Yesterday, headlines read the tragic loss of model and internet sensation, Qandeel Baloch.
Qandeel was drugged and strangled by her brother.
He defended his actions as maintaining his family’s honor. He claimed the women’s rightful place is in the home, and that her non-traditional, “overexposed”social media presence and massive online following were causing great suffering to his family.
This headline will invariably turn into a social media storm about the “backward” nature of Muslim culture and religion (a pessimistic stance, I know). While I sincerely hope that this is not the case, I think some perspective is necessary. My knowledge on the subject is limited, so I try to provide a brief background before some comments. Neither the background nor the comments are an extensive or exhaustive take on this very complicated issue.
Some (multiple) disclaimers: my stomach turns at the idea of anyone – man or woman – being murdered in cold blood to maintain some fabricated concept of “honor”. I am 100% against this violence, and I am sure that will come across in my writing, despite my best efforts. This tradition – however horrific – exists and has to make sense (logically, emotionally, culturally, etc.) to the people perpetuating it. I spent a great deal of time talking with a friend who did agree with it, wholeheartedly. I will highlight these comments, know that they are not exact quotes – as they are not from a formal interview. I will not be sharing any identifying information about my friend, he will remain anonymous.
Honor-based violence. Honor killings are part of a larger family of crimes known as honor-based violence (HBV), which include forced marriage, forced abortion, and others. If you’re interested in knowing the exhaustive list of HBV, see here. Also, here‘s a general background on honor killings.
Origins of and trends in honor killings. Honor killings did not originate in the Muslim world, nor are they unique to Muslim-majority countries. They are, however, most common in Southeast Asia and MENA regions. There are reported cases of honor killings in Hindu communities, as well.
They are also common in Europe and the United States, which is why we see governments of countries such as Canada, Great Britain, and the United States taking rising trends in this practice very seriously.
Not just females. It is also important to understand: honor killings are not limited to violence against females. Males are also targets of honor killings, but less frequently than females. (Alternatively, perhaps male-targeted honor killings are discussed less frequently in the news, and therefore we think it is more sporadic occurrence.)
Honor killings and Islam. Since this conversation will inevitably turn towards Islam, let’s discuss Islam and honor killings for a moment. Honor killings are not officially supported in Islamic texts. They are linked to the Muslim world due to the heightened frequency in these countries. Some Islamic legal traditions legitimize honor killings, while others officially denounce them. Obaid-Chinoy, famed documentary filmmaker of A Girl in the River, says it is very easy to kill females in Pakistan. Witnesses could attest to the girl’s whereabouts, justifying the killing. If it is disputed, wrongful honor killings can be paid in diyyeh, or blood money.
Anti-honor killing legislation. Many Muslim majority countries have taken steps to quell honor killings. The Pakistani government had previously pledged to pass legislation outlawing honor killings. In March 2016, they did, but it seems it has not been implemented. The World Health Organization (WHO) describes honor killings as part of a larger category of femicide.
Honor killings are often carried out on their own. In some instance, they are legitimized in makeshift councils, where elders determine that x girl/woman be punished for y transgression (e.g. coming home late, talking to a male outside of the family, anything uncomely to the family in general, etc.)
As previously stated, this is a tradition that makes sense to thousands of people, so it’s important to understand it’s logic for those groups. Ultimately, it’s because,
A friend (let’s call him R.) who supports honor killings described that honor killings occur because a women has a sole purpose of bringing honor (read: fame, goodness, etc.) to her family through her actions – be they studying, socializing, etc. Everything she does is to the benefit – or detriment – of her family. It is when this detriment is so grave that there comes a need to restore the honor that her family lost due to her actions.
Think about this for a moment – this means that every single thing a female does is perceived to be reflected on the worth of her family. This is an exorbitant amount of pressure for any one person to bear. What of the adolescent girl that is coming into her own, experimenting with her sexuality, understanding who she is? What are our teenage and college years if not a series of mistakes for us to take notes on and continually adapt in order to know ourselves the best we can. If a female’s actions are reflected on the worth of her family, then it is not the honor killing behavior we have to eradicate, that is putting a band-aid on problem: it is the perception of a female’s value, role – her worth in society – that has to be changed.
This is easier said than done. Who are we – as outsiders – to determine what is best for any group of people? Who are we to dictate how anyone else should live their lives and how they should perceive one another? These societies have operated this way for thousands of years. Who is entitled to intervene to change behaviors or perceptions? Does intervention come from the outside or from within the community?
This sparked a conversation with another friend (let’s call him F.). We discussed that it’s easy for us, sitting behind our laptops in the US or Europe, to look over and call for equality, human rights, and intervene to adjust horrific behaviors such as honor killings; but is this not imperialism by other means? What’s the alternative? People from the communities may reach out for intervention (many public health interventions use this participatory approach). The issue with the latter is that many of these are high-context cultures and closed-in communities: those that seek reprieve may not know how to reach out those outside their immediate network.
Thankfully, there are local organizations that spearhead bottom-up efforts to stop honor killings, women’s rights in general, and legislative efforts to outlaw this practice.
I’d like to end on this note:
“I don’t want to promote an Orientalized version of women as powerless and subject to honor killings…But at the same time it’s important to me to bring attention to the fact that the girls who are being killed are in their society powerless and are horribly repressed and essentially killed for no reason at all.” – Rafia Zakaria, Amnesty International USA
Do not take this post to mean that women in groups or countries that have honor killings are helpless and need “saving” – that’s not the purpose of this post. Instead, I hope that this discussion provided you with a launching point for your own inquiries on honor killings and the circumstances surrounding them.