A patriarchal construct first used to protect property, possessions and community status, honour has evolved into a powerful system of social control. It is manipulative, secretive, can be violent, and may also be deadly. According to Amnesty International, ‘The regime of honour is unforgiving.’ Applied to familial and sexual roles dictated by tradition, the system of honour typically, though not always, affects women. Lawyer and women’s advocate Hina Jilani asserts: ‘It is not about religion or culture, it is about controlling… especially girls and women, who grow up with the constant threat of bringing shame on the family.
Dawn will come. The girls will ask: ‘Where is she?’
The beast of blood will reply: ‘We killed her. That stain, on our foreheads,
we have washed it away.’—from Wash Away Shame by Nazik Al-Mala’ika
What might bring dishonour upon a family? Behaviours as innocuous as texting, wearing make-up or Western-style clothes can be considered shameful; more significant contraventions may include defying parents in choosing friends, a career path, or relationship partners. Because the concept of honour is bound to a woman’s sexuality, sexual activity, sexual orientation, adultery, sexual abuse and even rape are considered violations; a loss of ‘purity,’ whether real or merely perceived, reflects negatively on a family.
The UN estimates that 5,000 to 10,000 women die each year in honour killings, however advocates and rights groups believe the value greatly underestimates actual numbers. Between 2010 and 2014, the UK recorded 11,744 non-lethal incidents of honour crime. In fact, violence related to honour is thriving within diasporic immigrant communities in the West. An RCMP brief indicates that ‘honour-based violence is a common, yet largely invisible, crime in Canada.’ The Canadian government makes clear its opposition in citizenship literature, calling honour-motivated crimes ‘barbaric cultural practices.’
Unlike acts of domestic violence, honour-based violence is related to the collective family unit. According to activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, ‘Honour violence is communally sanctioned.’ UK specialist Nazir Afzal calls honour violence an ‘organized crime,’ one that is typically premeditated and pre-planned. There are often multiple perpetrators involved, most often from within the immediate and extended family. Whereas domestic violence is stigmatized, Afzal says ‘honour violence is supported,’ often by a surrounding silence and lack of willingness to intervene.