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Honour killings brutal, ugly domestic violence, not your exotic fantasy

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.

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  • 1
    Lingo
    Posted Friday, 27 June 2014 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    Dear Ms Hussein, I seem to have missed that appalling ‘literary’ genre. What horror. In a similar category to ‘holocaust porn’ if you ask me.

    Working in a certain job a few years ago (I can’t reveal what or where) I became aware that more than one man was likely to be refused Australian citizenship and probably deported because of alleged involvement in honour killings in the country of their birth, before migrating to Australia years before. The files I read used the only suitable word for the alleged act: murder. My team investigated such allegations exhaustively, knowing how essential it was to get it right either way. I don’t know whether that team still exists, after the gutting of so many Federal departments and agencies, but I do know that at the time I was glad to know that authorities took these matters seriously: that people had the right to object to the granting of citizenship, and the government was prepared to refuse, or strip away, citizenship when such allegations were proven.

  • 2
    Robert Smith
    Posted Friday, 27 June 2014 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this article. It puts things into perspective.

    Frequent travel to India in the last few years has given me (seventyish anglo-celtic male)the opportunity to hear about the role of women in India from a variety of women. At the positive end, however successful women are they are always conscious of the need to tread carefully. And at the negative end there is a lot of oppressive behaviour, some of it cultural in origin, some of it religious and some of it because particular men or boys just do not know how to act.

    The issues at stake are too serious to be left to the sensationalisers.

  • 3
    Jan Forrester
    Posted Friday, 27 June 2014 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Shakira. Quite a few books on the international market in this genre. This FODI potential event was obviously too dangerous though even in a country which touts it belief in free speech. I now have no idea what the HiT rep was going to say and I hope I can read sometime. Remember the debates over whether holocaust denier, David Irving, should be allowed back into Australia in 2003 after a previous tour during which he was able to promote, and debate, his views. (And the best TV opponent the previous time, I thought, was Gerard Henderson. That is: we had a debate regarding the (ongoing) crime of genocide.
    Having lived for a few years in countries where so-called ‘honour’ murders of women and men occur I would always rather acknowledge and examine the dark reality by examining the detail than closing it down. More importantly many locals did too.

  • 4
    Mark out West
    Posted Friday, 27 June 2014 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    Unfortunately you response is hidden behind a pay-wall and so the majority of your audience will already be supportive of your views.

    Surely the chance to hear the contextualization of this mans argument would be useful for all to hear. He is now seeking to portray himself as the victim whose voice has been silenced due to western prejudice. He is his communities martyr.

    Allowing him to justify himself in an environment he cannot control I believe would display how illogical his views are. This type of meeting allows for the presenter and the audience to be on equal footing, instead of being presented while surrounded by a sycophantic entourage.

    BTW We have our Honor Killings, in the criminal justice system in NSW & Vic a man is justified in murdering his partner if he finds her in say, in bed with another man.

  • 5
    wordwhore
    Posted Friday, 27 June 2014 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    Apparently the term “Honor killing” was first coined in 1978 and was defined as ” Customary Killing” or “Domestic Public Violence.” I do wonder if the title of the session was “Domestic violence is morally justified” whether there would be less of an outcry or more ? In 2010 Tariq Ali spoke at the FODI asking the equally provocative question ” What we can learn from terrorists” His premise was that we must understand the motivations of terrorists in order to deal with them effectively and it is my opinion that his lecture was anything but divisive.As a Catholic woman who married a man from a Muslim family and who has created all kinds of mischief and havoc due to my protests at the demands of “The Family” I witnessed first hand the familial intrusion into everything from religious festivals, child rearing , education, , circumcision , I saw family gatherings where men and women were forbidden from mingling and men would get to eat first, marriages hastily organised between 17 year olds because the father’s were best friends . Its the unspoken ownership of sisters, wives and daughters that permit this dreadful homocide and the word “Honor” sanitizes it in the same way that many Irish Catholic women were raped in marriage but were not taken seriously. Ms Hussein , I am really enjoying your writing by the way .

  • 6
    AR
    Posted Friday, 27 June 2014 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

    Shakira - perfect example of ‘wattaboutery’.
    Never mind the kultur djebl in the room.

  • 7
    StefanL
    Posted Saturday, 28 June 2014 at 12:17 am | Permalink

    Do not agree with the thrust of this article.

    So-called “honour killings” are not at all like the common sort of domestic violence where someone in a household (usually the male) is unable to control their temper.
    They are deliberate, planned murders carried out by family members for a specific purpose, namely to punish a person (usually a woman) who has transgressed a cultural taboo.

    Please note I am not condoning these murders in any way, just disagreeing with the terminology being pushed by Ms Hussein.

  • 8
    Stacy Smith
    Posted Saturday, 28 June 2014 at 6:48 am | Permalink

    I baulk at the use of the word “honour” used in this context. The meaning of the word honour is, according to the Concise Australian Oxford Dictionary “high respect, glory, credit, reputation, good name; nobleness of mind”. I will never perceive of any killing for any reason as honourable.

  • 9
    The Old Bill
    Posted Sunday, 29 June 2014 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    Until all schooling worldwide is secular and provided for all, we will continue to have vast parts of the worlds population controlled by idiots who talk daily to their imaginary friend for guidance. Unfortunately this guidance always seems to be about them controlling others so that their lives are spent in some sort of slavery, especially if they are unlucky enough to be born female.

    The fact that governments world wide, including our own, are subsidizing the spread of this nonsense through financial support of religious schools of any creed is the sad thing.

  • 10
    Chris Hartwell
    Posted Monday, 30 June 2014 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    Hear hear, Old Bill, hear hear.

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