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.

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