Is there a worse name than ‘honour killings’?


When you think of the word ‘honour’, it conjures an image of someone who is honest, plain-dealing, and trustworthy. What it doesn’t invoke is the image of a man who murders his children for wearing revealing clothing or dating outside his/her nationality, or for refusing an arranged marriage.

There’s no honour in murder. It is the weak-willed act of a coward who lacks any human decency. One might be able to persuade me that there is honour in the suicide tradition of Bushido, in which failure to act honourably moves the samurai to take his/her own life. I’m generally against the idea of suicide, but a person’s life is their own to do with what they want. What he is not entitled to do, however, is murder someone else to restore his own sense of ‘honour’. Any society in which one person’s mental state or social status trumps another’s right to the security of their person cannot stand.

India seems to be realizing this:

India’s home minister proposed Thursday a bill to provide specific, severe penalties to curb honour killings, saying they brought “dishonour” to India as a secular, modern democracy. “We are living in the 21st century and there is a need to amend the current law and the law must reflect what the 21st century requires,” he said. “We have to look ahead and build a society that is based on secular values and enlightened views.”

I’ve talked previously about the social climate changing for women in India. The linked article mentions that there has been an upswing of violence against women in India, and that it is necessary to make changes in the status quo if India wishes to achieve its goal of being seen as a major world power. Let it never be said that international peer pressure and secularism can’t make the world a better place to live. There are around 500 million women in India who would likely agree.

The problem with passing these kinds of laws, however, is that murder is a crime. I am still uneasy about punishing people extra for the reasons behind why they commit crimes. Punishing specific groups of people for committing certain types of crimes against other specific groups is ethically dicey ground. Is it still an ‘honour killing’ if a non-religious man kills his son for being gay, or his daughter for dating a black man? Maybe it is, and if there’s a way to state that unambiguously, I’ll be interested to hear it.

Canada seems to be realizing this:

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson says prosecuting honour crimes is a priority for the government but that there isn’t any real need to change the Criminal Code.

Murder is wrong, and that must always be the focus. If passing specific statutes against honour killing will make it happen less, then that’s a discussion we can have. I doubt very much, however, that adding on a few extra years to a life sentence is going to meaningfully demotivate a person who is willing to murder his/her children from committing the act. The way to approach these things is that we have to model and encourage secular values of respect for the integrity of a human’s autonomy and security of person, and discourage the equation of “faithfulness” with righteousness.

Every time I hear of an honour killing, there is an almost-overwhelming temptation to immediately blame religion. The stories that get the most press are those in which the murderers are Muslim or immigrants from Muslim countries. I’m skeptical of this explanation for being overly simplistic, not to mention the fact that this type of killing is not founded in Qu’ranic verse. It’s sort of like when an abortion doctor is murdered by a Christian fundamentalist – it’s a flawed interpretation of scripture (which is, in itself, flawed, but we won’t go into that here) and isn’t an accurate reflection of doctrine. The problem is the belief that underlies both Christianity and Islam (and all religions) – that there exists an unobservable external standard which is accountable only to itself, but to which all of humanity is subject; and further, that this standard is not based on something reasonable like observable consequences to humankind, but based only on how fervently you believe in it. Sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and the like existed in the societies that spawned these religions, and they persist today. Blaming a book for a human failing neglects the larger and more accurate story that’s going on.

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