On “Honor” Killings
Every few months a new headline entitled “Honor Killing” emerges with a picture of a beautiful brown-skinned woman who was horrifically killed by her husband or by some other male-member of her family. Looking through the comments on the article, one can easily find statements such as, “Those barbaric Muslim men,” “glad I’m an infidel,” or the sarcastic “This is Islam – the religion of ‘peace.'” From then on we are led to believe that all around the world women suffer at the hands of Muslim men who have every right to beat and kill them in the name of this term ‘honor.’ (It doesn’t help when some random bookstore decides to sell a book that apparently has a passage saying it’s ok for Muslims to beat their wife.) But why is this crime of honor something only South Asians or Arab men commit? What does it mean to kill someone for honor? What’s the difference between murder and honor killing?
Though no one would ever think of using the term honor violence (we reserve that descriptor for brown people who live somewhere else, motivated by religious something-or-other or tribal something-or-other), one-third of women murdered every year in the United States are killed by their intimate partners. In 2005 that amounted to 1,181 women, or three women every day. To put that in perspective, the UN estimates there are 5,000 honor killings every year in the entire world. 5,000 in a world of 6 billion versus nearly 1,200 in a single country of 300 million. In other words, a woman in America runs a greater risk of being killed by her husband or boyfriend than a woman in Pakistan.
I believe the term ‘honor killing’ has been exotified to group Muslim, Arab, and South Asian men in a different inferior type of category, the ‘other.’ By utilizing this term, South Asian/Muslim/Arab are stereotyped with this ‘inherent’ trait of patriarchy and violence. For example, if your average American (white-skinned) man was found to beat his children, people would collectively abhor this man, but would not categorize all white men as people who beat their children. Perhaps one will find that the man himself came from a ‘troubled past’ – whether it be alcoholism, abuse that he suffered, or other personal experiences that have led him to be a terrible parent. However, if a South Asian man was found to beat his child, suddenly all South Asian men are categorized as oppressive by nature. There is no look into his past to understand what made him become the person he is; it’s because he was born South Asian that there is a belief that he comes from a ‘barbaric/other/inferior/uncouth’ culture that permits this kind of behavior.
This is what the term ‘honor killing’ does for what should be labeled ‘murder’. Suddenly, only South Asian/Muslim/Arab men are capable of murdering their wives, daughters, etc., and suddenly their religious views will be all that matters. Being a Muslim means you somehow were given a God-given right to beat your wife, to kill her for disobeying you. All Muslim men are suspect, for they all have some underlying, dormant ability to murder their loved ones. Can you imagine – as a brown-skinned Muslim, if I’m walking on the street and my father decides to yell at me for doing something wrong, everyone will believe that my father is an oppressive, nasty man, and that all other South Asian men are terrible? It is somehow their proof that all Muslims are untrustworthy. People are led to believe that we come from an ‘inferior/uncouth’ culture that accepts this behavior, the behavior that would claim that the men in my family are capable of murder! And yet, there are no international headlines when your average white man kills his wife, because there is no collective belief that all white men are capable of murder. It is simply the incident of a crazed man who was upset that his wife cheated on her, which led him to do the unspeakable. He wasn’t protecting his ‘honor’ here. He’s crazy.
This is not to delegitimize the very real concerns of domestic violence in Muslim communities, but it is to say that we shouldn’t exotify murder. Murder is murder. Honor killing is murder. It should be labeled as murder. By labeling this crime properly we may be able to ensure that the overwhelming majority of Muslim/South Asian/Arab men are not given this unique status of patriarchal douchebags capable of killing people. And that the overwhelming majority of Muslim/South Asian/Arab women are not oppressed beings that sit around waiting to be freed by the white savior.