A Murder By Any Other Name?

Whenever I write about the realities of Islam in the United States, someone generally comes along and asks why I do not address the more contentious issues. While it is something of a Darfur vs. blowjobs, so to speak, there are, of course, issues that concern Muslims. One of the most talked-about is violence against women, specifically the crimes that are referred to as honor killings.

Honor killing are becoming more and more discussed in regards to Muslims in the West. The story behind most of them is that of a young woman who, upon being found to have been acting in a manner with which a male relative (usually her father but sometimes her husband or brother) disagrees, is targeted for violent action, sometimes with the support of other relatives. After the case becomes public, things generally look worse and worse. The culprit will generally show no remorse for his actions, claiming that he was doing the right thing for all involved. Other Muslims will issue their opinion on the matter, focusing on the idea that honor killings aren’t at all related to Islam but are instead a form of domestic violence.



In this tangled mess, where even Muslims disagree on major Canadian television programs, it can be hard to decide whether or not honor killings are really a special phenomenon or simply a part of domestic abuse and misogynistic violence.

As is often said with terrorism, of course people kill, maim, and destroy for reasons other than religion. Non-Muslim men all around the world kill the women in their lives for reasons that are not necessarily so different from notions of honor. Furthermore, it is far easier to criticize and condemn crimes whose motives and origins are literally foreign rather than to tackle issues that affect your own community — in this case, violence with whose perpetrators you can at least somewhat relate.

At the same time, honor killings are often given a free pass in Muslim countries in a way that legitimizes them in the minds of Muslim men even after they leave the Muslim world. There is something different about them in terms of their motives and the premeditation that usually accompanies them.



Jessica MokedadNoor Faleh Almalekithe three Shafia sistersSwera R., Tulay GorenMujde B.Gulsumthe Said sistersAqsa ParvezMorsal O.Hatin Surucuthe Riaz familythe Arshad family, and more were all women and girls who were killed by their respective fathers, husbands, or brothers; in all of their cases, the male relative in question explicitly stated that they were religiously and culturally motivated to kill. Almost none of the murderers expressed remorse and many of them say that their actions would have been acceptable, and even condoned, in their nations of origin.

Killing a woman to whom they are related, romantically involved, or married is certainly not the exclusive province of Muslim men, but feeling socially, morally, and religiously justified about it is what sets honor killings apart from other forms of domestic violence. In other words, while honor killings fall under the heading of domestic violence, they constitute a special and especially ideologically disturbing form of it: not crimes of passion, but controlled acts attempting to regain control over women and girls perceived as wayward.

Note: The only online listing of honor killing victims that I was able to find was here. The page contains graphic images of violence and is from a perspective that I do not necessarily share; additionally, some of the cases listed are questionable in terms of being explicit honor killings.

Heina Dadabhoy

Heina Dadabhoy [hee-na dad-uh-boy] spent her childhood as a practicing Muslim who never in her right mind would have believed that she would grow up to be an atheist feminist secular humanist, or, in other words, a Skepchick. She has been an active participant in atheist organizations and events in and around Orange County, CA since 2007. She is currently writing A Skeptic's Guide to Islam. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

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  1. Yep, straight to Pam Gellar, racist anti-American scum. It is hard to criticize Islam in the West without intersecting with those sorts of people, and sometimes even picking up some of their nasty attitudes. Anyhoo…

    In a real sense, aren’t “honor killings” a form of hate crime, even terrorism? Bias against women, and sending a message with violence?

    1. I think they differ from hate crimes in one key aspect – honour killings punish behaviour, not femaleness. Hate crimes punish existence regardless of behaviour.

      The femaleness is punished by other, usually less violent means.

      1. I don’t know, I think this can be argued as a hate crime from a cultural standpoint. Women are necessary, so they can’t simply be purged like racial or sexual hate crimes as we normally identify them. Social structures build up around hating and repressing them simultaneously, training them to hate themselves, and domestic violence up to and including murder of any sort is the silent threat of the culture of hatred against women.

        The honor part of the honor killing narrative gets more disturbing when it’s seen as a cultural force rather than just a filial force. The serial prostitute murderer, the murder-rapist, even the violent stalker all have elements of the honor narrative to them. They defend society at large from the debilitating influences of what they see as broken women, dangerous women, who undermine the values of a social group. They take it upon themselves to “fix” things in various ways, in some fashion, and this is frequently rooted somewhere in collective honor or dignity. Especially if they’re doing it out of a perceived negative perversion within themselves, trying to wash away dirt with blood.

        1. I’m not really sure why it matters. I’m not entirely sure why we even make the distinction of “hate crime” for the purpose of defining a “crime”; surely a crime is a crime.

          Having said that, it may be a useful distinction for the purpose of sentencing, since a “hate crime” is more likely to be premeditated in a sense. Even if a violent bigot may not have chosen a specific victim specifically ahead of time, they probably knew which general class of people from whom the victim would be chosen.

          Back to the topic, I don’t see this as a specifically religious problem (surprise surprise). Anyone who thinks that it’s a problem of Islam should simply look at the worldwide statistics. It’s essentially unknown in Indonesia, which has more Muslims than any other country, but it’s a huge problem among the non-Muslim communities of India, Latin America and DR Congo.

          I think that Heina has hit the nail on the head that the foundational problem here is that law enforcement and the local courts in certain countries turn a blind eye to it, effectively legitimising the practice. This is something that central governments seriously need to tackle.

          By the way, I think we should try to encourage people to call it “honour murder” rather than “honour killing”. Every time someone says “honour killing”, or you see it written that way in the media, correct them.

          1. It’s not that “hate crimes” may or may not be pre-meditated. It’s that when it comes to “hate crimes”, it is not personal. It’s far from personal. It doesn’t really matter WHO is being beaten to death, just that that particular person fits a particular race or sex or whatever (perceived or real).

            Hate crimes and terrorism are very closely related, in my opinion; one just tends to be on a much larger scale.

          2. (Also in reply to marilove)

            I agree that there a “hate crime” aspect with these honor murders (I’m all for calling them that), in that many religious, community, and political leaders appear to give tacit approval of these murders which also serves to intimidate, terrorize and coerce other women which is an aspect of hate crimes. People appear to commit hate crimes because they feel the person/group they don’t like because of gender or skin color is a lesser human or property and that is clearly the kind of thinking that is going on in communities where honor murders take place. After reading this post last night I did some digging around online and one site broke down the known or reported reasons for the killing and the most common reason was that the woman was behaving too western and exercising too much independence. Pathetic.

          3. We’ve discussed hate crimes here before, and what I took away from it was that hate crimes have an element of intimidation (often extremely violent intimidation) directed not just at the immediate victim but at all other members of the victim’s class. For example, honor killings murders don’t just eliminate an uppity woman from the family or community, they also send a very unsubtle message to all the other women in the group that the same can and will happen to them if they don’t toe the line.

      2. I disagree. Honor killings usually less about the woman’s actual behavior, and more about a need to either control her or to hide guilt (as is the case for the many instances where a girl/woman is raped and then killed by her rapist or by her family with the supposed justification that she “tempted” the male).

        They are seeking to abuse or control females because they are female, in order to control and intimidate females… which in my opinion makes what is going on a hate crime. Their femaleness is directly the cause for them being targeted.

        1. I only said that there was an “aspect” of hate crime in that the target is part of an identifiable group; I did not say that any particular killing was not, at the time of the murder, all about the perpetrators perception and interpretation of the woman’s actions such as Facebook chatting with a man or refusing an arranged marriage. The ongoing pattern or murders certainly must contribute to maintaining an atmosphere of fear and repression for women in those communities, which is frequently what hate crimes do. Also from what I’ve read the honor murder of rape victims represents a very small percentage of these incidents; most are about more mundane behaviors perceived as being too western or involve unacceptable or unapproved relationships with a male outside the family.

      3. A lot of lynching victims weren’t killed for being black per se, but for breaking some social taboo. Maybe they committed a minor crime that would have gotten whitey a slap on the wrist, or looked at a white woman or complained too much about segregation. Even the Klan, for the most part, didn’t want to kill all the black folks, just the ones who were too uppity or otherwise problematic. Punishing people for behavior when the codes only apply to a certain group is a hate crime.

    2. Honor killings, like FGM and Cosmetic Infant Male Circumcision, are a “Stopped Clock” issue–they’re something that people I find abhorrent (like Gellar) manage to get right, not because of their irrationality, but almost in spite of it. You start to have a serious conversation about the issue, and suddenly you’re surrounded by bigots nodding their heads vigorously.

      As an example, one of Gellar’s biggest-news cases is in Dearborn, MI. The family of the killer and his daughter & victim, though, is insisting that it wasn’t an honor killing, but rather that he was trying to conceal his sexual abuse of her. Gellar, in response, insists that they’re involved in a cover-up to keep it from being known as an honor-killing.

      But in order to want to cover it up, the family would need to buy into the honor-killing mentality–and the notion that saying, for instance, “My brother spent years sexually abusing my niece, and then killed her to keep her quiet” is somehow going to retain more of the family’s honor than, “My niece had sex outside of marriage,” is painfully absurd–the dishonor of having a pedophile in the family isn’t going to be less than having a wayward woman in the family.

      But that would require right-wingers to understand that violence against women is wrong, even when it isn’t part of an honor killing, and that really is beyond the poor dears’ scope.

      1. I think Heina has it right that honor killings are a different thing than typical homicide by domestic violence. I expect that there are many domestic violence homicides in the same communities where honor murders happen and at least in some countries it may be preferable to proclaim a dead woman was dishonoring her family instead of admitting her husband was a violent angry fuck who went overboard beating his wife and killed her. Also as far as the abusive uncle goes I can only think that it may in fact be more palatable to say he was a pedophile covering up his crime, which makes it a pervert uncle problem and not one for the whole family or community. Also a girl who has been sexually abused in many of these cultures is viewed as so damaged that she would be better off dead because no one the family might approve of would ever want to marry her.

  2. “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”
    — Blaise Pascal

  3. At the end of the day, does it matter what are the motivations for hurting purposely someone’s physical and mental integrity?
    Once the harm is done, the act must be punished regardless of reasons. In the case of these ‘honor killings’ more must be done to prevent them, but also punish them harsh and without hesitation, else they wont cease.

    1. Obviously the reason matters. Ever hear of something called “motive”? They talk about it a lot on Law & Order. :)

      If you kill someone, the charges you face are based on the manner and motive of the death. If you kill someone in your car who is drunk and runs out into the road, you probably won’t be charged with anything. If you shove someone in a bar and they slip and crack their head open and die, you could probably plead that out to involuntary manslaughter. If you beat them to death with your bare hands in a bar fight it is murder, but you don’t get the death penalty or life without parole. They save the harshest punishment for a situation where you plot to kill someone in cold blood.

      Motives matter.

    2. Preventing them effectively heavily depends on understanding the reasons they happen, though.

  4. Heina,

    I know Honor Killings are a serious problem, and my heart goes out to any poor woman murdered in the name preserving family honor, and I know you mean well, but I’d stay far away from Pamela Geller’s Atlas Shrugs blog or anything else written by her. She’s a bigot and a paranoid conspiracy theorist.

    Rational Wiki on Pamela Geller

    The Southern Poverty Law Center on Pamela Geller –

    Backgrounder: Stop Islamization of America (SIOA)

    More from the ADL

    Mirror (NLsubs) Pamela Geller Busted

    Pamela Geller: The Looniest Blogger Ever

    As you can see, She’s not a reasonable person. Even if you include a disclaimer like you did, I would not feel comfortable using her as a source.

    1. I am 100% aware of all of that. However, I was totally unable to find a site that lists out victims of specific honor killings that weren’t affiliated with neocons. I used the list as a starting point for chasing down information and never as a direct reference, i.e. more as a way to find out the names of alleged victims of honor killings than as a “source.”

      More useful to me than reasons why I shouldn’t trust her (which I already knew) would have been a good alternative/resource to said list. It would have been incredibly unfair for me to have used her site to research victims of honor killings without at least mentioning that I used the page.

      Furthermore, I think it’s helpful to point out that lack of unbiased resources on topics such as honor killings. I’ve gotten a lot more sympathy as an ex-Muslim from neocons than liberals, and that gap needs to be bridged.

      1. Heina,

        Thanks for the clarification. I did not know if you were aware of what kind of Person Geller was, or the exact nature of her blog and the organizations she founded. Yeah, and I agree, there really aren’t too many unbiased sources on the subject of Honor Killings that I can think of that’s really unfortunate.

        I hope you are able to get more liberals to help you as well. This fight needs to be taken out of the hands of anti Muslim bigots like Geller.

      2. Heina,

        You know what, I just thought of something. Maybe you could be the one to start a good less biased alternative, source on honor Killings. Or at least maybe you could help get such an organization started somehow.

        1. That would be a good thing. A good skeptical, not-overtly-political source for info and news on Islam, including its problematic elements, would be excellent. I’m trying to get the ball rolling in terms of information with my articles, but there is a gaping need.

          1. Heina

            I agree. When need more rational critics of Islam, who actually understand it, and its complex history. We need skeptics who will look at the claims made by Muslims without paranoia or bigotry,. In fact that’s one of the reasons why I thought you’d like Klingschor. He even pointed out to me that one of the current goals of both his youtube channels and his blog is to serve as an alternative to websites like Jihad Watch and Atlas Shrugs, that promote bigotry, and paranoia.

            His goal is to look at Islam objectively and critique it from the standpoint of secular humanism. Klingscor has also debunked some of the conspiracy theories put forth by people like Geller, in addition to debunking Islamic apologetics.

            Unfortunately he hasn’t been able to update either of his channels or his blog much recently.

            If there were a lot more people like you and Klingschor around, I might not have fallen for people Geller and joined the “counter Jihad,” at one point, something I’m not at all proud of.

          2. Heina,

            You might want to consider contacting Klingscor. You would make an excellent guest on his Jinn and Tonic show. Its a blog TV show about Islam and Middle East for critical thinkers, run by him and a couple other youtube skeptics who know a lot about the religion and its history.

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