Honour killings and Emancipation – 
Gender roles in Immigrant Culture against the backdrop of a Middle East understanding of “Honour” and “Shame”

Prof. Dr. Christine Schirrmacher

As part of the symposium “Honour Killings and Emancipation” from the Post-Graduate Seminar “Perception of Gender Differences within Religious Symbol-Systems”, Julius-Maximillian-University, Wuerzburg, 19.01.2006 .

Why deal with the subject of Honour Killings?

“In Sanliurfa another woman has been murdered. It appeared at first to have been a road accident, but the truth later emerged that Semse Kaynak had been murdered. On their arrest, her brother and father explained that she had sullied the “honour” of the family, and that they had therefore thrown her in front of their tractor.”

“The last wish of Naime Selman, before she went to her death, was to be blindfolded. She did not attempt to defend herself as her three brothers threw her from the bridge. She knew that the punishment for running away from home was death, and had been for thousands of years. ‘Honour’ had cost yet another woman’s life.”1

Honour killings do not only occur in the eastern regions of Turkey. Women are killed for “reasons of honour” in Germany and neighbouring countries also. Criminal statistics do not have any separate category for honour killings, but Human and Women’s rights Organisations inform us that 8 women have lost their lives for this reason between October 2004 and June 2005. Seven of these incidents occurred in Berlin. 49 murders, or attempted murders, were committed between 1996 and 2005, with 77 % of victims and perpetrators coming from a Turkish background.2 The number of honour killings worldwide is approximately 5000, according to the United Nations,3 but probably a much higher number of such deaths goes unrecorded. Kofi Anan, Secretary-General of the UN, gives “Honour Killings” the alternative title “Shame Killings”,4 an expression built into a debate called for by the CDU/CSU (the two main conservative political parties in Germany) in the German Parliament concerning protection for women from such crimes.

Many Honour Killings are preceded by violent struggles between married partners, but the culturally ingrained concept of Honour and Shame hinders many women from separating from a violent partner. Most Honour Killings occur because women want to leave their partners, or have already left them – the ex-partner is very often the murderer.5

In the most recent example of an honour killing in Germany at the beginning of 2005, a young women from Turkey died, having been shot out on the street in Berlin. Hatun Surucu was condemned by her family for living by herself “like a German” – a comment from some Turkish School pupils after the deed had become known. She was shot out on the street by her younger brother because her forced marriage in Turkey had failed, and she had returned to Germany with her son. She was no longer accepted by her family and began training to be an electrician. This degree of self-determination and resistance to tradition was to cost her life. Her brothers “wanted to erase that which they saw as a shameful stain on the life of the family.”6

Honour Killings happen in the Kurdish areas of Eastern Turkey, amongst the Kurdish populations in the bordering countries of Jordan, Syria, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Iran, Iraq, Israel/Palestine, Lebanon, Ethiopia and Kosovo, and other non-Mediterranean countries, such as Mexico, Ecuador, Brazil, East-Africa, Malaysia, Papa-New Guinea, Cambodia, as well as Western Countries with immigrant cultures, for example, Switzerland and Italy.7 Silvia Tellenbach names also the region of Magreb and Yemen, in which she reckons that, in 1997, as many as 400 Honour Killings occurred, based on reports in the Arabic press.8 There are only a few countries where statistics have been recorded. Amnesty International for Pakistan reckons that several hundred Honour Killings took place in 2004,9 but figures of 1500 murders per year are also mentioned in connection with Pakistan.10 Everywhere, however, there is the difficulty of much higher unofficial figure because of unrecorded deaths or Honour Killings disguised as suicides or accidents.

Globalisation means that western societies – in relation to culture, tradition and religion – also have to deal with the problem of traditional-patriarchal defined gender roles in tribal societies, and their understanding of honour and shame. Religiously defined norms and sociological developments have also to be taken into account, e.g. adapting to strengthening of traditions in the Diaspora that run contrary to modern perceptions and sensibilities.

The Concepts of Honour and Shame

In the cultural region of the Middle and Near – East the “common” form of Honour (Arabic: sharaf) is significant, the kind of honour which each individual possesses, is strong and brave, generous and willing to help, and is a supporting pillar of society. It is a means of gaining respectability and honour. This kind of honour can be reduced through socially unacceptable behaviour, but can be regained through approved actions, especially generosity and the kind of behaviour demanded by society. The Turkish language has yet another word for honour (Turkish: saygi) to denote the kind of honour that the young should demonstrate to the old, or children their parents. Saygi means respectful manners to be shown especially to the Father, and which he can demand at any time, as head of the household.

Another kind of Honour, (Arabic: ‘ird, Turkish: Namus) and also the kind of Honour mainly being dealt with in this article is to do with sexual purity and blamelessness of a women in a family, on which the honour of a whole clan depends. In other words, it is to do with honour in relation to the behaviour of the sexes towards one another, which has very narrow definitions within a tribal society. For the woman, this kind of honour means avoiding contact to non-related men outside of the family as far as possible, and where it is unavoidable, to show propriety, through appropriate clothing (to cover herself), avoiding eye-contact, avoiding unnecessary words, and demonstrating extreme modesty.

Each family and clan has to earn this kind of honour through the women conforming to these rules of behaviour. This kind of honour is viewed as more important than human life, as no one can live without this honour in a tribal-based societal structure.

Reasons for Honour-Killings

A girl or woman will be killed for “reasons of honour” by a member of her own family, when it is held that she has violated the borders of acceptable behaviour within her community, damaged or destroyed her good reputation, and thereby dragged the family honour through the dirt. The loss of virginity before the wedding is a particularly serious matter, and virginity must, at all costs, be preserved up to the day of the wedding. (Or restored through an operation)

“Dishonourable” means also that which family and society frowns upon, especially eye contact and conversation with a man outside the family circle. “A pregnancy outside of marriage means – in countries with an extreme form of dominance by men – a certain death”11 If the woman gives birth to the child, it will also be killed.

In the shame-culture of the near and middle-east the family is obliged to become active when the offending behaviour has become publicly known, and the family as witnesses, or through a third party, have been confronted with the honour-violation. If a woman is conducting a secret affair it is entirely possible that the family will not do anything, even when they have become aware of it. Morally unacceptable behaviour has to be dealt with only when the matter becomes generally known in public (through a pregnancy, for example).

The untarnished reputation of a woman has to be protected at all times therefore, especially in relation to her sexual behaviour. This means that the danger of falling victim to an honour killing begins with the onset of puberty, but can also happen to an older woman. If a young girl cannot preserve her good reputation she will have a very small chance of being able to marry, and as a married or divorced woman will have grave difficulties. As an older woman it is her task to be guardian of the morals of younger women. Some mothers “even participate themselves when their own daughter is pushed under a tractor, or she deals ‘understandingly’ with the crime”12 Honour is bound up closely with the life of a woman therefore, in all phases of her life.

The judgement of a woman concerning her good reputation significantly reduces her to the area of her sexuality, which is seen as a threatening factor to society, as she can cause damage in her family and society through her sexual attraction. Qualities such as abilities, personality, interests, education, are of much lesser importance than her good reputation, which always remains the first criteria for the judgement passed on her by society.

When a woman leaves her house, she does not pass into “neutral territory” – her actions outside the home must either be necessary and serve some practical purpose, such as working in the field, or making essential purchases, or she will arouse suspicion of behaving immorally, if, for example, she just goes for a walk through the village for recreational purposes. For this reason the simple supposition or rumour concerning behaviour that departs from the accepted norm can be enough to give a woman a bad reputation. The question is not whether she has actually made herself guilty of any dishonourable conduct – she has put herself at the mercy of negative talk, and that is sufficient. Through leaving the house or holding a conversation, she has withdrawn herself from the legitimate control of the man, and can thus be accused of bad behaviour, or the intent to behave badly. If there are merely suppositions or rumours of impropriety this is seen as being just as dishonourable as though she had actually infringed the narrow code of acceptable conduct.

Also, if a woman resists the decision of her family to marry a person whom they have selected for her, that she was perhaps promised to in her childhood, the family can reach the conclusion that they have lost face and that the family honour has been violated. “It is especially shocking that even the desire for a self-determined life, or the assertion of her own opinion can have grave consequences for the woman in question”13 A young woman has the choice therefore, between an arranged marriage, running away, (not usually successful) or death. The attempt to separate from her husband at a later stage, or an attempt to have a divorce can also be seen as losing face, and dishonour for the family.

Another reason for honour killing is a pregnancy outside of marriage. A single mother is in great danger of falling victim to an honour killing. The reason for the pregnancy is hardly ever inquired about. A pregnancy outside of marriage means shame and guilt, regardless of whether the liaison was voluntary or a criminal act forced upon her, for she has put herself in this position through leaving the protection of her male family members. If she has been raped, she will – as a rule – not be regarded as a victim but a perpetrator, for it is the one who has been raped who brings dishonour over her family and not the rapist. The woman might have to marry the one who raped her, in which case a possible police inquiry would be avoided, and the dishonour brought on the family would be seen as having been erased. The man can, however, throw his wife out of the home shortly after the wedding, but there will still be the threat of an honour killing, even when the woman is pregnant.14 When a woman has become pregnant through a crime within the family (through incest) the consequence will be, as a rule, the death of the woman rather than the man.

It is reported from Pakistan that after the murder of a woman, whose illegitimate relationship had been discovered, that the man involved initially escapes retribution through running away, but later, through the tribal gathering (jirga) can receive a decree concerning the amount of compensation he must pay, in order that he, as adulterer, can return to society. He will pay a sum of money, gives the family of the woman a piece of land, or a woman from his own family, and so is accepted back into the community. Under some circumstances he will have to fear for his life despite the compensation he has paid.15

In Pakistan it is also reported that honour killing out of financial motives happens on a frequent basis through, for example, the holding back of a certain part of an inheritance,16 or a woman refusing to part with her inheritance.17 These murders are described there as “fake honour killings”, as a crime from supposed violation of honour. This happens when a family has large debts and has killed a female family member for alleged immoral conduct (as kari), and the man who the family owes money to is accused of being the woman’s lover. The accused is then obliged, owing to the gravity of such rumours, to cancel the remaining debts as compensation for the supposed loss of honour for the family. Alternatively, a man murders a woman in his own family and demands a large sum of money from another family, having accused one of the men in that family of adultery.18

In Pakistan, when a man wishes to marry the daughter of another family and she refuses his offer and the man then accuses the brother of the woman of being an adulterer, he can demand his sister as “compensation” for the suffered injustice of loss of honour, together with the obligation then not kill the brother.19 This demonstrates very clearly the immense fear in society of loss of honour, and the abuse of power through the spreading of rumours.

In other cases in Afghanistan and Pakistan women are exchanged as a means of laying aside tribal conflicts, and young girls are offered as a peace offering to an enemy tribe.20

An injustice committed against a woman, be it rape, or the compulsion to act against her own wishes or will, is never seen as something to be compensated – only the man who has suffered the loss of his honour demands compensation or punishment. This is to be seen in the context of a tribal understanding of the disposability of women as chattels without the right to participate in decisions concerning their own fate.

When a woman is unable – for whatever reason – to demonstrate her virginity on her wedding night, she will also be in danger of losing her life for reasons of honour. She will have ruined the honour of the entire family, humiliated her husband, and, in the eyes of society, shown her conduct before marriage to have been shameful. He will then, unless they reach a secret agreement together, send her back to her family in disgrace and shame, where her family will then marry her off quickly elsewhere, or kill her.

The absolute necessity of protecting virginity has other reasons connected with the question of honour. Only a virgin can demand a high dowry – that of a divorced woman, or widow, is much lower. A marriage must not therefore be carried out with deception concerning the purity of the woman, otherwise the family of the bridegroom will see themselves as having been cheated both financially and in terms of their standing in society.

In a “positive” sense a young woman can turn the ideas concerning honour and shame to her advantage, when her parents are unhappy with a marriage candidate and the woman elopes with him. If they both manage to spend a night alone together, and turn up the next day at her parent’s house, they will then often agree to the marriage.21

The perpetrator

The perpetrator of an honour killing will always be a member of the family. In middle and near – east countries it seems to be the brother of the woman in question who is elected to carry out the deed,22 or her father. In immigrant families there will not necessarily always be complete family structures, so the husband will often be the one to carry out the deed.23 Generally speaking, the connection of the husband to his wife is not as strong as to the family of birth, as the husband can divorce his wife fairly easily, but the family of her birth will always be connected with her.

Cousins or Uncles can also be perpetrators, which makes it clear that the woman has not committed an offence against an individual, but against an entire community, and that the community is called to act as a whole.

The death of the victim

If a violation of honour has been discovered, the Family Council will then decide what is to be done. In milder cases the girl will be taken out of school or the woman locked up, beaten, or sent off to a different city to be married off without her having a say in the matter. In more serious cases the family will decide on the death of the victim, but the woman will not be informed of the decision. One day or night she will be shot, strangled, stabbed, beaten, stoned, burned, pushed in front of a moving car, or thrown from a bridge. Reported in Bangladesh are acid-attacks against women, or deaths from fire disguised as accidents in the kitchen – allegedly because of a dowry that is too small – all happening because of reasons of honour. In other cases murders against women are reported as suicides.

An honour killing is an act of the most extreme violence, planned and carried out against a woman for especially low motives. It is only very seldom that a man falls victim to an honour killing, when, for example, it becomes known that he has homosexual tendencies. An honour killing can be carried out immediately, or months, or even years after the “offence” by the woman has occurred. A killing like this is not, therefore, carried out in the heat of the moment, but deliberately planned and kept secret. It is, in fact, an execution. The woman disappears and nobody speaks about her again. If there is no birth certificate, as in some rural districts, the woman cannot really be officially recorded as deceased, or even registered as missing. If the corpse is found, it will be buried, but the very important Islamic mourning ceremonies will be omitted. It is reported from Pakistan that alleged adulterers are buried in a specially cordoned off area of the cemetery, or simply thrown into a river, without the last honour of a decent burial.24

Honour killing as a duty

In a tribal society honour is of central importance. It is measured as being even more important than a human life, for, in this setting, a family cannot even exist without its honour intact, and so honour must, at all costs, be defended. The Jordanian tribal leader Tarrad Fayiz uses the following illustration:

“A woman is like an olive tree. If one of the branches is infested with woodworm, it must be chopped off, so that the community remains flawless and pure.”25

If a father or brother does not defend the family honour, and the attendant shame of an attack on the family from outside remains visibly undealt with, then the man will, on his part, be deemed to be weak, unmanly, and without honour. It becomes obvious that he cannot defend his family, or keep it under control. He loses face, and, as a weakling, cannot command respect. He will possibly lose his possessions, or his economic existence, for which he is dependant on the community. He must, therefore, as soon as a rumour comes to surface, act drastically, and in a way that is clearly visible for everyone. He must reinforce the borders of conduct for his wife or daughter (through locking her up) or lower her status (through mistreating her), or even kill her, so as to prove his strength and power in the public eye. If he does not do this, he will be seen as without honour, will not be highly valued, and will be cheated and mocked.

The pressure is on the male family members to take on the role of avengers of family honour, as demanded by the decrees of the Family Council. A 25 year-old Palastiner says:

“I did not kill her, but rather helped her to commit suicide to carry out the death sentence to which she had condemned herself. I did it, so that her blood would wash the family honour clean which we had lost through her and to carry out the will of the community, which would otherwise not have shown me any grace … Society has taught us from an early age that blood is the only way to cleanse honour.”26

Similarly, another Palastiner says:

“I had to kill her, because I was the oldest (male) family member. My only motive for the killing was (my wish) that people should stop their gossip at last. They accused me of encouraging her to immoral behaviour… I let her choose the kind of death she should die: Either having her throat cut, or poisoning her. She decided to take the poison.”27

Consequently, women are not the only ones to be seen as victims; the men also have to conform to their expected roles to demonstrate strength and dominance. A woman can only maintain her honour. Once lost, she can never get it back again. If she loses it, then the men in the family must restore the family honour. The men can therefore be seen as both perpetrators and victims.

The honour of a man depends, therefore, on the conduct of the women in his family. If they behave in a dishonourable fashion and it becomes visible to the community this is seen as an open admission that the men are unable to protect the women from the immoral advances of other men or control their behaviour. They can then only either run away, or demonstrate their strength through murdering the woman.

Honour killing is not seen by families and society as murder in the normal sense, but rather as a duty to restore the former status, and compensation for the “damage” resulting from the dishonour to the family. The condition for this way of thinking is a society that values the collective higher than the individual. The collective dictates and controls the norms, which help society to achieve stability. Because of economic and familial dependency – especially in a rural context – it is extremely difficult for individual families to depart from this behavioural code.

Often a family will get a very young male family member to carry out the deed, so that if the case ever comes before a court the penalty will be a mild one. The loss of a junior family member through a possible prison sentence will not mean the loss of an adult worker for the family affairs. Very often it will have been the mothers, bringing up their sons with the handed-down traditions concerning honour and shame, who have spurred them on to carry out their “duty.”

In the event of the discovery of an extra-marital love affair the woman will mostly be the victim, as the financial implications of her loss can be coped with the most easily. If the guilty man (a rapist, for example) were killed, then a son or a father as breadwinner or defender of the family would be lost, and this, in the context of a tribal society, would provoke a prolonged blood feud – not the case in the death of a woman. This has its origins in Arabic common law, but also in clearly formulated Islamic law, that the blood money for a woman is always to be set lower than that of a man, as the economic loss is the greater.28

What are the origins of honour killing?

Although the tradition of honour killing must be thousands of years old, there has been relatively little relevant research carried out until now. There are no reliable statistics to show how many women have died this kind of death, as honour killings are very often disguised and hushed up.

A blanket of silence lies over this ancient handed-down tradition, which has only recently begun to be penetrated, particularly by human and women’s rights organisations. In middle and near-eastern countries honour killing is not really a topic to be discussed in public, and if, in isolated cases, it is investigated by the police or brought before a court the officials are then hindered by a wall of silence. Honour killing comes before the courts much less often than it occurs, and is, to an extent, not officially recorded, and escapes a comprehensive assessment. In individual countries, such as Jordan, criminal statistics have been published which bring the special circumstance of honour killing to light.29 During a seminar in Berlin, under the patronage of “Terre des Femmes”, Amnesty International, and the Friedrich Ebert Trust, attention was drawn to 98 cases of murder in Jordan, from which over 25% were honour killings.30 Carol Bellamy, Executive director of UNICEF supposes, in a report given at the International Women’s Day in the year 2000, that two thirds of the murders in the Gaza strip and on the west bank were honour killings.31

It is clear that honour killing cannot be based on Islam, and cannot be justified from the Koran or Islamic Tradition. Mohammed has also made no statements demanding such measures. Honour killing has no basis in Islamic theology and the tradition of honour killings is considerably older than Islam itself.

It cannot be overlooked, however, that honour killing nowadays happens mainly (although not exclusively) in Islamic societies. Here, especially in rural districts, semi-feudal tribal structures exist in which very strict and narrowly defined codes of conduct exist for women and men, and remain unchallenged. Women remain, in fact, a kind of “possession” for men. This behavioural norm is largely justified by Islam, collectively controlled, and in the various Islamic countries used to lay any guilt on the women. As a result of economic migration honour killing occurs also in cities and in all levels of society,32 so it would be a mistake to see the problem of honour killing to be limited to rural areas.

Another factor which increases the inequality between men and women in Islamic countries is the demand, anchored in Islamic marriage laws, for the woman to obey her husband. This is based on Surah 4,34, and also numerous traditions passed on by Mohammed which emphasise the superior position of the man both in his legal status and within society, and also the general traditional opinion of Muslim theologians even allowing “reasonable” chastisement of wives during marriage conflicts. (See Surah 4,34) Even if some theologians reject this interpretation and modern Islamic families practice things differently, the traditional texts, with their conservative interpretations in Islamic-patriarchal societies create an atmosphere where violence against women is often tolerated as part of normal everyday living, as well as the principle of obedience and narrowing of women’s rights, e.g. in the areas of education, a self-determined lifestyle, and personal freedom.

Muslim theologians especially emphasise the duty of the woman to sexual obedience as one of the basic components of submission of the woman within marriage; a factor which also forms the awareness of the lower status of women in society, as well as the authority of the man. Opinion and practice may have changed gradually in upper-class levels of city-based societies, but these practices and beliefs are still unchallenged for large segments of Muslim society, where a pre-industrial, collective-oriented society, relatively undeveloped in its structures and a lifestyle based on a patriarchy and the values of traditional Islam create a climate where the woman is solely responsible for the protection of honour, even though the Koran and Muslim theology see the punishment for extra-marital relationships as being stoning or lashes for man and woman alike. In practice, however, the woman alone is held responsible for the maintaining of moral standards, whereby culture and tradition play a greater part than orthodox theology.

A traditional-conservative view of the role of women, based on Islamic values creates, therefore, a favourable climate for the control of women, and legitimisation for the use of violence, and also, to a degree, for honour killings. Religious leaders in various countries have, from time to time, spoken out against honour killings, but their words have not led to a basic rethinking of this issue within society, but the “felt” justification for honour killings is regrettably still very high.

Gender segregation

Rich ground for the flourishing of honour killing is provided also by the segregation of the sexes practiced in traditional Islam, that is, the strict separation of areas in society where men and women are permitted to move around. Public areas (Cafés, the streets, the Mosque) are reserved for men, for women the family and home. In traditional families the women remain as far as possible at home and leave the house only in urgent circumstances, and then only veiled and mostly chaperoned. In this area the moral life of a society is only guaranteed when the segregation of the sexes is practiced as thoroughly as possible, and the woman thus gives the man no reason for acting immorally or being led astray. The segregation of the sexes, and the limiting of the woman’s sphere of movement to the home and family indicate that the woman alone carries the responsibility for the maintaining of public morals.

Penalties for honour killing

It would certainly be possible to deter people from carrying out honour killings through consistent pressing of criminal charges, which, however, does not normally happen. If a police investigation is carried out at all, it encounters a great wall of silence, although everyone is quite well aware of what is really going on. Maybe the perpetrator will leave the village for a while to escape the interrogation. Maybe he will freely inform the police about his actions, proud to have restored the family honour.33 The pressing of charges and court case very often simply do not happen, and are not expected by society, or will even be made impossible. It is reported from Pakistan, that the general opinion there is that honour killing is not directed against the State of Pakistan, but only against individual persons – good conditions to make criminal proceedings and police investigation seem unnecessary.34

If a victim survives, or a witness has seen what happened, it is very unlikely that this witness can help bring things to light, because fear will cause him to remain silent, or he will be threatened himself. If he did speak out, then he would oppose the agreed silence of society, and have to fear revenge. This is the reason that witnesses in German honour killing processes are rightly placed in the witness protection scheme.

If the victim senses her approaching death and appeals to the police for help, she will hardly ever be listened to or receive support. It is often reported that such women are either sent back directly to their families, mocked, beaten, humiliated and even raped by the police, as is repeatedly reported from rural districts in eastern Turkey, as a woman who acts on her own initiative through wishing to press charges or seek protection, is seen – according to the ruling moral code – as having lost honour.

In many countries of the near and middle east honour killing is penalised with very mild sentencing, as the assumption is that the perpetrator was provoked by the dishonourable conduct of his wife or daughter. Some law books even allow freedom from any punishment at all. For example, Article 340 of the Jordanian Criminal Penal Code allows honour killing to go unpunished when the wife of a man has been caught in the act of adultery, and article 98 allows reduced punishment when the perpetrator carried out the deed in justifiable anger over the wrong and (honour) endangering conduct of his victim.35 The charges in Jordan often consist of premeditated, planned murder, which can be punished with up to 15 years hard labour, or with the death sentence. These sentences have not been passed, however, in the cases investigated in the past few years. The actual sentencing for documented honour killing in Jordan, from the year 1995, was up to one year in prison, and only in one case was a sentence of ten years in prison passed. The mildest sentences were received by offenders who shot single women (mostly sisters) who had become pregnant.36

In view of this injustice the “Jordanian National Commission for Women” has been fighting for the abolition of article 340 of Jordanian law. Parliament rejected the abolition of this article, and refused to even discuss a renewed application in the year 2000, even though 15000 signatures had been collected and the support of the Jordanian Royal Family obtained. Some members of parliament expressed the opinion that the abolition of this law would be tantamount to “tolerating” adultery and immorality and could not, therefore, support the application.37 Additionally, the press published results of surveys in which 62% of the population were of the opinion that the abolition of the article would lead to the moral decline of society.38 In 2001, through a royal decree, article 340 was changed, so that honour killing in the case of the wives caught in the act of adultery would no longer be go unpunished, but be penalised with reduced sentencing.39 Mild sentencing, however, still means the recognition of mitigating circumstances in the case of honour killing. A law to change article 340 should have been ratified by the Jordanian parliament in 2003, but was rejected by the lower house, thus rendering the status of article 340 since the year 2004 as uncertain.40

Followers of the Muslim Brotherhood, represented in Jordanian parliament, brand marked the abolition of article 340 as “Un-Islamic”, and an attack against Sharia. An abolition would be pandering to the West (according to some members of parliament) and would be aimed at destroying “Islamic, social and family values”, through stripping men of their human nature when they catch their female family members in the act of adultery.41

All this makes it clear that the discussion concerning the judicial arrangements for honour killing is not limited to the poorly educated lower classes, or to those in rural areas, otherwise it would be unlikely that parliament would have to occupy itself with the question. It is also clear that, for Islamic Authorities, honour killing and the associated body of opinion do have a connection to Islam.

There are other Islamic voices, e.g. the Mufti from Gaza, Sheik ‘Abd al-Karim Kahlut, who demand the death penalty for honour killing, as the Sharia does not allow private individuals to carry out the death penalty, and thus take the law into their own hands.42 On the other hand, the “Jordanian Islamic Front” (IAF), the majority of whose members are in sympathy with the Muslim Brotherhood, describe honour killing almost as an obligation for the one concerned. It is, admittedly, not permitted to take the law into one’s own hands,43 but the avenging of immorality on the part of female family members is an exception, and the avenging is therefore an Islamic act.44

Yotam Feldner is therefore surely right when he complains that “Islamic” in a country with a mainly Muslim population does not only mean what the Koran or written traditions defines, but what a large part of the population judges to be so. When about two-thirds of the population do not see any contradiction between honour killing and the teaching of Islam, then honour-killing – even when it actually originates from pre-Islamic Arabic tribal societies – cannot, at least until now, really be effectively separated from religion.45

A rebuke to the perpetrators not to take the law into their own hands will not be sufficient to convince the population in a plausible way to see honour killing as clearly “unIslamic”. Myria Boehmecke summarises concisely:

“The Muslim clerics deny demanding honour killing for religious reasons, and refer to tradition without seriously using their authority to support women.”46

Mild sentencing for honour killing is not only possible in Jordan, but also in Egypt47, Iraq (maximum of 3 years in prison)48, Kuwait49, Lebanon50, Libya (Maximum 2 years prison for deeds based on violations of honour)51, Morocco52, Syria53, Tunisia54, and the UAE55. The penal code of Algeria does not even punish murderers of women caught in the act of committing adultery56 and in Oman it is possible not to pass sentence, or to pass a reduced sentence.57 Also in Syria it seems to be an everyday occurrence that mild sentences are passed.58 Current law in Pakistan states that honour killing should be viewed as murder, but the judge can reach a compromise, in that the family forgive the perpetrator, enabling him then to be pardoned.59

Honour killing has been a much-discussed theme in Turkey since 1996. Until the year 2003, only mild sentencing was passed for honour killing, as a “provocation” (supposed or actual adultery) by the woman was seen as mitigating circumstances.60 The relevant law passed in 2005 is a step in the right direction, but the law has still to be fully and effectively applied, and the problem remains that a murder as a result of strong provocation “in the heat of the moment” is still seen as mitigating circumstances.61

In rural regions in Turkey there was, effectively, no punishment at all, and this has not really changed, despite new laws. This is because the killing is a community act, committed by family and society – all are agreed that that the woman must be killed, all are agreed that her death is lawful. All pass judgement on the victim through their silence, and all protect the perpetrator, or put him under pressure to carry out the deed. Thus, the established concept of marriage, and honour killing as righteous vengeance are bred into the next generation, without any alternative ways of behaving seeming possible.

Another difficulty is the fact that there are no Women’s Refuges in Islamic countries. (There is a Women’s Refuge in Jordan, opened in 2003) so that perhaps a voluntary spell in prison might offer a certain protection from persecution. When the family negotiate to have the woman taken home, this turns out to be a deception, and she will then be killed after all.62

Honour killing amongst immigrants – a call to act

Is it a coincidence, or an inevitable process, that the problem of honour killing has broken out especially among the third generation of Muslim immigrants in western countries? That women and girls are looking, more than ever, for protection in women’s refuges and human rights organisations, from forced-marriages, family based vengeance measures, or female circumcision?

If one assumed, after Germany stopped trying to attract Muslim workers from Turkey from 1973 onwards, that the 70s and 80s would see these people all going back to their home countries, or a quick, steady, and “noiseless” process of integration of immigrants, war refugees and asylum seekers from various parts of the world would set in, at the latest during the second or third generation, and kept refusing to view Germany as a chosen destination for immigrants, one would have to admit that it has become impossible to ignore the fact that in a section of the immigrant population – especially the poorly educated classes with the tendency to form their own cultural spaces – there has been a backward looking re-orientation towards traditional-religious values and concepts. This is the setting in which honour-killings occur more often than 45 years ago, amongst the first of the waves of immigrants arriving in Germany. Insecurity about their own identity, the feeling of being accepted neither here nor in their countries of origin, experienced discrimination, unsuccessful integration on the part of both sides, a failed school career with very limited job prospects, the influence of political Islamistic Networks and their call to separate from Germany society all contribute to this development.

The “Anonyme Kriseneinrichtung fuer Migranten” (The Anonymous Crisis Centre for Migrants), PAPATYA, Berlin, has noticed, “the affected families are often struggling with problems such as long term unemployment, difficult financial situations, alcoholism, or separation and divorce.” They also note that in view of the marginalisation of migrant groups in society it is not surprising that traditional rules are particularly emphasised.63 It would, however, be wrong to claim that honour killing is a problem connected exclusively with poverty and poor education, as it is to be found at all levels of society, but particularly patriarchal societies in which access to education is missing, and economic or social problems intensify the problems, until the family honour is seen as the last value which must be defended. “Especially at risk are societies in a process of upheaval”64, in which women start to participate in the work process, and, as a result, start to demand more rights and freedoms. The “transfers” in a post modern, individualistic industrial society seem to animate some sections of society to an intensified clinging on to tradition.

Near east understanding of gender roles and honour killing are subjects of immense importance in western countries as well. First, it is necessary to become familiar with the cultural and religious norms within migrant groups. Then, a well-grounded working out of the borders of cultural tolerance and clear identification of infringements of human rights cannot be avoided. The third generation of Muslim women experience their arranged marriages as forced marriages and cannot continue to find any positive inner connection to the traditional manner of behaviour expected of them, when set against the backdrop of a western secular, strongly individualistic society, profoundly influenced by sexual equality. The third generation of migrants is even more strongly torn than ever, between the tradition of the parents, grand parents, and the country of origin, which has already become foreign to them. Even if, as in many families, an orthodox Islam based on Islamic scripture is not lived out, but rather a cultural Islam, there is still ample opportunity for conflict in life as an immigrant. It is encouraging to note that knowledge about – and protest against – honour killing is increasing.

Dealing with this theme must also have the effect of bringing about an improved protection for women in Europe and beyond. This is also the case in Islamic countries where, for example, in Iraqi-Kurdistan, where the network ASUDA (Alliance against Violence against Women in Iraqi-Kurdistan) is active.65 After the murder of the Druze Huda Abu ‘Asali in Syria in 2005, a press campaign against honour killing was set into motion, supported by Muslim and Christian clerics and intellectuals, primarily in independent media, but then taken up by government friendly newspapers. The protest was directed against the mild sentencing for perpetrators of honour killing.66 Other organisations are active in Turkish Kurdistan especially, for example, in Diyarbakir, where a “Centre for Women”, named Kadin Merkezi, or Ka-Mer, was opened in 1977. In numerous Islamic countries women’s rights organisations are bringing this theme increasingly into the public eye. It would be very significant in Germany, if Muslim groups would publicly and expressly condemn honour killing as unIslamic,67 and an infringement of human rights, and offer arguments against this practice from the Koran and Islamic written traditions.

Another necessary step further to the spreading of information and keeping the subject in the public eye would be support for the victim in every possible form. This starts with taking threats seriously, setting up support organisations, to sensitise public service workers and those responsible for security, and finally to be able to offer effective protection for women and girls. It is to be welcomed that forced marriage is now viewed by the law as a crime consisting of particularly grave coercion and that honour killing is increasingly being viewed as murder, rather than culturally provoked manslaughter, and punished as such,68 as well as the legal possibility of recognising gender-specific reasons for not deporting female asylum seekers from certain countries such as Iran, who have divorced and remarried here in Germany, and would face honour killing or court proceedings on charges of adultery on their return.

Additionally, many things also speak in favour of not just sentencing the one carrying out the deed – as recently seen in the case of Hatun Surucu – and thus only punishing the perpetrator, but also the family who participated with the decision to carry out the deed, the planning, the inciting, concealing and aiding and abetting.69 The range of measures does not end with appropriate sentencing, however, but the active training and education concerning gender equality, the acknowledging of the authority of the State, and the passing on of democratic values should begin in Kindergarten, so that complacency and ignorance do not have a chance, because – for the victim – it is a matter of life and death.

  1. IMK, Mord 20f. 

  2. M. BOEHMCECKE Studie 18f & 22 according to a selection from PAPATYA, crimes. 

  3. N. SADIK, State 9 & 33. 

  4. Quoted from report 299. 

  5. M. BOEHMCECKE, Study 125, from a selection from PAPATYA, crimes. 

  6. Compare report from Arabic Daily paper Al-Hayat, from 25.5.2005, quoted according to Arabic Newspapers, Honour Killings, 2. 

  7. C. STOLLE, afterword, in: H. GASHI, Schmerz 249, BERICHT 300; N. SADIK, State 30. 

  8. S. TELLENBACH, Honour killings 2. 

  9. AMNESTY Pakistan. 

  10. This number named by Kai Mueller at a Specialists seminar concerning Honour Killings: FACHTAGUNG Verbrechen 3. 

  11. C. STOLLE, afterword in H. GASHI, Schmerz 248. 

  12. IMK Mord 16. 

  13. C. STOLLE, Nachwort, in: H. Gashi, Schmerz 248. 

  14. Cases like this, and similar, are reported in “Ehrenmorde”, by S. Tellenbach, from the Arabic press. 

  15. N. Najam, Honour 4. 

  16. FACHTAGUNG, Verbrechen 8. 

  17. S.TELLENBACH, Ehrenmorde 5. 

  18. Compare this and similar case-descriptions with N. Najam, Honour 5. 

  19. So N. NAJAM, Honour 6. 


  21. P. HEINE, Ehre 39. 

  22. Also according to research into honour killings in Jordan, in which 70% of perpetrators were the brother. FACHTAGUNG, Verbrechen 6. 

  23. M. BOEHMECKE, Studie 26+29. 

  24. So N. NAJAM. Honour, 3. 

  25. Tarrad Fayiz in: The Jordan Times (Amman) Feb. 5th, 2000, quoted according to Y. FELDNER, Honour 1. 

  26. Al-Ayyam (Ramallah), 1.6.2000, quoted by Y. FELDNER, Honour 2. 

  27. Ar-Risala (Gaza), 11.6. 1998, quote from Y. FELDNER, Honour 2. 


  29. So S TELLENBACH, Ehrenmorde 2. 

  30. FACHTAGUNG, Verbrechen 6. 

  31. According to TELLENBACH, Ehrenmorde 2. 

  32. FACHTAGUNG Verbrechen 6. 

  33. According to S. TELLENBACH, Ehrenmorde 5. 

  34. According to M. BOEHMECKE fuer Pakistan & Jordanien, Tatmotiv 25+30. 

  35. S. TELLENBACH, Ehrenmorde 11. 

  36. FACHTAGUNG, Verbrechen 6f. 

  37. Compare various statements from Y. FELDNER Honour 4. 

  38. E.g. The Jordan Times: Y. FELDNER, Honour 3. 

  39. S. TELLENBACH, Ehrenmorde 14. 

  40. According to M. BOEHMECKE. Tatmotiv 24. 

  41. Quoted from S. TELLENBACH, Ehrenmorde 13. 

  42. Ar-Risalah (Gaza), 11.7. 1998, quoted by Y. FELDNER, Honour, 5. 

  43. See also M. FADEL, Honour 2 

  44. Compare written expressions from the Jordanian press, by Y. FELDNER, Honour 5. 

  45. According to Y. FELDNER, Honour 5. 

  46. M. BOEHMECKE, Studie 7. 

  47. Article 237 of Penal Code from 1937 (No. 58). 

  48. Article 409 Penal Code from 1966. 

  49. Article 153 Penal Code. 

  50. Article 562 of Penal Code from 1942 (Various changes 1983-1999). 

  51. Article 357, Penal Code. 

  52. Article 418+420 Penal Code 1963. 

  53. Article 548 Penal Code, 1949. 

  54. Article 207 Penal Code from 1991. 

  55. Article 334 from Lawbooks, Nr. 3 from Penal Code from 1978. 

  56. Article 279 penal code from 1991 

  57. Article 252 from penal code. 

  58. MEMRI media campaign. 

  59. According to Majida Rizvi from the National Commission on the Status of Women in Pakistan in: FACHTAGUNG, Verbrechen 7. 

  60. M. BOEHMECKE, Studie 11. 

  61. M. BOEHMECKE, Studie 11. 

  62. Compare description of case in TELLENBACH, Ehrenmorde 6f. for Jordan. 

  63. According to Corinna Ter-Nedden in FACHTAGUNG, Verbrechen 12. 

  64. M. BOEHMECKE, Studie 8. 

  65. www.asuda.org. 

  66. MEMRI media campaign. 

  67. So says also the MUSLIM WOMEN’S LEAGUE, position 2 aus. 

  68. The “Anatolian Values System” of a perpetrator was given as cause for reduced sentencing in a decision by the Federal Court of Justice in 18.01.2004, (Reference number; 2 StR 452/03; Characteristics of murder with low motive with foreign offenders.). 

  69. So, obviously the thought expressed through the Danish court which sentenced not just the brother, who carried out the deed, but also his father and two uncles to long prison sentences, as well as passing sentence on nine other family members, in the case of the woman Ghazala Khan, from Palestine: Denmark, Family 1.