Should we call it ‘honour killing’?
It’s a false distancing of ourselves from a too-common crime: the murder of females
By Yasmin Jiwani & Homa Hoodfar
The extensive media coverage of the Shafia trial and convictions raises important questions about how violence against women is framed in the media. Just as a photograph is framed by the photographer, so is the media’s framing of a particular issue; the focus of our attention is on what is in the picture only. Out of sight is the back-ground we will never know. In the case of the Shafia murders, the media frame the story as an honour killing.
Some authorities argue that the notion of honour is the key to defining this type of crime involving family members. Typically, the victims are women pegged as having deviated from the moral code and thus undermined the family’s honour; by killing them, family reputation and honour may be restored. Premeditation is put forth as a core component to differentiate honour killings from other types of murders, such as crimes of convenience or crimes of passion.
But recent studies indicate that premeditation is as much a component in other cases of domestic violence and murder as it is in “honour killings.”So what separates “honour killings” from other murders of intimate partners or family members? More important, what is to be gained by framing the murders of the Shafia women and girls as honour killings rather than simply de-fining them as acts of femicide (the murder of women and girls solely on the basis of their gender)?
Calling the murders “honour killings” accomplishes two goals. First, it makes it seem as if femicide is a highly unusual event. Second, it makes it seem as if femicide is confined to specific populations within Canada and specific national cultures or religions in the world at large. But Canadian statistics prove otherwise. According to Stats Can figures, from 2000 to 2009 an average of 58 women a year were killed in this country as a result of spousal violence. In that same period, 67 children and young people aged 12 to 17 were murdered by family members. In contrast, recent estimates tell us that there have been12 or 13 so-called honour killings in Canada in the last decade. It does not take a genius to see that comparing 12 or 13 against the hundreds of women and children who were victims of familial violence serves only to frame “honour killing” as peculiar, when in reality it is part of a larger pattern of violence against women.
There is also, critically, the issue of affixing familial femicides to particular cultures. But if “honour killing” is truly reflective of particular cultural groups, what kind of cultural frame should we apply to the widespread murders of aboriginal women? Aboriginal women’s organizations have documented more than500 cases of women murdered or missing (and by now we know that “missing” probably means murdered). Amnesty International has corroborated these figures, and the United Nations has requested an inquiry. The arrest and conviction of Robert Pickton, a serial killer who preyed on aboriginal women, suggests that many of these missing and murdered women were killed not by aboriginal men but by white men. A cultural frame typically affixes blame on the perpetrator’s cultural affiliation. The media, in this, and similar cases, did not.
Going back to the coverage of the Shafia murders, many reporters referenced the family’s Afghan cultural background and adherence to Islam, suggesting that the murders were motivated by cultural and religious beliefs. According to the 2006census, there are 48,090 Canadians with Afghan ancestry. Yet the media have unearthed only this one high-profile case of multiple familial homicides. If the phenomenon of “honour killing” is reflective of cultural practices or religious traditions, why is the number of incidents not higher?
The reality we as a society must face is that these murders are about gendered violence. They symbolize a wider, more prevalent logic that shows women and girls what is likely to happen to them if they don’t behave and conform to social and patriarchal expectations. Recall the Guy Turcotte case, where father killed his own children after their mother began a relationship with mutual friend. It is a notion that women are property: if they do not conform, they are likely to suffer the consequences.
Femicide is about gender. It is about women and girls being killed because they airwomen and girls. That is the particularity of this kind of violence. It has nothing to do with honour, passion or convenience. These are merely excuses and rationalizations.
The article first appeared in The Gazette January 31, 2012
Yasmin Jiwani is an associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Concordia University.
Homa Hoodfar is a professor in Concordia’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology.