The organization Human Rights Watch defines an honor killing
as “acts of vengeance, usually death, committed by male family members against
female family members, who are held to have brought dishonor upon the family. A
woman can be targeted by (individuals within) her family for a variety of
reasons, including: refusing to enter into an arranged marriage, being the
victim of a sexual assault, seeking a divorce—even from an abusive husband—or
(allegedly) committing adultery. The mere perception that a woman has behaved
in a way that "dishonors" her family is sufficient to trigger an
attack on her life.”
Honor killings are most common in Muslim-majority and Middle East countries. According to the United Nations Popular Fund, 5,000 honor killings take place each year. Many human rights organizations say that this number is extremely underestimated because most are unreported or categorized under ambiguous categories such as crimes of passion and even suicides. The number is 2 to 3 times higher, and the number of honor killings has actually increased significantly between 1989 and 2009.
In some cultures, “honor” and reputation make up the fabric of social interactions and relationships. Honor killings are usually associated with Muslim families and the Middle East, but it is important to note that they occur around the world, including in the United States and Canada, and did not originate from any one religion. Rather, they are products of patriarchal societies wherein women are “property” of the men of their family. Because men are viewed as the owners of women and the heads of households, he is seen as responsible for the actions of the females in his family. Any action deemed undesirable by the woman, regardless of whether she is the victim, brings an irreversible “shame” on the family as dictated by the culture of the society. The only way to restore “honor” upon the family, according to society, is by killing the female, usually carried out by a father, husband or brother.
The horrifying part of honor killings, aside from the obvious, are the weak penalties and the seemingly nonchalant attitude carried by those committing the murders. In fact, according to the Surgir Foundation, one of the characteristics of an honor killing is that “the family and the community as a whole uphold honor crimes. The perpetrators of the crime are seen more as heroes than as criminals by close relatives and friends.” Because of this “hero” culture, even with stricter laws, honor killings continue to go unpunished.
And there have been improvements to laws surrounding honor killings in many of these countries. In Pakistan, Article 302 of the Criminal Code stipulates that honor killers can be sentenced to death or life imprisonment. In Lebanon, the Criminal Code was amended in 2009 to say that the courts would no longer use reference to the crime of adultery or “illegitimate” sexual relations as an excuse for acquittal. Syria revised its Criminal Code to institute a sentence of a minimum of two years for honor crimes.
These laws supposedly make it harder to commit honor crimes without punishment. However, as judges and policemen are products of the same society, they are sometimes sympathetic to the perpetrators and therefore hand down light sentences or disregard the laws completely. Rana Husseini, author of Murder in the Name of Honor, describes a situation where a man in Jordan told police officers how he heard of his sister’s transgression, told his father to bring her home, and killed her on site. The police officer responded that the brother should not implicate his father because that would mean the murder was planned and not an act of “passion.” The brother got six months in jail as a misdemeanor for his murder, using the policeman’s advice.
Due to the escalation of honor killings in the Middle East and the inability of government reforms to curb the trend, civil protests have taken shape in order to combat the practice. In May 2012, Palestinian women and men gathered for a demonstration in Gaza City to protest the “honor killing” of Nasrin Musarti, a 26 year old mother of two. A group of women’s rights initiatives came together in Jordan this past June to form the “There is no honour in crime” campaign. The women formed “a human chain from Al Hussein Sports City to the Interior Ministry Circle” holding up signs in protest of harassment and honor crimes against women. At least some governments are listening and instituting harsher punishments. In India, for example, the Supreme Court has taken a strong position against honor crimes by prescribing the death sentence for perpetrators and exclaiming that “all persons who are planning to perpetrate honor killings should know that the gallows await them.”
People are taking to social media as well in protest to honor killings. Last year the Palestinian rapper group, Da Arabian MCs, more widely known as DAM, produced a controversial song in conjunction with UN Women called If I Could Go Back In Time, which tells the story of an Arab girl who was shot by her father and brother for running away from an arranged marriage. The music video and lyrics (which you can view at the end of this blog) aim to mobilize and raise awareness among youth about honor killings. In addition, in 2010, director Priyadarshan of India made a movie entitled Aakrosh (anger), which dealt with the issue of honor killings.
Awareness of honor killings is growing around the world and people are taking action. From street protests to international intervention, the long standing tradition of honor killings will hopefully soon be coming to an end.
Miri Gold is an undergraduate researcher at UCLA's Center for Middle East Development. She is a third year student studying Political Science and Public Policy.
 Husseini, Rana. Murder in the Name of Honor: The True Story of One Woman's Heroic Fight against an Unbelievable Crime. Oxford, England: OneWorld, 2009. Print.