The issue must be seen in the context of violence against women and the inequality found throughout society.
On Sunday a Canadian court found three members of an Afghan family, the father, mother and son, guilty of killing three teenage sisters and another woman. The judge described the crimes as “cold-blooded, shameful murders” resulting from a “twisted concept of honour”. The prosecution argued that for father Mohammad Shafia, honour was everything – quoting him as saying “even if they hoist me up on to the gallows … nothing is more dear to me than my honour”.
This was undoubtedly a brutal and heinous crime. Yet is there a danger in simply condemning it as an “honour killing”, as so many in the mainstream media and government have? The concept of “honour” is notoriously difficult to define. At its most basic level, it refers to a person’s righteousness in the eyes of their community. It is often employed to ensure that people act morally. In this respect, if people follow what is considered socially good, they are honoured. If not, they are shamed. This most recent case in Canada is just one of many tragic examples that reveal its continuing influence. In the UK there was the recent, well-publicised murder of teenager Heshu Yones by her father for becoming “westernised”. The family had migrated to Britain to escape persecution by Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraqi Kurdistan, and Heshu had developed a relationship with a Lebanese Christian man.
Yet, by focusing on the subject of honour, such violence is too often explained away by cultural stereotypes – allowing society to dismiss these cases as something that only happens in minority communities with their “outdated” notions of justice. This allows us to completely overlook that, first and foremost, these cases are of violence against women, and the concept of honour is being used to legitimate the continued oppression of women.