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Dishonoring the Family Can Lead to Murder: The Story Behind Honor Killings

According to UNICEF’s website, “An honor killing, also known as honor murder, is the homicide of a member of a family or social group by other members, due to the belief that the victim has brought dishonor upon the family or community.”

Dishonor typically stems from one of the following behaviors, the website explains: dressing in a manner unacceptable to the family or community, wanting to end or prevent an arranged marriage or desiring to marry by own choice, engaging in heterosexual acts outside of marriage or engaging in any homosexual acts.

As a result of rigid beliefs as to what is right and wrong in cultures throughout the world, thousands of women, teens and even men have been forced to adhere to their family’s strict belief systems or face the consequence of dishonor which can lead to death.

The acts that brings dishonor to many families and communities continues to grow as individuals from various cultures come to the United States, a country in which there is no law regarding honor killings. According to the United Nations website, “In many societies, rape victims, women suspected of engaging in premarital sex and women accused of adultery have been murdered by their relatives because the violation of a woman’s chastity is viewed as an affront to the family’s honor.”

According to Dr. Rehka Datta, of the Political Science Department, who specializes in foreign social enviornments said, “Some countries allow the practice in the name of cultural standards and taboos against tainting family name and honor, and others have laws such as ‘zina’ that allow for harsh punishments for extramarital and adulterous acts.” She continued, “Often these justifications of ‘killing’ women are made without much proof, and women’s powerlessness in society makes matters worse for them.”

The website also offers some alarming statistics. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that 5000 women worldwide are killed by instances of honor killing each year. Perhaps even more alarming is that on their website, Nisha Varia, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, explains that there is very poor data on honor violence. “It’s such a difficult phenomenon to accurately record because many don’t get reported, or they happen in remote areas, or are classified as something else,” she said.

Despite the thousands of instances of honor killing that go unheard, there are some instances that news organizations have illuminated for the world to see. For example, CBS News explained in an article entitled “Honor Killing Under Growing Scrutiny in the U.S.” from earlier this month, that the news of a father who had deliberately and brutally murdered his daughter flooded news stations and newspapers everywhere early in 2010. Noor Almaleki, the 20-year-old woman from Arizona, had been the victim of an honor killing.

Detective Boughey, one of the detectives working to find out the truth behind Noor Almaleki’s death said in the CBS article that, “In certain traditions and certain cultures, if a father believes that a female has acted in a dishonorable or disrespectful way, to bring dishonor to the family, to bring dishonor to the community, that the only way to restore that honor is to kill them.”

What may be most surprising is that Noor’s story is not unique. According to the CBS article, Jasvinder Sanghera, founder of Karma Nirvana, a community- based project which helps victims of forced marriages and honor based violence in Great Britain by providing safe-housing, said, “There has been a survey that in the States over the past two years, there have been 3,000 cases of forced marriage.” She continued by saying, “It’s an unimaginable concept for most Americans, but some cultures believe that murdering a child to restore family honor is justifiable.”

However, what many don’t realize is that honor killing stems from a longline of cultural norms in many societies. Dr. Michelle Grillo of the criminal justice department explained, “Honor killings are acceptable in some areas of the world, such as the Middle East. If a father kills his daughter in the name of the family, the father will not be prosecuted. However, in the U.S., killing is considered wrong, no matter what the reason (with the exception of proven self-defense).”

She continued to say, “So, if an Arab family conducts an honor killing in the U.S., the family members involved will be prosecuted for murder (as is what happened in Canada a couple of months ago). This results in a clash of cultures, representing culture conflict theory – where two different cultures clash in their morals, values and even laws.”

In an article entitled “Cultural Relativism and Universal Rights,” from the Chronicle of Higher Education, Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban also describes how honor killings can be viewed in cultural relativist terms. “Changing cultural and economic status of women has also been used to explain the occurrences of honor killings. Women in largely patriarchal cultures who have gained economic independence from their families go against their maledominated culture. Some researchers argue that the shift towards greater responsibility for women and less for their fathers may cause their male family members to act in oppressive and sometimes violent manners in order to regain authority,” she explains.

Another instance of honor killing that goes along with the notion that women who gain independence from their family economically go against the idea of a male-dominated culture is Palestina “Tina” Isa. Isa was a 16-yearold girl from St. Louis, Missioui and the daughter of two Palestinian immigrants. Late in 1989, she was found to have taken a part time job without her parent’s permission and was dating an African-American rather than the man her parents chose for her in an arranged marriage. She was held down by her mother while her father allegedly stabbed her to death as a form of honor killing.

“We don’t have the mechanisms in place here in the U.S. to take care of these girls,” says Det. Chris Boughey, the detective that worked on Noor Almaleki’s case, according to the “48-hours special.”

Despite the growing number of cases of forced marriage and killing as a way to restore family honor, many Americans may think that forced marriages and so-called honor killings exist only overseas. However, according to CBS “48 Hours Mystery Special” entitled “A Family’s Honor,” “A survey the Tahirih Justice Center conducted of more than 500 social service, religious, legal, educational and medical agencies last year, 67 percent responded that they believed there were cases of forced marriage occurring among the populations they serve, but only 16 percent felt their agency was equipped to deal with the situation.”

Grillo also explained, “honor killings typically occur by a father or brother against a daughter/sister. In the most recent cases in the U.S., the father has been the person to conduct the honor killings. The other family members know and understand what must be done, whether or not they agree with it.”

She explained that typically what happens is the daughter brings shame to the family, such as in the stories of Noor Almaleki and Palestina “Tina” Isa. “This may be through becoming too “Americanized” by the way of dress or behavior, or more commonly, the daughter has a relationship (in particular a sexual one) with a man before he is married. To spare the family pain from the embarrassment of the daughter’s disrespect for the family, the daughter is killed by the head of the family, the father,” Grillo explained.

“Every time a mother or wife is tortured and murdered in the name of honor killing, it is bound to bring an incompleteness and emptiness in a child’s or man’s life; scars that will have longer lasting effect on an individual’s life as well as on the family, community, and society at large. That’s why we should all care about how a fellow human being is treated, man or woman, far or near, – worldwide!” Datta expressed.

She then explained how honor killing is still thriving within our own borders. “The U.S. does not have any mechanisms in place to assist women in these cases, if they fear their life. In addition, there is very little data available worldwide from organizations such as the World Health Organization. There is even less data in the United States, if any at all,” Grillo said.

According to Patrick Amos, a junior criminal justice major, “I agree with the murder laws, killing someone (especially a family member) is illegal and should be. Just because they did something against religious beliefs or the morals of the parents should never be a valid excuse for taking a life.”

He continued by saying, “Killing another person is inherently wrong, and if the laws of the United States are ever changed to accommodate honor killings then the government would be failing to protect its people.”