Friday, 8 December 2017

VAW 2017: Violence for the Sake of Saving Family Honour is a Crime not a Culture

by Sadiq Bhanbhro

Honour has been a central concept across societies throughout history. It has been attributed as an underlying reason of horrible types of violence, for example, duelling in England, foot binding in China and wife burning (sati) in India.

Violence against women and girls in the name of defending supposed honour of an individual, family, clan or community is increasing in many parts of the world. Nearly 1100 women were killed in the name of honour in Pakistan; more than 1000 cases of honour killings reported in India and more than 11,000 incidents of honour crimes were recorded by United Kingdom police forces from 2010 to 2014.

Honour based violence or honour crimes are umbrella terms, which include a range of harmful practices committed using the pretext of honour such as: domestic abuse; violence or death threats; sexual and psychological abuse; acid attacks; forced marriage; forced suicide; forced abortion; female genital mutilation; assault; blackmail; marrying without consent and being held against one's will. Killing or attempted killing of a woman or a girl (mainly), a man or a boy (in some cases) in the name of saving or restoring honour of a family, clan or community (commonly known as honour killing) is an extreme form of honour based violence.

The term 'honour killing' has a long history but gained currency in late 1990s, as a label used within activism, research, and scholarship associated with the killing of women and girls, mainly in Muslim communities in their own countries and migrants in Europe and America. Since then, there has been much discussion and debate around the subject. In recent years, media, human rights groups and scholars including philosophers have marked honour crimes as a culturally specific category of violence, distinct from other prevalent types of violence against women such as domestic, intimate partner violence and crime of passion.

In the 'cultural explanation' of honour crimes, the culture and traditions of the particular communities are taken as causes of the criminal violence. Hence, the cultural classification not only stigmatise particular act of violence but entire culture of communities (Abu-Lughod, 2015). In addition, the term honour combined with violence and killings assumes that violence, in particular against women, is culturally sensitive—a sensitivity that allows the perpetrator to use further coercion to prevent the victim from seeking help and to intimidate the agencies of the state to stop them from pursuing and prosecuting these violent crimes.

The existing account of honour crimes have created hurdles to address this problem by making it a hypersensitive issue, stigmatising and stereotyping certain cultures, religions and regions and in western countries mainly black and ethnic minority groups (Bhanbhro, Chavez, & Lusambili, 2016). When honour related violence is dismissed as a cultural issue, communities in which it prevails are stigmatised (Ewing, 2008) and those who suffer violence also face their suffering being brushed off as a cultural problem. While, some scholars argue that it is necessary to be mindful while analysing and understating violence against women in cultural terms; as cultural understating and representation of violence conceal more pressing and central structures of violence affecting women and political processes that shape it; in those parts of world where usually culture is blamed for such violence (Abu-Lughod, 2011 & Shah, 2007).

This doesn't mean that the cultural has nothing to do with honour based violence, it does; but the cultural explanation masks the other wider social, political and economic structures and ideologies behind violence against women and girls. In fact, violence against women and girls is a widespread problem in all societies around the world – but its manifestations and extent differ widely according to place, time and context. For instance, recent census figures show 900 women were killed by men in six years in England and Wales. There is no cultural explanation behind these killings, but one thing is common in all sorts of violence against women and girls, and that is patriarchal mind-set. This is widespread and rooted in all layers across societies. Men have created self-serving tools to protect and promote this outdated patriarchal system. They have invented and formalised extremely restrictive codes of behaviour for females - gender based arrangements to restrict women's mobility, speech and sexuality, specific forms of family and kinship, perceptions and expectations for women's conduct. Above all a powerful ideology of honour has been tied to womenfolk, which is used as an excuse for honour killings. These all devices are created and managed by men to treat women as objects to use for their own purposes. Hence, if a woman's behaviour or action is seen to threaten the patriarchal order, she is ought to be punished and that punishment could be her murder.

Besides, a poor understanding of the context and narratives behind honour killings-such as social, religious, cultural and class structures- could contribute to unreliable assessments and analysis of the issue, in turn vague solutions could be suggested. Moreover, perspectives of the communities where honour killings believed to occur have been afforded less attention. Therefore, a public health approach to the issue could include creating a definition of the problem that is unprejudiced and inclusive. This is because if it is seen as problem that can affect anybody, rather than just one part of a community it will be treated more seriously by the police, judiciary, social and healthcare professionals.


Abu-Lughod, L. (2015). Do Muslim women need savings? London: Harvard University Press.

Bhanbhro, S., Chavez, A., & Lusambili, A. (2016). Honour based violence as a public health problem: critical review of literature. International journal of Human Rights in Healthcare 9:198 - 215.

Ewing, K. P. (2008). Stolen honour: Stigmatizing Muslim Men in Berlin. California: Stanford University Press.

Abu-Lughod, L. (2011). Seductions of the "honour crime". Differences 22:17-63.

Shah, N. (2007). Making of crime, customs and culture: the case of karo kari killings of upper Sindh. In Scratching the surface: democracy, traditions, gender. Bennett, J. eds. Pp. 135-154. Lahore: Heinrich Böll Foundation.


Sadiq Bhanbhro is a Research Fellow in Disparities and Global Perspectives in Health and Wellbeing at Sheffield Hallam University. He is a trained social anthropologist and a public health professional with research interests in social and political determinants of health including gender, sexuality and violence.

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