Killing for “Honor” – and Control of Women

Marcy Bloom

So-called "honor killings" or "honor crimes" are but one extreme and horrific form of violence against women and are executed for instances of rape, infidelity, flirting, or any other behavior even perceived as violating community norms or traditions of behavior and disgracing the family's honor.

Issues of gender-based violence (GBV) are not tied to any one region of the world or to any particular religious or cultural group. So-called "honor killings" or "honor crimes" are but one extreme and horrific form of violence against women and are executed for instances of rape, infidelity, flirting, or any other behavior even perceived as violating community norms or traditions of behavior and disgracing the family's honor. Any action construed as violating codes of chastity, disrespect towards men, the family, or the "traditional" way of life warrants an "honor" killing.

In the eyes of the communities where these murders occur, it is not only expected, but actually required, of male family member to kill their female family member, usually a wife, sister, or daughter. To do otherwise is to be viewed as less than a "real man." Such is the danger, and destructiveness of strict and inflexible gender roles and stereotypes where women are viewed as passive, pure, and in need of constant "protection" and supervision, and men are expected to be dominant, controlling, and violent.

An Amnesty International statement notes, "The regime of honor is unforgiving: women on whom even only suspicion has fallen are not given any opportunity to defend themselves, and family members have no socially acceptable alternative but to remove the stain on their honor by attacking, brutalizing, mutilating, and, usually, killing the woman."

This reads like a terrifying Stephen King novel. But tragically, it is very real throughout the world.

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The term "honor killing" communicates the perspective of the perpetrator, and thereby carries an implicit justification. Some women's rights advocates therefore prefer the terms "femicide," "shame killings," or "so-called honor killings," as MADRE observes.

The organization "Gendercide Watch" uses the term "gendercide" and defines these barbaric acts against women as "acts of murder in which a woman is killed for actual or perceived ‘immoral' behavior…. marital infidelity (actual or alleged), refusing to submit to an arranged marriage, demanding a divorce, speaking with men outside of the family, failing to serve a meal on time, or ‘allowing herself' to be raped."

Yes, in many places in the world, the victim is blamed for this terrible crime against her, and, in the other cases, for what are truly small, routine, and innocent acts of daily life.

The underlying purpose of gendercide is to maintain men's power in families, communities, and entire societies by denying girls and women basic–and internationally recognized–rights to make their own independent decisions about issues such as marriage, divorce, and whether and with whom to have sex. "Honor crimes" are now a recognized form of violence against women in international human rights laws and treaties.

Gendercide is sometimes assumed to be sanctioned by Islam since these shocking attacks appear to most commonly occur in the Middle East. But while the perpetrators of gendercide (in some countries, they are out of prison in few months and are treated as heroes in their communities) may use religious justification for their acts, no sanction for such murders is granted in Islamic religion or law and these crimes are not rooted in any religious text. In fact, they appear to have originated in customary law that pre-dates both Islam and Christianity.

This form of brutality against women is a global phenomenon. The United Nations Population Fund estimates that a minimum of 5,000 women and girls become gendercide victims every year.

These killings span communities, religions, and countries as diverse as Afghanistan, Albania, Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Ecuador, Egypt, France, Germany, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Palestinian Territories, Saudi Arabia, Sweden, Syria, Turkey, Uganda, the United Kingdom, the United States, Venezuela, and Yemen.

Rana Husseini, journalist, feminist, and award-winning human rights defender, broke the silence and shame surrounding gendercide in her country of Jordan in 1994. As the new crime reporter of The Jordan Times, she started to investigate "crimes of honor" and was appalled by what she learned.

In the name of honor, a 16-year-old girl was killed by her family because she was raped repeatedly by her 31-year-old brother. She discovered she was pregnant, her family arranged an abortion, and then they married her off to a man fifty years her senior. When her husband divorced her six months later, another brother murdered her. (In some cases, the woman is forced to marry the rapist; this was impossible in this situation because the rapist was her brother.) The young woman was actually accused of being the seducer; her family repeatedly stated that she had tarnished the family image by committing an impure act. ‘Blood cleanses honor,' the killers say.

Her revolutionary series of reports on the horrors of gendercide exposed these crimes against women to her country and the world; the secrecy was ended and, in fact, the new Jordanian constitution has begun to recognize women's rights.

Avenging family honor is a product of societies in which women's bodies-specifically their hymens-have become a brutal tool in the control of women. A woman's honor, purity, and virginity are seen as the property of the community and the men around her and must be guarded at all times. The woman is guarded externally by her behavior and dress code, and internally by keeping her hymen intact.

While international law calls on governments to protect women, it is the states themselves who are far too often complicit in the violence of gendercide. Many countries do not yet recognize gendercide as murder; instead, the state frequently offers vastly reduced sentences (if any at all) for the "honor" rape, mutilation, and killing of women and girls. In the small, rural, and isolated areas where gendercide is often observed as being most prevalent, tribal elders dominate the cultural behavior and morés of their communities and are absolutely key to involve in changing attitudes towards women and in bringing about laws that will end gendercide.

Even with ongoing death threats, established and emerging human rights groups continue to challenge the foundation of gendercide as they also strive to protect women and girls who are in danger. Organizations such as BAOBAB for Women's Rights in Nigeria and The Jordanian Women's Union are examples of dynamic organizations who believe that empowering, and protecting, women through shelter, counsel, education, literacy training, and legal awareness are the best ways to fight discrimination and social oppression. Recently, officials in the Kurdish region of Iraq stated that they are "seeking to end the ancient tribal tradition of so-called ‘honor' killings related to premarital or extramarital sex and out-of- wedlock pregnancies."

Combating all gender-based violence, including gendercide, requires listening to, and supporting, the leadership of our sisters in Muslim countries–and everywhere. It is critical to focus on gendercide as violence against women and not allow these discussions, particularly in the West, to disintegrate into anti-Muslim and anti-Islam racist diatribes. So-called honor killings, after all, are yet another extension of the madonna-whore view of women and girls that we experience so often in the US and are, in fact, seen very clearly in the actions and statements of the anti-choice/ anti-contraceptive/anti-women's movements here. In the US, women having abortions are still often seen as promiscuous and as sluts (recently discussed by Amanda Marcotte). Strict gender roles, stereotypes of men and women, the fear of women's power and sexuality, and the control of women through violence are global phenomena and certainly are not the doing of any one country, religion, tradition, or culture.

We must use our voices to speak out for women's lives and dignity and seek to end gender-based violence wherever it is occurring.

News Human Rights

What’s Driving Women’s Skyrocketing Incarceration Rates?

Michelle D. Anderson

Eighty-two percent of the women in jails nationwide find themselves there for nonviolent offenses, including property, drug, and public order offenses.

Local court and law enforcement systems in small counties throughout the United States are increasingly using jails to warehouse underserved Black and Latina women.

The Vera Institute of Justice, a national policy and research organization, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge initiative, released a study last week showing that the number of women in jails based in communities with 250,000 residents or fewer in 2014 had grown 31-fold since 1970, when most county jails lacked a single woman resident.

By comparison, the number of women in jails nationwide had jumped 14-fold since 1970. Historically, jails were designed to hold people not yet convicted of a crime or people serving terms of one year or less, but they are increasingly housing poor women who can’t afford bail.

Eighty-two percent of the women in jails nationwide find themselves there for nonviolent offenses, including property, drug, and public order offenses.

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Overlooked: Women and Jails in an Era of Reform,” calls attention to jail incarceration rates for women in small counties, where rates increased from 79 per 100,000 women to 140 per 100,000 women, compared to large counties, where rates dropped from 76 to 71 per 100,000 women.

The near 50-page report further highlights that families of color, who are already disproportionately affected by economic injustice, poor access to health care, and lack of access to affordable housing, were most negatively affected by the epidemic.

An overwhelming percentage of women in jail, the study showed, were more likely to be survivors of violence and trauma, and have alarming rates of mental illness and substance use problems.

“Overlooked” concluded that jails should be used a last resort to manage women deemed dangerous to others or considered a flight risk.

Elizabeth Swavola, a co-author of “Overlooked” and a senior program associate at the Vera Institute, told Rewire that smaller regions tend to lack resources to address underlying societal factors that often lead women into the jail system.

County officials often draft budgets mainly dedicated to running local jails and law enforcement and can’t or don’t allocate funds for behavioral, employment, and educational programs that could strengthen underserved women and their families.

“Smaller counties become dependent on the jail to deal with the issues,” Swavola said, adding that current trends among women deserves far more inquiry than it has received.

Fred Patrick, director of the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute, said in “Overlooked” that the study underscored the need for more data that could contribute to “evidence-based analysis and policymaking.”

“Overlooked” relies on several studies and reports, including a previous Vera Institute study on jail misuse, FBI statistics, and Rewire’s investigation on incarcerated women, which examined addiction, parental rights, and reproductive issues.

“Overlooked” authors highlight the “unique” challenges and disadvantages women face in jails.

Women-specific issues include strained access to menstrual hygiene products, abortion care, and contraceptive care, postpartum separation, and shackling, which can harm the pregnant person and fetus by applying “dangerous levels of pressure, and restriction of circulation and fetal movement.”

And while women are more likely to fare better in pre-trail proceedings and receive low bail amounts, the study authors said they are more likely to leave the jail system in worse condition because they are more economically disadvantaged.

The report noted that 60 percent of women housed in jails lacked full-time employment prior to their arrest compared to 40 percent of men. Nearly half of all single Black and Latina women have zero or negative net wealth, “Overlooked” authors said.

This means that costs associated with their arrest and release—such as nonrefundable fees charged by bail bond companies and electronic monitoring fees incurred by women released on pretrial supervision—coupled with cash bail, can devastate women and their families, trapping them in jail or even leading them back to correctional institutions following their release.

For example, the authors noted that 36 percent of women detained in a pretrial unit in Massachusetts in 2012 were there because they could not afford bail amounts of less than $500.

The “Overlooked” report highlighted that women in jails are more likely to be mothers, usually leading single-parent households and ultimately facing serious threats to their parental rights.

“That stress affects the entire family and community,” Swavola said.

Citing a Corrections Today study focused on Cook County, Illinois, the authors said incarcerated women with children in foster care were less likely to be reunited with their children than non-incarcerated women with children in foster care.

The sexual abuse and mental health issues faced by women in jails often contribute to further trauma, the authors noted, because women are subjected to body searches and supervision from male prison employees.

“Their experience hurts their prospects of recovering from that,” Swavola said.

And the way survivors might respond to perceived sexual threats—by fighting or attempting to escape—can lead to punishment, especially when jail leaders cannot detect or properly respond to trauma, Swavola and her peers said.

The authors recommend jurisdictions develop gender-responsive policies and other solutions that can help keep women out of jails.

In New York City, police take people arrested for certain non-felony offenses to a precinct, where they receive a desk appearance ticket, or DAT, along with instructions “to appear in court at a later date rather than remaining in custody.”

Andrea James, founder of Families for Justice As Healing and a leader within the National Council For Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, said in an interview with Rewire that solutions must go beyond allowing women to escape police custody and return home to communities that are often fragmented, unhealthy, and dangerous.

Underserved women, James said, need access to healing, transformative environments. She cited as an example the Brookview House, which helps women overcome addiction, untreated trauma, and homelessness.

James, who has advocated against the criminalization of drug use and prostitution, as well as the injustices faced by those in poverty, said the problem of jail misuse could benefit from the insight of real experts on the issue: women and girls who have been incarcerated.

These women and youth, she said, could help researchers better understand the “experiences that brought them to the bunk.”

Commentary Politics

Milwaukee Officials: Black Youth, Single Mothers Are Not Responsible for Systemic Failings—You Are

Charmaine Lang

Milwaukee has multiple problems: poverty, a school system that throws out Black children at high rates, and lack of investment in all citizens' quality of life. But there's another challenge: politicians and law enforcement who act as if Black youth, single mothers, and families are the "real" reasons for the recent uprising and say so publicly.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

On the day 23-year-old Sylville Smith was killed by a Milwaukee police officer, the city’s mayor, Tom Barrett, pleaded publicly with parents to tell their children to come home and leave protests erupting in the city.

In a August 13 press conference, Barrett said: “If you love your son, if you love your daughter, text them, call them, pull them by the ears, and get them home. Get them home right now before more damage is done. Because we don’t want to see more loss of life, we don’t want to see any more injuries.”

Barrett’s statement suggests that parents are not on the side of their sons and daughters. That parents, too, are not tired of the inequality they experience and witness in Milwaukee, and that youth are not capable of having their own political ideologies or moving their values into action.

It also suggests how much work Milwaukee’s elected officials and law enforcement need to do before they open their mouths.

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Barrett’s comments came after Smith fled a traffic stop and was shot by authorities on Milwaukee’s northwest side. The young Black man’s death sparked an urban uprising in the Sherman Park neighborhood, an area known for its racial and religious diversity. Businesses were burnt down, and the National Guard was activated in a city plagued by racism and poverty.

But Milwaukee parents and families need more than a directive thinly disguised as a plea. And Mayor Barrett, who was re-elected to a fourth term in April, should know well that Milwaukee, the nation’s most racially stratified city, needs racial equity in order for there to be peace and prosperity.

I live in Milwaukee, so I know that its residents, especially its Black parents, do love their children. We want more for them than city-enforced curfews and a simplistic solution of returning to their homes as a way to restore calm. We will have calm when we have greater investment in the public school system and youth services; easy access to healthy food; and green spaces, parks, and neighborhoods that are free from police harassment.

In fact, according to staggering statistics about Milwaukee and Wisconsin as a whole, Black people have been consistently denied their basic human rights and health. Wisconsin has the highest rate of incarceration of Black men nationwide; the Annie E. Casey Foundation has found it is the worst state for racial disparities affecting Black childrenand infant mortality rates are highest among Black women in the state.

What we absolutely don’t need are public officials whitewashing the facts: that Milwaukee’s young people have much to protest, including Wisconsin’s suspending Black high-school students more than any other state in the country.

Nor do we need incendiary comments like those coming from Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, who drew national attention for his “blue lives matter” speech at the Republican National Convention and who is a regular guest on CNN and Fox News. In an August 15 op-ed published by the Hill, Clarke has called the civil unrest “the rule of the jungle,” “tribalism,” and a byproduct of “bullies on the left.”

He went even further, citing “father-absent homes” as a source of what he calls “urban pathologies”—leaning on old tropes used to stigmatize Black women, families, and the poor.

Single mothers are not to be blamed for young people’s responses to a city that ignores or criminalizes them. They should not be shamed for having children, their family structure, or for public policy that has made the city unsafe for parenting.

Creating justice—including reproductive justice—in Milwaukee will take much more than parents texting their teens to come home. The National Guard must leave immediately. Our leaders must identify anti-Black racism as a root cause of the uprisings. And, lastly, creating justice must start with an end to harmful rhetoric from officials who lead the way in ignoring and dehumanizing Milwaukee residents.

Sheriff Clarke has continued his outrageous comments. In another interview, he added he wouldn’t “be satisfied until these creeps crawl back into their holes so that the good law-abiding people that live in the Milwaukee ghetto can return to at least a calm quality of life.”

Many of Milwaukee’s Black families have never experienced calm. They have not experienced a city that centers their needs and voices. Black youth fed up with their treatment are not creeps.

And what hole do you think they should crawl back into? The hole where they face unemployment, underemployment, police brutality, and racism—and face it without complaint? If that’s the case, you may never be satisfied again, Sheriff.

Our leaders shouldn’t be content with Milwaukee’s status quo. And asking the citizens you serve to be quiet in the ghetto is an insidious expectation.


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