In countries as varied as the UK, Brazil, Pakistan, Jordan and India, men of various faiths commit crimes such as rape, kidnapping and murder in order to preserve family honour. It is a worldwide phenomenon that is not restricted to one faith or creed, although it is more common in countries where illiteracy and religion are exploited and manipulated.
In the spring of 2007 in Iraq, 17-year-old Dua Khalil from the minority Yazidi faith befriended a Muslim boy of her age. When her family was made aware of the friendship, rumours spread in the community that she would marry him and convert to Islam.
In a recorded video of what looked like a festive atmosphere with a crowd of 2,000 – including official Iraqi policemen – many holding up camera phones to capture the special moments, and despite her incessant pleas for mercy, which were drowned by the cheers of the crowd, in a scene of pornographic horror, Dua was kicked, beaten, trampled on, cursed and finally battered to death by a concrete block thrown onto her head. It took Dua several minutes to die. An autopsy later confirmed that Dua was, in fact, a virgin.
In 2002, 30-year-old Mukhtaran Bibi from rural Pakistan was ordered by a tribal council of “wise” elders to be gang raped by four men and paraded naked across the village not for any fault of her own, but to redeem the “sin” of her brother, who was seen walking with a girl from an opposing clan. After the abhorrent crime was reported in the media, the reaction of the Pakistani government was to place her under house arrest because her plight was attracting negative coverage of the country.
Pakistan also happens to be the country where 20 per cent of the estimated 5,000 worldwide honour killing cases take place. Another case in 1999 involved a mentally retarded 16-year-old girl who was raped, and upon being handed to her family was executed because she had brought shame to her tribe.
In the Arab world it is not uncommon to find the same preachers of hate and intolerance – although it is only a minority – justify these sickening acts in mosques and live television phone-in shows. In Jordan, for example, the rates of honour killings are among the world’s highest, with one quarter of all the country’s relatively low crime rates falling in that category. Incredibly, Article 340 of the country’s penal code states that a man who discovers a female relative with a man “in an unlawful bed and he kills, wounds or injures one or both of them, benefits from a reduction of penalty”. Surprisingly, only in 15 per cent of the cases have autopsies proven that the victims committed sexual indiscretion.
In the Indian town of Balla in Haryana, Hindu villagers punched and kicked a pregnant woman to death, then killed the father of the child to preserve the family honour. Their crime was “incest”, as they were both from the same village, although they were not actually related.
In enlightened Italy, raping a girl who has had sexual experience is less of a crime than raping a virgin, a court recently ruled; and in Catholic Brazil, where it is not unusual for men to kill women in order to “separate” them from property and claim “defence of honour”, that defence was only outlawed in the 1990s.
In Britain, the victims of honour killings are mostly the daughters of South Asian immigrants whose fathers and brothers cannot reconcile the Western culture of sexual liberation with their deep rooted faith.
In Israel, a curious case involved the family of the Chief Rabbi of the Sephardic Jews, who claimed to be fast asleep while his son kidnapped and beat his daughter’s boyfriend for hours to “re-educate” him and his sister.
In rural Turkey, in fear of having a man arrested for an honour crime, girls who are suspected of indiscretion are locked in a room with a pistol or rat poison for days on end so that they may end their lives “respectfully”.
In the UAE, three years ago a local TV presenter was kidnapped by members of the family of a girl he was suspected of dating, taken to the desert, severely beaten and then while being filmed was ordered by his kidnappers to expose himself. The video was sent across the UAE via mobile phones as a gesture of humiliation.
An honour crime is the justification of the strong to prey on the weak, often for financial gain; a cowardly act where those who legislate, encourage or turn a blind eye are equally as guilty as those who carry out the crime. Education, along with the respect for the sanctity of life is the key to putting an end to the practice.
Courts must investigate sudden “suicides” of young girls and whether the state of property and assets has been altered in such cases. The reasoning that one man can appoint himself judge and executioner in addition to being beneficiary must be exposed for the sick logic that it is. Ultimately, killing and raping for honour brings to mind the famous anti-war line uttered by the late American comedian George Carlin: “Fighting for peace is like screwing for virginity”.
This article first appeared in TheNational.ae newspaper on August 31st 2008