Honour Based Violence through a Gendered Lens
By Rasika Sundaram
Image Credit: Aasawari Kulkarni/Feminism In India
Honour based violence (HBV) refers to any form of aggression perpetrated by family member/s against their kin because the individual concerned has brought perceived dishonour or shame to the household by violating honour codes comprising religious beliefs, communal practices, or faith (Honour Killing, 2021). The belligerence enacted can be physical, including forced marriages, forced suicides, murder, abandonment, kidnapping, stoning, stabbing, burning, strangulation, beheading, shooting, acid attacks, beating etc. and/ or psychological, involving coercion and threats (Honour Killing, 2021; Honour-based Violence, n.d.). The concept of HBV is not exclusive to any religion, community, or gender and is prevalent worldwide.
“Honour” encompasses traits like selflessness, morality, and decent reputation, guiding societies to create culture and region-specific communal norms for these qualities to be applied to every individual’s behaviour. On the other hand, shame is a feeling experienced when individuals non-conform or choose to rebel against communal expectations and standards (Novin and Oyserman, 2016; Gill, Strange and Roberts, 2014).
Gender and honour-based violence:
Honour related norms developed by societies where men hold greater power and leadership positions, also known as patriarchal socities, have constantly defined gender roles and what it means to be a man or woman. According to evolutionary theories, a female’s ability to reproduce has reserved her the primary role of delivering heirs which provide evidence of her male partners virility and also allows his assets to be passed on, thereby reducing a woman’s role to that of a mere conduit. Over the years, women’s reproductive capabilities have become associated with male honour and male kin control women’s sexuality and virginity to ensure their needs of getting a legitimate successor is fulfilled. This coupling of men’s reputations with women’s sexualities have allowed honour related social norms to be developed in ways that allow women to be objectified and their sexualities to be regulated. In these patriarchal communities, when women choose to transgress honour rules, their male kin are blamed and judged to be weak by community members which becomes a source of shame. These sentiments of perceived dishonour result in honour-based violence against women who have transgressed. Brutality is also used to re-establish social order and intimidate other women into being obedient. In other words, men uphold family honour by regulating women’s behaviours and women bring shame if they disobey communal honour codes (Idriss, 2021; Gill, Strange and Roberts, 2014).
Women confront honour-based violence to a larger extent; however, this does not mean men do not face the same challenges. Honour crimes against men are highly underreported and lack research as they are excluded from the patriarchal study framework (Idriss, 2021). Historically, males have always been termed as offenders and females are always viewed as the victims of male abuse. It is factual that cases of violence against men and women are highly inconsistent with men facing less harm compared to women; nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge that men also encounter maltreatment (Idriss, 2021; Gill, Strange and Roberts, 2014). Studies have identified two ways this occurs. Firstly, men who are forced into arranged marital alliances for economic reasons like inheritance of wealth, property or religious purposes, are constrained and not given the freedom to make important decisions about their future. Contradicting this agreement leads to honour-based crimes. Furthermore, patriarchal societies have accepted and permeated the construct of hegemonic masculinity, an idea that has become normative as a result of media, religion, sport, etc. The term hegemonic masculinity equates traits like strength, power, heterosexuality, and virility to the concept of masculinity, and for men to be considered “honourable”, they must exemplify these traits. Dominant groups that advocate hegemonic masculinity impose various forms of violence as a remedy for those who deviate from this norm to uphold honour, similar to women’s experiences when they stray from the norms of being a lady (Idriss, 2021).
Societies that have rigid dichotomous gender roles comprising hegemonic masculinity and submissive femininity have become inherently phobic towards other genders and sexualities. Individuals who don’t adhere to gender binary classifications or engage in perceived promiscuity are considered aberrant and disreputable as they contradict communal norms. Hence, honour-based violence is practiced as a cure. A common “remedy” imposed on individuals who identify outside the heteronormative framework and have therefore transgressed honour codes, is forced marriage where men or women are forced to enter socially acceptable marriages with the opposite gender. From a statistical perspective, the threshold for tolerating sexual deviancy amongst males in patriarchal societies is much higher as long as the matter remains undisclosed (Idriss, 2021).
The term “perpetrator” in an honour-based crime generally evokes the image of a man, most often a father or uncle, who fears society’s judgment if control is not exerted on his divergent kin. While there is authenticity to the fact that male members often commit the act of violence, it is also important to acknowledge that female relatives can also be silent perpetrators. Women who are collaborators in an HBV crime have either internalized patriarchal notions of right and wrong conduct or are threatened into silence (Idriss, 2021). A factor that drives women to be complicit is financial dependency on male members of the family. If a family’s honour is tarnished then there is an increased likelihood of working male members to lose employment, consequently reducing family income. Additionally, unmarried relatives from the family concerned have lesser chances of entering socially appropriate and profitable marital alliances (Keyhani, 2013).
Religion is an entrenched system found in each society. It is a highly personal and subjective institution to communities, providing a noteworthy context to individuals who experience honour-based abuse. Every religion has transcripts, customs, knowledge, and principles that impart ethics and ideas to its followers. Although these traditions, wisdoms, and texts can be used supportively as sources that provide assistance, remedies, and psychological peace to survivors, it can also be interpreted erroneously and used as a means to perpetrate violence against any gender (Fortune & Enger, 2005). Caste, referring to the stratification of people in society based on their lifestyle, occupation, endogamy, ritual practices, interactions, and notions of pureness and contamination, is also a shared reality in many regions and acts as a justification for HBV crimes to be committed. The idea that individuals of a certain caste must practice inmarriage to maintain blood purity leads to the perpetration of violence against those who are non-conforming to this dogma or choose to dissent by maintaining caste-related exogamous affinal relations. Due to their reproductive abilities, this structure places additional responsibility on women to be accountable in maintaining caste-relevant boundaries by delivering “pure blood” offspring’s; thereby, creating more reason for women’s sexualities to be restrained (Caste, 2021; Gupte, 2013).
Steps towards eradicating honour-based violence:
Several international bodies including the United Nations, Council of Europe Convention, World Health Organization, and United nations Office on Drugs and Crime have acknowledged the perpetration of honour-based violence as a human rights violation and have passed resolutions to eradicate this social evil. Despite these efforts, HBV continues to plague several countries by taking thousands of lives every year due to its deep-seated nature in patriarchal societies (Honour Killing, 2021). For progress to occur, it is vital that each country implements policies and procedures on a national level.
It is imperative for states where HBV does exist to acknowledge that the term “honour” holds power in different communities, is used to inflict violence amongst various groups, and causes systemic harm (How can Honour Killings be Stopped, 2017; Korteweg, 2013). Policies and laws created to prevent HBV need to recognise how this form of violence affects various genders, intersectionalities, human rights, and secularism to avoid establishing precautionary acts that can be discriminative on the basis of gender, race, or religion. Law enforcement officers need to be trained and educated on the concept of honour, honour-based violence, and its various forms to appropriately recognize this human rights abuse and provide accurate protection to citizens (How can Honour Killings be Stopped, 2017). Immigrant receiving countries need to be cautious in not thinking of themselves as free from violence and in the process, racializing or pillorying immigrant communities where HBV does occur as brutal. These nations need to know the history of immigration for each community, their cultural, ethnic, and religious backgrounds, and their gender-based violence customs as well as understand their own country’s immigrant assimilation policies so as to not racially discriminate against any communities beliefs or traditions (Korteweg, 2013). Furthermore, it is crucial that civil and legal administrations aim to overcome restorative justice systems, which only address flaws in society’s structure and establish a transformative justice system instead which seeks to analyze the sources for inequities to occur and promote purposeful transformation of every individual. It is essential that individuals who have confronted any form of HBV have their requirements, rights, and demands prioritized, thereby appealing for judicial and civil bodies to adopt a survivor-centered approach to justice and recovery. It is also key for these parties to acknowledge that survivors may confront many challenges to seeking justice including fears of dividing the family unit, threats to safety, diversions created by religious organizations, etc. and aim at overcoming these obstacles. Community support services available to survivors also require adequate funding from governments (How can Honour Killings be Stopped, 2017).
Apart from keeping protective measures in place, preventive strategies are also necessary to overcome HBV. Constructive discussions that challenge honour-based cultural beliefs that instigate harm can be encouraged in communities. Individuals who are trained to understand cultural notions surrounding honour that are relevant to diverse ethnicities and regions can be appointed to conduct classroom sessions for all genders and ages to raise awareness about HBV and highlight the consequences of aggression. Gender-based violence issues and honour-based crimes can be made a part of the educational curriculum in schools to acquaint youth with these societal topics. Communal safe spaces and support systems can be established for discussing matters surrounding HBV and for help to be sought (How can Honour Killings be Stopped, 2017).
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Gill, A., Strange, C., and Roberts, K. (2014). “Honor” killing and violence. Palgrave Macmillan. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1057/9781137289568_2
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Gupte, M. (2013). The concept of honour: Caste ideaology and patriarchy in rural Maharashtra. Economic and Political Weekly, 48(18), 72-81. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23527311
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Novin, S., and Oyserman, D. (2016). Honour as cultural mindset: Activated honour mindset affects subsequent judgement and attention in mindset-congruent ways. Frontiers in Psychology, 7(1). https://dx.doi.org/10.3389%2Ffpsyg.2016.01921
OpenLearn: The Open University. (2017, January 31). How can honour killings be stopped? https://www.open.edu/openlearn/health-sports-psychology/social-care-social-work/how-can-honour-killings-be-stopped
 According to statistics, most countries from the global North, including United States of America, Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, and Italy report more deaths amongst immigrants citing honour. In contrast, Ecuador, Brazil, Morocco, Uganda, Egypt, Yemen, Russia, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Israel, and Bangladesh have documented higher rates of honour-based deaths amongst its citizens. Nations like India, Afghanistan, and Pakistan have the highest frequency of HBV and account for thousands of honour-based killings every year (Her, 2020).