Today’s edition of the UK Independent contains a long and fairly shattering report by Robert Fisk on the global occurrence of “honour killings”, the murder of women, and less often men, by families, village courts or extreme religious groups, for the various “crimes” such as marrying out, adultery or even contact with men altogether. The levels of violence described are frequently grotesque and horrific stonings, killing illicit couples together, sons killing their own sisters, and so on and the remit wide, from Bangladesh across to immigrant populations in the West.
Such violence has become the repeated scope of quickie stories designed to legitimise the Afghan war, so Fisk’s report is all the more welcome for the fact that it uncouples its findings from foreign policy. Despite Time magazine’s now notorious cover featuring a woman mutilated by the Taliban, violence against women isn’t the reason we’re in Afghanistan, nor is it particular to Islamic societies. The killings are in allied countries such as Pakistan and particularly in Iraqi Kurdistan, as well as among Hindu communities in India and Bangladesh. In Jordan, it is more prevalent among the Christian community than the Muslim one.
The first part of Fisk’s ongoing report is largely a catalogue of these horrifying events, but it raises several prominent questions: is the prevalence and visibility of such crimes occurring because they are on the rise, because they have come to the attention of a globalised media, or both?
That they are more visible is without doubt. Whole areas of the world in question were simply opaque to the world until 20 or so years ago. Tribal societies contained within the fiction of post-colonial nation states simply ran a fairly harsh and violent patriarchal society as they had done for millennia. There would be the occasional report such as the documentary on a Saudi adultery execution, Death of a Princess, and that was it.
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Even today, as Fisk notes, our idea of where these killings are taking place may be determined by the openness of the press. Egypt with tight press control, simply denies that they take place there, which they surely do.
But the second question is more challenging; is this violence on the rise? Are there two separate versions of it, one the ancient continuation of tribal law, and two, its co-option by modern political movements as an enforcement of identity, or even a displacement of violence?
In this case, political movements such as the 1979 Iranian revolution (or the ayatollahs who took it over), and the Taliban, draw on the most extreme forms of tribal law as a source of identity and meaning for their followers. That identity is constructed by being defined against the West, overwhelmingly in places where the West has spent decades very visibly enforcing its will.
What appears to be an increasingly obsessive misogynistic violence flourishes because it marks a clear distinction to the liberal West, and because of the universal process of victims of sustained and systemic violence, whether it be Afghans, Cambodians or many others displacing it onto more vulnerable people and groups, women, children, Jews, city-dwellers, whatever.
Those who argue that the Afghan war is somehow now about stopping violence to women are simply lying, of course. Even the areas under control of the Karzai government have now relicensed village councils to impose their own punishments, and bans on execution or torture are mere lip service.
Though we condemn the horrific floggings and prospect of stonings in Iran, similar laws in Saudi Arabia, our political and military ally, attract no attention. Were we really determined to wipe out the practice, we would have to be prepared to launch a real imperialist war to invade half a dozen countries, rule them as satraps, and reconstruct them culturally from the ground up, treating the inevitable insurgency with utter ruthlessness. That would kill far more women and children but in the clean hi-tech way that we prefer, against the brutality of stoning, knifing and flogging acts that horrify us more by their bodily intimacy than by their lethality. We’re fine with far more lethal unmanned drones.
Indeed, by that token, the worst thing we ever did for the cause of women in central and western Asia was to aid the mujahideen against the Soviets, who genuinely did take action against tribal law.
The more interesting question is how we regard the incidence of such crime in the West. For here something else happens though the number of “honour” killings are small compared to the murder of women overall, they attract far more attention and are somehow seen to be worse.
That is very strange, but it is yet another expression of the deep-seated idea that other people have cultures, arbitrary rules by which they live while we do not. Men killed in Western society are overwhelmingly killed by other men, usually criminal associates, brief acquaintances or s-xual rivals. Women are usually killed by men they have a current or former relationship with.
Thus, an “honour” killing in the West will get the full page treatment, as a social-political-cultural event, while on page 15 “woman found murdered in flat, ex-partner in custody” gets a paragraph in the crime round-up. The news constructs such crimes as purely individual, patternless without meaning. When they do focus on particularly appalling ones — women and children murdered together by ex-partner — they focus on the perpetrator’s emotional rage, turmoil, etc, etc.
Wouldn’t it be better to ask what set of assumptions i.e. cultural values such men bring to the act of killing women and children they’re related to? Isn’t it an archaic sense of right and ownership, an implicit belief that the humiliation and pain of rejection somehow licenses them to kill? Isn’t that simply a Western form of honour killing, endlessly repeated in entirely predictable and virtually identical circumstances? It always surprises me that the left-liberal feminist Age journalists, who periodically declare their sudden animus to the “PC brigade” on gender and religion issues, every time Ayaan Hirsi Ali breezes through town, never notice this obvious point.
If there’s a policy point to come out of that, it’s that violence against women in the West should be tackled as gender violence first, and culturally specific violence second. For reasons of investigation and prevention, it’s obviously useful to study “honour” killings as a specific form of homicide but equally important to reject any notion that these are somehow worse, or more deserving of attention and action than rage/humiliation killings. A skip Australian girl murdered by a dumped bloke is no less a victim than an Arab-Australian girl killed by her father for having s-x with her boyfriend and no less a victim of a notion of alleged cultural “licence”. Religious traditions transmit one, half the oeuvre of country and Western music transmits the other. When ethnicity becomes the focus of concern over violence against women, gender eventually disappears from view, and the cause becomes little more than authorised racism.
As regards honour killings outside our jurisdiction, we could take a moral stance by refusing to trade with countries that make no serious effort to address this problem. You know, not buy their oil, not sell them weapons.