Friday, 22 May 2009

Killing for Honour, Honoured for Killing

“This is the only way to win back his so-called honour for she is now a stain that can only be cleansed by death.”

Agony thy name is woman. A sentence that commanded my attention as a 16-year-old. I had no real background knowledge or experiences to speak of that would lead me to believe in such a bold and definite sentence. Yet after stumbling across it through the pages I carefully cut it out and pinned it on the already busy board above my desk.

Women have forever been viewed as the Other: the other sex, the other half, the other option. Always the next best thing, always another part of. Yes indeed we have come far as women from the dark ages of silence, suffering and self-blame. We have broken through and taken our rightful role in society. But when I write the word ‘we’ I hesitate, because ‘we’ is all- encompassing. And that would not be fair to the thousands of women around the world who are still forced to dwell in the darkest of ages that we lucky ones have left behind.
It is hard to imagine that even today while many of us go about our lives freely, hundreds of women cannot fathom the concept of being free. Bound, gagged and suffocating from the cruel societal chains they fight for survival on a daily basis, some succumbing to it, others rebelling against it and paying for it with their lives.

The rusty metal links that make up these chains are many, but one in particular has shaken me to the core and continues to do so every time I come across an image of it reflected in the news. It is the horrific crime that seems to be accepted among many Arab societies, conveniently coined ‘honour killing.’ This must be the most contradictory term I have ever come across for what is honourable about cold-blooded murder? Just like the heinous crime the term itself is gravely flawed.

Honour killings allow families to murder any member of their family who they feel has dishonoured them one way or another. And although this definition constitutes any member interestingly enough it is only practiced on female members. Since the dishonourable conduct is not clearly specified the women could be hunted down and murdered for as petty a reason as refusing a marriage arrangement.

Countries like Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, Turkey and Pakistan see an outstanding number of murdered women as a result of these honour killings. Since many of the crimes are
concealed by the entire family there is no way of acquiring clear statistics. But the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that more than 200 women are murdered yearly in Turkey, over 1000 in Pakistan and gives a total of 5000 women lost worldwide. Tragically, these witch hunts go unpunished because the law books in these countries do not view them as crimes. Basically, the law allows people to act as judge, jury and executioner and is prepared to cast a blind eye no matter how harsh their punishment might be.

In Jordan the law justifies honour killings. Article 340 of its Penal Code states “he who discovers his wife or one of his female relatives committing adultery and kills, wounds, or injures one of them, is exempted from any penalty.” Queen Noor and Queen Rania of Jordan have been fighting to amend this law for years and although it has been put forward it was refused twice by the Lower House of Parliament. Shockingly the law is somewhat similar in over 60 countries in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Latin America.

The West has spoken volumes about these crimes always emphasising that it is a problem which occurs solely in countries governed by Islam. Failing to mention that any law which is interpreted to allow men to kill female relatives in a premeditated effort, crime of passion or in flagrante delicto in the act of committing adultery actually exists in the Napoleonic code (French civil code).

Brazil and Columbia are two non-Muslim countries that considered honour killings noncriminal until the 1990s. It is ironic how when this crime is executed by a Muslim it is named ‘honour killing’ and when the same crime is committed by a non-Muslim it is a ‘crime of passion,’ terminology does make all the difference after all.

This is not Islam’s creed. When Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) was approached by a man who suspected his wife’s infidelity, he asked him to procure three additional eye-witnesses to her act before the public authority could judge her. Otherwise, the husband would be lashed for making such an accusation. Being able to find four eye-witnesses to such a matter is near-impossible. Therefore, the evidentiary requirements for conviction are actually there to ensure that punishment will virtually never be carried out.

This is not about religion. This dilemma arises from the concept of shame. Sociology defines it as a family of emotions that arise from viewing the self negatively through the eyes of others. Therefore, it is this fear of judgement that pushes men to murder. A father cannot bear the idea of people viewing him negatively if they found out about his daughter’s disobedience. That heavy sense of self-loathing is enough to make him drive a knife into the flesh that he himself has raised and nurtured. To him this is the only way to win back his so-called honour for she is now a stain that can only be cleansed by death.

This sense of shame is rooted in tribal cultures. Honour killings are one of the many tribal understandings that pre-date Islam and Christianity together. It is as ancient a concept as the crimes of female infanticides. While the former is now extinct, the latter has somehow managed surviving to this day.

This gendercide must be tackled by a revision of all laws. Killing is killing and placing the word ‘honour’ in front of it should never be justification enough for allowing its escalation.

On September 2nd 2008 in Pakistan Hameeda was taken to the desert beaten, shot at and buried alive for wanting to choose the man she was to marry. She was 18 years old.

Banaz Mahmod, 20 years old, disappeared from her home in south London, two years later her body was found stuffed in a suitcase murdered by her father and uncle. Her only crime was standing up to her father’s daily beatings.

Shawbo Ali Rauf, a 19-year-old Iraqi girl, was shot seven times by her in-laws for having an unknown number on her cell phone.

At a time when the world is exhausting all its resources to fight problems like swine flu it seems oblivious to this ongoing gendercide. How can we justify this to Hameeda, Banaz, and Shawbo?
I can’t... can you?

This article was published in The Gulf Today Newspaper on May 22, 2009.

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