The recent killing of Pakistani social media star Qandeel Baloch, who called herself a modern-day feminist, has brought honour killings back into the public eye.
She was known for posting pictures on social media that weren't necessarily in line with her family's principles of sexual conservatism and modesty. So, earlier this month, when Qandeel posted a picture of her posing with a senior member of the clergy, it pushed her brother Waseem over the edge. Waseem was already fed up with his sister's liberal lifestyle and believed she continued to bring shame upon their family. According to CNN he did it because "girls are born to stay home and follow traditions".
Like most honour killings, perpetrators show no remorse. In fact, Waseem publically confessed that he stands by what he has done and that he even takes pride in it.
Honour killings are not only limited to the Middle East or motivated by Islam, as many wrongly believe. Women the world over are being shot, strangled, burnt alive, stoned and have acid thrown in their faces as revengeful honour killings are carried out daily.
Fox News points out that on average about 27 women in the US die every year as a result of such killings. Meanwhile, according to the Honour Based Violence Awareness Network's stats, India and Pakistan are the two countries that have by far the most honour-motivated slayings in the world. Last year, 1100 Pakistani women were killed in family murders whose alleged purpose was to restore the family’s honour.
But why do these hateful, barbaric acts of violence still take place, and why is restoring so-called honour so important?
Reasons for honour killings
93% of honour-based violence victims are women, and the average age of victims is 23. The reason for honour killings almost always has something to do with a woman’s defiance of archaic patriarchal structures.
W24 spoke to Heather Barr, a senior researcher on women's rights at Human Rights Watch in London. According to Barr, “murderers committing ‘honour killings’ are typically targeting women and girls who are refusing to comply with discriminatory cultural ‘rules’ – for example fleeing a forced marriage, eloping with a chosen partner, taking a role in public life against the wishes of male family members, or resisting domestic violence.”
The Report on Exploratory Study into Honor Violence Measurement Methods, released in 2015, notes that in certain cultures honour is used to justify violence. It is believed that the family’s standing within a community can be tainted by the morality of its female members.
These cultural groups often enforce stringent gender roles and norms; when it comes to sexual impropriety, such groups do not allow disobedience of these norms or any flexibility. These rules are often made and perpetuated by men, and by men alone.
According to the Report on Exploratory Study into Honor Violence Measurements Methods, in the US, almost 91% of honour killings are motivated by families who believe female family members have become “too Westernised”.
The FBI’s Ten Most Wanted fugitive, Yaser Abdel Said killed his teen daughters after they got boyfriends at a young age. He shot them in cold blood in Texas for their "betrayal" in 2008. Many more cases like this exist.
Secretive crimes that remain unpunished
The Oscar-winning documentary, A Girl in the River (2015) shows us a rare case of a woman actually surviving an honour killing. Shot in the face by her father and brother and thrown into the river to drown, she lived to tell her story. Filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, who won an Oscar for the film, said in her acceptance speech that the power of film has been so great that it moved Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, to change the law on honour killings in Pakistan.
Sharif aims to punish perpetrators of these crimes more severely, thus challenging Sharia laws in a way that is likely to clash with the views held by staunch religious conservatives, says The Guardian. Tougher laws and punishments might mean a decrease in these widespread, hateful acts against women.
Yet the NPR notes that cases are often invisible. Honour killings are covered up by families and reported on as fatal domestic violence disputes, suicides or accidents. According to NPR, these crimes continue because they go unreported and unpunished. Pardons are often arranged for the perpetrators of these crimes or they are given lesser sentences.
The core issue is gender bias, not religion
“Fundamentally, ‘honour killing’ is one of the most brutal expressions of patriarchy, and there is no society without patriarchy”, Barr notes.
“‘Honour killing’ is particularly horrifying, but it’s connected to all other abuses against women, including domestic violence and sexual violence against women, child marriage and forced marriage, employment discrimination, lack of reproductive freedom, and marginalization of women in public life and politics. All of these abuses have the same roots, and those roots are patriarchy, misogyny, and inequality. The solution to all of these abuses is real gender equality, and the fight for gender equality is an on-going one in every country in the world.”
In South Africa, homosexual women are killed or subjected to “corrective rape”, while others are beaten and raped and experience unfathomable abuse. These violent acts are often handed out as punishment or can be seen as hate crimes against women. Yet ours is not a staunch conservative religious patriarchal society. However, like almost 90% of societies, it is still very much patriarchal; the degree of gender bias simply varies from one country to the next.
South African feminist researcher and writer Jennifer Thorpe says “women are supposed to take the violence of the world around them. Women are often burdened with the shame of a profoundly sick society, told that it is their fault that they are victims and blamed for the violence of men. Honour killings, like so many forms of violence against women in South Africa, police female bodies instead of addressing the root of violence – unequal gender norms.”
Ultimately, women are seen as property, as things. And in extremists’ patriarchal societies, violence is excused when it's against women and especially when the patriarchy's 'honour' is at stake. When it comes to honour, an honour that is defined as “girls are supposed to stay home”, patriarchy would rather eliminate blood relatives than give up even an inch of its power to women.