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'Honour'-based violence runs deep and wide
On Sunday a Canadian court found three members of an Afghan family, the father, mother and son, guilty of killing three teenage sisters and another woman. The judge described the crimes as "cold-blooded, shameful murders" resulting from a "twisted concept of honour". The prosecution argued that for father Mohammad Shafia, honour was everything – quoting him as saying "even if they hoist me up on to the gallows … nothing is more dear to me than my honour".
This was undoubtedly a brutal and heinous crime. Yet is there a danger in simply condemning it as an "honour killing", as so many in the mainstream media and government have?
The concept of "honour" is notoriously difficult to define. At its most basic level, it refers to a person's righteousness in the eyes of their community. It is often employed to ensure that people act morally. In this respect, if people follow what is considered socially good, they are honoured. If not, they are shamed. This most recent case in Canada is just one of many tragic examples that reveal its continuing influence. In the UK there was the recent, well-publicised murder of teenager Heshu Yones by her father for becoming "westernised". The family had migrated to Britain to escape persecution by Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraqi Kurdistan, and Heshu had developed a relationship with a Lebanese Christian man.
Yet, by focusing on the subject of honour, such violence is too often explained away by cultural stereotypes – allowing society to dismiss these cases as something that only happens in minority communities with their "outdated" notions of justice. This allows us to completely overlook that, first and foremost, these cases are of violence against women, and the concept of honour is being used to legitimate the continued oppression of women.
There is a tendency in the west to see so-called honour killings as exclusively related to specific cultural traditions. They are often depicted as culturally specific to Muslim communities although they are not, in fact, restricted to any particular religion, culture, type of society or social stratum. In its report on harmful practices, for instance, the charity Imkaan reported a case of a Traveller woman forced to leave her community due to "honour-based violence".
Yet there is a widespread belief that honour is no longer as important in western societies, what with their emphasis on individual rights and legality. However, the modern-day importance of "honour" should not be so quickly cast aside. In the UK data from the British Crime Survey 2009/2010 suggests that nearly a million women experience at least one incident of domestic abuse each year, while close to 10,000 women are sexually assaulted every week – how many of these cases relate to the "honour" of the perpetrators being allegedly besmirched by victims and survivors?
Feminists have been instrumental in showing how such violence is part of a broader pattern of domination and control of women by men. In 2002 the UN general assembly adopted the resolution "Working towards the elimination of crimes against women committed in the name of honour", urging states to "raise awareness of the need to prevent and eliminate crimes against women committed in the name of honour, with the aim of changing the attitudes and behaviour that allow such crimes to be committed". To make this happen nations must comply with their obligations regarding eliminating violence against women.
Tackling "honour" killings requires a shift in political thinking. Instead of regarding them as a cultural tradition common to a range of "backward" societies, the issue needs to be seen in the context of violence against women and the inequality found throughout society. Arguing that gender is the most significant factor does not imply that "honour" crimes only afflict women, but acknowledges the fact that the vast majority of victims of this crime are female.
We need to bring robust strategies to tackle "honour"-based violence into all the services which address violence against women in Britain. Police, the courts, the health service and schools all need to put protection of women and girls at the top of their agenda. There is a need for better working relationships between the police and specialist "violence against women" organisations in all communities. Research from women's group End Violence Against Women shows that there is an urgent need to address inconsistencies in police responses through further training to counteract "postcode lottery" effects and ensure consistency across the UK.
Yet as domestic violence resources are cut, victims of "honour-based violence" continue to suffer – and so do all women who are victims of violence. Currently the lack of specialist services, including safe shelter for victims, and the general underfunding of support services, especially specialist services for black and minority ethnic communities, needs urgent attention so that women's and children safety in terms of exiting domestic violence is not compromised. The government should heed the warning signs in Professor Sylvia Walby's research this week of the damaging impact of the cuts on essential women's services. Women are particularly vulnerable to abuse and victimisation in harsh economic times; their safety must not be compromised by austerity measures. If we truly want to protect the honour of women we must ensure their rights and safety at all times, and in all places.
By Aisha Gill