Death and Dishonor

Our religion says not to kill,” and then after another moment: “But our tradition says to kill.”

Abu Moghaseb, 2007

In a my previous post, Cultural Matters, Bridging Worlds, I wrote, “There are all sorts of ways that culture can play a dynamic role in keeping the tradition alive. Culture is important, it is dynamic… There are many cultures that are disappearing under globalization, but at the same time new ones forming out of hybrid identities and close encounters of the humankind.” This is the upside of tradition. But as with anything there is a shadow to the preservation of traditions. Some traditions are more about power and control. Some traditions are counterproductive to a society. Some traditions contradict the very moral and ethical basis that the society claims to stand on. Clearly, I am not a cultural relativist. I believe there is truth (even if we can only have a limited understanding of it) and that there are such things as right and wrong. I find some tradtitions repugnant and unacceptable. For me, this is especially the case when it condones, reinforces, or encourages violence against a society’s most vulnerable members. I believe one of our duties is to protect those who cannot defend themselves. However, I find that in Muslim communities we are falling short of this.

Years ago I attended a talk by a Jordanian activist who worked towards ending honor killings. She shows statistics that demostrated that few conservative Muslim scholars and lawmakers were willing to impose the mandatory hudud sentence for murder when comes to murdering women. Crimes against women go unpunished. Especially when it comes to “honor killings.” Husbands, brothers, fathers, and even uncles brutally murder their loved ones, all to wash away the shame of a scandal, or even suspicion of unchaste behavior. There have been a few cases reported in the West. Many Muslims in the West try to distance themselves by explaining it is a cultural thing. But as an American Muslim convert, this act was inconceivable. For me it was unthinkable that this could be accepted by any Muslim (Aren’t we supposed to believe in justice and mercy?). I still have a hard time knowing that there are men who are able to kill female family members with impunity.

I was reminded about our sad state affairs in an email discussion group. The New York Times recently published a story, Dishonorable Affiar, which really saddened me. I don’t know how anyone can read this story without crying:

Zahra was most likely still sleeping when her older brother, Fayyez, entered the apartment a short time later, using a stolen key and carrying a dagger. His sister lay on the carpeted floor, on the thin, foam mattress she shared with her husband, so Fayyez must have had to kneel next to Zahra as he raised the dagger and stabbed her five times in the head and back: brutal, tearing thrusts that shattered the base of her skull and nearly severed her spinal column. Leaving the door open, Fayyez walked downstairs and out to the local police station. There, he reportedly turned himself in, telling the officers on duty that he had killed his sister in order to remove the dishonor she had brought on the family by losing her virginity out of wedlock nearly 10 months earlier.

Zahra died from her wounds at the hospital the following morning, one of about 300 girls and women who die each year in Syria in so-called honor killings, according to estimates by women’s rights advocates there. In Syria and other Arab countries, many men are brought up to believe in an idea of personal honor that regards defending the chastity of their sisters, their daughters and other women in the family as a primary social obligation.


Yet the notion that Islam condones honor killing is a misconception, according to some lawyers and a few prominent Islamic scholars. Daad Mousa, a Syrian women’s rights advocate and lawyer, told me that though beliefs about cleansing a man’s honor derive from Bedouin tradition, the three Syrian laws used to pardon men who commit honor crimes can be traced back not to Islamic law but to the law codes, based on the Napoleonic code, that were imposed in the Levant during the French mandate. “Article 192 states that if a man commits a crime with an ‘honorable motive,’ he will go free,” Mousa said. “In Western countries this law usually applies in cases where doctors kill their patients accidentally, intending to save them, but here the idea of ‘honorable motive’ is often expanded to include men who are seen as acting in defense of their honor.

“Article 242 refers to crimes of passion,” Mousa continued. “But it’s Article 548 that we’re really up against. Article 548 states precisely that if a man witnesses a female relative in an immoral act and kills her, he will go free.” Judges frequently interpret these laws so loosely that a premeditated killing — like the one Fayyez is accused of — is often judged a “crime of passion”; “witnessing” a female relative’s behavior is sometimes defined as hearing neighborhood gossip about it; and for a woman, merely speaking to a man may be ruled an “immoral act.”

Right now, I’m kind of speechless. I’d rather the stories speak for themselves:Jordan Honor Killing Turns out Daughter was a Virgin
Who killed the Juha sisters? Jordan Charges six over “honor” killings
The Horror of Honor Killings in Turkey.

Just a sidebar note: Muslims are not the only people who do honor killings, as this article indicates. Violence against women is a worldwide phenomena. I address the Muslim world because I am part of that community and if I don’t speak against this particular evil act, then I am complicit in my silence. I think we should all remember the many nameless victims and pray that they receive justice. We should pressure our lawmakers and scholars to condemn these actions.

5 thoughts on “Death and Dishonor

  1. Violence against women in India, for a whole host of reasons, is much greater. Having said that I find the concept of “Honour” killings in the Middle East completely immoral and hypocritical.

    What about the men who loose their virginity before wedlock? What about men who commit adultery? Why doesnt it matter when they do it?

    This whole business bugs me to no end.


  2. This is indeed a problem! These dishonor killings are repulsive and unjust. We know that this is Islamically Wrong, Wrong, Wrong. I found it interesting that it is traced back to a French law. I think that in cultures where women’s sexuality are not their own but considered the property of the family or the nation you will find men using any means to appear “in control”.

    The fact is that in so many countries shariah is abused/manipulated to pick on poor women. We do not see cases of men being sentenced to stoning. When I see a rich, business man sentenced to stoning or receiving lashings for his promiscuity I’ll change my mind about the inherent sexism of these rulings.

    I think we need grass roots education on one hand and strict punishment on the other hand. If you take the life of another human being you must face the consequences. If your sympathies are with a murderer you spit in the face of our religion’s desire to eradicate the unjust treatment of women.


  3. You know, people wonder why I am angry. Insanity like this makes me an angry Muslim woman.
    “Basra police chief to lead campaign to protect woman’s rights”

    “Official statistics indicate that at least 15 women are being killed in Basra every month by criminal organization on the pretext of violating religious and moral rules,” the general noted.
    “Most of these criminal acts aim at realizing personal objectives and spreading fear and instability in the city,” he affirmed.
    “There are many armed groups patrol the city to hunt down and kidnap women who use make-up,” the chief of the Basra police said.
    Police patrols found from now and then unidentified female bodies in remote areas.
    Most of these bodies bore signs of torture.
    Basra is 590 km south of Baghdad.


  4. Abu Sinan, Thanks for your contribution. I don’t know the stats on India. But I am aware of Sat and violence against women there. But since I am not South Asian or strongly linked with that community, I feel like I need to focus on my own backyard (or multiple backyards Muslim, American, and African American). But I am in full solidarity with my South Asian brothers and sisters who are fighting injustice and violence against women.

    Samira, once again thank you for sharing your insight. I do think that poor women are really vulnerable, but one has to wonder how much impunity does a wealthy family have if the male members of the family decide to snuff a female relative. Seeing how things work, they might slide. And I do have a problem with hudud punishments disproportionately being applied to women. And in Nigeria, it is the poor who get the hands amputated. What about all the corrupt officials who take out millions? I am feeling Tariq Ramadan on that moratoriam. I am going to have to get you to be a guest contributor. In fact, would either of you like to contribute pieces to a blog? Shoe-kron!!


  5. In addition to the difficulty with changing deeply held customs, there’s also a problem of legitimacy. The political and religious elite use Islam as a slogan when it suits their purposes i.e., they pose as the guardians of religion when convenient. For example, Ahmed was telling me that in Egypt there’s a huge effort now to discourage FGM; however, part of the problem is that the ordinary person says why should I believe what I’m being told when there is no independent religious order, and the same people are selective and use religion as an instrument without any real commitment. Most of my ‘opinions’ are regurgitations from discussions with Ahmed 🙂

    So I noticed this part of the problem both in the honor killings story and this one on FGM in Egypt:


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