This part of the history of honor killings you’re unlikely to read or hear about. In 1947 in the British colony of Nigeria, English judges had to overturn what they viewed as the backwards ruling of a local Shariah court. A man had been sentenced to death for murder, but the British superior court pointed out that it had been a crime of passion. The man had killed his wife’s lover. The Shariah court had been unimpressed by this excuse, but the British court decided that the murderer did not deserve to die. Yes, you read that correctly. A Shariah court, applying Shariah law, did not buy the ‘crime of passion’ argument that has long served as a justification for honor killings. The British court did.
Honor killings are never far from the headlines. The Islamophobic Clarion Fund even released a documentary called Honor Diaries, which repeats the accusation that Islam supports honor killings and that these acts of violence are endemic to Muslim societies.
But the truth of the matter is that honor killings are not caused or encouraged by Islam. Honor killing, despite the popular rhetoric around it, is not even a problem specific to Muslims. Its most concentrated and serious occurrences don’t involve Muslims at all. This ignorance about Islam’s teachings and the realities of violence against women has serious costs. First, blaming honor crimes on Islam antagonizes Muslims unnecessarily. It feeds the narrative, prevalent in many Muslim countries, that dismisses human rights as a proxy for Westernization and cultural imperialism. Second, sensationalism over Islam deflects from a reality that many men are loath to admit: that violence against women is a global problem with roots much deeper than the doctrines of one religion or the features of one culture. It needs to be addressed as such. Finally, obsessing over Islam’s alleged acceptance of honor crimes blinds Muslims and non-Muslims to the condemnation of these crimes in Muhammad’s teachings and the Shariah.
The tragedy of violence directed at women because they are women is far too widespread and long-lived to be the product of any one religion or even one culture. Though it takes different shapes and appears with varied frequency from region to region, it afflicts all societies. Patriarchal societies (i.e., all societies to one degree or another) sometimes ‘justify’ some of this violence as the consequence of rage triggered in ‘crimes of passion.’ Other forms of violence against women, such as honor killings, can involve premeditation and even the coordination of several people, including women related to the victim. In those parts of the world plagued worst by violence against women, legal systems tend to offer official or unofficial leniency for the men who commit it.
Honor crimes are only part of the larger phenomenon of femicide, or the murder of a woman for some reason associated with her gender. The women and girls who are the victims of such violence are attacked because they are perceived to have violated some profound expectation of how women are supposed to act in their society. In the Mediterranean region, especially the Middle East and North Africa, as well as South Asia, affronts are to the ‘honor’ of the woman or her family. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has conservatively estimated that at least 5,000 women a year globally are victims of honor killings. In India and Pakistan, this often entails a daughter or sister being killed for falling in love with a man without parental approval and occurs amongst Hindu and Muslim populations alike. Femicide takes other forms elsewhere. A 2012 UN report details how in parts of southern Africa, South and Southeast Asia hundreds of women are killed each year after being accused of witchcraft. Their killers receive lighter sentences with alarming regularity.
Despite the media attention they receive, honor killings are not the most prevalent type of femicide. The number of honor killings, whether in Muslim countries or elsewhere, pales in comparison with the most serious form of violence against women, namely dowry killings among India’s Hindu population. Dowry killings, the murder of a wife by her husband or his family, often by burning, for her failure to provide a large enough dowry payment to her husband’s family, ceasing dowry gifts or merely for falling short of expectations in her wifely duties, have occurred in shocking numbers. A 2012 UN report observed that 8,383 known dowry murders occurred in India in 2009, up from 4,836 in 1990. Though the Indian government outlawed dowry giving decades ago and identified dowry murders as a criminal problem, dowry giving remains an important custom and the suspicious death of wives is rarely investigated. The police often dismiss these deaths as kitchen accidents.
Islamophobic organizations point out that Islam and the laws of Muslim countries excuse honor killings or treat them lightly. On the second point they are correct. Such laws are a problem, and one that seems to have proliferated in the Middle East. In Egyptian law, a man who kills his wife and/or her lover after catching them ‘in the act’ (in flagrante delicto) is only punished with prison as opposed to the death penalty. Morocco, Kuwait, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Oman, the UAE, and Jordan’s laws extend drastically reduced penalties for the murder of any female relative (and their lover) that a man finds in such a situation (though the UAE and a 2001 update to Jordan’s laws allows the same excuse for a woman who finds her husband in bed with another woman).
But none of these laws has any basis in the Shariah or Islamic teachings. In fact, they were originally imported from the West. Criminal law in the Middle East today was shaped by the Ottoman Criminal Code of 1858, which was issued as part of the failing Ottoman Empire’s efforts to imitate its European rivals. The Code was little more than a translation of the French Criminal Code of 1832, copying word for word its lax punishment for honor crimes. This is still evident today in the laws of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and to a lesser extent Morocco (never part of the Ottoman Empire), which read like literal translations from the French. The French and Ottoman law codes also served as the major inspiration for Egypt’s law as well.