One cannot underestimate the hold and influence culture has on its people. It goes far deeper than the mind can comprehend, creating a uniform mindset that transcends moral and humanitarian ways of thinking – leaving people honor bound to act according to dictates that have long been bred in the bone.
Honor based crimes or honor killings as they are commonly referred to today, predates religion, and was the common practice in dominant empires of medieval times, where men wielded significant control over women. Its re-occurrence in recent times has become so prevalent that it is being felt across the world.
The earliest records of these crimes can be traced to the Roman Empire and Qing Dynasty where suspicions or actual engagements in pre-marital or extra-marital relations by women was punishable by death. Here, the oldest male in the family was honor bound to uphold this punishment on the female – it was strongly believed that by killing the accused, the family honor got restored.
This tradition evolved to include other grievances and has been passed down generations to become a common practice in some parts of the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Present day Romans and Chinese nationals no longer uphold this tradition, preferring instead to let the judicial system handle their cases. However, in Pakistan, India, Jordan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, this practice of killing to preserve a family’s honor still continues. A heartless action greatly criticized all over the world, one that has proven difficult to overhaul because of a cultural backing, which some argue, surpasses the law.
The accused woman’s action is perceived to be damaging to the family’s name and standing in the community, and only her blood can be used to atone for her deed and wipe away the shame. By so doing, the family retrieves their respect and good name in society by publicly demonstrating their power to avoid being considered weak. These women are not given the opportunity to defend themselves or provide evidence before their accusers, once convicted, they are condemned to instant death.
Tradition and Modern Law
This punishment can be carried out on the premise of a rumor or suspicion of adultery… even when the woman’s innocence is apparent, she would still be subject to execution to redeem the family’s name. These crimes can take the form of shooting, stabbing, acid attacks, stoning, rape, beatings, drowning, strangulation, burning, or by burying the victim alive.
Some historical examples of these crimes with swift retribution include: the beheading of Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, the 2nd and 5th wives of British King Henry VIII on allegations of adultery; the Trojan War between Greece and Troy over the honor of Queen Helen; and the killing of 19-year-old Saudi Arabian Princess Misha’al bint Fahd of Saudi Arabia in 1977 on grounds of adultery.
As time passed, reasons like: adopting a westernized lifestyle, marrying outside a caste or against the family’s will, being outspoken, having children outside wedlock, or being a victim of sexual assault were enough to sentence a woman to death, especially in patriarchal authority cultures.
Honor Killings and Religion
Honor killings in modern times is mostly associated with the Islamic and, to a lesser extent, the Hindu faith. There is however, no mention of honor killing in the Quran, as Islamic Law forbids such punishments. Unfortunately, this tradition is more of a cultural phenomenon than a religious one and does not show signs of ending. For some reason, Islam is being used to justify this practice even though it is not supported in the Quran. Under Islamic law, pre-marital sex is punishable by up to 100 lashes for both men and women, while adultery after being verified by at least 4 male witnesses of good character, is punishable by stoning for both sexes. These punishments are handed out by the legal authorities and not by individuals or family members, with false witnesses also subject to severe punishments if discovered.
Like with all other religions, Islam strongly prohibits murder and killing without legal justification. As quoted in the Quran Surah An-Nisa [4:93]; Allah, Most High, says, “Whoso slayeth a believer of set purpose, his reward is Hell for ever. Allah is wroth against him and He hath cursed him and prepared for him an awful doom.” This shows that honor killing has no basis with Islam and is based on ignorance and a complete disregard for morals and the law.
Under Hindu marriage tradition and laws, an individual is punished by death for marrying directly within their own sub caste (i.e. those they share a close kinship within the same village), and for marrying completely outside their caste. This practice is prevalent in the Northern part of India and is showing no signs of abating. Punishments are meted out by the khap panchayats, a caste-based council which operates like the Police. The Hindus strongly believe that intra and inter caste marriages dilutes and contaminates the purity of the bloodline and caste, and is therefore forbidden. Also, these honor-based killings do not only target females, men also fall prey to the tradition – especially when they choose to marry for love, or make the selection by themselves as opposed to having their family do it.
Religious authorities do not agree with honor killings. They have done a lot to raise awareness about the plight of these victims, but so far, it has been inefficient in putting an end to the practice.
Seeking Change in the 21st Century
Most Muslim dominated countries across the world like Indonesia, Bangladesh, Niger, Sudan, Mali, Senegal etc. do not carry out the practice of honor killings. So, it beggars the point that its continuation in the 21st century after the abolishment of slavery, the advent of sexual fluidity, and gender equality, is allowed to continue uninterrupted.
The idea that a woman’s reproductive potential belongs to her family, should have been abolished along with slave trade. She is not a commodity to be traded for the purpose of strengthening a family’s military capabilities or finances. She, like all females around the world, should be free to choose a life partner or pursue a career without damaging the family’s honor. She should be allowed to live.
Even females living abroad are targeted and killed by their families for adapting to Western cultures, despite being born, or raised in a foreign environment – they are expected to uphold every facet of their native culture and tradition while living abroad. The male members of their families believe that they no longer have stringent control over the ‘girls’ reproductive potential by nature of their being far away; as such, they are closely monitored for any sign or change to their habits, mannerism, fashion, attitudes and beliefs – making them all the more vulnerable to honor attacks, and the outcome, in too many cases, is death.
Sexual offences are not grave enough to merit a violent death. It is not up to one’s family members to decide if an action warrants death – death from the hands of a loved one. The legal system has a crucial role to play when it pertains to one’s right to live or die; cultural practices, stone age traditions, and all other forms of belief are not sufficient to spell the difference between an individual living or dying, especially if their ability to provide proof or defend themselves is overruled and completely disregarded.
Will this Violent Practice Ever Stop?
The modern-day woman is independent and works hard to make a solid living for herself. She doesn’t need to live in fear that someday a family member would take offense about her actions (or allegations about her behavior) and sentence her to death. The legal system in countries where this practice persists have to clamp down on their re-occurrence and enforce compliance across all their regions deeply entrenched by this tradition, in an effort to put an end to it. More awareness needs to be generated; global laws and tough sentences have to be put in place, to punish participants of this terrible crime.
It is impossible to transform society overnight, but we can all work together to ensure that perpetrators are dealt with, and people are free to practice their religion and marry without fear of being ostracized or punished for the sake of cultural preservation and deeply rooted traditional beliefs.
Religion condemns unlawful killing. The entire world condemns unlawful killing. Society has evolved and so should archaic cultural mind-sets. Our inability to abandon this practice simply shows how far the legal system has to go in enforcing justice in a world still operating under the dictates of culture.