The World History Of Honor Killings: Part IX

This will likely be our final word on the history of honor killings. Though books could be written on the topic and its relationship to modern society — and they have been — our goal is simple: We simply want people to understand why women have been treated as second-class citizens in countries all over the world and, indeed, even here in the United States. As long as we rely on old traditions to lay the groundwork for new laws, these killings will continue.

We’ve discussed the first instances of honor killing around the world, but you may have noticed that we left the Middle East out of that equation. The nomadic cultures that gave rise to the culture of violence and reprisal were the precursors to eventual systems of law that resulted in the subjugation of women at worst, and the idea of male supremacy at best. “Honor killing” is not mentioned in the Quran or related religious texts. So why do Muslim men still feel compelled to kill in the name of honor when such an act is so forbidden by a higher power?

Once again, the answer relies on old practices born from old laws written by only a handful of powerful men who probably weren’t thinking about how their actions might affect future generations.

Sharia law punishes adultery severely, no matter who the culprit is. Gender does not matter. What does matter is that witnesses must be allowed to identify the culprit. And when considering who the witnesses are, gender is important. Only men fit into this role. But authorities are responsible for conviction and punishment — not individuals. 

Because of these laws, there are many countries dominated by a Muslim population where honor killing simply does not occur. It does not occur in Indonesia. And the difference between those places where they do and do not occur? Tradition. Only tradition.

The World History Of Honor Killings: Part VIII

We might not always consider that there was once a system of “honor killing” here in the United States. Have you ever watched an Old Western? Traditionally, these films pit a good guy versus a bad guy in a duel over some form of disagreement: a woman, a theft, etc. You get the picture. There’s a reason why these films evolved to tell this kind of a story. It’s the same reason why nomadic cultures evolved to focus on mob-inspired fear and reprisal for crimes committed: because there wasn’t much in the way of authority.

And that’s not to say that it never existed at all. The point is that when the law seems non-existent or at the least “far away,” then men have always taken it upon themselves to dole out “frontier justice.”

One author explains: “Cultures of honour therefore appear amongst Bedouins, Scottish and English herdsmen of the Border country, and many similar peoples, who have little allegiance to a national government; among cowboys, frontiersmen, and ranchers of the American West, where official law-enforcement often remained out of reach, as famously celebrated in Western movies; and among aristocrats, who enjoy hereditary privileges that put them beyond the reach of general laws. Cultures of honour also flourish in criminal underworlds and gangs, whose members carry large amounts of cash and contraband and cannot complain to the law if it is stolen.”

We also forget about the latter point: there are always hierarchies of society that don’t want to be bothered by the law, and those hierarchies are certainly more apt to resort to violence to implement their own archaic forms of justice; i.e. revenge.

Sexual abuse attorney Paul Mones made it his mission to find compensation for the boyscouts who were victims to abuse over the years, and famously noted how many of them would never be granted the opportunity to have their day in court. But “court” and lawyers like Mones weren’t available to those who faced personal injury before entire communities settled down in one place. They had to make changes themselves. Sometimes, violence seemed like the only way.

The aforementioned author said, “Once a culture of honour exists, it is difficult for its members to make the transition to a culture of law; this requires that people become willing to back down and refuse to immediately retaliate, and from the viewpoint of the culture of honour this appears as a weak and unwise act.”

And perhaps from a western perspective, it’s important to note the cultural relevance between the system of honor killing and the cultivation of radicalism. Once a bomb lands in a Middle Eastern country, many feel that honor has been stolen from them — and again, that debt must be repaid. Thus are terrorists born into the world. When we counterattack, more terrorists are born. As long as one side refuses to back down, the cycle will inevitably repeat. The same is true when considering traditional honor killings.

Until society in the east accepts that laws are more important than longstanding cultural traditions, honor killings will continue unabated.

The World History Of Honor Killings: Part VII

Throughout much of human history, societies were governed by the few — and not the many. This means that relatively few people decided the laws that governed the rest. What happens as a result is simple: A few crazy individuals might be granted the ability, through nothing more than high birth or random chance, to implement changes to society that could echo for millenia. And they have. How does this happen? Almost universally, it happens through law.

One author notes: “One can contrast cultures of honor with cultures of law. From the viewpoint of anthropology, cultures of honor typically appear among nomadic peoples and herdsmen who carry their most valuable property with them and risk having it stolen, without having recourse to law enforcement or government.”

Those of us who live in developed 21st century countries might believe that only anarchy can result from a community that functions without any higher authority, but that’s not necessarily true. Although nomadic tribes had innumerable methods for doling out punishment, it should be noted that many simply adopted the mob mentality: when you stole from one person, you stole from everyone. And how do the people you stole from fix that problem? They delete you from the family (brutally).

The author continues: “In this situation, inspiring fear forms a better strategy than promoting friendship; and cultivating a reputation for swift and disproportionate revenge increases the safety of your person and property. Thinkers ranging from Montesquieu to Seven Pinker have remarked upon the mindset needed for a culture of honour.”
In other words, revenge may have been an appropriate and sensible response for crimes committed by nomadic communities. And that history is important to understanding why honor killings are still committed today, when society has almost universally transitioned from nomadic communities to agricultural and even industrial communities. The trick is getting people to understand that the reasons for their actions are not necessarily relevant to today’s society. Thus far, that has proved difficult for legislators to achieve.

The World History Of Honor Killings: Part VI

We’ve discussed that the very notion of violence for honor may have been passed down through mythological stories. We’ve discussed some of the seeds planted throughout history that may have helped provide the cultural relevance for these murders. Now we’ll consider another question: Does an honor killing help a family absolve itself of the “sin” of the person killed, or is it done for the community as a whole?

We ask this question for a simple reason: Self-preservation has always extended to the family. Parents would often die for their children. In evolutionary terms, that makes a lot of sense. The goal of life is to reproduce. The genetic code is passed down from one generation to the next. Parents protect their offspring in order to ensure this occurs — even when it means they lose their lives in the process.

But this isn’t what happens everywhere in the world.

An honor killing often represents the opposite. And to fully understand why such a murder might transpire, we have to ask ourselves who the murder is meant to “help.” One hypothesis by many scholars is that the act of killing allows the greater community to feel as if a stain has been lifted. 

After all, honor-based murder is based on the family’s dishonor — and family already represents a collective unit made up of more than one person. Why not take it one step further and assign the stolen honor to the entire community? The “injured” party might feel the need to restore honor through murder as some sort of a twisted debt settlement act.

One anonymous author writes: “Men are the only possible sources, or active generators…of honor. The only active effect that women can have on honor, in those cultures in which this is a central value, is to destroy it. But women do have that power: they can destroy the honor of the males in their household. The culturally defined symbol system through which women in patriarchies bring honor or dishonor to men is the world of sex — that is, female sexual behavior.”

It might come off as somewhat imaginative that the entire power hierarchy is so flipped on its head, but the logic is sound: Women are nearly always the victims of honor killings because the ability to give or take honor through sexuality is theirs and theirs alone.

The author continues: “In this value system, which is both absurd from any rational standpoint and highly dangerous to the continued survival of our species given its effect of stimulating male violence, men delegate to women the power to bring dishonor on men. That is, men put their honor in the hands of ‘their’ women.”

And it’s because of this transferral of power that men come to believe that women, who are supposed to be submissive and bend to the will of their male overlords, that men will sometimes commit murder to settle the debts when women fail to meet their unspoken part of the bargain.

The World History Of Honor Killings: Part V

Although many of us believe the Trojan War was as much a myth as Hercules or the Greek gods and goddesses, the event is generally assumed to have actually transpired. “Why” it transpired is certainly a question historians will struggle to answer as long as they’re not entirely certain it did at all, but if the war was real then we can make one educated guess: there is some truth to the idea that it started over a man losing his honor.

The story is one of the simplest ever told. Helen of Troy — said to be the most beautiful woman in the world — is captured by a lover. Her husband has a huge problem with this of course, and so a war begins over her honor. 

Consider this: Whether or not the Trojan War really took place is probably irrelevant. What matters more is its eternal place in history, as myth, legend, or a kernel of the truth. That’s because people will always remember the story and how it was presented — and how it was presented certainly has consequences that are just as serious and just as long-lasting. The story is a much-romanticized notion that a woman’s honor is worth starting a war over.

But the story also lends itself to believe in a romanticized notion of violence for love and family. It lends itself to the belief that death can wipe away “dishonor” and that perhaps violence is the only way — and publicized violence at that. Honor killings might be said to represent the Trojan War but on a smaller scale. 

And the fact that these romanticized notions of violence mingling with honor have been passed down for millennia is why they still occur. It doesn’t matter that they have no basis in rational thought — neither does religion. But the stories still maintain their relevance because we learn about them when we’re young enough to be indoctrinated.

The World History Of Honor Killings: Part IV

Now that we’ve discussed how a few of the seeds planted throughout history have led to patriarchal rungs of society and laws and practices that have favored men — leading to brutal violence against women — it’s time to take a more in-depth look at “honor” throughout history and how it came to be part of the practice of killing women in a vain attempt to restore it.

Professor of Anthropology Sharif Kanaana at Birzeit University said, “What the men of the family, clan, or tribe seek control of in a patrilineal society is reproductive power. Women for the tribe were considered a factory for making men. The honor killing is not a means to control sexual power or behavior. What’s behind it is the issue of fertility, or reproductive power.”

Although this is primarily an opinionated statement, any truth to it could mean that the men don’t really feel “dishonored” at all — they simply feel like a person who they feel should be submissive has attempted to usurp their power, either through adulterous actions or by dating someone who does not share similar religious beliefs.

The Ottoman Empire has a lot to tell us about the concept of “honor” and how it might relate to the killing of women. Arabs under Ottoman rule would sometimes commit the vile act, and then take the murder weapon, now drenched in blood, to walk through the streets and show the community what had been done. It wasn’t enough to kill the victim. The people who knew that the family’s honor had been stained must also know that the family’s honor was restored through the death of this individual.

Amnesty International made a relevant statement some time ago: “The mere perception that a woman has contravened the code of sexual behavior damages honor. The regime of honor is unforgiving: women on whom suspicion has fallen are not given an opportunity to defend themselves, and family members have no socially acceptable alternative but to remove the stain on their honor by attacking the woman.”

Anyone in the United States can easily visit a personal injury attorney in an attempt to recoup damages. Chicago has one of the highest murder rates in the country, for example, and that means victims can simply visit the website of their nearest attorney and file a lawsuit. In other countries, the same opportunity isn’t always afforded. And even when it is, male family members sometimes prefer to act outside the law’s boundaries because the law doesn’t have anything to do with a person’s honor.

But that’s the primary difference between societies in which honor killings occur and those where they do not: The very concept of justice and how it is enacted either within or without the bounds of law. In some places, justice doesn’t matter — because the very possibility that a community might begin to gossip about an act is a reason for a man to conduct an honor killing, even when the grounds for that gossip are baseless. 

The World History Of Honor Killings: Part III

We’ve discussed many of the significant long-lasting historic events that have fueled much of the patriarchal way of life in society, and today we’ll look at a couple more of those events before taking the plunge to discuss others more in-depth. For a look at historical events related to honor killings as far back as Hummurabi, Ancient Rome, and Ancient Israel, look back to part one and two of this series.

The twentieth century didn’t see much progress for women’s rights outside of developed nations. Saddam Hussein made a lasting impact on the Iraqi way of life when he allowed Article 3 of the Iraqi Penal Code to be passed into law. This article allowed outright murder of a female relative — by their male counterparts — when the family’s honor was called into question. This was one law that made honor killing socially acceptable, a stark contrast to other countries where honor killings are “overlooked” even when they are against the law.

At the same time in India, there is a notable spike in female feticide (or abortion).

One of the first steps in the right direction occurred in 2004, when Pakistan implemented the Criminal Law Act. This law was drafted specifically to allow for and make easier the prosecution of individuals who have allegedly committed an honor killing. In addition, the same law bars the use of marriage (by essentially selling a daughter to another family) to settle a dispute. Unfortunately, the law had no visible impact on the actual number of honor killings.

What this means is simple: Even in countries where laws are drafted to help prevent honor killings and prosecute those people who commit these heinous acts, the crimes are simply ignored by law enforcement. Honor killings are still an “important” component in many Middle Eastern and African societies, and members of society are still willing to overlook them.

The World History Of Honor Killings: Part II

In our last post, we introduced this series on the world history of honor killings because we think it’s important to understand what might compel someone to kill a family member — especially in societies that have evolved over thousands of years to protect family above anything else. Although it’s the last thing we think about when discussing the Ancient Roman Empire, this was the first place where honor killings are known to have occurred. 

Helping one another out during our darkest times: It’s What We Do as human beings. And although the Ancient Romans held similar standards — sometimes — those standards did not apply to those who had been raped or committed adultery. Roman Emperor Augustus (he was the first) was the man who put forth the law “Lex Julia de Adulteriis” which made adultery a crime. It was also this law that gave the paterfamilias the right to kill a wife or daughter who had committed the crime. 

Perhaps this is a good time to rewind — because now we should probably figure out where the idea of a man being the head of the family actually comes from. We could actually start in the first couple centuries when Biblical texts begin to be introduced (and these texts make it obvious that women should always be submissive to their husbands), but that wouldn’t be going far enough back.

In 1780 BCE — about 1800 years before Augustus wrote the aforementioned laws — the Code of Hammurabi was enacted by the king of the same name. These laws were important because they represent one of the earliest sets of laws on the books and they persisted. These laws also guaranteed that men would be considered heads of the family for quite some time, because women were essentially slaves to their husbands. Just as slaves were property to the Romans, women were property to the Ancient Babylon husbands. 

Note: the Code of Hammurabi sentenced an adulterous woman and her lover to death. Should the husband deign to save one, he must also save the other. It was an all or nothing deal.

By the sixth century AD, the practice of “honorable suicide” was recorded in Central India, where women would sometimes throw themselves upon a husband’s funeral pyre. This was considered a way to remain loyal to a husband, who would be guaranteed salvation — and also, it guaranteed that a woman’s sins would be absolved. How convenient!

Around the same time, nomadic tribes who would someday build civilization in the Arabian Peninsula began to say that “the burial of daughters is a noble deed.” More importantly, families would often bury their newborn daughters alive to guarantee that they could not grow up to dishonor the family (or in this case the nomadic band of whoever). 

Fast forward a thousand years to the 17th century, and you have the first incidences of the practice of “karo kari,” which involves the murder or execution of a person accused of sexual crimes. The connotation involved dishonor or disgrace, which usually means adultery. In the next part, we’ll continue to discuss our attitudes toward women throughout the ages.

The World History Of Honor Killings: Part I

It stands to reason that humans have a variety of reasons for any action they take — after all, we’ve evolved a number of complex societies over millennia, many of which have fallen but were later used as the foundation for even stronger (or sometimes weaker) societies. Have you ever wondered how America’s democracy was born? How about why we use the bald eagle as a strong symbol of our society? Easy answer: it’s because Rome used the eagle as a strong symbol of its society, and we fashioned our own government after theirs (although our founding fathers certainly hope they built something better). 

In any case, humans commit murder for a variety of reasons. Honor killings may not be common in the United States, but they occur routinely overseas even as authorities begin to crack down on this strange custom. The family unit is an adaptation that humans have evolved in order to build society from the ground up — so how is it that some societies commit murder against members of their own families? We’ll explore the reasons by poring through the history of honor killings. 

You probably wondered why we mentioned Ancient Roman society. Well, it’s because this is the first piece of historical context available to us.

Honor killings first began in Rome. The head of a household — always the oldest paternal unit called the pater familias — had the legal right to slaughter a sexually active daughter or a wife who cheated. The “right” to kill for honor runs out as soon as a daughter is married and leaves the household. 
We see these instances echoed in Roman literature. The story of Lucretia results in the titular character’s suicide when she was raped. The story of Verginia ends when her father kills her — because she was raped. You can imagine that the stories because even more disturbing when the victim chose to have sex. To the Romans, these stories were romantic (and we’re not just being punny there). But we’ll continue the Roman history of honor killings in part two of our series.

Looking Back At The World Premiere Of “Honor Killing”

Fewer stories resonate with viewers as they grow older. Children are young, naive, and innocent — they have a fresh outlook on every new experience. The first time they see blood in a television series or movie, they experience that telltale rush of adrenaline. But there are some stories that resonate even with adults. Those that tell a new story. Those that provide a fresh outlook. Those that make us laugh or cry. Or those that are told through a different format — like a play. “Honor Killing” is one such tale for which most audience members were not ready.

Sarah Bierstock’s “Honor Killing” first premiered in the Florida Gompertz Theatre from April 4, 2018 until May 25, 2018.

The story revolves around American reporter Allisyn Davis, who works for The New York Times. When she travels to Pakistan in hopes of reporting on an honor killing, she discovers not necessarily that there is more to the tale — but that there is more to learn about society by learning about the tale. 

Honor killings infrequently occur in the United States, but in other countries they remain a pervasive problem. They usually occur when a family’s patriarchy believes the family has been “shamed” — and that the only way to wipe the slate clean is by killing the person responsible. This person is usually a female member of the family, such as a daughter. The crimes usually include divorce, failing to abide by or agree to the terms of an arranged marriage, or choosing to have a relationship with someone who shares different religious or cultural beliefs. 

These murders are often a public spectacle used to warn other members of society not to make the same mistakes that have already been made. These killings take place through a variety of means, including: beheading, stabbing, cutting a throat, using acid, strangling, and stoning — but there are others. 

Honor killings are still legal in some jurisdictions, but in others they are simply “overlooked.” That said, the “shamed” family members still understand that the law frowns upon murder, and that certain “classes” of people will have a better legal outcome should they be charged with and convicted for murder.

This leads to the use of young children to commit these acts. The children are compelled by “duty” to obey their elders, and failing to carry out a murder on behalf of one’s father or mother (against a sister, for example) could result in yet more violence, exile, or other consequences.

“Honor Killing” has since gone on to the Athena Project in Denver, Colorado and the WAM Theater in West Stockbridge, Connecticut, and was read at the PROJECT W Festival at Cherry Lane Theatre in New York City. Bierstock has gone on to write at least two other plays, “MAD” and “Graceland 2.0.” She continues to act and write, attempting to push the envelope further with each performance or playwright.