The Lethal Combination of Tribalism, Islam & Cultural Relativism

by Azam Kamguian

It is not a democracy and an open society where a man can talk about politics without anyone threatening him. Democracy is when a woman can talk about her lover without being killed.            Saud M. El Sabah

I intend to contribute to the debate surrounding honour killings as an activist and writer engaged in issues affecting women in the Middle East and in societies under influence of Islam. I shall examine the legal, social, religious and tribal dimensions of honour killing and will discuss the issue as it stands in the region, in the West and among intellectuals and the academic world. I will conclude my talk with my analysis of what needs to be done.

Is honour killing tribal? Is it Islamic? Is there any justification for violence against women in the religion of Islam? What is the role of religion in honour killing? Can we explain honour killing within the general framework of domestic violence against women? Is honour killing a form of universal patriarchy?

Hundreds of women get shot, burned, strangled, stoned, poisoned, beheaded or stabbed every year in Muslim inhabited countries because their male relatives believe their actions have soiled the family name. They die so that family honour may be preserved. According to tribal and religious culture a woman is a man's possession and a reflection of his honour. It is the man's honour that gets tarnished if a woman is 'loose'. Being killed deliberately and brutally is, in fact, a price that victims pay for attempting to practice their minimal human rights.

It takes far less than a pre or extramarital relationship for a woman to be condemned as dishonourable and deserving of death. There is no 'typical' case one can speak of: 'honour crimes' can include a husband killing his wife for leaving the house too often, a son killing his mother to prevent her from remarrying, a brother killing his sister and her husband for marrying without the family's consent, a man killing his wife for refusing to wear the veil when leaving home. Reputation and rumour play an active role in instigating honour crimes and the killing of women. This phenomenon is comparable to the emphasis on the chastity of wives in Victorian morality. Because the concepts of male honour and female subservience are deeply ingrained in Islam and in tribal culture, honour killings have become commonplace in Arab and Middle Eastern countries, in other Muslim inhabited countries and Muslim immigrant communities in the West.

The available statistics in honour killings show just the tip of an iceberg. The reality is far darker. The statistics do not show the number of female suicides provoked, or engineered to cover up an honour killing, nor the number of mysterious disappearances. Many honour killings never get reported or registered. Many are mislabeled.

In Egypt between 1998 - 2001 suspicion of 'indecent' behavior was the reason behind 79 per cent of all crimes of honour. The women were killed just because of rumours or suspicions that they may have crossed the line. The UN statistics for 1997 show: Yemen 400, Pakistan over 1000, Egypt 52, and Jordan 25 -35. The UN also reported that as many as 5000 women and girls worldwide were killed last year by family members, majority of them for the 'dishonour'.

Tribal dimension 
According to tribal culture and values, women's 'misbehavior' is not only a shame on the family but on the community, the village, the tribe, the neighbourhood and the neighbours. The tribe and community participate in the killing by endorsing it. If and when the family fails to kill the woman, the tribe will cast it out. During the pre - Islamic period Arab society was patrilineal and Bedouin, where the highest authority was the father or male members of the family. At the time slavery was rife and women were perceived to be the property of their family or tribe with the potential of bringing disgrace to their kinsmen. The Bedouins before Islam practiced female infanticide. Later, the Islamic religion attempted to regulate sexual relationships and transgressions: prostitution, zina, infanticide were prohibited, and sex out of wedlock and adultery were brutally penalised. Yet, the pre-Islamic code of conduct survived, creating a powerful value system, parallel to Islam and practically and mutually nurturing and supporting one another.

Honour killing has been practiced in Mediterranean societies as well as the majority of Muslim inhabited countries. While most Mediterranean countries have abolished laws condoning such crimes and crimes of honour occur only rarely, most Arab and Muslim inhabited countries still maintain specific articles in their penal code dealing with such crimes.

In addition, the post colonial elite in the Middle East seeking to produce a new woman - who is not supposed to resemble her mother, and must be anything like a modern woman, a Western woman, endorse and support honour killings. Women's honour in this discourse becomes a symbol of national identity. Many Islamists as well as pan-Arabs and tribal sheiks are united on this issue, perceiving leniency towards it to be a symptom of 'westoxiction'.

Legal dimension 
Frequently, honour killings are conducted in an even more calculated manner. In the patriarchy/religion-ridden society where a woman's honour is a family's only measurable commodity, male family members and elder women gather to vote on the death of women. They also decide who will carry out the killing, usually someone under the age of 18 who will be treated more leniently under the law. Murderers walk almost free, no witnesses speak, so the court has to believe what the perpetrator says, and he gets the minimum charge, although it is homicide and it is calculated and is in cold blood.

The articles regarding honour killing in the penal codes of the Middle Eastern countries conform to or are influenced by the Islamic Shari'a Law. These articles are found in the penal codes of majority of Arab and Middle Eastern countries. Article 562 in Lebanon (abolished in February 1999), Article 340 in Jordan, Article 548 in Syria, Article 153 in Kuwait, Article 237 in Egypt, Article 309 in Iraq, Article 334 in the United Arab Emirate, Article 70 in Bahrain, Article 179 in Iran before 1979, Articles 418-424 in Morocco, and Article 252 in Oman. Saudi Arabia, Iran, the Sudan, Pakistan and Qatar apply the Islamic Shari'a law.

According to these articles: "A man who surprises his wife, daughter or sister practicing adultery or illicit intercourse and kills or harms on of two partners without premeditation, benefits from the legitimate excuse, that relieves him of the burden of murder."

Charges of adultery are almost exclusively against women. Laws regarding honour killing provide that men accused of these killings are not to be prosecuted for murder but for 'crimes of honour' which carry lenient sentences, averaging three months to one year. The legal authorities put women in jail instead of imprisoning and punishing the murderers.

Judges and police officers have been known to side with the "wronged" man. Judges usually look for justifiable excuses to exonerate the killers. It is ironic that society denies women certain rights under the pretext that they are emotional beings and may become irrational when under pressure, while resorting to the "emotion argument' as an excuse for men's behavior in 'honour crimes'. A man is not accused of adultery unless the act occurs in the marital home, and if there is proof of adultery, the punishment must not exceed six months imprisonment.

Islamic dimension, Political Islam 
According to Islamic culture and tradition, girls are taught from early childhood about "eib", which means shame, and "sharaf", which means honour. Everywhere, girls are reminded that their most important mission in life is to remain virgin until they marry. Boys are also taught to have "ghayrat", meaning to be zealot. All these concepts are Islamic, and that is why the killers always defend their acts of murder by these concepts. According to the UN statistics, the majority of these murders occur in Muslim inhabited countries and Muslim immigrant communities in the West. In majority of cases, the murderers and their defenders refer to this verse of the Koran that allows husbands to beat their wives:

"As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill - conduct, admonish them, refuse to share their beds, beat them" Koran, chapter 4, verse 34.

There are numerous similar verses in the holly book, which promote and prescribe violence against women. Laws regarding honour killing provide that men accused of these killings are not to be prosecuted for murder but for 'crimes of honour'. And the law is usually on the man's side, not only in the Middle Eastern and the Central Asian countries, but shamefully, in Western countries too. They often let murderers go unpunished or let them off with a light sentence.

Religious discourse is misogynist and has an important role in enforcing the double standards that society and the laws apply to women. A man remains honourable even if he has sexual relations with three-quarters of earth's women, but this is not the case for a woman's voluntary sexual relationship.

Islamic Shari'a law is strict in the matter of adultery. According to Islamic law, penalty for adultery for unmarried women (and men) is 80 lashes and stoning for married women (and men). Islam and the Shari'a law have kept and try to keep the monopoly over the killing of women in the matter of adultery. When unable, however, Islamists wholeheartedly support honour killings and exonerate the murderers. Theoretically, Islam does not sanction honour killing yet the majority of Islamic leaders and Imams wholeheartedly promote and support it.

Tribal and political Islamic groups are against harsher punishments for honour crimes arguing that this would set women on the road to promiscuity. According to a Jordanian Islamic lawmaker "Women adulterers cause a great threat to our society because they are the main reason that such acts take place." Political Islamic groups and Islamic leaders basically reject abolishing of or any changes to the laws regarding honour killings, arguing that it would lead to the moral disintegration of society and will get rid of major social deterrent to relationships between men and women. Islamic leaders consider any changes to these laws as a violation of the Shari'a that would encourage adultery, and as an attempt to legalise obscenity.

In the Region 
The emergence of political Islam and the coming to power of Islamic regimes in the Middle East in the last two decades has unleashed wave of state sponsored terrorism against women. Countries such as Iran, Algeria, Morocco, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Sudan further constrained the lives of women by introducing more and more aspects of the Shari'a into their legal systems. A century of struggle for the separation of state from religion came under constant attack, being seen by Islamists as a conspiracy against Islam and the East. Women were the first targets. In this context, the most brutal violence against women including mandatory veiling, a complete system of sexual apartheid, stoning and honour killing were and are all in rise.

This continues while members of younger generations especially girls, become better educated and more exposed to the world outside. Increasingly, they are rebelling against parents and families who cling to traditions that prohibit socialising with the opposite sex, choosing a husband for themselves, or visiting freely with friends outside the home. The rising social pressures on both generations have led to an alarming increase in honour killings, beating and other violence within families as well as suicide among urban and rural girls and women.

As far as the legal system concerned, neither the Shari'a law, family laws based on the Shari'a or civil states laws are systematically or consistently applied to women by most Arab countries. The legal process is selective, with the worse possible elements being in its treatment of women. The institution of the state in majority of the Middle Eastern countries is neither civil nor civilised. One cannot expect an end to honour killing in a State, which continuously and brutally strips its citizens of their basic human rights and has no respect for citizen's right to life.

In the West 
Though, honour killing may not seem so surprising in countries such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, that it exists in the heart of Europe in the 21st Century is indeed both shocking and shameful. But sadly, this is where the reactionary idea of Cultural Relativism is used to justify women's victimization and to excuse Islam and backward traditions.

In many of the sizable Muslim immigrant communities in Europe, brutality against women is justified in the name of respecting 'other's' culture and religion. How can we respect any culture or religion that endorses violence and terrorism against women? Over the past twenty years cultural relativism has led to a culture of tolerating intolerance. Criticising these unacceptable traditions, cultures and religious beliefs and practices has been labeled racism and Islamophobia. Human beings are worthy of respect but not all beliefs can or should be respected. It is perfectly feasible to love the believer but hate the belief. Relativism and respect for misogynism is no shield against racism. Quite the opposite. It promotes racism by depriving women and girls living in European and Middle Eastern countries of their universal rights and civil liberties.

While murderers have repeatedly and openly defend their act by referring to Islam and the Koran in justification, many feminists, the mainstream media and western intellectuals largely try to explain these murders as part of the prevalent patterns of domestic violence against women in western societies. While the murderers, whether in the Middle Eastern countries or within the Muslim communities in the West, openly state that their act of murder are "crimes of honour", and that they are merely following the directions set down in their religious beliefs, the apologetic 'Western' intellectuals repeatedly assure us that it is not Islam and backward traditions that are to blame, but that these murders are part and parcel of the common pattern of violence that is happening to Western women too.

Equally worrying is the tendency among political leaders, academics and feminists, to reject the application of human rights discourse to personal matters, describing human rights as a purely western concept foisted on the more traditional societies of the east without adequate debate.

And as far as European governments are concerned, there shouldn't be different bases for peoples rights in European countries. All should be considered as citizens and equal before the law. Society is duty bound to safe guard and protect the rights of women and girls from Muslim origin. This could be done only by abolishing all the respective discriminatory laws and regulations against these girls and women. This could be done only when there is no respect, excuse and legal justification for the misogynist Islamic and traditional beliefs and practices.

In the Academic World 
Academic theories such as cultural relativism, identity politics, post structuralism and post modernism in Academia have been used to apologise for this misogynist religion and for this anti-women culture, and for the denial of women's universal rights.

Under the guise of avoiding neocolonialism and treating the Middle Eastern women as backward and over oppressed, many feminist - academics keep silent about the brutality committed against women. In this way, they apologise for 'their own culture', 'their own religion', 'their own community' and 'their own state'. These feminists academics keep silent about FGM, forced marriage, honour killing, mandatory veiling, sexual apartheid, stoning and many other cruelty of the Shari'a and the Islamic traditions against women. They call such brutality and cruelty 'sensitive issues'. This is simply a cover up and no way can it be considered advocacy for justice, human rights and women's rights. This is rather a dismal and cowardly apology for tribal and Islamic misogyny. These feminists and intellectuals repeatedly tell us that these topics are not specifically Middle Eastern but also found in the West. In this discourse, any criticism of Islamic and traditional values is labeled as "West's orientalist obsession with women's sexuality in the Arab world and the tendency to use crimes of honour as an example of Arab male oppression of women". (Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam, New Haven, Yale University Press)

By emphasising religious and tribal dimensions, I do not intend to picture Middle Eastern culture as a homogeneous misogynist culture and therefore overshadow or ignore the egalitarian and progressive component of this culture. A component which due to political position is largely ignored, or is less known and affirmed.

What is to be done 
A society ruled by a misogynist tribal and Islamic laws and values permits the killing of women. Honour killing is a reflection of ancient patriarchy embracing Islamic misogyny and ancient tribal values. In the West, in collaboration with cultural relativism, it has created a deadly mix that has brutally victimised many young girls and women.

Honour killing, which contradicts many basic human rights and values, is clearly connected to the subordination of women. The prevailing culture of discrimination and misogyny in Islamic religion and society will not change without the implementing a comprehensive and radical socio-political and legal changes in the situation of women.

The civil rights of Arab citizens generally depend on their status, class, tribal affiliation and proximity to the regimes. This altogether discriminatory culture strongly affects women. It is not easy to dislodge let alone eliminate honour killing and other forms of violence in the absence of a radical transformation of the unequal social and economic order.

The only effective strategy to abolish honour killings is to safeguard and advance women's rights and status; by fighting against Islamic, patriarchal and tribal traditions; by separating religion from the state; and by forming secular and egalitarian governments in the region. Then, when equality before the law, civil rights, human rights, justice, freedom are achieved and safeguarded for all citizens regardless of their gender, class or race, women will benefit by extension. The struggle against honour killing is inseparable from the struggle for women's civil liberties, for the separation of Islam from the State, the struggle against political Islam and Islamic States in the region. All restrictive and backward cultural and moral codes and customs that hinder and restrict women's freedom and independence as equal citizens must be abolished. Severe penalties must be imposed for the abuse, intimidation, restriction of freedom, degradation and violent treatment of women and girls.

These are the tasks of women's liberation movement along with the progressive and egalitarian movements in the region as well as in the West. 

Adapted from a speech given at a three- day conference on honour killing and violence against women, held on 17-19 January 2003 in Stockholm - Sweden.