Some further reflections and illustrations to follow up Cynthia Epstein’s “Death by Gender” in the Spring 2010 issue of Dissent.
THERE ARE some practices that put a strain, or at least should put a strain, on the easy resort to cultural relativism as a comprehensive moral perspective. The murder of women to preserve their family’s “honor”—even, in some cases, where they haven’t actually committed any sexual transgressions but have simply become objects of rumor or scandal—is a prime example.
In cultures where honor killing is considered appropriate or obligatory, it certainly makes sense as a deeply meaningful practice bound into a whole network of institutions regulating sexuality, kinship, and so on. We can presume that most of the people who murder their female relatives this way don’t think of it as a crime—except, maybe, in a technical legal sense—but instead feel they’re doing the right thing as part of a valid normative order. (And they’ll typically feel angry and indignant toward the victim, whom they naturally regard as the one at fault.)
None of that stops honor killing from being an appalling, oppressive, and often sadistic practice that, in my opinion, ought to be unambiguously condemned. But experience also makes it clear that simply passing laws that make it illegal is not enough by itself. It needs to be morally rejected and stigmatized as well—and not just by outsiders but also by people within the cultures where it’s practiced.
Analytically, this point is brought out especially clearly by honor killings in immigrant minority communities in western Europe, where the practice is definitely illegal and was long ago rejected as normal by the majority cultures. Illustrations include the notorious case of Fadime Sahindal, murdered by her family in Sweden in 2002, and this report from Germany in 2008. But the point also applies to the countries that these migrants or their parents or grandparents came from, where honor killing may be technically illegal, more or less, but is still a recognized and/or tolerated part of the everyday normative order.
(More information is available on the website of the international campaign to Stop Honor Killings. Human Rights Watch has put out a number of useful reports on honor killing. For a thorough, systematic, and illuminating account of how honor killing works in one country, Jordan, with a good analysis of the interplay between the socio-cultural and formal-legal dimensions of the phenomenon, see “Honoring the Killers“.)
Concrete examples can help make the cruelty of honor killing less vague and abstract. Not long ago Mick Hartley (whose Culture & Politics blog is always worth following) drew attention to a few well-publicized examples of this internationally pervasive phenomenon. I recommend reading his posts in full, but the main highlights are below. The first post, you will note, starts out with a relatively mild case, oppressive and unjust but non-lethal. Those matter, too, not only because they’re bad enough in themselves, but also because they’re part of the same overall package.
Unjust Provocation (February 3, 2010):
Last week the Telegraph reported on the case of the 16-year-old Bangladeshi girl who was sentenced to 101 lashes for conceiving after being raped:
The girl was raped by a 20-year-old villager in Brahmanbaria district in April last year.
Bangladesh’s Daily Star newspaper reported that she was so ashamed following the attack that she did not lodge a complaint.
Her rape emerged after her pregnancy test and Muslim elders in the village issued a fatwa insisting that the girl be kept in isolation until her family agreed to corporal punishment.
Her rapist was pardoned by the elders.
Now here’s another case, this time in Turkey, where it’s the victim of the rape who pays the price–this time, the ultimate price:
A court has sentenced a man from Diyarbakır to six years in prison for killing his daughter six years ago, but has released the woman’s brother, who also participated in the honor killing, the Sabah daily reported on Tuesday.
The incidents leading up to the murder started when 18-year-old Gülseren Tanrıkut was raped by her stepbrother. When other members of the family found out about the rape, they decided to marry her off to another man.
Upon learning that his wife was not a virgin, the husband began to beat Gülseren, who then returned to her family’s house. Following her return, people in their neighborhood began spreading rumors, implying she was unchaste. To restore the family’s honor, her family decided to kill her. [….]
Hasan Tanrıkut, Gülseren’s father, strangled her with a cable while his son Mehmet held her legs to prevent her from fighting back as his other son, 12-year-old İdris, witnessed the incident unfold. The father then poured molten nylon on her face to make her unrecognizable and put her body in a sack before ordering his sons to throw the body away.
The sentencing information there is slightly misleading, since it turns out, as far as I understand it, that both father and brother have been in prison for the six years since the murder, and the father will now serve a further six years. But the sentences are nevertheless surprisingly light given the 2005 Turkish Penal Code ruling that honor killings should carry a mandatory life sentence. That ruling also introduced changes meant to prevent the use of the “unjust provocation” defense. So why were the sentences reduced?
The court ruled that Gülseren’s lifestyle, considered to have dishonored her family, and her dismissal of her brother’s warnings as well as speaking harshly with him amounted to unjust provocation, thus leading to a reduction in the sentences. The Supreme Court of Appeals upheld the court ruling on Dec. 10.
Buried Alive (February 5, 2010):
The father and grandfather of a Turkish teenager are to face trial for burying her alive because they were concerned that her friendship with boys had brought dishonour on their family.
Although honour killings are not infrequent in Turkey, the especially gruesome manner of Medine Memi’s death has shocked the nation. [….]
[JW: It’s worth noting that honor killings are not common everywhere in Turkey. They tend to be concentrated primarily, though not exclusively, in southeastern Turkey, a predominantly Kurdish region that is one of the poorest and most underdeveloped parts of the country. However, it’s also true that during the last few decades a lot of people from this area have migrated to western Turkey and to Europe—partly for economic reasons, partly due to the brutal long-term conflict between the insurgent Kurdish-nationalist PKK and the Turkish Armyand that migration has helped spread these cultural practices more widely.]
A coroner said that Medine had been discovered bound and lifeless in sitting position in a 2m hole dug beneath a chicken coop outside the family’s house in the town of Kahta in Southeastern Turkey, 40 days after she had disappeared. The hole had been cemented over. [….]
“The report is blood curdling. According to our findings the girl—who had no bruises on her body and no sign of narcotics or poison in her blood—was alive and fully conscious when she was buried,” said one official involved in the case.
It also emerged that Medine had repeatedly tried to report to police that she had been beaten by her father and grandfather days before she was killed. “She tried to take refuge at the police station three times, and she was sent home three times,” her mother, Immihan, said after the body was discovered in December.
Medine’s father is reported as saying at the time: “She has male friends. We are uneasy about that.”
Hard to blame them, right?