India and Pakistan both have recorded rates of ‘honour’ killings of around 1000 per year, although as ever figures remain unreliable. The levels of such crimes are less known in Bangladesh, but there have been cases in diasporic Bangladeshi communities so there is a potential risk there.
In both India and Pakistan, the informal court systems present problems to women. Where the central criminal justice system is weak or unaffordable to people living in rural communities, tribal jirga or caste panchayat may order HBV in cases of intra-familial disputes. Such informal legal systems may demand the deaths of women, or in some cases compensation marriages where young girls and women are forced to marry to restore equilibrium in family disputes. It was one such jirga that ordered the notorious gang-rape of Mukhtaran Mai.
Particular issues in Hindu communities are caste and gotra (patriline). Marriage opportunitess are very restricted and there may be particularly fierce opposition to any contact between a woman and a male of lower caste; it is often the case that it is the man who is the primary victim of violence by the family of the woman he has approached. While it may be required that any partnerships do not lose caste, marriages within a gotra are condemned as incestuous, despite their rarely being any close consanguinueity between any members of the same gotra. Panchayats have actively policed gotra restrictions and called for the deaths of couples who have contravened such norms.
While in both India and Pakistan there have been a great deal of discussion around ‘honour’ killings, India has taken more assertive legal action, including awarding the death penalty to large numbers of persons who have colluded in murder. In Pakistan, there is more of a culture of impunity and while police reports may be filed, there is often little follow-up, particularly in rural areas.
In Afghanistan, ‘honour’ crimes remain very high along with many other forms of violence against women, and are increasing as attitudes fail to keep pace with economic and social changes. Economic immiseration has also led to high levels of early marriage. Finding safety is difficult as women fleeing their husbands or families may be imprisoned and returned to them and there is, again, a culture of impunity even more profound than that which exists in Pakistan.
The Middle East, including the Arab countries of North Africa, Iran and non-Arab minorities within Arabic countries have high recorded level of HBV, and it is these regions that the formal law codes are most likely to allocate reduced sentences for crimes motivated by ‘honour.’
With the exception of Iran, laws which allow for ‘honour’ killing are not derived from Islamic precepts, but from the penal codes of the Napoleonic Empire which legislated for crimes of ‘passion.’ Such laws have come under sustained opposition from women’s rights activists leading to some reforms: the Kurdistan Region of Iraq removed the provision for lighter sentencing for killers with ‘honourable’ motives in 2002 – although it remains in force in the rest of Iraq; Syria has recently increased the minimum sentence for an ‘honour’ killer from one year to two; and Palestine has recently removed the provision which it inherited from Jordanian law in the face of a particularly gruesome high-profile murder. However, such changes have limited applicability where these are not followed through by the criminal justice system, which may still tend to overlook murders and excuse their perpetrators. The availability of reduced sentencing causes murders which had financial or other motives to be represented as related to ‘honour’ so that the perpetrators of unrelated crimes can benefit from the reduced sentencing applied to ‘honour’.
The project for legal changes is a necessary precursor to the decline of HBV in the Middle Eastern region and needs to be bolstered by the provision of protection measures and an end to the culture of impunity. Changing mentalities has been difficult: while Turkey appeared to be taking the strongest steps to combat HBV, including education and protection programmes, and there are many committed activists and NGOs in the country, levels remain high, and are apparently increasing.
Certain Eastern European countries have recorded cases of HBV within the indigenous populations, such as Albania and Chechnya, and there have been acts of ‘honour’ killings within living memory within Mediterranean countries such as Italy and Greece. There is limited data on the current extent of HBV in Eastern Europe and former Soviet countries; however some cases of forced marriage have been recorded in Eastern European communities living in the West.
In most of Western and Northern Europe, HBV is almost entirely associated with immigrant populations where such acts are seen as the survival of tribal and patriarchal values from their countries of origin, although these may be excaserbated by the experiences of translocation and social exclusion.
Many Northern European and Scandinavian countries have developed strategies for the protection of potential victims, and there are a growing number of NGOs dedicated to providing advice and counselling to women at risk of violence and forced marriage. However, there are still disparities in procedure and practice, and different approaches from region to region. According to some recent research from Germany, HBV is more prevalent in first-generation immigrant populations, suggesting that greater integration of minority communities is an important step to reducing violence in the family.
Honour killings have also been recorded in North America, Canada, and Australia within immigrant populations. In these regions, there appears to be a less organised response to HBV as a more recent phenomenon which is in the early stages of recognition.