The darkest brand of 'honour'
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 11 April 2009)

When an Ethiopian man in Alexandria, Va., killed his wife, the report in last week's Alexandria Gazette Packet tiptoed nervously around his motive. It said that cultural issues were involved and that he had ordered her not to interact with co-workers. In case the point still wasn't clear, the reporter attempted to explain: "In Ethiopia, women have more defined roles."

That's a cowardly way of saying that women automatically obey their husbands in Ethiopia but sometimes don't in America. The deliberate ambiguity would be comic if it were not attached to a tragedy.

This is how many people twist themselves into knots while confronting the form of homicide that carries the inappropriate and grotesque label, "honour killing" -- the murder of women to satisfy the "honour" of -- and appease the rage of -- men. We make the mistake of comparing it with wife-murder in the West, but it differs fundamentally: It's often culturally sanctioned, it claims religious vindication and it may be committed by brothers, uncles and cousins, not just husbands.

A few years ago, most of us understood that this freakish atrocity took place far away, in illiterate corners of Africa or south Asia, beyond the reach of police, courts and other trappings of civilization. Scores of news stories have since taught us that it's as close as Virginia or Toronto; it's far more widespread than most people in the West once imagined and it's likely to persist far into the future.

This is not a crime limited to old men who learned their ways long ago. It's multi-generational, handed down from father to son, apparently embraced with enthusiasm by many young males. Last Sunday, near Amman, Jordan, a 19-year-old confessed to killing his 22-year-old sister because she frequently left her family's house without permission. He said he was cleansing his family's honour. In Basra, Iraq, last year, a Muslim teenager was killed by her father and brothers for flirting with a British soldier. The killers were not charged and their crime was approved of within the community. According to news reports, the father was proud of his sons: "They were men enough to help me finish the life of someone who brought shame to ours."

In the London Review of Books, Tariq Ali, the British-Pakistani novelist and anti-Western political campaigner, revealed a killing in his own family. His uncle's 18-year-old granddaughter was shot by her brothers because she refused to stop seeing a man. Ali was particularly shocked to learn that his uncle had the body buried that same day without reporting her death to the police.

This week, an article in the European Journal of Public Health estimated that "One in every five homicides in Pakistan is a so-called 'honour killing.' "Muazzam Nasrullah, who ran the study from Aga Khan University in Pakistan, compiled a total of 1,957 incidents from newspaper reports over four years. He thinks that number understates the problem. The World Health Organization suggests that 5,000 women are murdered every year by family members in the name of honour, probably also a low guess.

The great problem, for anyone attempting to eliminate this crime, is its status at the moral centre of many Muslim males. While some Muslims claim it's a vestige of pre-Islamic societies, it's now become ingrained in many corners of Islamic culture. A report from the Palestinian Human Rights Monitor notes (without explanation) that female sexuality dominates Arab morality: "The honour of a man is not related in any way to his own behaviour, it is related primarily to the behaviour of his wife, his daughter or his sister. A man who commits all the wrongdoings in the world is considered 'honourable' if his wife doesn't deceive him by having an affair with another man. A man who is known as a wrongdoer is considered 'honourable' if his daughter safeguards her virginity."

Legislation against "honour killing" is hard to pass and harder to enforce. Change will require an organized, strongly motivated and persistent campaign, which is nowhere in sight. Men who consider the killing of a daughter or sister an expression of virtue won't give up their convictions without the most strenuous resistance. It would be like surrendering a part of their religion, at least as they understand it. When Chaudhry Rashid, a Pakistani Muslim living in Atlanta, acknowledged that he had strangled his daughter because she was having an extramarital affair and was seeking to end an arranged marriage, he did not indicate remorse. "God will protect me," he said. "God is watching."

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