Preliminary Examination of so-called "Honour Killings" in Canada

4. Historical Context - Origins of Honour Killing

Honour killings have been known since ancient Roman times, when the pater familias, or senior male within a household, retained the right to kill an unmarried but sexually active daughter or an adulterous wife.39 Honour-based crimes were known in medieval Europe where early Jewish law mandated death by stoning for an adulterous wife and her partner.40 Today the practice is most commonly associated with regions in North Africa and the Middle East.

Sharif Kanaana, professor of anthropology at Birzeit University states that honour killing is "a complicated issue that cuts deep into the history of Arab society." He further observes:

What the men of the family, clan, or tribe seek control of in a patrilineal society is reproductive power. Women for the tribe were considered a factory for making men. The honor killing is not a means to control sexual power or behavior. What's behind it is the issue of fertility, or reproductive power.41

Historically, in some Arab countries under Ottoman rule, a killer would "sprinkle his victim's blood on his clothes and parade through the streets displaying the bloody murder weapon… to increase his honour," thereby attracting community respect rather than condemnation for taking a life. 42

It is not necessary that the victim actually transgress any behavioural norms, as an Amnesty International statement notes:

The mere perception that a woman has contravened the code of sexual behavior damages honor. The regime of honor is unforgiving: women on whom suspicion has fallen are not given an opportunity to defend themselves, and family members have no socially acceptable alternative but to remove the stain on their honor by attacking the woman.43

This can be explained on the basis of the feudal and cultural mind-sets. In the perpetrators' faulty vision, "It is better to eliminate the suspect before the matter blows out of proportion and the talk spreads to the community," even where the suspicion is groundless.44

5. Honour Killing - Worldwide

The notions of honour and shame and their use as justification for violence and killing is not unique to any one culture or religion.45 Indeed, honour and honour-based violence are reflected in historical events in many countries, and in many works of literature.

For instance, duelling was a key practice through which claims of masculine honour were made, maintained and understood in Western societies.46 In France, Le Cid told the story of a man insulted by a slap across the face, who asked his son to defend his honour in a duel. In Canada, duelling continued into the late 1800s.47

In Britain, for example, the fifth wife of Henry VIII was beheaded based on allegations of adultery. In British literature, Shakespeare's Desdemona was killed over allegations of infidelity, and Romeo and Juliet tracked an ancient family feud over honour. King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table centred on notions of honour. The premise of the Three Musketeers was the King's guards avenging the betrayal of the king by Cardinal Richelieu.

Similar notions can be traced in Latin American societies. In Brazil and parts of Latin America, machismo is often described as a code of honour. In the early times of Peru, the laws of the Incas permitted husbands to starve their wives to death as punishment for committing an adulterous act. Aztec laws resulted in death by stoning or strangulation for female adultery during the early times of Mexico.48

Several great wars started over honour. Likely the clearest of these was the Trojan War, which began over the honour of Helen. Her father required that all her suitors defend his choice for her marriage, thereby setting all of Greece against Troy.

In Ancient Roman times, the senior male within a household retained the right to kill a related woman if she was engaged in pre-marital or extra-marital relations.49 According to Blackstone, the Roman law justified homicide "when committed in defence of the chastity either of oneself or relations".50

Honour-based violence51 can be between men only, and sometimes involves women as collaborators. However, it appears to be perpetrated almost exclusively by men against women and children whom they consider to "belong" to them. It generally appears in the following sets of circumstances:

  • Adultery
  • Pre-marital sex or having a child out of wedlock (although honour may be restored through a "shotgun wedding")
  • Disobeying parents, or
  • Patriotism/Personal Insult/Defaulting on Monetary Debts (typically between men).

Honour is expressed in many other terms, including "vengeance," "avenging," "saving face," etc. However, it is notable that honour-based killings in most Arab and South Asian countries are perpetrated against daughters, sisters or nieces and not against wives. The reason may relate to the distinction between dishonouring as "collective" injury as opposed to dishonouring as "individual" injury.52 In community-based honour systems, a husband's feelings of jealousy, which could be classified as individual hurt pride or honour, are not generally viewed as sufficient grounds for murder. However, the transgressions of a wife can cause a collective injury to her family of origin, which is ultimately responsible for punishing her.53

One author speculates that the concepts of "honour" and "shame" can be found in modern Western forms of intimate-partner violence, noting that the notion of honour in such cases is highly individualized and based on the abuser's personal code of behaviour imposed upon the victim.54

As one author notes:

Among the most interesting findings reported by social scientists is the fact that men and women stand in a markedly different relationship to the whole system of allotting honor in "cultures of honor." For example, one observation that has been made recurrently is that men are the only possible sources, or active generators (agents), of honor. The only active effect that women can have on honor, in those cultures in which this is a central value, is to destroy it. But women do have that power: they can destroy the honor of the males in their household. The culturally defined symbol system through which women in patriarchies bring honor or dishonor to men is the world of sex -- that is, female sexual behavior. In this value system, which is both absurd from any rational standpoint and highly dangerous to the continued survival of our species given its effect of stimulating male violence, men delegate to women the power to bring dishonor on men. That is, men put their honor in the hands of 'their' women."55

Another author has contrasted cultures of honour with cultures of law:

One can contrast cultures of honour with cultures of law. From the viewpoint of anthropology, cultures of honour typically appear among nomadic peoples and herdsmen who carry their most valuable property with them and risk having it stolen, without having recourse to law enforcement or government. In this situation, inspiring fear forms a better strategy than promoting friendship; and cultivating a reputation for swift and disproportionate revenge increases the safety of your person and property. Thinkers ranging from Montesquieu to Steven Pinker have remarked upon the mindset needed for a culture of honour.

Cultures of honour therefore appear amongst Bedouins, Scottish and English herdsmen of the Border country, and many similar peoples, who have little allegiance to a national government; among cowboys, frontiersmen, and ranchers of the American West, where official law-enforcement often remained out of reach, as famously celebrated in Western movies; and among aristocrats, who enjoy hereditary privileges that put them beyond the reach of general laws. Cultures of honour also flourish in criminal underworlds and gangs, whose members carry large amounts of cash and contraband and cannot complain to the law if it is stolen. …

Once a culture of honour exists, it is difficult for its members to make the transition to a culture of law; this requires that people become willing to back down and refuse to immediately retaliate, and from the viewpoint of the culture of honour this appears as a weak and unwise act.56

6. Honour Killing - In Countries with Islamic Law

In many Arab countries, the practice of honour killing dates back to pre-Islamic times when Arab settlers occupied a region adjacent to Sindh, known as Baluchistan (in Pakistan).57 These Arab settlers had patriarchal traditions such as live burials of newly born daughters. Such traditions trace back to the earliest historic times of Ancient Babylon, where the predominant view was that a woman's virginity belonged to her family.58

There is no mention of honour killing in the Quran or Hadiths. Honour killing, in Islamic definitions, refers specifically to extra-legal punishment by the family against a woman, and is forbidden by the Sharia (Islamic law). Religious authorities disagree with extra punishments such as honour killing and prohibit it, so the practice of it is a cultural and not a religious issue. However, since Islam has influence over vast numbers of Muslims in many countries and from many cultures, some use Islam to justify honour killing even though there is no support for honour killing in Islam.

Traditional interpretations of Islamic law (or Sharia) prescribe severe punishments for zina, or extramarital sex, by both men and women. This is, however, not a new practice; it has been around since ancient times and is common practice in other religions and cultures as well. Under Islamic law, premarital sex could be punished by up to 100 lashes, while adultery is punishable by lethal stoning. The act must, however, be attested by at least four Muslim male witnesses of good character. Punishments are reserved to the legal authorities, and false accusations are themselves punished severely.

The execution of the Saudi Arabian princess Misha'al is an example of an honour killing in which the execution did not follow any Islamic religious court proceeding but was ordered directly by her grandfather after she admitted adultery.59

Interpretations of these rules vary. Some Arabs regard it as their right under both tradition and Sharia (by the process of al-urf), though this contradicts the views of the vast majority of Islamic scholars (fuqaha). Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran has condemned the practice as "un-Islamic", though punishment under Iranian law remains lenient for those who commit honour-based killings.

In Indonesia, generally believed to be the country with the largest Muslim population, honour killings are unknown, as is the case in parts of West Africa with majority-Muslim populations and in many other Islamic countries such as Bangladesh. According to Sheikh Atiyyah Saqr, former head of the al-Azhar University Fatwa Committee:

Like all other religions, Islam strictly prohibits murder and killing without legal justification. Allah, Most High, says, "Whoso slayeth a believer of set purpose, his reward is Hell for ever. Allah is wroth against him and He hath cursed him and prepared for him an awful doom." (An-Nisa': 93) The so-called "honor killing" is based on ignorance and disregard of morals and laws, which cannot be abolished except by disciplinary punishments.60