‘Honor’ killings debunked, demystified and redefined

Nicole Pope challenges everything you thought you knew about “honor” killings in her new book, “Honor Killings in the 21st Century.”
Pope, who has dedicated the last 25 years of her life to covering women’s rights along with a number of other pressing issues in Turkey and the Middle East, says she has not always been as ardent an advocate for women’s rights. 

“I wasn’t really a women’s rights activist,” muses Pope, who now focuses a great deal of her time and space in her columns on women’s rights and gender-based violence in Turkey and around the world. “It was in the course of writing this book that I became one.”

When she first learned of “honor” killings, Pope admits she was intrigued and horrified “in a very Western, naïve way. But I wanted to better understand because I felt they were presented in a very black-and-white manner without any sort of context.”

If the modern understanding of “honor” killings is largely black and white, Pope, who spent a decade poring over research and traveling across the globe to meet with women’s groups and victims of honor-based crimes, hones in on the murkier grey area in her book.

The Swiss journalist and writer, who has reported for Reuters, Le Monde, The Huffington Post, Today’s Zaman and CNN Türk, weaves together heart-wrenching stories of women murdered and abused in Turkey, Pakistan and the United Kingdom in the name of honor in a meticulously researched academic, historical and cultural context.

Redefining ‘honor’ killings

Pope began her research by examining what she calls “textbook honor killings” — a young woman allegedly tarnishes her family’s honor, her family members convene to settle her fate and one relative is ordered to kill her.

According to a conservative United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimate, at least 5,000 women are murdered each year for the sake of “honor.” But the number of women worldwide who suffer in various ways under patriarchal control reaches into the millions, Pope asserts.

“I soon realized that a blanket of ‘honor’ was thrown over a much broader variety of crimes and abuses, and that cases of ‘honor’ killings that seemed to follow a kind of tribal pattern were in fact only the tip of the iceberg,” Pope writes.

As Pope emphasizes in her book, she and many women’s rights activists wince at the term “honor” killings, which she says is not always qualified with quotation marks, to make clear the dishonor of gender-based discrimination and violence.

Pope tells Sunday’s Zaman she prefers the phrase “honor-based violence” to the much more commonly tossed about phrase “honor killings.” Because, as she illuminates in the course of her book, these murders do not take place in a vacuum, something the media, law enforcement agencies and governments around the world seem to largely miss.

“Many of the cases outlined in this book do not involve informal family courts handing down death sentences. They may not neatly fit the stereotype of ‘honor’ killings as described in Western media. Some of them do not even result in a murder. But all the tragedies outlined in this book are linked by a common thread, and each shines a light on a different aspect of what is sometimes described as the ‘honor culture’,” writes Pope, preparing her readers for a messier but more holistic analysis of “honor” killings. In some cases, Pope points out, the alleged sexual misconduct often considered the motive for most honor-based crimes is not even present. Other times, the redemption of honor becomes the excuse for fraud, theft and other crimes.

The story of a young girl named Rojin, who was raped by a middle-aged man and then became pregnant in 2002, in Turkey’s Diyarbakır province, commences Pope’s comprehensive discussion on the complexity of honor-based violence. Pope, who is told Rojin’s story had a “happy ending,” has the opportunity to meet the young girl. But what she finds — a young rape victim ostracized and married off to a man she has never met to avoid adulterating her family’s honor — brings her little comfort.

This “honor system” Pope describes fuels the deeply rooted mentality that women must abide by an unwritten social code dictating obedience and chastity, of which men are the arbiters.

Debunking religion and race myths

The public discourse on honor-based crimes in the media tends to remain episodic and is often laced with sensational and/or racial overtones, as Pope and other journalists pointed out in last February’s racist media frenzy surrounding Mohammad Shafia’s murder of his three teenage daughters and ex-wife in Canada.

Honor-based crime is a global scourge that transcends specific cultures and religions, Pope and other journalists stress.

Widely perceived in the West to be a Muslim tradition, “honor” killings predate Islam and are common to many cultural groups and ethnicities. Honor-based crimes can be traced to patriarchal tribal families, in which controlling women’s sexual purity was crucial to maintaining the purity of the bloodline, argues Pope, citing the work of anthropology scholars.

“Singling out crimes committed in the name of honor is only useful for the purpose of developing strategies to combat them. Using them to tar entire cultures with the brush of condemnation is counterproductive,” pens Pope, criticizing the use of honor-based crime as proof of “barbaric” cultures. Her warning against racial profiling recalls then-US presidential candidate Rick Perry’s racially coated condemnation of “honor” killings in Turkey earlier this year.

Transfiguring the cultures of nations in which honor-based violence occurs is not the answer, argues Pope, who says the activists fighting against such crimes are also proud of their cultural heritage. “These women’s rights activists want change, of course, but they want that change to come from within. In other words, they want to improve the aspects of their cultures they feel are detrimental to women,” Pope says.

Tide has turned, war yet to be won

To prevent honor-based violence, the system that perpetuates it must be overturned, Pope argues. For law enforcement agencies, social workers, academics and medical experts to properly address this issue, Pope continues, they must first understand this deeply ingrained social context that is so fundamental to honor-based violence.

Pope also praises the unceasing efforts and subsequent successes of women’s rights advocates around the world who have been able to revamp outdated legislation and usher in altogether new legislation criminalizing honor-based violence, specifically, and gender-based violence in general.

The war has yet to be won, but Pope concludes her book with hope for the future. “The young generation is fertile ground for change. No one is born with the ambition to kill,” she says.



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