Let’s stop talking about ‘honour killing’. There is no honour in murder

These acts of violence attack something more than women’s bodies: they also attack their challenge to oppressive patriarchy

Every time the term “honour killing” is used, we view the murder of women through the eyes of their killers. By adding the word “honour” to killing, we use the language of those who justify this odious crime on the basis of “honourable” motives. We use the language of their excuses. We must stop doing this.

Linguistic labels matter. The term “honour killing” not only cedes too much power to the perpetrator, but is offensive to survivors and women. Instead, we need to see the crime through the eyes of those attacked, because these acts of gender violence attack something more than women’s bodies, something precarious and precious: the challenge by thousands of courageous young women around the world to oppressive patriarchy and stultifying social convention. In this sense, they are an attack on us all.

Take two recent examples. In May, 25-year-old Farzana Parveen was stoned to death by her family in the street outside the Lahore high court. Why? Because she married a man of her own choice. At the time of her death she was pregnant. That was an “honour killing”.

This month, also in Pakistan, 18-year-old Saba Maqsood was shot twice by her family, put in a sack and thrown in a canal. Why? Because she married the man she loved. That was an attempted “honour killing”. Following Parveen’s murder, the UN’s human rights commissioner Navi Pillay said, “I do not even wish to use the phrase ‘honour killing’: there is not the faintest vestige of honour in killing a woman in this way.”

These are not isolated incidents. In 2008, the UN population fund estimated that 5,000 women annually are killed in the name of “honour”. Subsequently the Council of Europe stated that situation had “worsened” in Europe and elsewhere in recent years.

Although coined by Dutch-Turkish academic Ane Nauta in 1978, it is widely recognised that adding the word “honour” to killing is problematic. Public bodies habitually use the term encased within supposedly sanitising inverted commas or preceded by the words “so-called”. Typical is the Association of Chief Police Officers, which while using the term immediately states that of course “there is no honour in the commission of murder in the name of so-called honour”.

In its 2009 report, the Council of Europe defined these crimes as those “justified, explained (or mitigated)” by the perpetrator to defend family honour. But it also acknowledged that the term should be treated with “scepticism”. Further, the UN states that the term risks “reinforcing discriminatory misperceptions that women embody the ‘honour’ of the male and the community”.

What grates is precisely how the crime is viewed through the lens of the offender. It is true that perpetrators invariably invoke their slighted “honour”. But there is a further common feature: this violence seeks to punish women for seeking to exercise independent choice, for defying not only the wishes of their families but social expectation – for daring to be free. That’s the heart of the matter, and that’s the right lens to view the problem through.

We believe the time is ripe to intensify the search for a new term. On other gender violence issues, we have in recent times changed our use of language. Originally female genital mutilation was called “female circumcision” in the UK (the criminalising statute was the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985). But the term “circumcision” did not adequately reflect society’s deprecation of this violent child abuse, and was subsequently altered. Indeed, in this and other crimes of sexual violence the term “victim” is heavily contested by survivors. As FGM activist Leyla Hussein states, “Language is powerful. It’s important we use it correctly. Being labelled a ‘victim’ in itself continues the violation.” Words matter.

So what term are we to use instead of “honour killing”? A number of suggestions have previously been advanced. The Canadian Council of Muslim Women suggests “femicide”. Perhaps “family femicide” adds the kinship collusion element of the crime. Kofi Annan, while he was UN secretary general, suggested “shame killings” . “Patriarchal killing” is another term that is occasionally used, among others.

We suggest that the new term should reflect the fact that women are being punished because they seek to be free and challenge patriarchy. The term we collectively settle on might not roll off the tongue like “honour killing”, but we need one that carries the moral condemnation we feel.

A term like “honour killing” clouds culpability. It cloaks acts of gender violence with one of highest human aspirations – honour. It risks falsely dignifying these deplorable acts with an undeserved varnish of higher motive.

In this struggle, words are indeed weapons. We need to find the right words – the right weapons – to fight this violation. “Honour killing” is not it. There is no honour in murder.
A link to the article can be found here.

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