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"Honour killings" and the oppression of women

March 11, 2011
"Honour killings" and the oppression of women

7 March 2011. A World to Win News Service. It has been nearly four years since Doa Khalil, a 17-year-old woman in Iraqi Kurdistan, was stoned to death by her relatives to protect the "family honour". This dreadful act shocked those who saw the clips of the scene recorded on mobile phones and circulated on the Internet. It dramatically demonstrated the ongoing oppression of women in a patriarchal world.

Since then an increasing number of young women have been victims of "honour killings" or other similar crimes in many countries. Most were teenagers.

Even a list confined to those whose murder attracted international attention shows that this anti-woman activity is persisting in many places in the world, especially in the Middle East (including Turkey) and South Asia.

The United Nations Population Fund estimates that the annual worldwide total of "honour-killing" victims may be as high as 5,000 women. However the real numbers might be much higher, especially if other "honour"-related crimes are taken into account. "Up to 17,000 women in Britain are being subjected to 'honour'-related violence, including murder, every year, according to police chiefs. The officials say this is 'merely the tip of the iceberg' of this phenomenon". (Independent, 10 February 2008)
 
These are the figures for the UK, not the Middle East or South Asia where the statistics are even more horrific.

In Iraqi Kurdistan where the stoning of Doa took place, more than 12,000 women were killed in the name of honour between 1991, when the U.S. and other Western imperialists first invaded Iraq, and 2007. (The New York Times, 20 November 2010)

Another place where there are many honour killings is Pakistan, where the practice is called "karo-kari". If we can believe government figures, "over 4,000 women have fallen victim to this practice in Pakistan over the last six years." (BBC, 2 March 2005)

Honour killings have occurred in many countries, including Albania, Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Ecuador, Egypt, Germany, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan, the Palestinian territories, Sweden, Turkey, Uganda, the United Kingdom and the United States, according to the Wikipedia page on "honour killing".

A woman can be the victim of an honour killing for various reasons – because she loves someone of her own choice or has a boyfriend, but also because she refuses to enter into an arranged marriage, is a rape victim, or seeks a divorce from an abusive husband, or for adultery. In many cases suspicion alone is enough to justify the killing. For example, in Jordan in 2007 a father shot his 17-year-old daughter because he suspected her of having sexual relations despite a medical examination that proved her virginity.

Deliberately ineffective laws

In the face of the reaction against honour killing among the people on a world scale, some governments such as Turkey, the Kurdish autonomous government in Iraq and Pakistan have outlawed the practice. However, for various reasons, these governments are still very lenient towards those who break this law. For example, under international pressure the Kurdish autonomous government amended the law to criminalise honour killing, but the changed laws remain on paper only, and the authorities have little or no desire to enforce them. In many cases they turn a blind eye on such murders. In the case of Doa, the local security forces made sure that the stoning went ahead without any interruption.

In some cases the youngest male members of family carry out the killing in order to get the minimum punishment. In other cases it is becoming increasingly common to force the "disgraced" woman into taking her own life.

In Batman and surrounding towns in Turkey's southern Anatolia where there has been a high number of honour killings by stoning, strangling, shooting or burying women alive, it is now often reported that young women have committed suicide.

"In the past six years, there have been 165 suicides or suicide attempts in Batman, 102 of them by women. As many as 36 women have killed themselves since the start of this year, according to the United Nations." (NYT, 16 July 2006) These suspicious cases caused the United Nation to dispatch special envoy Yakin Erturk to Turkey to investigate. The envoy "concluded that while some suicides were authentic, others appeared to be honour killings disguised as a suicide or an accident."

In Pakistan "honour killing" is supposed to be punished as murder but in practice the police and even the courts ignore it. If the killer claims that his act was to protect his honour, he will be freed. In Pakistan, like Iraqi Kurdistan, under international and national pressure a bill was introduced to punish those convicted of honour killing with sentences ranging from seven years in prison to the death penalty. However some articles of the law introduced during the U.S.-backed Zia al-Haq regime left room for the killers to buy their freedom by paying compensation to the victim's relatives. This law directly contributed to the increase in the practice of "karo-kari" in Pakistan and it remains in force today.

However, in the vast majority of cases, the killers are close relatives of the victim, so that even compensation is not required to buy pardon, and the killers go free.

In March 2005 the Pakistan government allied with Islamists to reject a bill introduced by a woman member of parliament that sought to strengthen the outlawing of "honour killing". The parliament rejected the bill by a majority vote, declaring it to be un-Islamic. (BBC, 2 March 2005). Finally the bill was approved a year later. But the practice is still widespread and its victims numerous.

The role of the governments

There is an ongoing debate on the reasons behind such anti-women actions in Pakistan, Kurdistan, Turkey and other South Asian and Middle Eastern countries. Some see the culture as the main cause and some attribute it to the dominant religion.

While there might be some truth to both of these explanations, neither gets at the whole truth and even both taken together are not quite correct if not connected to the oppression of women, the social system of patriarchy and the production (economic) relations those social relations correspond to. These forms of the oppression of women are necessary to maintain and ensure the functioning of backward feudal and semi-feudal relations of production, which in turn, in today's world, are tied up with imperialist domination.

What might have become part of the culture in fact is what serves the interests of the ruling class. Such a culture and morality have been developed and imposed on the people through centuries with the prevalence of this kind of production relations. And it is fair to believe such values are included in the laws and the interpretation of dominant religions.

Protecting patriarchal "honour" is in fact protecting a certain production relation and in the final analysis it is protecting the interests of the ruling class. It is also protecting the male domination that exists in every country of the world today, in various forms according to the dominant production relations.

It is not a surprise that Kurdish rulers, who are themselves representatives of semi-feudal and clan relations and constitute one of the pillars of US domination of Iraq, are reluctant to seriously fight against "honour killing" and are so lenient toward those who commit it.

It is not a surprise that the Pakistani government and parliament, which represent backward economic and social relations and at the same time are at the service of imperialism, have mounted so much resistance to any law that might curb such practices. And when such laws are approved under pressure, they still leave room for the perpetrators to continue committing these crimes.

Let's take a quick look at how the perpetrators and not the victims are protected by the law in places where the practice is widespread. In fact the law often explicitly protects the killers.

For example in Jordan, according to the current law, "He who discovers his wife or one of his female relatives committing adultery and kills, wounds, or injures one of them, is exempted from any penalty." (From article 340 of the Penal Code) In Syrian law, "He who catches his wife or one of his ascendants, descendants or sister committing adultery or illegitimate sexual acts with another and kills or injures one or both of them benefits from an exemption of penalty." (Article 548) Moroccan law says, "Murder, injury and beating are excusable if they are committed by a husband on his wife as well as the accomplice at the moment in which he surprises them in the act of adultery." (Article 418 of the Penal Code)

There are similar laws in Haiti that pardons the husband or partner who murders his wife in case of adultery. (Article 269 of the penal code)  In Brazil and Colombia, up until about 20 years ago when the laws were changed, a husband was allowed to justify the murder of his wife as an 'honour killing".

In all of these countries the laws have assigned men to the role of protecting family "honour" and in fact, if not in words, have lead and encouraged them to kill women for this purpose.

In some countries like Iran and Afghanistan the practice of "honour killing" was not common or at least not widespread in the past, but has increased sharply in the last couple of decades.

In Iran, even though the law does not allow it and the religious leaders have spoken against it, the government is taking over the role of protecting family "honour" and doing the killing itself. For example, Atefeh, a teenager in northern Iran, was executed because of a relationship with a man who was abusing her. In fact being raped is officially a crime in Iran. The state went ahead with her execution despite the protests of her father and family.

There is also the well-known case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani who was sentenced to death by stoning for adultery last year. Under international pressure her sentence was changed to death by hanging instead, but the Islamic Republic is determined to punish her despite protests from her family, including her son.

These cases show that even though the families or relatives may not care about their so-called honour, the state does care and imposes its rule to ensure that families are forced to control the sexual behaviour and relationships of their female members.

The above examples are clear signs that the ruling class and its apparatus is the main body responsible for these kinds of crimes. And that this is an act designed to protect a class structure that is very much dependent on the oppression of women.

The role of religion

In the debate about "honour killing", some people argue that it originates from a particular religion: Islam. There is some evidence to support this view. For example, the practice is most common in the Middle-East and South Asian countries where Islam is the dominant religion. But at the same time there are also arguments against that view.

The practice of "honour killing" is not particular to Muslims. There are non-Muslim countries where honour killings are practised – in Brazil, before the law was overturned, in just one year nearly 800 husbands killed their wives. Also honour killing is practised in India among Hindus and Sikhs. The case of Mandeep Atwal, 17, from a Sikh family living in Canada, is only an example. Mandeep was sent to India by her family where she was murdered because she did not want to enter into an arranged marriage and loved another man.

There is also the argument that in the Qar'an and in the Hadith (stories about and sayings of the Prophet Mohammed), there is no reference to "honour killing".

Whatever arguments there might be about whether or not the practice is rooted in Islam, it is certain that Islam and other religions have been in the service of the ruling class, and wherever it has been necessary, all the religions in one way or another have promoted the practice. Even if the Qur'an does not refer to honour killing and even if some interpretations of the Qur'an might forbid it, prohibiting "honour killing" would be in sharp contradiction with the overall spirit of what Islamic laws encourage.

In fact, when a religion imposes sex segregation and decrees that women should be covered and stay behind men, when women are harshly treated by the man and the family, and when husbands are given permission to punish their wives, "honour killing" can only be considered an extension of all that.

Islam forbids sexual relationships outside marriage. Zina (adultery) is forbidden for both men and women. But at the same time men are permitted to have several wives. In some cases, under Shia Islam, they are allowed to enter into temporary marriages (Sighe- or Siqe), even for a few hours. At the same time, only women are required to be loyal to their husbands and only women are supposed to protect their chastity. Islamic laws allow men to deny women the right to a public life.  Men can forbid them to leave home. So "honour killings" are indeed an extension of that spirit. Overall, while it may be true that "honour killings" did not originate from Islam, this religion has very much contributed to and promoted and even enforced the practice wherever Sharia (Islamic law) has been adopted.

To get rid of such backward and reactionary practices that takes the life of thousands of hopeful young women and represses and terrorises many more millions of women throughout the world, it is necessary to organise and fight against it. However it should be emphasised that to get rid of "honour killing" and other forms of the oppression of women, the economic and social system that produces and reproduces this oppression must be overthrown.  But changing the system is not possible without struggling against the dominant reactionary ideas and behaviour. So fighting against the system and uniting with those who fight against all forms and manifestations of the oppression of women are inseparable.

It has now been a hundred years since 8 March was first declared International Women's Day. The stubborn persistence of male domination in the whole world, from the countries where it exists in the most open form – where it is considered normal and legitimate for men to have the power of life or death over ''their'' women – to the imperialist countries where it exists in disguised but no less deadly forms – is an indication of the thoroughly revolutionary and worldwide change that it will take to get rid of this evil.

            -end item-
 

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