those in Western nations (including the UK, Sweden and Canada), according to a 2010 study on worldwide trends in “honour” killings. During any discourse on “honour” killings (what I like to term as (dis)honour or (dis)honour(able) killings, because there is nothing honourable about murdering family members guided by a perverted, warped sense of what honour is), it is customary to bring up the poor education and backward economic status of the perpetrators and their cultures or communities. It is generally considered that education would bring enlightenment and economic parity, which would pave the path towards a more moderate and humane understanding of life, essentially more nuanced interpretations of religious dicta that would be more egalitarian. But recent events provide evidence to the contrary; that insistence on bookish education can not be the panacea against the profoundly entrenched misogyny of religious, tribalist, patriarchal communities.
A news report in the Guardian (early August, 2012) reported the heartbreaking story of another victim of (dis)honour(able) killing, in Hyderabad in Pakistan – this time by an apparently educated man, a lawyer, who mercilessly gunned down his own sister in an open court; her crime? She fell in love with and married a man without the family’s permission. The vile murderer’s excuse?
“I did that in rage because she had dishonoured the family,” he said to a Pakistani newspaper.
The police officials investigating the case acknowledged:
“Everyone is very shocked by this because it happened in an educated family… Normally, honour killings happen in the rural areas where people are not educated.”
Clearly, mere academic education is no proof against familial brutality, particularly when patriarchy, and the consequent misogyny, leave their indelible and putrid stench upon the family unit, the educational system, the political state, the emotive components of social and cultural institutions, such as religion, music and arts, language and literature (including folklore), as well as the media associated with such cultures.
Shahrzad Mozab and Amir Hassanpour, both professors at the University of Toronto, while writing about the practice of “honour” killing as practised in Kurdistan, indicated in a 2002 essay:
The coming to power of the theocratic Islamic regime in Iran unleashed waves of state-sponsored male terrorism against women. All Muslim states, from Algeria and Morocco in the West to Pakistan in the East, Islamized gender relations by introducing more Islamic shari’a into their legal system. A century of struggle for the separation of state and religion came under attack. The idea of separation of the powers of state and religion was branded by Iranian theocracy as a Western conspiracy against Islam. Women were the first targets of theocratic terrorism in Iran and, later, Afghanistan.
In seeking a viable solution to this age-old problem of violence against women, these authors, however, hold the Western social theory partially at fault, specifically “theories of cultural relativism, politics of identity, post-structuralism, postmodernism and other post- positions“. They wrote:
Since the late 1980s, this brand of thinking, now dominant in academe and fashionable in media and popular culture, treats difference as the main constituent of the social world. Human beings, in this construction of the world, are all different, with their diverse and particular “identities.” There is little, if any, common bonds between human beings. The politics and everyday life of human beings are shaped by identities which separate them from all other human beings. In this world of particularized individuals, cultures, peoples, or nations, patriarchy is not universal, and gender oppression is too particular to be the target of struggle of women and men even within a single country. At the same time, the concept difference replaces the concept of domination. The world, in this view, is not divided into powerless and powerful blocs. Every individual, every woman, wields power. Power is not hierarchically organized; there may be a “centre” and a “margin” of power but there are no relationships of domination and subordination.
This brand of theorization emphasizes respect for cultural difference. Although its advocates oppose violence, they prefer to remain silent about it, especially when it is perpetrated by “others” whom they cannot judge due to cultural differences. There is, thus, an attempt to isolate honour killing from the patriarchal culture of the society that generates it. This is done by, among other things, reducing honour killing to a “practice,” as if practices, in any meaning of the word, are non-cultural. Labelling the crime as a “practice” relieves the academic specialist from the burden of criticizing the culture, its religion and its values. In the Kurdish case, there is no room for critiquing or indicting Islam or Kurdish patriarchal culture. It is the problem of the individual who commits the crime.
Mozab and Hassanpour further wrote about the inherent dangers in context-less application of Western social norms and theories to diverse cultures, especially when discussing sensitive issues, such as violence against women.
Some of these academics are feminists, who teach about gender relations in the Middle East. They try to avoid the neocolonialst or Orientalist trap of treating Middle Eastern women as backward, ignorant, illiterate, over-oppressed, and passive. This is surely, a noble commitment, and a very honourable undertaking. However, in trying to distance themselves from “neocolonialist representations of Middle Eastern women,” they tend to keep silent on the atrocities committed against women by “their own” men, “their own” religion, and “their own” culture.
They provided an example of this dilemma faced by academic feminists about speaking on such “sensitive topics” without falling into the neocolonialist trap. In a workshop for delving into these issues, one such academic explained how her strategy for responding to questions about female genital mutilation had changed over time:
First, her policy was silence. She would say, “I don’t have anything to say about this issue,” or “I would rather talk about other issues, like poverty, neocolonialism, and so on… and their impact on women, rather than becoming part of the problem.” But she said she realized that while she was choosing silence, others, who might not be well informed on the issue of circumcision, were taking over the discourse. She realized then that she had to respond. She added that often she encourages students not to write about circumcision until they know more about it, or until they talk at least to one woman who has been circumcised. But she expressed concern that this strategy might involve silencing her students.
It is this spirit of academic equivocation, which seems to encourage a culture of silence, that sometimes leads a conscious effort by the liberal media in the West to sanitize the reports of these incidences, so as not to mention religion as the driving force. A UK story of what could have been “honour” killing, in which a young Manchester teenager was battered and almost strangled by her Muslim preacher father for refusing to marry, was completely disregarded by the BBC, the Guardian and the Independent, leaving only the Daily Mail(!) to report on it. Noted FreethoughtBlogger Ophelia Benson points out, the recent conviction of the Muslim parents of a young British woman on the charge of murdering her “because they believed she brought shame on the family” was reported in the BBC and a Guardian Editorial carefully avoiding mention of religion, focusing instead on ‘culture’ and ‘cultural tradition’; Ophelia writes:
It’s all culture. Not a word about religion. It’s as if the two were completely distinct, and as if religion had no influence on culture, nor any power to amplify and entrench and protect it from criticism… Culture without religion is a lot easier to shed and adapt and improve than culture with religion. “Culture” that’s indistinguishable from religion is a whole lot more difficult to escape. That’s just all the more true when organs of “culture” such as the BBC and the Guardian pretend it’s out of the picture altogether.
The same concern was voiced by Mozab and Hassanpour, who argued that “honour”-killing is a part of certain patriarchal cultures where gender power is exercised; that this culture of patriarchal violence is universal, and dividing it along ethnocentric/culture-centric lines – something that cultural relativists engage in – is incorrect; that “honour killing cannot be reduced to the psychological problems of individual killers. Honour-based violence is a social, patriarchal, institution, which reproduces the supremacy of the male gender. In our times, a host of factors, ranging from religion to public policy to media to academic theories, play a role in the perpetuation of honour killing.”
An echo of these sentiments may be found in the record of religion- and/or superstition-inspired violence in recent times. In a few recent blog posts, Ophelia Benson has documented a few instances of religion-inspired violence against women in past few weeks; see, for example:
- inhumane harassment of a man and woman for failing to adhere to religious laws during Ramadan.
- fatal child abuse via religious superstition in Pakistan.
- stoning murder “according to Shari’a Law” by Islamic Tuareg extremists in Northern Mali.
In their essay, Mozab and Hassanpour drove home the point that cultural relativists, failing to vocally condemn religious violence against women for fear of being labeled ‘racist’ or ‘neocolonialist’ (or the modern equivalent, ‘islamophobe’, which Mozab and Hassanpour writing in 2002 may not have been aware of), harm the cause of women, and privilege the nativist position popular in the Middle East (which rejects feminism as a “derivative discourse” and “Western conspiracy”), thereby undermining and delegitimizing a century of secular feminist movements in the Middle East.
Not surprisingly, this kind of attitude of the West encourages the far right and fundamentalists of both Christianity and Islam, which perhaps explains why the Holy See, Saudi Arabia and Iran had no hesitation in joining forces in the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, 1995 to dismiss the concepts of gender equality, basic and reproductive rights, and empowerment of women. Therefore, emphasizing a need for unified global feminist intervention in order to find a viable solution, Mozab and Hassanpour indicated that “education, and conscious, organized, intervention in these oppressive gender relations will in the long run constrain the perpetration of this crime.” This, undoubtedly, merits serious consideration given today’s context.