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How Honor Killings Put Women’s Lives In Danger And Destroy Their Autonomy

How Honor Killings Put Women’s Lives In Danger And Destroy Their Autonomy

Heidi Honor Killing.png

In most cultures, there’s a good chance you’ll run into a handful of outdated cultural norms.

Many of these cultural norms are rooted in the idea of tradition. The age-old ‘that’s how it’s always been done’ argument that continues to be heard today. You can find the words in any language, country, culture, etc—more importantly, they affect culture and traditions on a larger, global scale.

I’ve become familiar with several of these ‘traditions’ as a young female in Miami. The domineering, manipulative ‘machistia’ culture present in the Latinx community that hangs over the drapes of my own upbringing, and synonymously teaches other women that they’re second-class citizens. These traditions go back into the depths of old, worn-out history books, and stem from a cause that hovers above our heads.

I wanted to explore some of these outdated cultural norms— more specifically, the honor killing culture in many parts of the world that create an unsafe, physically abusive environment for women in the unjust name of ‘honor’.

An honor killing, or shame killings, is the murder of a family member, usually female, that is thought to have brought dishonor to their family.

This tradition has existed for thousands of yours, and is most common in the Middle East, South Asia, and North Africa. Although this practice is most commonly associated with the Islamic religion, there are cases of honor killings in all major world religions and regions.

Some of the most common actions that deem any women dishonorable include, but aren’t limited to:

  1. Refusal To Accept An Arranged/Forced Marriage.

    In many arranged marriages, the union of a man and wife is seen as a kind of negotiation between the two families. When the female refuses to partake in this transaction, it can lead to the family seeing the woman’s decision as disrespectful and out-of-place, since many women in these regions are not seen as autonomous beings. The UN currently recognizes forced marriage as a form of human rights abuse since it violates the individual freedom that humans have a fundamental right to possess.  

  2. Divorce/Separation From Spouse

    Going off of the idea of a forced marriage, it’s apparent that marriage is seen as a ‘deal’ between two families, yet it is considered dishonorable for a woman to break away from this union because she’s essentially breaking away from this deal and exposing her marital issues, which is more often than not seen as public dishonor for the two families.

  3. Rape

    Women that are raped or sexually assaulted are usually seen as dishonorable simply because they’re blamed for the action other men have inflicted upon the woman. This ties to the concept of virginity and the idea that a women should not have sex before marriage. In these cultures, virginity is seen as the property of her family, and later ‘given’ to her husband as a gift.

  4. Marrying Someone From A Different Religion

    This type of dishonor ties into the religious aspect of honor killing culture, and the simple idea that you shouldn’t marry anyone outside of your religion. This concept is certainly not exclusive to Islam— many religions practice this ideology to some extent. Growing up as a Latina, I heard this concept a handful of times when I decided to date individuals outside my own race, and couldn’t help but wonder why love should restrain itself around the idea of similar faiths.

  5. Sex Before Marriage

    We’ve all heard the concept of abstinence and ‘waiting before marriage’, however, it is particularly stressed in cultures where a woman’s honor is sacred. Like I said before, a woman’s virginity is usually seen as property of male figures in her life, but this devalues a woman’s autonomy. Some parts of Bulgaria practice Blaga Rakija, a post-marriage ritual to confirm a woman’s virginity. Essentially, a white bed sheet is placed underneath a woman while she has sex with her husband for the first night of their marriage to check if she bleeds. If there is no blood on the white sheet, she is disowned by her family by the simple ideology that she must have had sex before her wedding night. Several cultures practice this ritual as well in their own way. The idea is it is considered dishonorable for a woman to have intercourse before her wedding night.

In some cultures, the idea of killing a woman that has dishonored your family is accepted because it has been around for thousands of years. It begs the question—is tradition an excuse for sexism?

Then vs. Now

It may seem like this issue is miles away from our consciousness: however, the United Nations estimates that over 5,000 women are brutally killed every year as part of an honor killing sacrifice. Of course, the numbers are much higher since these murders largely go unreported, but the rise of technology has definitely pushed this issue into the limelight.

A common myth is that this only happens in predominantly Islamic countries, or remote places in the Middle East and Asia. The truth is, there have been confirmed cases on all continents, including the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, etc.

In the past, it was hard for the topic of honor killings to travel beyond the countries they occur in. The injustice simply erupted in a single spot and has continued longer than any individual is aware of. Due to information being readily available via the interest, anyone can research this topic and bring the issue into the minds of people willing to fight.

In May of 2012, five women were allegedly killed by their own family after a video surfaced of them and two brothers singing and clapping together in Kohistan, Pakistan. Since this video surfaced on the internet, it made international headlines as citizens began to speak out against honor killings as a form of murder, not culture.

Afzal Kohistani, one of the men in the video, has actively spoken against this crime, and urged people in Pakistan to treat these killings as a crime. Although Afzal’s story has been broadcast internationally on news outlets such as VICE, he’s forced to remain in hiding. His crime? Exposing ‘honor killings’ culture to the public. This activist is deeply frowned upon in Pakistan, as well as many parts of the world today.

Due to the release of this video and the humanitarian sacrifice of Kohistani, people in different parts of the world are slowly becoming aware that this is an urgent issue that needs immediate attention. Digital technology has helped inform the public on these issues, and pit outdated cultural beliefs against humane, modern ideology.

The rise of technology has definitely helped individuals become more aware of these issues, but it definitely hasn’t eradicated the problem completely. Just last month, Afzal died after suffering multiple gunshot wounds in Abbottabad, Pakistan.  His brutal murder illustrates why so many individuals are afraid to speak up against honor killings in various parts of the world where tradition is deeply ingrained.

As an American citizen, I’ve been raised with the ideology that I’m allowed to vocalize my beliefs. There have been times where I’ve definitely taken this privilege for granted, and stood ignorant to the fact that not everyone in the world has the power to speak up. That’s why it’s important to recognize the privilege that we possess, and using it to help the people that lack the opportunities we do.  

The Threat of Autonomy

I first became familiar with honor killing practices through my English class, when my professor went on a tangent about how female autonomy is seen in different parts of the world. Once I realized that women were being killed as a tragic result of their forbidden autonomy, I noticed a prominent trend in sexist narratives throughout the world. Women aren’t allowed to write their own narratives—their choices and actions are governed by the male authoritative figures around them.

In 2016, Qandeel Baloch was drugged and asphyxiated by her brother in Multan, Pakistan. The actress, social media celebrity, and model was commonly dubbed as the ‘Kim Kardashian of Pakistan’ and became famous through her unladylike, outspoken, and controversial presence on social media. She is a prime example of a woman that is forbidden from exercising her own autonomy.

Although I haven’t directly faced this issue, I’ve constantly struggled with my family judging the choices I make, and dismissing my autonomy to fit their own narrative of what a woman in their family should do. For example, I hate wearing skirts. On the rare occasions that I’ve worn one, I feel naked, and struggle to find comfort in the dainty fabric as I constantly pull it down or cross my legs in hopes of not being exposed. Before I swore off these fashionista death traps, my family constantly pressured me into wearing them because it was ‘lady-like’. To them, wearing feminine clothing meant that I looked appropriate in their eyes—even if comfort became a foreign language when I wore a skirt.

Of course, murder in the name of ‘honor’ is a problem that runs deeper into history than my problem, however, it’s a common story that many women discuss today—why are my actions being scrutinized selfishly by the people around me?

How to Recognize a Toxic Cultural (And Feminist) Issue

Like I said earlier, we’ve all encountered some kind of outdated cultural norm in our lives. Most of the answers dwell within an array of external issues such as religion, class, gender, etc, but it’s important to understand when these issues become a feminist issue.

Many individuals have dismissed honor killings because they classify it as a ‘cultural issue’ or  ‘Muslim issue’. They ignore the problem because it’s rooted in the deep quicksand of tradition, and become stuck in the ‘that’s how it’s always been done’ mentality. However, women being tortured and/or killed because they’ve committed ‘dishonorable’ acts, it’s not just a cultural issues, but a feminist one too.  

So, don’t think of honor killings as an issue that affects women miles away from us, but as a societal ill that is our problem. I say this because there are confirmed honor killing cases in all continents, religions, genders, and so on. So, although the murders are rare, there is a chance that there are women in your community suffering from these outdated cultural practices.

If you know anyone that is currently dealing with this situation, the most crucial step is directing these women to safe resources. Take the time to listen to their story, provide resources to domestic abuse hotlines, help them find places to stay in their life is truly in danger. Of course, there are laws in place in some countries that outlaw these practices, but legalities are worthless without the support of a community willing to get rid of these practices. Remember, a majority of the information that has been released about honor killing practices has been leaked because of the individual’s that diligently spread awareness about the subject, and make it their mission to give a voice to the women that lack it. It’s important to cultivate your own community into one that protects women, and spread awareness to these issues.

Here is a list of U.S and international domestic abuse hotlines:

  1. The National Domestic Violence Hotline


  2. National Network to End Violence Against Immigrant Women

    Contact email, phone, locations:

  3. Americans Overseas Domestic Violence Crisis Center


  4. National Child Abuse Hotline/Childhelp


  5. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline


  6. National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights


  7. White Ribbon Pakistan

    +92 42 3588 3570-72

Khalida Brohi, a Pakistani activist for gender equality, spoke at a TED Global conference in 2014 about her mission to end honor killing practices globally, and the role other women can take on to do the same.

By Heidi Perez-Moreno.

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