The cultural defense: what to make of “honor” killings?

So a reader sent along this article about a Pakistani man in Georgia that strangled his daughter because she didn’t want to get married to the man they had arranged for her to marry.

The Clayton County Medical Examiner confirmed that Kanwal died of strangulation. Police recovered an iron by the young woman’s bedroom doorway and a necklace on a family room table that may have been used in the killing, according to a Clayton County police report.
Authorities allege that Rashid killed his daughter because he feared that her resistance to a recently arranged marriage would disgrace the Pakistani-American family.

Sounds so simple right? He killed her because his “culture” made him. Not because he might be mentally ill or pathological. There is no denying that in basically every culture there is pressure put on women to act a certain way and especially with regard to marriage or the ownership of her sexuality. But the way that “honor” killing is discussed in the media you would think it is some normal cultural phenomena, when it is not. It is a sign of illness, culture gone awry and patriarchy at its most exaggerated.
In a ground-breaking essay, that I recommend you read if you are into theory, Leti Volpp talks about the notion of the cultural defense. One of the moments that this plays out is through the justification of violence against women as a cultural norm (usually based on racist ideas of culture).
It appears that there are two ways the mainstream US media talk about “honor” killings. The first is in a way the demonizes the horrid, brown, ugly, probably terrorist perpetrator, that is trying to hurt the innocent child like brown female that must be saved. Or making assumptions about the role of women in a given non-American culture as much more misogynist than our own and thereby engages in these forms of blatant abuse of patriarchal power that are cultural.
Neither scenario gives us much hope for how the case will go or allows for an intersectional analysis of the ways gender, culture and power play out. And when it is revolving around a violent murder of a young woman, it is very difficult to understand the nuance.
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32 Comments

  1. SociologicalMom
    Posted July 8, 2008 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    Would you mind posting the full citation for the Volpp essay? I’m very into theory.

  2. kali
    Posted July 8, 2008 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    “The first is in a way the demonizes the horrid, brown, ugly, probably terrorist perpetrator, that is trying to hurt the innocent child like brown female that must be saved.”
    “Or making assumptions about the role of women in a given non-American culture as much more misogynist than our own and thereby engages in these forms of blatant abuse of patriarchal power that are cultural.”
    1. You very use of the hackneyed, nebulous ‘racism’ charge shows the gross double-standard in the world today. Zero tolerance of ‘racism’ but a demand for “intersectional analysis” and “the nuance” when it comes to violence against women.
    You completely discount sincere concern and sympathy with the line “ trying to hurt the innocent child like brown female that must be saved”. How is the media supposed to report brutal intra-familial murders when the perpetrator is non-white? I mean it is not like the media ever sensationalises other crimes, eh? I suspect that they could not satisfy you with their reporting on immigrant community crime.
    Your comments seem cut from the tired ‘the West is to blame’ mindset. The real story for you seems to be not the senseless murder of this girl do to patriarchy & misogyny but rather the evil racist Western media. You suggest her murder is used as part of the War on Terror’s demonisation of “horrid, brown, ugly, probably terrorist perpetrator[s]” but you are using her murder to grandstand for your own anti-Imerpialist/anti-‘racist’/anti-Western politics. How does that make you any better?
    Well as a feminist I have a zero tolerance policy towards forced marriages and any violent repercussions. I guess that makes me a close-minded, Imperialist racist.
    2. Non-western cultures are almost uniformly more misogynist and it takes a sincerely disingenuous analysis to conclude otherwise. Just because there is misogyny, homophobia, etc. in the West does not place Western society on par with cultures who show minimal self-critical capacity and have often de jure protection and support for violently misogynistic institutions.
    I criticise my own culture for the sake of feminism and I damn well will criticise others as well. Read Susan Okin’s “Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?” for an excellent essay on this subject.
    Most importantly, women here can opt out. I do and I know women of varying socio-economic, educational and ethnic backgrounds who simply refuse to participate in the beauty, man-chasing, celebrity-worshipping society around us.
    Passive familial disapproval is hardly the same as being beaten, kidnapped, strangled, home-imprisoned and other treatment of women I read about in European & North American immigrant communities from the Muslim world in particular. Breast implants and nose-jobs are not forced upon young girls as is female genital mutilation. Conservative Christians do not throw acid in the face of women or bomb schools because the girls are being ‘immodest’.
    Consider: Most Islamic countries criminalise ‘blasphemy’ which means analysis of how Islam or other religions creates misogyny and homophobic violence is forbidden. Egypt’s parliament just voted in June to overturn the ban on FGM. Iran has a marriage age of nine in accordance with Sunnah. Jordan allows honour as a legal defense in killing women. I can go on…can you point to similar laws in the mean, evil West?

  3. Posted July 8, 2008 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    Yeah, it would be so much more civilized to sell wilfull (and rape-victim) female relatives into slavery like the Catholics did up until 1996.
    http://www.jesus-is-lord.com/laundry.htm

  4. ts
    Posted July 8, 2008 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    I agree with your assessment “culture gone awry and patriarchy at its most exaggerated.” But I object to the tag “masculinity” being used to describe an article describing an honor killing and wondering about their cultural origins.
    As for media representation and difficulty to understand the complexity of such cases, I’m thinking (re)reading “Antigone” may be a good start for people trying to cover such a story.

  5. Nora
    Posted July 8, 2008 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    I think it’s interesting that whenever a Pakistani makes the news for voicing an opinion or attending a protest (or pretty much anything else), he/she is undeservedly characterized as a terrorist without reason, morals, etc. But when a Pakistani makes the news for hurting a woman, it’s an “honor killing.” I realize that this is a really broad generalization, but that’s kind of the way that it seems to me.

  6. kali
    Posted July 8, 2008 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    “But the way that “honor” killing is discussed in the media you would think it is some normal cultural phenomena, when it is not. It is a sign of illness, culture gone awry and patriarchy at its most exaggerated.”
    Perhaps the thing which has gone “awry” is the girl’s slavish obedience to tradition, culture and religion. Most people meekly comply. Violence could well be the normal, accepted response (hence the use of ‘honour’ as an accepted legal defense) merely awaiting an act of exceptional defiance to unleash it. Did the parliament in Jordan vote to protect killings which you claim are “patriarchy at its most exaggerated” because they are some aberrant extreme?
    Again no one would engage in this sort of equivocation and misdirection with racist violence. Were lynchings ‘a sign of illness, culture gone awry and racism at its most exaggerated’ or simply the grotesque, sadly predictable consequence of allowing racism to fester in American society unchallenged? When James Byrd was killed we have national soul-searching when a girl is killed in the name of religion & culture we get sociologists claiming that we are a bunch of racists for making a big deal out of it (i.e. challenging misogyny).

  7. sly
    Posted July 8, 2008 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    Is there any suggestion or evidence that the guy is psychotic? I can’t tell if you’re suggesting that he’s mentally ill, or the culture is ill. Or are you suggesting that even in Pakistan, Afghanistan, etc, “honor killings” are rare?
    The UN does report that about 5,000 honor killings occur yearly, so it might be over publicized from your perspective, but the fact that, due to immigration, its occuring in Western countried that hadn’t seen it before probably accounts for a good deal of the publicity… of course, I imagine good, old fashioned “Islamophobia” fuels some of it as well.

  8. sojourner
    Posted July 8, 2008 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    “Iran has a marriage age of nine in accordance with Sunnah.”
    Kali, I glanced through your comments and I don’t have time to respond to what all is wrong with it. I am sure others will do a good job. However, this caught my eye because I am Iranian, and it’s not true. The age of consent is 13 in Iran.

  9. dee
    Posted July 8, 2008 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2872/is_1_27/ai_71563378
    According to all I have read, the legal marriageable age for girls is 9, for boys it is 14.

  10. dahabdabbler
    Posted July 8, 2008 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    “Egypt’s parliament just voted in June to overturn the ban on FGM.”
    Egypt, in fact, widened its ban on FGM and the First Lady is campaigning to put an end to this practice. It is also not a religion-specific practice; both Christians and Muslims perform FGM.
    http://www.afrol.com/articles/29278

  11. Akheloios
    Posted July 8, 2008 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    Any imbalance in a power structure leads to abuse just because of the way the human psyche has evolved.
    The more drastic the imbalance the more drastic and violent the abuse of that power is.
    That’s why I am an ardent athiest, femintist and anti-racist, because ANY disparity in power leads to abuse.
    Whether that abuse is child sex abuse by priests who have power over children, abuse in the workplace by bosses or colleagues who isolate and vilify women or gays , rape by people who take advantage of physical or psychological superiority, or neo-nazi thugs who demonise minorities who have no voice.
    We should chop the patriarchy off at the knees and elevate the weak to finally put an end to the abuse of power disparities.

  12. ERS
    Posted July 8, 2008 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    Kali makes some excellent points. People are calling this a dishonor killing because that’s what it is, not because they are racist or Islamophobes or whatever other unhelpful and unfair label is applied to them.
    Well, this is a dishonor killing, and I think it should be called that for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which it needs to be statistically representated in the categories of murder so we can track the numbers and assess whether special forms of prevention and support are needed.
    As Pakistan was founded to be a homeland for Muslims who did not feel welcome in India, the odds are that the perpetrator is Muslim. But, for my part, that matters not. I am against these crimes regardless of the faith of the person who commits them.
    Ellen R. Sheeley, Author
    “Reclaiming Honor in Jordan”

  13. ripley
    Posted July 8, 2008 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    Considering that vast numbers of american women are killed by their american boyfriends and husbands (which are often cast by the killers in terms of the women’s refusal to obey), I think honor killings are just as American as they are Pakistani or anything else. The American definition of honor is just assumed to be normal and personal.
    I agree with the previous poster that this kind of killing should be categorized and tracked, but I would argue this is especially necessary in the US among non-muslim populations that are currently given a free pass over the disgusting levels of abuse and murder of women that goes on. I disagree that it is a muslim problem, it’s just not named in the US as an American problem.

  14. Bea
    Posted July 8, 2008 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    I think one thing people who dismiss honor killings as a “cultural” thing are missing is the number of men from these cultures who manage to get through their lives just fine without killing their female relatives.
    Honor killings may have their roots in a specific culture, but all in all I’d say it’s primarily a misogyny thing, not a cultural thing. Violence is used to control women all over the world, by people from all cultures.

  15. funkygroove
    Posted July 8, 2008 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    I also get tired of hearing about this kind of thing as thought this behaviour only stems from “brown” cultures. I’m from Canada, and there are a lot of stories our media about this kind of thing coming from Pakistani and Indian cultures. Well, my parents are immigrants from a Mediterranean country, and I live with a brown man who is from a tropical country, and my parents have completely disowned me (aside from the occasional phone calls where they hurl verbal abuse at me). Granted, they haven’t tried to kill me, but sometimes I wonder how they would behave towards me if I still lived at home and they found out I was going to marry him. Anger can make people — ALL kinds of people — do certain things in the heat of the moment that they wouldn’t otherwise consider under more “sane” conditions. Lucky for me, I live far away from my parents. And I am not from India, or Pakistan, or Iran, or whatever. My parents come from a European, very Orthodox Christian country. And this kind of thing is VERY common in our culture, and I wish more people would talk about it. Ultimately, this mentality is about controlling women, and the consequences that arise from one’s inability to do so. Last time I checked, almost every culture on earth is guilty of that.

  16. Holly Would
    Posted July 8, 2008 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    Calling another culture for what it is….ill…runs the risk of being called a racist. Now, I realize I am now at risk of being accused of playing the ‘victim olympics,’ but when it comes down to it, American culture will gladly risk accusations of sexism rather than accusations of racism. Sexism and gender bias is laughed off and scoffed…..but being accused of racism could threaten your job if you work in the media. If this past primary has taught us anything, sexism is socially acceptable.

  17. StaceyJean
    Posted July 8, 2008 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    I read a REALLY great book on honor killing, if anyone is interested. It’s a woman’s memoir of being burned alive and surviving. It’s called Burned Alive and it’s written by Souad. Check it out.

  18. kimm
    Posted July 8, 2008 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    In the reporting of honor killings, Western media inevitably characterizes the victim as a woman who needed saving from the corrupt, misogynistic non-Western culture. Invariably it raises Spivak’s phrase of white women saving brown women from brown men. However, although some may argue this is a generalization like Kali does, you can’t disregard the role of mainstream media in portraying the victim as in need of saving and the perpetrator as the scary Other.
    To say the West is more civilized than other countries also disregards and overlooks many of the West’s flaws, including women being killed by significant others, rape and sexual assault.

  19. Margaret
    Posted July 8, 2008 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been in a lot of arguments with self-described liberals about this. The idea that it is ethnocentric to say that FGM, honor killings, ect, are wrong.
    My litmus test is usually: replace “gender” with “race” and see if you still feel like it’s just respecting a culture.
    This is not meant to pit the two against each other: any violence or coercion against another human being based on genetic attributes or non-violent lifestyle choices is wrong and all needs to be given serious attention. It is just a way to highlight how accepting we are of violence against women under the guise of cultural acceptance.
    http://www.seeklyrics.com/lyrics/Tilt/Minister-Of-Culture.html
    That’s my favorite thing ever written on the subject. It’s a song by Tilt. A punk band w/ a rockin’ lady lead singer.

  20. StaceyJean
    Posted July 8, 2008 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    I read a REALLY great book on honor killing, if anyone is interested. It’s a woman’s memoir of being burned alive and surviving. It’s called Burned Alive and it’s written by Souad. Check it out.

  21. StaceyJean
    Posted July 8, 2008 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    I read a REALLY great book on honor killing, if anyone is interested. It’s a woman’s memoir of being burned alive and surviving. It’s called Burned Alive and it’s written by Souad. Check it out.

  22. adminassistant
    Posted July 8, 2008 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    Kali-
    “Most importantly, women here can opt out. I do and I know women of varying socio-economic, educational and ethnic backgrounds who simply refuse to participate in the beauty, man-chasing, celebrity-worshipping society around us.”
    “Perhaps the thing which has gone “awry” is the girl’s slavish obedience to tradition, culture and religion.”
    Seriously? At what point, according to you, should this young woman have “opted out?” This happens everyday to millions of women everywhere, and your response is to blame them for being “slavishly obedient?” That’s your response to women who are murdered and beaten- “Don’t complain, you get to live in America?”

  23. Sarah Connor
    Posted July 8, 2008 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    ok, i made a comment on here earlier i dunno if its waiting approval or if it will even show but just to echo what a few people have said on here-this, unfortunatly is a cultural thing (but in many cultures-not just those few asian cultures) and the reason its gone on for so long unchallenged is because the world holds culture dear. well sorry-dont care. people rights come before old traditions and stupid notions of womans virginity=family honour.
    @ kali-most countires do do that-but i would dispute your definition of islam creating misogyny. islam is quite clear that you should question/know what you do not just follow religious practises blindly. islam came about to stop the culture of female babies being buried alive and women being forced into marraige-and now because of culture-not islam, a lot of these things are being done in the name of islam and are going unchecked. if islam was followed the way it should these women would have many more rights than they do now-and “honour killings” would be dealt with seriously and not brushed under the carpet.

  24. katie
    Posted July 8, 2008 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

    What really bothers me is this quote from the article on CNN.com regarding this story.
    “I think there’s ways that we can rationalize it and make sense of it, particularly in thinking about new immigrant communities in the U.S. and thinking about some of the struggles that they face and the generation gap and the cultural differences that children do face,” he said. “I think there are some issues there, but by and large, this isn’t a rampant problem within South Asian communities. What is a problem, I think, is domestic violence, and that cuts across all communities.”
    What is wrong with feminists/liberals if we can’t even take a stand against violence against women for fear of criticizing another’s way of life? Why not call it exactly like it is, which is a disgusting tradition from a very sick culture. We seem to have absolutely no problem criticizing just about everything in America, but when it comes to this, we shy away from making any judgments whatsoever. I am not sure what’s happening to the liberal community if we can’t take a stand against evil and oppression, no matter what color or culture.
    Also, lets call a spade a spade here, while Western culture is FAR from perfect, it does not come even close to perpetuating the human rights abuses that Muslim/ Middle Eastern culture does. To say otherwise is truly ignorant, not to mention dangerous.
    That all being said, violence against women is used in every culture to control women, but that’s not really what we are talking about here. We are talking about a specific kind, and to broaden it is to circumvent the problem because of a fear of being branded a racist.

  25. kali
    Posted July 8, 2008 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

    For some reason my earlier post refuting sojourner was not posted. I included links from Emory University (a detailed overview of Iranian law) and an artcile from the BBC making mention of the fact that the age of marriage/consent in Iran is in fact NINE as I claimed earlier. Anyone who doubts this claim can do the research for themselves, including its relationship to Mohammed’s marriage to Aisha.

  26. kali
    Posted July 8, 2008 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

    Sarah Connor: “if islam was followed the way it should these women would have many more rights than they do now-and “honour killings” would be dealt with seriously and not brushed under the carpet.
    I largely agree with your comments but I find your closing apologetic for Islam entirely threadbare.
    1. Islam has had 1400 years to correct these allegedly ‘cultural’ injustices. 1400 years.
    2. Funny how Indonesia, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Morocco and other Muslim countries spanning half the globe all seem to share the same “culture”.
    I stand by my assertion that the religion itself (like all Abrahamic faiths) is inherently misogynistic, even if it was not as bad as what proceeded it in the Arabian peninsula.

  27. natmusk
    Posted July 8, 2008 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

    I don’t necessarily get the criticism towards Samhita for this article. She’s not saying that Honor killings are excused because of the culture or that we shouldn’t work hard to stop them. What she is addressing is how the media handles these situations. Never once is there a link to Honor killings and the domestic violence that exists in our society. Never once is it shown that there are people of Middle Eastern background fighting against these practices. After working with domestic violence victims and abuse victims there is little difference in a man beating/killing his wife because she “embarassed him” in some way then there is within an honour killing. We have a link on here where a Preacher is shown to justify domestic violence because the wife didn’t submit. The issue is not being sensitive to these practices before of practices but that the media has a tendency to act like these acts are sooo different than anything we have here.

  28. A male
    Posted July 8, 2008 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

    “Considering that vast numbers of american women are killed by their american boyfriends and husbands (which are often cast by the killers in terms of the women’s refusal to obey), I think honor killings are just as American as they are Pakistani or anything else. The American definition of honor is just assumed to be normal and personal.”
    My god, I hadn’t even thought of it that way, and perhaps only one other commenter has, as well.
    Thank you so much for pointing this out. Also recall recent Feministing articles on American DV claimed to be rooted in wives’ failure to submit to their husbands. That quote is outrageous, but the sentiment is common in US society.
    No, it is not necessarily racist to point out the shortcomings and outrages in other cultures, but is probably racist to put that *entire* culture e.g, as I see occasionally occurs with Islam or predominantly Muslim cultures here, below yours.

  29. slighttilt
    Posted July 8, 2008 at 11:33 pm | Permalink

    This is a fantastic discussion. Sorry, I’m a bit overwhelmed.
    Kali, I really enjoyed your critical and precise response to the article. I especially enjoyed your passion against polarizing anything in either direction.
    A purely “liberal” response to cultural analysis is as useless as a purely “conservative” response, in that I agree. It doesn’t give any insight, merely a back-and-forth tennis match of demonizing one another.
    Still, the harsh criticism of the author just demonized her, and retained the same hatred for demonizing that the author has for American media.
    All in all, I’m with you. I just think that a constructive response without the “hint” of sarcasm, would promote the cultural… openness that you desire.
    Or maybe I’m just wrong.

  30. Sean
    Posted July 9, 2008 at 2:56 am | Permalink

    The issue with the cultural defense is (a somewhat reasonable) response to the tendency of people (including feminists–even intersectional sociologists!) to conflate political tactics within a culture with an inherent value of said culture. There is nothing inherently Islamic about FGM any more than there is anything inherently White about owning SUVs, but political positioning has made that reality seem apparent and obvious, which gives racist columnists posing as feminists an open door to attack cultures that contain “honor” killings. Remember, correlation does not mean causation.
    In the case of the relationship between the American MSM and their treatment of “honor” killing cases in the Middle East, it seems to me to be extremely similar to the way that Native American men and other Men of Color have and continue to be othered by White storytellers–be they members of the media or merely someone who has a more informal role in shaping narratives.
    This racist treatment of Men of Color was a political ploy to control White women at the time, by creating an environment of fear and positioning women who were dissatisfied with White culture to be told that there were no safe alternatives.
    It seems to me that cases like these demonstrate no fundamental flaw in Islam’s treatment of women, but rather, the paternalistic way that men view women and the way that cowardly individuals take advantage of political climates (created by religion or turmoil or economics or whatever the case may be) to do harm to those who depend on them. So, there really is no “cultural defense,” because assuming that it even exists is saying that the existence of violence within a culture indicates that it is a violent culture. However, it should be noted that there are never such far-reaching assumptions to be made about individual cases when a member of the media is discussing the culture from which her/his point of view has originated.

  31. Posted July 9, 2008 at 7:00 am | Permalink

    This murder is related to the conception of ‘honour’ which is common to all classically patriarchal societies: there are many Sikh, Hindu, Druze, Christian and Yezidi victims of ‘honour’ killing who are constantly overlooked in a debate which has become polarised around Islam, whether in attack of defence.
    5000 is almost certainly an underestimate: the number was collated by UNPFA, but there is a significant problem with the underregistration of the birth of girls. Independent researchers have recorded over 1000 in a single year in Pakistan — and these are only the ‘honour’ killings that get in the papers, the reality is much higher.
    Classical ‘honour’ killing cannot be linked with domestic violence, or crimes of passion, because a classical ‘honour’ killing is a highly structured phenomenon, where the murder is cold bloodedly decided by a council of men and post-menapausal women. At this family council the decision to murder is made and the method and perpetrator worked out. Quite often this will be the younger brother of the family, who may be told that the murder is a ‘passage to manhood’. There may be no history of violence in the family. In the UK, specialist hitmen carry out 1 in 8 ‘honour’ killings. In many countries ‘honour’ killers get a reduced or non-custodial sentence.
    ‘Honour’ killers act in the expectation of approval or at least acceptance from their wider community, and some are even lionised. There may be recognition that it is difficult to kill a daughter, sister or cousin and a feeling that the man has done his duty to enforce the patriarchal order.
    Hopefully the ‘culture’ defence will not be made: I do not want to see a repeat of the case of Heshu Yones where her father was given a reduced sentence because of ‘cultural differences’. Murder is murder. To reproduce the discriminatory laws of Syria, Jordan, Iraq etc in the name of multiculturalism would be a huge mistake.

  32. Posted July 10, 2008 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    I can’t understand what’s “confusing” about “what to make of” honor killings. Misinterpret this as racist if you must, but just because another country justifies and expresses it’s misogyny in slightly different ways than ours does, doesn’t change what it is. How is calling it an “honor killing” in Pakistan, different from a guy in the US saying he killed his girlfriend because she “disrespected him” or had to “teach her a lesson”? Why is it that if it was simple a case of a father killing his daughter we are clearly against it, but if a cultural term pops up we suddenly don’t know what to do? Has PC gotten so out-of-hand that we’re afraid to stand up for what’s right rather than offend some people? Well, this man was a murderer, so I could care less if I offend him. He killed his daughter in cold blood. His reasons for justifying it are immaterial to me.
    You know what else is “cultural”? Female circumcisms. But we consider that a human rights violation in America. But somehow strangling your daughter because she didn’t do what you said is “ok”? The way I see it, it’s actually more racist to call it anything other than murder. To call it a cultural phenomenon that we as Westerns can’t understand, assumes that the culture of Pakistan is one so primitive and violent that there’s just no hope for the safety of women there at all.

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