Death by Gender

Death by Gender

Finally, the atrocity of gendercide—the murder and mutilation of victims selected by sex—is getting prominent attention in the press. Through feminist online activism, but more prominently through the efforts of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof (in his new book Half the Sky, written with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, and in his New York Times column), a socially embedded and systematic assault on women and girls in much of the world has been brought to public consciousness. The crimes at issue range from the killing of girls and women—often by their fathers, brothers, or male cousins, acting for the “honor” of the family—to the trafficking of women as sex slaves and to their forced recruitment as suicide bombers.

I will focus in this article on honor killing because the act is so vile, Further, the concept is difficult to dislodge. The notion of “honor” is at the core of many conflicts within and between societies all over the world, although it has been substantially reduced in the West. But, notions of honor underpin the marriage system in the tribal societies that are common in the Middle East and many parts of Africa. The most important connections between tribes are based on kinship and marriage, and value in the marriage market depends on female “virtue”—so girls and women must be tightly controlled to assure the “purity” of these social connections. Girls’ families won’t invest emotionally in them because they typically leave their birth families while very young and are brought into their husband’s families as outsiders whose purpose is to bear children and take care of elderly family members. Without personal or social resources, they often are forced to be the servants or slaves of men in their birth families and then again in the families they enter by marriage. In “honor societies,” which are characteristic of much of the developing world, girls and women are denied the protections that outside affiliations and affection might provide. Deviation from the rules imposed by male authorities may label a female as “contaminated” and elicit harsh sanctions. At its most serious, contamination is decreed when a women or girl is believed to have sought or had a sexual connection outside marriage—whether she acts from a desire to choose her own mate or is a victim of rape. Whether it has occurred within or outside the family, sexual contamination may be punished by murder. Thus, in some societies, the murder of girls and women is justified by perceived social and moral infractions, and women are held in strict segregation to guard against these possibilities.

The belief that women are symbolic bearers of the honor of the clan or tribe is widely held, most often in Muslim countries but in others as well. And although Islamic law, or sharia, does not mandate honor killing as a punishment, it is practiced in many Islamic communities, openly so in some of them. It c...


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