Qandeel Baloch & honor killings

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, 

“It is a mindset we have to change,” – Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, documentary filmmaker of “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness”

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.  

Quick Review: Islamic Law

Islamic law is known as the law of God or the Shari’a. Classically, Islam draws no distinction between religious and secular life. Hence, Shari’a covers not only religious rituals, but also many aspects of day-to-day life, politics, economics, banking, business or contract law, and social issues. The term Shari’a itself, derives from the verb Shara’a, which connects to the idea of spiritual law and the system of divine law. Sharia has certain laws that are regarded as divinely ordained, concrete, and timeless for all relevant situations (i.e. the ban against drinking liquor as an intoxicant).

Shari’a is based on four primary sources: 1) the Quran, 2) the hadith, or tradition, 3) ijma’, or consensus of jurists, and 4) ‘aql, or reasoning (Entessar 1988, 94). The Quran is the foundational source of law for all Shari’a, however, Shi’a Shari’a also places a great deal of weight on the considerations and views of the Imams in the formation of its legal system (Entessar 1988, 94).

Hadith refers to the statements, deeds, and sayings of the Prophet and the Imams recorded and codified by their companions (Entessar 1988, 94). Both ijma’ and ‘aql are considered by some as secondary sources of Shi’a law, with the former delineating the views of the Shi’a scholars who were close companions of the Imams and the latter describing judgments based on pure and practical reason from which religious law can be inferred (Entessar 1988, 94).

Certain laws are extracted based on principles established by Islamic lawyers and judges (Mujtahed; pl. Mujtahedun). In deriving Shari’a law, Islamic lawmakers attempt to interpret divine principles. An Islamic lawyer or judge’s attempt to rule according to Islam law can be described as ruling by Shari’a, it can concurrently be heavily influenced by local customers (urf).

Islamic jurisprudence is called figh (meaning understanding of details) and refers to the interferences about Islamic rules drawn by scholars from the principles divined from Shari’a. Figh is divided into two parts: the study of the sources and methodology (usul figh; roots of the law) and the practical rules (furu figh; branches of the law). Legal scholars hope that Shari’a and figh are in harmony any given cases, but cannot be sure.

The Iranian penal code upholds the four major crime categories of Islamic law: hudud, qisas, ta’zir, and diyat. Hudud crimes include theft, robbery, adultery, drinking alcohol, and rebellion. Punishments for hudud crimes are enumerated in the Quran, which range from stoning to bodily mutilations to executions.

Qisas crimes include murder, manslaughter, and mutilation. These offenses are regarded as acts against the victim. It left to the discretion of the victim’s family if retributive injury should be inflicted on the perpetrator that is exactly equal to that inflicted on the victim (Entessar 1988, 98). Despite the legalization of retribution and vendettas, the Quran and Iranian penal code recommend forgiveness as it is pleasing to God (Entessar 1988, 98).

Ta’zir crimes are not otherwise specified in the Quran or hadith. Punishments for these crimes range from fines to seizure of property and public flogging. The judge is burdened with determining an appropriate punishment considering the temporal culture and public interest (Entessar 1988, 98).

Diyat, or blood money, delineates a form of compensation (i.e. reparation) rather than a category of punishment. In lieu of qisas (retribution), the victim’s family may elect to seek reparations from the perpetrator. The Iranian penal code has codified diyat allocations for numerous crimes (Entessar 1988, 98).

This brief introduction was written by myself and a colleague, Mehrnoosh Karimi Andu.

Published in the following book chapter:

Tavassolian, Nargess, Mohamad Hedayati-Kakhki, Kamiar Alaei and Alexandra Harrington. “Interrogating Suspects in Iran”. In Walsh, D., Oxburgh, G. E., Redlich, A. D., & Myklebust, T. (2015). International Developments and Practices in Investigative Interviewing and Interrogation: Volume 2: Suspects. Routledge.