Control through Fear Common in Honor Killings and All Violence Against Women

By Liza Doubossarskaia, NOW Communications Intern

What consequences can a 17-year-old girl expect if she leaves her Muslim faith and becomes a Christian? Rifqa Bary is convinced that her punishment will be death as a result of a “Muslim ‘honor-killing,'” and that is why she ran away from her family in Ohio to stay with her pastor and his wife in Florida.

Rifqa’s parents deny any ill intentions toward their daughter and want Rifqa to be returned into their care, while her pastor has stated that he believes her life is in danger. Rare cases of honor-killings have occurred in the United States, and people don’t want to see another Amina and Sarah Said — two sisters who were murdered by their father because they had American boyfriends. But is it appropriate to blame Islam for such tragedies, or are we simply grasping at the first available explanation?

The threat of honor-killings is not exaggerated. Just do a Google search and see how many stories you find where even a perceived indiscretion by a woman is enough to warrant her a death sentence. The victim of an honor killing may have “disgraced” her family in various ways, including a refusal to enter into an arranged marriage, being sexually assaulted, seeking a divorce, or sexual activity outside marriage.

Islam’s detractors view honor killings as proof of the religion’s intolerant and misogynistic nature. However, there are several flaws in that line of reasoning. Firstly, the Quran doesn’t condone honor killings. Secondly, honor killings are not exclusive to Islam. The organization Human Rights Watch reports that honor crimes “are not specific to any religion, nor are they limited to any one region of the world.” Thirdly, honor killings are just part of the wider problem of violence against women, which knows no boundaries and is woefully under-acknowledged. It may well be that it is easier to attribute honor killings to certain religious and cultural origins than to admit that they spring from the same gender biases that infect all societies.

In India a bride can be killed if her dowry is considered insufficient, and in Latin America “crimes of passion” receive lenient treatment. Widney Brown, advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, says that “dowry deaths and so-called crimes of passion have a similar dynamic [to honor killings] in that the women are killed by male family members and the crimes are perceived as excusable or understandable.”

In fact, misogyny has a longstanding history around the globe — the West included. Centuries of dehumanization and exploitation have taken their toll. If women are seen as property, sex objects, or bearers of family honor, but not as autonomous human beings, they cannot hope to escape gender-based violence. In short, whatever it is that makes honor killings an acceptable practice to some people has little to do with Islam, although Islam’s teachings can be twisted to justify such practices, similarly to how Christianity has been twisted to justify various forms of bigotry and violence over the centuries — such as the Inquisition, witch hunts, slavery and the use of Eve’s story to shame all women. In addition, different interpretations of Islamic law don’t always produce the same judgment or punishment — the Muslim community is not a homogenous entity, and it runs a full spectrum in practices and interpretations of faith.

On a separated but related note, what is interesting about Rifqa’s case is that her offense might have less to do with soiling family honor and more with turning her back on Islam. Rifqa has forsaken her family’s religion, which can be a grievous transgression for men and women of many religious persuasions.

In the end, the court ruling granted Rifqa her wish and allowed her to stay in Florida, where she feels most safe. We can all rejoice that this young woman’s voice was heard, even though we might debate the role religion plays in controlling women.

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