Honor Killings

January 26, 2010

by Sarah Michele Ford
e-mail: ford-at-soc-dot-umass-dot-edu

On January 17th, a 21-year old Indian woman was murdered; the alleged killer was her father.

What would drive a father to kill his daughter? In this case, the motivation appears to have been that the daughter had married a man of whom her father did not approve. To those of us who have been raised in Western cultures, this “honor killing” – the murder of a woman by a family member because she has violated social or sexual norms – seems crazy. This practice, however, has a long history in a number of cultures, primarily in the Middle East.

In order to even begin to understand the phenomenon of honor killings, we have to keep a number of things in mind. First and foremost is the concept of “honor”. The honor at stake in these cases is not the woman’s – it is that of her father and other male relatives. In the Turkish context, for example, “A man’s “honour” consists of two main components: His reputation is determined by his own actions in the community (“seref’) and the chastity or virtue of the female members of his family (“names”)” (“They Killed her for Going Out With Boys…”, 35 Hofstra L. Rev. 815 2006-2007). Why, you might ask, is a man’s honor dependent upon the actions of his female family members? This brings to the fore another vast cultural difference between these cultures and the West. In our social context, the individual is the most important social unit. In this particular Middle Eastern context, however, the family is the most important social unit. It is the family’s honor that the young woman in the Indian example has brought into question. And, in that context, it has historically been considered acceptable to restore the family’s honor by eliminating the person who brought it into question.

This social phenomenon raises so many questions for us as sociologists. Is it appropriate for us to take a relativist view and say that these acts are understandable within their cultural context? (Human rights groups condemn the practice – see Stop Honour Killings and reports from Human Rights Watch on Afghanistan and Turkey.) If we conclude that we need to speak out against this practice, what is the best way for us to do so?

Most of all, though, this phenomenon illustrates the ways that all of the questions we ask as sociologists are intertwined. This one topic forces us to think about culture and cultural relativism, gender inequality and family structures, power, human rights, and numerous other issues as well. When we study sociology, we can’t ever boil a question down to one issue, or even to one “type” of sociology. People are so complex, society is so complex, that everything is interrelated.

One comment

  1. Thanks for linking to us.

    Our project is part of a small London-based charity (www.ikwro.org.uk) that helps women of Middle Eastern origin, many of whom (in fact 85 last year) fear violence motivated by perceptions of family ‘honour’) It’s my personal opinion that the way male/family reputation rests upon the female’s conformity to a patriarchal measure of chastity reflects the organisation of marriage within classically patriarchal (patrilineal, patrilocal, patrifocal) soceities — or those which still see the classically patriarchal norm as the ideal despite popular practise. To me, ‘honour’ is a concept which reflects the value of women who are commodified through marital transactions brokered between men and families.

    Our first aim in setting up this project was to raise awareness. It’s particularly the case in Western countries with immigrant populations that potential victims *could* be helped and protected, but that the various authorities lack the know-how and established procedures to do so. Elsewhere, discriminatory laws and customs need to be challenged. It is the nature of ‘honour’ killing, which in our definition is a collective crime, that the family conspires to commit and then conceal the murder, which may include destroying any evidence of the victim’s life, in some cases with the collusion of the community or authorities. For this reason, the reality of these crimes cannot be hidden.

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