The fight to stop violence against women


'Honour': crimes, paradigms, and violence against women
Edited by Lyn Welchman and Sara Hossain
Spinifex Press, Melbourne, 2005
$39.95 (pb)


'Honour' is an informative collection of 16 essays on the theme of "honour killings" of women. This anthology of essays has a predominantly legal focus, looking at "honour" crimes of murder, as well as the ongoing violence against women.

An appropriate definition of "honour killing" may include the concept that "honour" is generally seen as residing in the bodies of women, with an individual man, family or community connected with policing a woman's behaviour and sexuality. If a woman falls in love, has extramarital relationships, seeks a divorce, or chooses her own husband, she is seen as transgressing the socially sanctioned boundaries of her community, and as such, may be subject to subtle control, threats or the withdrawal of family benefits. In extreme cases, she or her chosen partner can be subject to horrific violence by members of her family and/or the community.

Case studies from many countries and regions are cited in the various essays that compose 'Honour', including Bangladesh, Egypt, Britain, India, Kurdistan, Jordan, Latin America, Lebanon, Scandinavia, Pakistan and Palestine. The editors highlight the fact that laws and courts across the world continue to countenance legal arguments and defences that protect men who commit these crimes against women.

In the opening essay "The United Nations and International Advocacy on 'Crimes of Honour'", Jane Connors looks at the development of UN policy on "crimes of honour". She systematically highlights how the issue of violence against women is seen as a human rights issue by the UN. She argues that this type of violence is not random, but is associated with inequality between men and women and the strategies used to perpetuate that inequality.

Purna Sen, in her essay "'Crimes of Honour': Value and Meaning", argues that attempts to end "honour" crimes need the involvement of the local community. Her argument is that "crimes of honour" are part of a "continuum" of violence against women that spreads across time and place. What is needed is the development of a more critical attitude in both Middle Eastern and Western countries.

Case studies of particular countries and regions and their legal procedures are also analysed in this collection. Among these is the continued and disturbing history of "honour killings" in Pakistan, highlighted by the ongoing failure of the judicial system and its authorities to protect women and men from these killings. Sohail Warraich's essay "'Honour Killings' and the Law in Pakistan", gives an historical overview, using particular court cases as examples and at times citing the interpretation of individual judges who have social biases.

The Council for Egyptian Women's Legal Assistance contributes an essay on the honour/shame laws in Egyptian society. It argues that "discriminatory law and conflicting legal systems" need to address the unequal protection of women who are primarily the victims in "honour killings" in Egypt, where the predominantly male perpetrators are given compassion by the court. Interestingly the authors also look at the use of "gossip" as a tool that some older women use to gain status in their supervision of the younger women, knowing that gossip can be used as a deterrent, and can be extremely damaging to women in these communities.

A complex system of justice has developed in Palestine, owing to colonisation and military occupation. Two parallel legal systems have developed — a formal legal system, and and informal, tribal legal system, which deals with matters concerned with violence against women and children, including "honour crimes". Nadera Shalhoub Kevorkian, author of the essay "Researching Women's Victimisation in Palestine", argues that there exists a tension. Where there are "colonisers and occupying powers aimed at 'modernising' and 'liberating' women, patriarchal powers are focussed on 'protecting' and 'safeguarding' women from any external invasion", turning women's lives into a battlefield.

Changing political structures have influenced how "honour crimes" have been dealt with in the semi-autonomous zone of Iraqi Kurdistan, although the essayist Nazand Begikhani notes that this process of legal reform is incomplete. Resistance to change within the judiciary, continued militarism, unresolved national questions, and the presence of Islamic fundamentalism are central issues in this debate. The development of a group of Kurdish women from different European countries called Kurdish Women Action Against Honour Killing, launched in 2000, has been active in raising national and international awareness about this issue.

In Latin America, "crimes of honour" still occur in a number of countries, but the essay "A Critical Study of Legislation and Case Law in Latin America" concentrates primarily on Brazil, analysing the inequalities and double standards in legal practice. An example of this is where the Brazilian penal code has allowed commutation of punishment where an offender, or a third party, marries a victim after the so-called "honour crime" of rape. According to this reasoning, a reparation has been made, restoring the purity of the woman.

"Women's Struggles Against 'Honour Crimes' in the UK" explores the explicit use of "honour" to justify murder or domestic violence amongst women in Britain, although the essay is confined to certain Black and ethnic minority communities. The reported cases of "honour killings" mostly involve women from south Asia (India or Pakistan) or Middle Eastern women. The women's activist group called Southall Black Sisters has attempted to shift the debate on Black and minority women and gender violence into the mainstream, calling for "mature multiculturalism" — advancing the human rights agenda, and demanding rights for women, without trampling the rights of their communities.

Forced marriages are also analysed in many of the essays. In Bangladesh, many women are forced into arranged marriages. Although the law in Bangladesh generally guarantees citizens the right to choose whom they marry, Dina Siddiqi, the author of "Forced Marriage in Bangladesh" argues for the application of legal injunctions against those women forced into marriage, while also criminalising forced marriages.

North Indian women also face forced marriages and the associated violence within their communities. In the essay, "From Fathers to Husbands", Uma Chakravarty argues that as feminists it is necessary to discard the term "honour crimes" for another term with does not mask the violence. She looks at the structures of power that make such violence possible and acknowledges and draws upon the enormous advocacy work of the Association for Advocacy and Legal Initiatives in North India.

In Scandinavia, there have been two high-profile cases of forced marriage, one of a Norwegian-Pakistani woman and another woman whose country of origin was Morocco. These cases, as well as media pressure, forced the tabling of a Norwegian government "action plan" on forced marriages in 1998, whose purpose was to stop coercion. Anja Bredal notes that some political parties may seek to use the continued practice of forced marriage in some communities for racist and discriminatory purposes, and that feminists need to develop anti-racist feminism to fight forced marriages.

The struggle to eradicate "honour crimes" goes on, across many nations and communities. The detailed analysis of case studies within a legal framework contained in 'Honour' looks at many of the major issues and problems involved in eradicating violence against women and girls. Many of the authors argue for these "honour crimes" to be analysed and fought against in a way that resists racial and cultural biases. The fight needs to continue on a judicial, legal, social and political basis. Challenging the often imbedded criminality in the legal systems of these countries and regions needs to be actively addressed.

From Green Left Weekly, July 5, 2006.
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