An honor killing or honour killing is the killing of a member of a family or social group by other members, due to the belief of the perpetrators (and potentially the wider community) that the victim has brought dishonor upon the family or community. Honour killings are directed mostly against women and girls.
The perceived dishonor is normally the result of one of the following behaviors, or the suspicion of such behaviors: (a) dressing in a manner unacceptable to the family or community, (b) wanting to terminate or prevent an arranged marriage or desiring to marry by own choice, (c) engaging in heterosexual sexual acts outside marriage, or even due to a non-sexual relationship perceived as inappropriate, and (d) engaging in homosexual acts. Women and girls are killed at a much higher rate than men.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that perhaps as many as 5,000 women and girls a year are killed by members of their own families. Many women’s groups in the Middle East and Southwest Asia suspect the victims are at least four times more.
Matthew Goldstein has noted that honor killings were encouraged in ancient Rome, where male family members who did not take actions against the female adulterers in their family were “actively persecuted”.
In the modern age, the term was first used by a Dutch scholar of Turkish society, Ane Nauta in 1978. Nauta sought a term that could be used in distinguish honour killings from blood feuds.
Human Rights Watch defines “honor killings” as follows:
Honor killings are acts of vengeance, usually death, committed by male family members against female family members, who are held to have brought dishonor upon the family. A woman can be targeted by (individuals within) her family for a variety of reasons, including: refusing to enter into an arranged marriage, being the victim of a sexual assault, seeking a divorce—even from an abusive husband—or (allegedly) committing adultery. The mere perception that a woman has behaved in a way that “dishonors” her family is sufficient to trigger an attack on her life.
The loose term “honor killing” applies to killing of both males and females in cultures that practice it. For example, during the year 2002 in Pakistan, it is estimated that 245 women and 137 men were killed in the name of Karo-kari in Sindh. These killings target women and men who choose to have relationships outside of their family’s tribal or religious community.
Some women who bridge social divides, publicly engage other communities, or adopt some of the customs or the religion of an outside group may be attacked. In countries that receive immigration, some otherwise low-status immigrant men and boys have asserted their dominant patriarchal status by inflicting honor killings on women family members who have participated in public life, for example in feminist and integration politics. Women in the family tend to support the honor killing of one of their own. Alternatively, matriarchs may be motivated not by personal belief in the misogynistic ideology of women as property, but by pragmatic calculations. Sometimes a mother may support an honor killing of an “offending” female family member in order to preserve the honor of other female family members, since many men in these societies will refuse to marry the sister of a “shamed” female whom the family has not chosen to punish, thereby failing to “purify” the family name.
There is some evidence that homosexuality can also be perceived as grounds for honor killing by relatives. In one case, a gay Jordanian man was shot and wounded by his brother. In another case, a homosexual Turkish student, Ahmet Yildiz, was shot outside a cafe and later died in hospital. Sociologists have called this Turkey’s first publicized gay honor killing.
Men can also be the victims of honour killings by members of the family of a woman with whom they are perceived to have an inappropriate relationship.
According to the UN in 2002:
The report of the Special Rapporteur… concerning cultural practices in the family that are violent towards women (E/CN.4/2002/83), indicated that honour killings had been reported in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Pakistan, the Syrian Arab Republic, Turkey, Yemen, and other Mediterranean and Persian Gulf countries, and that they had also taken place in western countries such as France, Germany and the United Kingdom, within migrant communities.
There is a strong positive correlation between violence against women, and women’s lack of social power and equality on the one hand, and a baseline of development, associated with access to basic resources, health care, and human capital, such as literacy on the other – as research by Richard G. Wilkinson shows. In a male-dominated society, there is more inequality between men, and women lose out not just physically and economically, but crucially because men who feel subordinated will often try to regain a sense of their authority in turn by excessive subordination of those below them, i.e. women. Wilkinson says that in male-dominated societies, both men and women suffer more violence and worse health.
According to Widney Brown, advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, the practice of honor killing “goes across cultures and across religions.”
In 2005 Der Spiegel reported: “In the past four months, six Muslim women living in Berlin have been killed by family members”. The article went on to cover the case of Hatun Sürücü, who was killed by her brother for not staying with the husband she was forced to marry, and of “living like a German”. Precise statistics on how many women die every year in such honor killings are hard to come by, as many crimes are never reported, said Myria Boehmecke of the Tuebingen-based women’s group Terre des Femmes. The group tries to protect Muslim girls and women from oppressive families. The Turkish women’s organization Papatya has documented 40 instances of honor killings in Germany since 1996. Hatun Sürücü’s brother was convicted of murder and jailed for nine years and three months by a German court in 2006. In March 2009 Turkish immigrant Gülsüm S. was killed for a relationship outside her family’s plan for an arranged marriage. In Sweden the 26-year-old Kurdish woman Fadime Şahindal was killed by her father in 2002.
Every year in the United Kingdom (UK), officials estimate that at least a dozen women are victims of honor killings, almost exclusively within Asian and Middle Eastern families. Often cases cannot be resolved due to the unwillingness of family, relatives and communities to testify. A 2006 BBC poll for the Asian network in the UK found that one in ten of the 500 young Asians polled said that they could condone the killing of someone who dishonored their family. In the UK, in December 2005, Nazir Afzal, Director, west London, of Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service, stated that the United Kingdom has seen “at least a dozen honour killings” between 2004 and 2005. While precise figures do not exist for the perpetrators’ cultural backgrounds, Diana Nammi of the UK’s Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation is reported to have said: “about two-thirds are Muslim. Yet they can also be Hindu and Sikh”
Another well-known case was Heshu Yones, stabbed to death by her Kurdish father in London in 2002 when her family heard a love song dedicated to her and suspected she had a boyfriend. Other examples include the killing of Tulay Goren, a Kurdish Shia Muslim girl who immigrated with her family from Turkey, and Samaira Nazir (Pakistani Muslim).
However, a lesser-known case is that of Gurmeet Singh Ubhi, a Sikh man who, in February 2011, was found guilty of the murder of his 24 year-old daughter, Amrit Kaur Ubhi in 2010. Mr. Ubhi was found to have murdered his daughter because he disapproved of her being ‘too westernised’. Likewise he also disapproved of the fact that she was dating a non-Sikh man.
In April 2008 it came to light that a woman had been killed in Saudi Arabia by her father a few months before for “chatting” to a man on the social networking Internet site Facebook. The killing became public only when a Saudi cleric referred to the case to criticise Facebook for the strife it caused.
A June 2008 report by the Turkish Prime Ministry’s Human Rights Directorate said that in Istanbul alone there was one honor killing every week, and reported over 1,000 during the previous five years. It added that metropolitan cities were the location of many of these, due to growing Kurdish immigration to these cities from the East. In 2009 a Turkish news agency reported that a 2-day-old boy who was born out of wedlock had been killed for honor. The maternal grandmother of the infant, along with six other persons, including a doctor who had reportedly accepted a bribe to not report the birth, were arrested. The grandmother is suspected of fatally suffocating the infant. The child’s mother, 25, was also arrested; she stated that her family had made the decision to kill the child.
A girl in Turkey was killed after her family heard a song and thought she had a boyfriend. In 2010 a 16-year-old girl was buried alive by relatives for befriending boys in Southeast Turkey; her corpse was found 40 days after she went missing. Ahmet Yildiz, 26, a Turkish physics student who represented his country at an international gay conference in the United States in 2008, was shot leaving a cafe in Istanbul. It is believed Yildiz was the victim of the country’s first gay honour killing.
There are no exact official numbers about honour killings of women in Lebanon; many honour killings are arranged to look like accidents, but the figure is believed to be 40 to 50 per year. A 2007 report by Amnesty International said that the Lebanese media in 2001 reported 2-3 honour killings per month in Lebanon, although the number is believed by lawyers to be higher.
Most killings in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank are carried out by villagers; honor killing is extremely rare in Palestinian cities and larger towns. The Palestinian authority uses Jordanian law, which gives men reduced punishment for killing a female relative if she has brought dishonour to the family. Due to Palestinian protests, Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, promised to change the discriminatory law by the year 2010, but As of November 2010 this has not happened. According to UNICEF, in 2000 two-thirds of all killings in the Palestinian territories were honor killings.
As many as 133 women were killed in the Iraqi city of Basra alone in 2006—79 for violation of “Islamic teachings” and 47 for honor killings, according to IRIN, the news branch of the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Amnesty International says that armed groups, not the government, also kill politically active women and those who did not follow a strict dress code, as well as women who are perceived as human rights defenders.
Jordan, considered one of the most liberal countries in the Middle East, still has instances of honor killings. In Jordan there is minimal sex discrimination, and women are permitted to vote, but men receive reduced sentences for killing their wives or female family members if they have brought dishonor to their family. Families often get sons under the age of 18—legally minors—to commit honor killings; the juvenile law allows convicted minors to serve time in a juvenile detention center and be released with a clean criminal record at the age of 18. Rana Husseini, a leading journalist on the topic of honor killings, states that “under the existing law, people found guilty of committing honor killings often receive sentences as light as six months in prison”.
There has been public support in Jordan to amend Articles 340 and 98. In 1999 King Abdullah created a council to review the sex inequalities in the country. The Council returned with a recommendation to repeal Article 340. “[T]he cabinet approved the recommendation, the measure was presented to parliament twice in November 1999 and January 2000 and in both cases, though approved by the upper house, it failed to pass the elected lower house”. In 2001, after parliament was suspended, a number of temporary laws were created which were subject to parliamentary ratification. One of the amendments was that “husbands would no longer be exonerated for killing unfaithful wives, but instead the circumstances would be considered as evidence for mitigating punishments”. In the interest of sex equality, women were given the same reduction in punishment if found guilty of the crime. But parliament returned to session in 2003 and the new amendments were rejected by the lower house after two successful readings in the upper house.
A 2007 study by Dr. Amin Muhammad and Dr. Sujay Patel of Memorial University, Canada, investigated how the practice of honor killings has been brought to Canada. The report explained that “[w]hen people come and settle in Canada they can bring their traditions and forcefully follow them. In some cultures, people feel some boundaries are never to be crossed, and if someone would violate those practices or go against it, then killing is justified to them.” The report noted that “In different cultures, they can get away without being punished—the courts actually sanction them under religious contexts”. The report also said that the people who commit these crimes are usually mentally ill, and that the mental health aspect is often ignored by Western observers because of a lack of understanding of the insufficiently developed state of mental healthcare in developing countries in which honor killings are prevalent.
A 2009 article in Middle East Quarterly argues that the United States is far behind Europe in acknowledging that honor killings are a special form of domestic violence, requiring special training and special programs to protect the young women and girls most likely to be the victim of such practices. The article suggests that the fear of being labeled “culturally insensitive” often prevents government officials in the United States and the media from identifying and accurately reporting these incidents as “honor killings” when they occur. Failing to accurately describe the problem makes it more difficult to develop public policies to address it.
In Pakistan honor killings are known locally as karo-kari. An Amnesty International report noted “the failure of the authorities to prevent these killings by investigating and punishing the perpetrators.” Recent cases include that of three teenage girls who were buried alive after refusing arranged marriages. Another case was that of Taslim Khatoon Solangi, 17, of Hajna Shah village in Khairpur district, which was widely reported after her father, 57-year-old Gul Sher Solangi, publicized the case. He alleged his eight months’ pregnant daughter was tortured and killed on March 7 on the orders of her father-in-law, who accused her of carrying a child conceived out of wedlock.Statistically, honor killings have a high level of support in Pakistan’s rural society, despite widespread condemnation from human rights groups. In 2002 alone over 382 people, about 245 women and 137 men, became victims of honor killings in the Sindh province of Pakistan. Over the course of six years, more than 4,000 women have died as victims of honour killings in Pakistan from 1999 to 2004. In 2005 the average annual number of honor killings for the whole nation was stated to be more than 10,000 per year. According to women’s rights advocates, the concepts of women as property, and of honor, are so deeply entrenched in the social, political and economic fabric of Pakistan that the government mostly ignores the regular occurrences of women being killed and maimed by their families.” Frequently, women killed in “honour” killings are recorded as having committed suicide or died in accidents.
A conference held in May 2005 in Islamabad, Pakistan addressed whether Pakistani law, governments and international agencies were having any success in reducing honor killings in the country. They found that more cases of honor killing are being reported rather than hidden, and more women are having the courage to come forward. But, they found there was a severe lack of proper implementation of laws and assurances that men who commit honor killings are not given lighter sentences. The conference found fault with Pakistan’s Zina laws that put women in an unfair disadvantage and inferior position, often at the mercy of men to prove their innocence.
It is noted by sociologists that honour killings do not necessarily have to do with religion, but rather the cultures in different regions. Savitri Goonesekere qualifies this claim, saying that Islamic leaders in Pakistan use religious justifications for sanctioning honor killings.
Honor killings have been reported in northern regions of India, mainly in the Indian states of Punjab, Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, as a result of people marrying without their family’s acceptance, and sometimes for marrying outside their caste or religion. In contrast, honour killings are rare to non-existent in South India and the western Indian states of Maharashtra and Gujarat. In some other parts of India, notably West Bengal, honor killings ceased about a century ago, largely due to the activism and influence of reformists such as Vivekananda, Ramakrishna, Vidyasagar and Raja Ram Mohan Roy.
Among Rajputs, marriages with members of other castes can provoke the killing of the married couple and immediate family members. This form of honour killing is attributed to Rajput culture and traditional views on the perceived “purity” of a lineage.
The Indian state of Punjab is notorious for honour killings. According to data compiled by the Punjab Police, 34 honour killings were reported in the state between 2008 and 2010: 10 in 2008, 20 in 2009, and four in 2010 .
Haryana also is known for incidents of honour killing. Bhagalpur in the northern Indian state of Bihar has also been notorious for honour killings. Recent cases include a 16-year-old girl, Imrana, from Bhojpur who was set on fire inside her house in a case of what the police called ‘moral vigilantism’. The victim had screamed for help for about 20 minutes before neighbours arrived, only to find her still smoldering. She was admitted to a local hospital, where she later died from her injuries. In May 2008, Jayvirsingh Bhadodiya shot his daughter Vandana Bhadodiya and struck her on the head with an axe. In June 2010 some incidents were reported even from Delhi.
In a landmark judgment in March 2010, Karnal district court ordered the execution of the five perpetrators of an honour killing, and imprisoning for life the khap (local caste-based council) head who ordered the killings of Manoj Banwala (23) and Babli (19), a man and woman of the same clan who eloped and married in June 2007. Despite having been given police protection on court orders, they were kidnapped; their mutilated bodies were found a week later in an irrigation canal.
In 1990 the National Commission for Women set up a statutory body in order to address the issues of honor killings among some ethnic groups in North India. This body reviewed constitutional, legal and other provisions as well as challenges women face. The NCW’s activism has contributed significantly towards the reduction of honor killings in rural areas of North India. According to Pakistani activists Hina Jilani and Eman M. Ahmed, Indian women are considerably better protected against honor killings by Indian law and government than Pakistani women, and they have suggested that governments of countries affected by honor killings use Indian law as a model in order to prevent honor killings in their respective societies.
In June 2010, scrutinizing the increasing number of honour killings, the Supreme Court of India issued notices to the Central Government and six states including Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan to take preventive measures against honor killings.
Alarmed by the rise of honour killings, the Government planned to bring a bill in the Monsoon Session of Parliament July 2010 to provide for deterrent punishment for ‘honour’ killings .
As a cultural practice
Sharif Kanaana, professor of anthropology at Birzeit University, says that honor killing is:
A complicated issue that cuts deep into the history of Arab society. .. What the men of the family, clan, or tribe seek control of in a patrilineal society is reproductive power. Women for the tribe were considered a factory for making men. The honour killing is not a means to control sexual power or behavior. What’s behind it is the issue of fertility, or reproductive power.
An Amnesty International statement adds:
The regime of honor is unforgiving: women on whom suspicion has fallen are not given an opportunity to defend themselves, and family members have no socially acceptable alternative but to remove the stain on their honor by attacking the woman.
The lawyer and human rights activist Hina Jilani says, “The right to life of women in Pakistan is conditional on their obeying social norms and traditions.
Nighat Taufeeq of the women’s resource center Shirkatgah (Lahore, Pakistan) says: “It is an unholy alliance that works against women: the killers take pride in what they have done, the tribal leaders condone the act and protect the killers and the police connive the cover-up.”
A July 2008 Turkish study by a team from Dicle University on honor killings in the Southeastern Anatolia Region, the predominantly Kurdish area of Turkey, has so far shown that little if any social stigma is attached to honor killing. It also comments that the practise is not related to a feudal societal structure, “there are also perpetrators who are well-educated university graduates. Of all those surveyed, 60 percent are either high school or university graduates or at the very least, literate.”
In national legal codes
According to the report of the Special Rapporteur submitted to the 58th session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in 2002 concerning cultural practices in the family that reflect violence against women (E/CN.4/2002/83):
The Special Rapporteur indicated that there had been contradictory decisions with regard to the honour defense in Brazil, and that legislative provisions allowing for partial or complete defense in that context could be found in the penal codes of Argentina, Ecuador, Egypt, Guatemala, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Peru, Syria, Venezuela and the Palestinian National Authority.
Countries where the law is interpreted to allow men to kill female relatives in a premeditated effort as well as for crimes of passions, in flagrante delicto in the act of committing adultery, include:
- Jordan: Part of article 340 of the Penal Code states that “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.” This has twice been put forward for cancellation by the government, but was retained by the Lower House of the Parliament, in 2003: a year in which at least seven honor killings took place. Article 98 of the Penal Code is often cited alongside Article 340 in cases of honor killings. “Article 98 stipulates that a reduced sentence is applied to a person who kills another person in a ‘fit of fury’”.
Countries that allow men to kill female relatives in flagrante delicto (but without premeditation) include:
- Syria: Article 548 states that “He who catches his wife or one of his ascendants, descendants or sister committing adultery (flagrante delicto) or illegitimate sexual acts with another and he killed or injured one or both of them benefits from a reduced penalty, that should not be less than 2 years in prison in case of a killing.”
Countries that allow husbands to kill only their wives in flagrante delicto (based upon the Napoleonic code) include:
- Morocco: Revisions to Morocco’s criminal code in 2003 helped improve women’s legal status by eliminating unequal sentencing in adultery cases. Article 418 of the penal code granted extenuating circumstances to a husband who kills, injures, or beats his wife and/or her partner, when catching them in flagrante delicto while committing adultery. While this article has not been repealed, the penalty for committing this crime is at least now the same for both genders.
- In two Latin American countries, similar laws were struck down over the past two decades: according to human rights lawyer Julie Mertus “in Brazil, until 1991 wife killings were considered to be non-criminal ‘honor killings’; in just one year, nearly eight hundred husbands killed their wives. Similarly, in Colombia, until 1980, a husband legally could kill his wife for committing adultery.”
Countries where honor killing is not legal but is known to occur include:
- Turkey: In Turkey, persons found guilty of this crime are sentenced to life in prison. There are well documented cases, where Turkish courts have sentenced whole families to life imprisonment for an honor killing. The most recent was on January 13, 2009, where a Turkish Court sentenced five members of the same Kurdish family to life imprisonment for the “honour killing” of Naile Erdas, 16, who got pregnant as a result of rape.
- Pakistan: Honor killings are known as karo kari (Sindhi: ڪارو ڪاري) (Urdu: کاروکاری). The practice is supposed to be prosecuted under ordinary killing, but in practice police and prosecutors often ignore it. Often a man must simply claim the killing was for his honor and he will go free. Nilofar Bakhtiar, advisor to Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, stated that in 2003, as many as 1,261 women were killed in honor killings. On December 8, 2004, under international and domestic pressure, Pakistan enacted a law that made honor killings punishable by a prison term of seven years, or by the death penalty in the most extreme cases. Women’s rights organizations were, however, wary of this law as it stops short of outlawing the practice of allowing killers to buy their freedom by paying compensation to the victim’s relatives. Women’s rights groups claimed that in most cases it is the victim’s immediate relatives who are the killers, so inherently the new law is just eyewash. It did not alter the provisions whereby the accused could negotiate pardon with the victim’s family under the Islamic provisions. In March 2005 the Pakistani parliament rejected a bill which sought to strengthen the law against the practice of honor killing. However, the bill was brought up again, and in November 2006, it passed. It is doubtful whether or not the law would actually help women.
- Egypt: A number of studies on honor crimes by The Centre of Islamic and Middle Eastern Law, at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, includes one which reports on Egypt’s legal system, noting a gender bias in favor of men in general, and notably article 17 of the Penal Code: judicial discretion to allow reduced punishment in certain circumstance, often used in honor killings case.
Support and sanction
Kremlin-appointed Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov said that honor killings were perpetrated on those who deserved to die. He said that those who are killed have “loose morals” and are rightfully shot by relatives in honor killings. He did not vilify women alone but added that “If a woman runs around and if a man runs around with her, both of them are killed.”
In 2007, a famous Norwegian Supreme Court advocate stated that he wanted the punishment for the killing for 17 years in prison to be reduced to 15 years in the case of honor killings practiced in Norway. He stated that the Norwegian public did not understand other cultures who practiced honor killings, or understand their thinking, and that Norweigan culture “is self-righteous”.
In 2008, Israr Ullah Zehri, a Pakistani politician in Balochistan, defended the honor killings of five women belonging to the Umrani tribe by a relative of a local Umrani politician. Zehri defended the killings in Parliament and asked his fellow legislators not to make a fuss about the incident. He said, “These are centuries-old traditions, and I will continue to defend them. Only those who indulge in immoral acts should be afraid.”
Nilofar Bakhtiar, Minister for Tourism and Advisor to Pakistan Prime Minister on Women Affairs, who had struggled against the honour killing in Pakistan resigned in April 2007 after the clerics accused her of brining shame to Pakistan by para-jumping with a male and hugging him after landing.