International: 'Honour' and its interstices

A review of '''Honour': Crimes, Paradigms, and Violence Against Women'', edited by Lynn Welchman and Sara Hossain.
For most, the term 'honour crime' conjures up a multitude of images, primarily abstract and focusing on the murder of women by their male kin for allegedly offending the 'honour' of the family.
Under the surface of the term 'honour', however, lies a convoluted tension between cultural relativism and the 'universal' applicability of human rights, and context-specific interstices which contain diverse experiences and insights into the concept of 'honour' and how it impacts women in varied ways.

The recently published book '''Honour': Crimes, Paradigms, and Violence Against Women'' [1], edited by Lynn Welchman and Sara Hossain, is a collaborative project gathering voices from different regions, cultures and contexts. The book sheds some crucial light on the issues surrounding so-called 'honour' crimes, with contributors such as: Dr. Purna Sen – Programme Director of the Asia region at Amnesty International; Dr Radhika Coomaraswamy – former United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences (1994-2003); Aida Touma-Sliman – co-founder and General Director of Women Against Violence (WAV), a Palestinian women's organisation in Israel; and Dr Nazand Begikhani – founding member of the NGO Kurdish Women Action against Honour Killing (KWAHK), to name but a few. With their diverse perspectives, the authors traverse the terrain of 'honour' on the ground, as well as providing thought-provoking analysis of the value and meaning of the term, and international approaches to the crimes perpetrated under its rubric.

What is the value and meaning of 'honour'?

There is no attempt made in this book to define 'honour' or 'honour crimes'. As Sohail Akbar Warraich observes about 'honour crimes' in Pakistan, "...local understandings of this term vary depending on who kills whom and the perceived transgression of social norms.." (p78). In the Preface, Radhika Coomaraswamy contextualises the value and meaning of 'honour', however, in her simple statement:

"Honour is generally seen as residing in the bodies of women"

She expands on this by explaining how "in many societies the ideal of masculinity is underpinned by a notion of 'honour' – of an individual man, or a family or a community – and is fundamentally connected to policing female behaviour and sexuality". According to Radhika, 'honour crimes' include direct violence, such as murder, "as well as indirect subtle control exercised through threats of force or the withdrawal of family benefits and security".

Purna Sen, in her contribution, outlines six key features that she believes characterise 'honour crimes' as distinct from other forms of killing - two notable points being:
  • Gender relations that problematise and control women's behaviours, shaping and controlling women's sexuality in particular; and
  • Collective decisions regarding punishment, or in upholding the actions considered appropriate, for transgressions of these boundaries (p50).
Throughout the book and across cultures, it becomes apparent that women's bodies and sexuality are the territory for perceived family, conjugal, and community honour.

'Honour' and the law

The authors of this collection of essays adopt an explicitly legal theme in their analysis of 'honour' and crimes of 'honour', mostly because the book evolved out of a research project with a legal manifesto. For example, in one contribution, Sohail Akbar Warraich situates 'honour crimes' in Pakistan through a dissection of the Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Code and how notions of honour have been socially sanctioned through both Colonial and Post-Colonial governance. Other chapters analyse the legal frameworks in their local contexts that both assist and impede women's protection and justice, such as Anja Bredal's analysis of government initiatives in Norway to counter the practice of forced marriages.

Despite this legal locus, however, 'Honour' also provides insightful analysis, with important themes captured and articulated by Welchman and Hossain in the Introduction, coupled with a clear outline of why an analysis of the law - particularly domestic law - is so critical:

"As Jane Connors sets out, international human rights law requires states to exercise due diligence in protecting women from such violations by private actors, while domestic legislation, court practice and informal legal structures vary in the level of protection and remedy they offer women, in particular where family or conjugal 'honour' is invoked." (p3).

In cases where the political environment is volatile, there is an even greater need to ensure that women's rights are protected by the law and not overlooked in the face of a 'larger' cause. Aida Touma-Sliman discusses these challenges in her paper on Palestinian women's rights in Israel:

"In the context of such a political reality and a minority struggle seeking unity of the community at any price, women's issues – including 'crimes of honour' as violence against women – were marginalised and ignored for the sake of the general cause. Any effort to challenge 'honour crimes' was perceived as an effort to shatter the delicate balance between the different political and social groups inside the community" (p182).

Between the lines

Some of the key discussions and themes emerging from the collection include:
  • Interrogating the term 'honour crime' with regards to violence against women and whether it is in fact harmful for women. Some argue that using terms such as 'dishonour', and 'shame', will transmute the association of honour to that of both men and women and move away from situating honour squarely within the bodies of women. Others suggest that any reclamation of the term in the context of violence against women should be approached with caution.
  • Connections between 'crimes of honour' and 'crimes of passion' and how the former is generally associated with the 'East' and the latter associated with the 'West'.
  • The changing nature of 'honour' crimes, with a greater number of perpetrators being husbands of the victims, rather than blood relatives.
  • Dispelling the myth that 'honour' crimes occur only within Muslim and minority communities – with analysis from Brazil, Mexico and across Latin America.
The book is a valuable resource pertaining to violence against women in the context of 'honour'and the legal frameworks that exist across cultures to prevent and eradicate it. The legal focus in different local contexts highlights the complexities resulting from cultural, religious and gendered opposition to women's human rights and freedoms. It offers unique perspectives and new insights into a phenomenon that has tended to be generalised and misunderstood across borders due to a lack of information sharing. Perspectives from Africa are notably missing from the book, and would have offered a greater balance across cultures, but overall it is an excellent tool for lawyers, activists and anyone dedicated to the eradication of violence against women.