Thursday, February 04, 2010

On Honor Killings

What is very hard about blogging is trying to cover too many topics too fast. I should specialize more and write less but then the topic of the day will have fallen down the Memory Hole. Still, sometimes my brain needs a few days to percolate the intellectual coffee, so to speak, to make sure that it's strong, aromatic and clear. If I write too soon I offer you but a mess. But if I wait, the coffee will be cold.

This is the case with the recent article in the Nation magazine on honor killings. The author seems to chase several different ideas at the same time and I have difficulty deciding which of those I should follow to its logical conclusion. I'm not even quite sure what her main point is. Examples:

When Sanaa Dafani, a young woman living in the small town of Pordenone, Italy, was murdered this past fall, local media were quick to label the crime a case of "honor killing."

Eighteen-year-old Dafani, who was born in Italy to Moroccan parents, was killed by her conservative Muslim father, who had been angered by her Western lifestyle. In Dafani's case, this meant wearing jeans and dating a man.

Dafani's death shocked the country, and many blamed Muslim traditions for the murder: "Here's another case demonstrating that the Islamic culture cannot be integrated into our society," said Enzo Bortolotti, a representative of the Northern League, an influential right-wing party.


But evidence suggests honor killings are still relatively common in the West as well, not only among Muslim immigrants, although such crimes may take a different name.


Some women's rights advocates have argued that this practice cuts across culture and religions, although it may take different names at different times. They argue that associating it with Muslim immigrants alone is both dangerous and incorrect.

"Until thirty years ago, it was common to hear about honor killings among Italians. But now when a man kills his wife, they call it a crime of passion," argues Cinzia Tani, an Italian writer and journalist who specializes in women's issues. "It's the same concept taking different names: a man kills a woman of his family in order to assert his control over her body. The only difference is that back then the homicide of a woman was 100 percent acceptable. Now at least it is considered a crime, as the term itself suggests, even if it is still considered more acceptable than other kinds of homicides."

"Violence against women is widespread in almost any country, regardless of ethnicity or religion," says Farian Sabahi, an Iranian-Italian academic who teaches Islamic history at the University of Turin.


Sabahi believes "racist prejudice will not help" stop violence; she believes education is the key. "Institutions should focus on protecting women, rather than bashing culture," Sabahi says. "A good way to make women safer is to make them more educated and more independent economically." According to the World Health Organization, "there is evidence that women with less education are generally more likely to experience violence than those with higher levels of education."

Nevertheless, the WHO acknowledges that the relationship between education and intimate-partner violence is rather complex: "In some cases, women who are becoming more educated and empowered face a greater risk of violence as their male partners try to regain control."

To consider honor killings within Muslim communities a crime unto itself overlooks the patriarchal roots of much of the intimate partner violence against women in the Western world. Moreover, associating it with a particular minority can offer authorities an alibi for turning a blind eye toward the broader issue of violence against women.

These are my thoughts on the topic:

The author is completely correct when she argues that violence against women is not just a problem of immigrant Muslim communities in Europe, say. She is also quite correct in arguing that honor killings have much wider roots in general. I once read that the concept has been common in the past in countries around the Mediterranean, although taking slightly different forms in different cultures.

But honor killings are not the traditional excuse for violence against women in most other places, and to subsume them into that general concept is not helpful. Neither is the idea that all violence against women is of the same magnitude as long as we can prove cases from all sides. Numbers do matter, and whether the violence is considered justified by a particular culture also matters.

I also agree with the argument in the article that demonizing a culture or a religion is not at all helpful, though I'd like to add that letting a culture or a religion rule over its women as it wishes is also not at all helpful. The extreme type of multiculturalism does appear to allow the latter to take place. I guess the former could be the case in an extreme type of monoculturalism?

It's the comment about culture-bashing in the above quote that I had most difficulty with. In some sense all I do on this blog is "culture-bashing". I keep talking about the societal expectations for women and men, about the sub-cultures of Christian fundamentalists and so on. If I can't criticize those cultures, what CAN I write about? And how do we help the victims of violence if the culture approves of that violence?

The above quote suggests that empowering women alone may not suffice, and in any case there are cultures which disapprove of the idea of educating women, say. How does one cope with that paradox without criticizing the culture?