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. 

Texas Man Faces Prison For Hiding Honor Killing Suspect

Yaser Abdel Said was an honor killing suspect who took a spot on the FBI’s “Top Ten” list of most-wanted fugitives after the murder of his own daughters Amina and Sara, who were 18 and 17 at the time of their deaths. Their crime? They were dating non-Muslims. Said told their mother that he was taking them out for a meal on New Year’s Day in 2008. Instead, he shot them inside a cab he borrowed.

Said was captured in August 2020 after a more than decade-long manhunt.

Now, his son Islam Yaser-Abdel Said, 32 and also a Texas resident, has pleaded guilty after charged and prosecuted for the crime of assisting his father evade law enforcement capture for the past 12 years. He could spend three decades in prison..

U.S. Attorney Prerak Shah said, “Islam Said prioritized the whims of his father, an alleged killer, over justice for his own sisters. Thanks to the dogged work of the FBI and its law enforcement partners, however, Mr. Said’s efforts were ultimately in vain.”

FBI reported that “On Aug. 25, 2020 FBI agents observed Mr. Said and his uncle deliver grocery bags to the residence, then followed the men to a shopping center 20 miles away, where they dumped trash received from the home.”

The home where Said had been concealed belonged to a cousin from Justin, Texas.
The bigger shock? Crimes like the aforementioned are often overlooked in the United States. According to Farhana Qazi, who used to be a government analyst for Advanced Studies on Terrorism, “Cases of honor killings and/or violence in the U.S. are often unreported because of the shame it can cause to the victim and the victim’s family. Also, because victims are often young women, they may feel that reporting the crime to authorities will draw too much attention to the family committing the crime.”

Are Honor Killings Ever Committed By Stoning?

The short answer is yes. Although honor killings are most often conducted in private circumstances in brutal ways, the perpetrator’s intent is usually to end the life of the victim as quickly as possible — which makes sense, considering the victim is almost always a “beloved” member of the immediate family. But stonings have still taken place throughout history, especially when the victim’s community is small and tight-knit.

Du’a Khalil Aswad was 17 when she was killed in 2007, stoned to death in Iraq. The worst part? The murder was filmed. But thankfully, this is why the public at large knows about the crime.

Mark Lattimer of The Guardian wrote: “After Du’a’s death, the international media widely repeated a claim made on a number of Islamic extremist websites that she had been killed because she converted to Islam, but local reports do not concur. Some people tell me she had run away with her Muslim boyfriend and they had been stopped at a checkpoint outside Mosul; others say she had been seen by her father and uncle just talking with the boy in public and, fearing her family’s reaction, they had sought protection at the police station. Either way, the police handed Du’a into the custody of a local Yazidi sheikh.”

The fact that the local police may have been complicit in the young girl’s subsequent murder was one of the reasons it made headlines around the world. But it gets worse. When she finally decided to return home, hundreds or even thousands came after her, at which point she was dragged to the town square to await her execution by stoning.

Brain injury Socal expert Jordan Davis explained what stoning would feel like for the victim: “Stoning is an extremely brutal process, normally used in Middle Eastern countries as a form of punishment against those accused of committing religious crime. It’s even worse than most people understand. The victim is normally buried up to the waist or chest, depending on gender. Stones are most often tangerine-sized. Not big enough that one or two would result in death, but big enough to do some damage.”

Davis continued: “The stoning takes perhaps an hour or less depending on the crowd. The first few stones will likely lead to concussion, blurred vision, and general confusion. Once the bleeding begins, loss of consciousness is common. Victims who stay awake for most of the process are much more likely to experience nausea and vomit. Not a pretty way to die.”

Her murder took about thirty minutes. She was stripped naked and stoned without being buried, at which point her body was tied to a vehicle and dragged through the town. Once the debacle was ended, she was buried with a dead dog as a form of disrespect. Allegedly, the entire affair occurred because she converted to Islam.

The event caused a tinderbox to erupt into a firestorm, and a subsequent protest resulted in the killing of many hundreds of Kurdish Iraqi citizens who were protesting the honor killing. A number of other similar events resulted in the deaths of many more dozens.

Calculating The Disproportionate Violence Against Women

Have you ever wondered how much more often the women in your life have deal with violence and sexual harassment than men? If you haven’t, then you might find the statistics somewhat disconcerting. One in three women will experience physical violence and/or rape during their lifetime — from a romantic partner. That’s to say nothing of the violence perpetrated against women by strangers. This compares to about 10 percent of men who experience the same.

There are other forms of assault at play, too. For example, almost half of women and men believe they were victims of “psychological” aggression, manipulation, or coercion. Have you ever known a woman who was battered or abused by her spouse or partner, but she refused to leave him? This is where psychology fits into the equation.

Men don’t experience rape as often as women, but those who do report similar psychological long-term effects and over half of male victims of rape were raped by an acquaintance. Only 15 percent were raped by a stranger. 

Women who were raped when they were in their teens are also more likely to be raped as adults, compared to women who were not raped during adolescence. Researchers do not understand all the factors that contribute to this statistic, but speculate that some women who are more prone to sexual assault because of fear.

College students who report rape are far more likely to report that it happened at school — and women are far more likely to be raped on campus than men. 

Although women are far more likely to become the victims of sexual assault — it can and does occur to anyone. But few people talk about it. Most victims of violence make no attempt to press charges against the perpetrator, in part because our society continues to promote the idea that the victim is somehow to blame.