Honor Killings and Ideas of Honor in Societies of Islamic Character

Prof. Dr. Christine Schirrmacher

“Senel Habes, from Kilis, goes to the police station and reports that she is being threatened by her divorced husband. In panic, she requests protection from the public prosecutor’s office. The authorities, however, ignored her appeal for help, although an unmistakable danger for the victim was plain. She bore distinct scars on her face from the acid that her husband had poured on her. Twenty days later, Senel Habes was killed by her exhusband.”1

Honor killings take place today not only in the eastern part of Turkey. In Germany, too, and in the other countries of Europe, women die “for reasons of honor”. Till now, German criminal investigative departments do not compile any separate statistics, but unofficial statistics quote at least 49 honor killings or attempts at such in Germany between 1996 and 2005.2 The United Nations estimate that ca. 5000 honor killings (along with a high number of unreported cases) have been committed world-wide.3

Honor killings are known to have been committed in eastern Turkey, in the neighboring lands among the Kurdish population, in Jordan and Syria, in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, in Iran, Iraq, Israel/Palestine, Lebanon, Ethiopia, and Kosovo, as well as in several countries outside the Mediterranean area, such as Mexico, Ecuador, Brazil, East Africa, Malaysia, Papua- New Guinea, and Cambodia, as well as in migrant cultures in western countries.4 Silvia Tellenbach, in addition, cites the region of the Maghreb and Yemen, for which she assumes 400 honor killings for the year 1997 alone.5 Amnesty International assumes that several hundred honor killings were committed in Pakistan in 2004,6 others claim 1500 murders yearly for Pakistan.7 Everywhere, there is a high number of unreported cases.

When honor is offended against …

A girl or a woman is killed by a member of her own family for “reasons of honor” when it is believed that she has not exhibited the respectable conduct demanded of her in relationships between the sexes, has violated her sexual integrity, and, thus, has ruined the honor of the entire family. The loss of virginity is considered to be particularly reprehensible. In the culture of the Near and Middle East, in which shame plays a major role, the family is obliged to act when a violation of the social boundaries becomes public knowledge.

Thus, the reputation of a woman must be preserved without reproach at all times. For this reason, the danger of falling victim to an honor murder begins with puberty and ends only at death. A young woman who acts in a disreputable way will have hardly any chance to marry and must fear death. An older married or divorced woman can be locked away or beaten. Older women watch over the younger ones; indeed, many a mother “herself … even takes part … when her own daughter is pushed under the tractor and dies”.8

Wherever these laws are in effect, the mere suspicion of conduct deviating from the norm already can bring a woman into disrepute. No action at all is necessary; the woman has made herself the subject of gossip, and that suffices. She has withdrawn herself from the legitimate control of her husband or her father and, for this reason, a wrong or the desire to do wrong can be imputed to her. Other reasons for an honor murder are the woman’s resistance to an arranged marriage, her wish for a divorce, illegitimate pregnancies – and, as a rule, of course, even in those cases where the woman is a victim of a crime. It may be the case that this woman will have to marry the man who raped her, an act that would terminate any possible police investigation, since, after all, the injustice caused the family is considered as compensated for through the marriage.

In Pakistan, it is said that honor killings carried out because of economic considerations are not a rarity, as in cases, for example, where a woman refuses to renounce her inheritance.9 These murders are considered to be “fake honor killings”, that is, as crimes based on a pretended defense of honor. Or, a family may be deep in debt and may kill one of its own women on the basis of alleged immoral behavior, but then accuses the man in whose debt the family stands of being her lover. Because a rumor is treated as an actual fact, the accused cannot defend himself effectively and is obliged to waive the existing debts as “compensation” for the family’s supposed loss of honor. The wrong done to the woman – duress, forced marriage, or rape – is not a matter for discussion, for only the wrong done to the man through the loss of honor demands compensation or punishment.

The family council

If a family is confronted with a loss of honor, then, as a rule, the family council will decide what is to be done. In minor cases, a girl will be taken out of school, and a woman will be locked away, beaten, or given in marriage to a man in another city without having a say in the matter. In serious cases, the family will resolve to kill the woman, but will not inform the victim of the decision. One day, or night, she will be shot, strangled, stabbed, bludgeoned, stoned, burnt, pushed in front of a car, or thrown from a bridge. Murder motives arising from reasons of honor frequently are at the root of the acid attacks upon women especially widespread in Bangladesh or of the burnings in India disguised as kitchen accidents, although the ostensible reasons for them are the too meager dowry payments made by the parents of the bride. Other deaths are passed off as suicides. The honor murder is the greatest possible use of violence against a woman, planned out of especially base motives; it is actually an execution.

The compulsion to act

The honor that in the tribal society counts for more than the life of a human being must be defended, if necessary by removing the “stain”, as the leader of a Jordanian tribe formulated it:

“A woman is like an olive tree. When its branch catches woodworm, it has to be chopped off so that society stays clean and pure”.10

If a father or brother does not defend the family honor, then he himself will be judged as weak, unmanly, and without honor. He loses face and respect, or even his economic existence. For this reason, men are to be considered as victims just as much as perpetrators. A twenty-five year-old Palestinian discusses this duty:

“I did not kill her, but rather helped her to commit suicide and to carry out the death penalty she sentenced herself to. I did it to wash with her blood the family honor that was violated because of her and in response to the will of society that would not have had any mercy on me if I didn’t.”11

Hence, an honor murder in most cases also is not considered by the society to be a murder in the real sense of the term. The precondition for this attitude is a society that has a higher opinion of the collective than of the individual. Frequently, an underage member of the family is chosen as the perpetrator so that the punishment – in case the crime comes before the court at all – and the loss of working capacity are limited as much as possible.

Although the tradition of the honor murder must be thousands of years old, it has been researched only very little to the present day. The veil of silence lies upon the ancient tradition and has been lifted only in the last few years, above all by organizations for human rights and for women’s rights. Honor killings are tainted with the aura of disgrace and, for this reason, any judicial or police investigations often lead nowhere and are obstructed by a wall of silence.

Honor killings and Islam

On the one hand, there is no question that the honor murder finds justification neither in the Koran nor in Islamic tradition nor classical theology, the more so since the tradition of the honor murder is considerably older than Islam itself. On the other hand, honor killings are recorded today primarily – although not exclusively – in Islamic societies. There, above all in rural areas, many societies are dominated by semi-feudal, tribal structures, in which women frequently are treated de facto as a kind of “property” belonging to the man. These traditional standards of conduct are intertwined with the religious standards of Islam.

A factor deepening the imbalance between men and women in Islamic countries is the demand anchored in Islamic marital law for the obedience of the wife to her husband, based on Sura 4:34 and numerous traditions stemming from Muhammad that emphasize the elevated legal and social position of the man and that, in the primarily traditional opinion of Muslim theologians, even include the corporal punishment of the wife in cases of conflict (cf. Sura 4:34). Even if many a theologian rejects this interpretation and the practice in many Muslim families is quite different, the texts handed down and the conservative interpretations of them still create a climate in which violence against women frequently is considered as much a part of daily life as are the principle of obedience and the limitations placed on the rights of women. Thus, under the influence of a way of life and a culture that that is organized according to a patriarchal-tribal system and is oriented on the values of traditional Islam, the woman is assigned the sole responsibility for the preservation of honor. For this reason, the conservative traditional interpretation of the role of the woman, founded upon Muslim values, favors the control of her, the legitimation of violence, and then, in a certain sense, also the honor murder. To be sure, leading religious personalities in various countries also have spoken out against the honor murder. But, up to now, their appeals have not led to a social reorientation since the “felt” justification for the honor murder apparently is deeply rooted.

Punishment for the honor killing

A consistent criminal prosecution of the honor murder is the exception; it is kept secret or hushed up out of fear, solidarity, or conviction. The woman finds hardly any protection in filing a complaint with the police; the guilty party escapes criminal prosecution. It may be, however, that he even turns himself in to the police, proud of the fact of having restored the honor of his family12 and in the knowledge that he has the majority of the society on his side.

In many countries of the Near and Middle East, a reduction of the sentence for an honor murder is granted on the basis of a “provocation” caused by the dishonorable conduct of a wife or daughter. Article 340 of the Jordanian penal code previously even allowed impunity for the honor murderer if he had caught his wife red-handed in the act of adultery. Article 98 permits a reduction of sentence if the perpetrator commits a criminal offence out of justifiable anger at the false and compromising conduct of his victim.13 In 2001, Article 340 was through royal decree so altered so that now a reduction in punishment is provided for in place of impunity for the honor murder of a woman caught in the act.14 In 2003, however, the modification to the law in Article 340 was supposed to be ratified by the Jordanian parliament, but was rejected by the lower house. For this reason, the status of Article 340 is still uncertain.15 A reduction in punishment for the honor murderer is possible not only in Jordan, but also in most of the countries with a predominantly Muslim population.16 In Pakistan, the current legal regulation states that an honor murder is to be treated as a murder, but also that the judge can initiate a compromise, in the course of which the family can forgive the offender and he can be acquited.17

In Turkey, up until 2003, the penal code provided in Article 462 for a reduced punishment for honor killings committed out of “provocation” (a presumed or actual act of adultery). The corresponding change in the law, effective in 2005, is a step in the right direction, but the law still has to be applied to its full extent. A continuing problem with the law is the fact that a murder committed “in high passion” because of serious provocation still may expect a judgement passed in consideration of extenuating circumstances.18 In the rural areas of Turkey, there has been up to now de facto no punishment in the vast majority of cases.

Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, represented in the Jordanian parliament, branded the deletion of Article 340 as “un-Islamic” and as directed against Sharia. A deletion, they said, amounted to a kow-towing before the West (so some of the comments of the parliamentary representatives) and was aimed at

“destroying Islamic, social, and family values by desiring to strip the men of their human nature when they caught their wives in the act of adultery”.19

To be sure, other – likewise Islamic – voices, such as the Mufti of Gaza, Sheik ’Abd al-Karim Kahlut, already have demanded the death penalty for honor murderers, since, as is said, they are not authorized by Sharia to carry out the death penalty.20 The “Jordanian Islamic Front” (IAF), the majority of whose members sympathize with the Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand, characterized the honor murder as a virtual duty for the man involved. It is, to be sure, wrong, it said, to take the law into one’s own hands,21 but retribution for the moral offenses by the woman in the family nevertheless is an Islamic act.22 Yotam Feldner, thus, is certainly right when he confirms that, in a country with a predominantly Muslim population, “Islamic” means not only what the Koran or the tradition defines as Islamic, but also what a significant portion of the population judges to be Islamic. When nearly two thirds of the population consider honor killings not to be in conflict with the teachings of Islam, then the honor murder cannot be separated effectively from religion in the consciousness of larger parts of the population.23

Above and beyond this, there is much to be said for including not only the performers of an honor murder in the legal judgement against it – as recently occurred in the trial of the honor murder of Hatun Sürücü in Berlin, in which only the perpetrator himself at first had been condemned – but also all the members of the family involved in the decision, planning, instigation, concealment, and aiding and abetting the performance of the act.24 The range of measures, however, does not end with punishment. An active education leading to the equality of the sexes, to the acknowledgement of the state’s monopoly on force, and to the imparting of democratic values should begin in kindergarten so that indifference and ignorance have no chance – since, for those concerned, it is truly a matter of life or death.

This article is a short version of a presentation at the symposium “Ehrenmord und Emanzipation” [Honor killing and emancipation] at the Julius-Maximilian University Würzburg, 19.01.2006.

  1. lnternationales Zentrum für Menschenrechte der Kurden IMK e. V. (Hg.). Mord im Namen der Ehre. Entwicklungen und Hintergründe von Ehrenmorden. Bonn 2003. p. 20. 

  2. M. Böhmecke. Studie: Ehrenmord. Tübingen n. d. (2005). www.frauenrechte.de/tdf/pdf/EU-Studie_Ehrenmord.pdf (1.7.2006) p. 18f.+22 according to a statistics of Papatya (Ed.), Verbrechen im Namen der Ehre in Deutschland. Berlin 2005. 

  3. N. Sadik. The State of World Population 2000: Lives together. worlds apart: men and women in a time of change. United Nations Populations fund. www.unfpa.org/upload/Iib_pub_tiIe/468_filename_swp2000.pdf (1.7.2006). p. 9+33. 

  4. C. Stolle. Nachwort. in: H. GASHl. Mein Schmerz tragt Deinen Namen. Ein Ehrenmord in Deutschland. Hamburg 2005. p. 249. 

  5. S. Tellenbach. Ehrenmorde an Frauen in der arabischen Welt. Anmerkungen zu Jordanien und anderen Ländern. in: Wuquf- Beiträge zur Entwicklung von Staat und Gesellschaft in Nordafrika 13 (2003), 74-89. www.gair.uni-erlangen.de/Tellenbach_Wuquf13.pdf, 1-14 (2.7.2006). p. 2. 

  6. Amnesty lnternational (Hg.). Pakistan. Honour killings of girls and women (1999). web.amnesty.org/library/print/ENGASA330181999 (5.7.2006). 

  7. This number was mentioned by Kai Müller at a conference in Berlin: “Verbrechen im Namen der Ehre”. 9. März 2005 in Berlin. Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung. amnesty intemational. Terre des Femmes. www.frauenrechte.de/tdf/pdf/Fachtagung_Dokumentation_2005.pdl (2.7.2006), p. 3. 

  8. IMK. op. cit., p. 16. 

  9. S. Tellenbach, op. cit., p. 5. 

  10. Tarrad Fayiz in: The Jordan Times (Amman), Febr 5, 2000, quoted from Y. Feldner, Honour murders – Why the perps get off easy (sic), in: MEQ 2000, 41-50. www.meforum.org/article/50, 1-8 (2.7.2006), p. 1. 

  11. AI-Ayyam (Ramallah), 1.6.2000, quoted from Y. Feldner, op. cit., p. 2. 

  12. S. Tellenbach, op. cit., p. 5. 

  13. Ibid, p. 11. 

  14. S. Tellenbach, op. cit., p. 14. 

  15. M. Böhmecke, op. cit., p. 24. 

  16. The penal codes of the following countries conclude such: Egypt: art. 237 StGB 1937 (no. 58), Iraq: art. 409 StGB 1966, Kuwait: art. 153 StGB, Libanon: art. 562 StGB 1942 (with several changes 1983-1999), Libya: art. 375 StGB, Morocco: art. 418+420 StGB 1963, Syria: art. 548 StGB 1949 (changed 1953), Tunesia: art. 207 StGB 1991, VAE: art. 334, law No. 3 StGB 1978, Algeria: art. 279 StGB 1991, Oman: art. 252 StGB. 

  17. Majida Rizvi of the National Commission on the Status of Women in Pakistan in: Fachtagung, op. cit., p. 7. 

  18. M. Böhmecke, op. cit., p. 11. 

  19. Quoted from S. Tellenbach, op. cit., p. 13. 

  20. Ar-Risalah (Gaza). 11.7.1998, quoted from Y. Feldner, p. 5. 

  21. M. Fadel, Honor Killings, www.islamawarness.nt/HonourKilling/honor1.html (5.7.2006), p. 2. 

  22. Compare the quotations from the Jordan Press at Y. Feldner, op. cit., p. 5. 

  23. Y. Feldner, ibid. 

  24. This was also the conclusion of the Danish court which not only sentenced the perpetrator to long years of prison when the 18 year old Pakistani girl Ghazala Khan was killed in East Denmark by her brother in 2006. but also her father and two of her uncles. altogether nine family members: Dänemarks Familie wegen Ehrenmord verurteilt: www.welt.de/data/2006/06/29/938170 (30.06.2006), p. 1.