You can’t make domestic violence less horrific — or less real — by calling it “honour killing” and claiming it only happens to Muslims. There is no honour in brutalising women.
Go into any airport bookshop and you’ll see that honour killing sells. Bestseller after wannabe bestseller illustrates the template — the cover photograph of a woman peering out from behind an attractively draped scarf, the exotic setting, the Romeo-and-Juliet storyline. It’s a crowded field, so you can see why the Festival of Dangerous Ideas a) wanted to cash in, and b) felt the need to differentiate its “honour” killing event in an overcrowded field by casting a wild-eyed man rather than a doe-eyed woman in the lead role. I’m prepared to believe that it takes a lot to jolt the FODI’s target audience from their carefully cultivated ennui, but the session with the title “Honour Killings Are Morally Justified” featuring Hizb ut-Tahrir spokesman Uthman Badar clearly set the voltage too high.
But this debacle is unlikely to be the end of honour killing marketing. It’s an industry that survived the revelation of Norma Khouri’s fraudulent honour killing memoir a decade ago, so it seems unlikely to fade away just because the chattering classes were forced to bite their tongues for once. Domestic violence is grey, depressing and squalid — seldom interesting enough to capture our attention even when it escalates to murder. Honour killing, by contrast, is glamourous, fascinating and exciting. We can safely indulge our pornographic fixation with its narratives, safely insulated by our conviction that these barbaric acts are confined to other lesser communities and societies.
Honour crimes are conventionally described as violence committed primarily against women and girls but occasionally against men in order to redeem a family’s reputation in the wake of a social transgression. Everything about such crimes remains contentious, from their prevalence to the terminology we should use to describe them. The phrase is used not so much to describe the event as to stigmatise the community in which it took place. “Our” regretable domestic violence, “their” barbaric customs and traditions. Moreover, it provides validation for the self-justification of the killers. “I had no other choice — it was a matter of honour.” Campaigners skirt the label with terminology like “so-called honour killings”, “honour-related violence”, and “honour-based violence”.
And it’s a phrase that does nothing to help living, breathing women who seek help during times of family crisis. Their fears are too easily shrugged off as just another Muslim family gone crazy — nothing to do with us until her butchered body is dumped on our doorstep and we can project our fantasies on to her bleeding corpse. Years ago, in a previous century, when I sought help in dealing with stalking and threats from a male Muslim relative, I found my fears shrugged off in those terms. Neither my stalker nor I were seen in three-dimensional terms. I was desperate to normalise my story, not to have it assigned to the other fantasy realm of dangerous Muslims and women in need of rescue. My own explanation — “it’s not because he’s Muslim, it’s just because he’s crazy!” — was clearly well short of adequate. But by “crazy”, I meant that he was ordinary — that he was like any other disturbed male, he was life-sized, not a lurking phantasm that defined an entire religious community.
I still struggle to describe that experience of being offered the role of brown woman in need of salvation from a brown man (to paraphrase Gayatri Spivak) and not being heard when I tried to speak of it in my own terms. The words still stick in my throat, even now. There is nothing liberating about the narratives that are offered to us on this issue. Do not pretend that the market for honour killing narratives is about the needs of women and girls.