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By Amina Al-Haddad, 14 July 2005


In recent times, a great deal of media coverage has been devoted to the phenomenon of so-called ‘honour killings’, whereby mainly women, but also sometimes men, are killed by close acquaintances for having done something that has humiliated their family. The media portrayal of this subject has covered both the occurrence of the phenomenon in developing countries, and its occurrence – or the threat of its occurrence – among Muslim communities in the West.

A common theme arising out of this coverage has been the assertion that Muslim societies have an endemic problem with regard to their treatment of women and that honour killings are merely a manifestation of this problem that is rooted in the Quran. One is encouraged to reach the conclusion that Muslims must change their attitude towards the Quran so as to protect the rights of women (Ayaan Hirsi Ali appearing on the BBC Newsnight programme, 13 July 2005). And as one commentator at the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council puts it: “Some might argue that the far away practice of honour killings, tragic though it might be, should not be of any particular concern to Australia. Yet such indifference would be a mistake because the oppression of women in the Arab world flows from the same cultural wellspring that feeds the Islamist extremism that threatens us all.” Although the author of this diatribe lacks the subtlety of many of his journalistic colleagues, a consistent, underlying theme of recent media coverage of honour killings has been that Islam somehow promotes, or at least does not condemn, honour killings and, by extension, the wider oppression of women.

Women in Muslim societies are commonly portrayed as the ‘bearers of the honour’ of their families, tribes and communities. A slur on her character is therefore a slur on the entire system with which she is associated. It is this interpretation of ‘traditional society’ that has resulted in the perception that the ‘social distance’ between men and women, their respective conduct and dress codes are all tools that facilitate the ‘patriarchal control’ of women. In short, the suggestion is that the structural and institutional control that exists over women in Muslim societies is oppressive and leads to (and perhaps condones) horrific practices, of which honour killing is one of the most shocking examples.

It is impossible to find any basis in Islam for such a barbaric practice, and one can have nothing but sympathy for the families of the victims, and pity for those (Muslim or otherwise) who perpetrate such debased crimes. However, using the occurrence of honour killings in Muslim communities as justification, there is today an increasingly strident demand that traditional Muslim societal norms be radically overhauled. We should examine more closely the motives of those calling for change, as well as the intellectual basis for the campaign. We should ask whether the problem of honour killings is being treated rationally and objectively, or whether the issue is being exploited in order to justify wide-ranging change in Muslim societies.


Simplistically, what is being suggested is that Muslim societal structures are oppressive to women. This leads to abuse such as honour killings. The argument that leads on from this is that change should be fostered to allow Muslim women to enjoy the benefits of liberation that women in non-Muslim societies enjoy. It needs to be emphasised that this inaccurate diagnosis of the problem and proposed solution is based upon an isolated number of instances of abuse in Muslim communities.

Whilst reaffirming that Islam condemns the abuse of women in absolute terms, for the sake of comparison, it is instructive to survey the situation in our own society. To what extent have women been isolated from abuse following the widely trumpeted liberation of women?

An abundance of data exists concerning the prevalence of physical and sexual abuse. For the sake of brevity, reference will mainly be made to research from Amnesty International about violence against British women (see http://www.amnesty.org.uk/svaw/vaw/global.shtml):

• Domestic violence accounts for nearly a quarter of all recorded violent crime in England and Wales.
• One in four women will be a victim of domestic violence in their lifetime.
• On average, two women per week are killed by a male partner or former partner. Nearly half of all female murder victims are killed by a partner or ex-partner.
• The British Crime Survey estimates that approximately three-quarters of a million women (754,000) have been raped on at least one occasion since age 16.
• One incident of domestic violence is reported to the police every minute.

Other high-level statistics include:

• 2 women are killed each week by a current or former partner (Homicide Statistics, 1998) – 1 woman is killed every 3 days.
• An analysis of 10 separate domestic violence prevalence studies by the Council of Europe showed consistent findings: 1 in 4 women experience domestic violence over their lifetimes and between 6-10% of women suffer domestic violence in any given year. (Council of Europe, 2002)
• 1 woman in 9 is severely beaten by her male partner each year. (Stanko et al, 1998)
• Domestic violence has a higher rate of repeat victimisation than any other crime. (Home Office, July 2002)
• Every minute police in the UK receive a domestic assistance call – yet only 35% of domestic violence incidents are reported to the police. (Stanko 2000 & Home Office 2002)
• The 2001/02 British Crime Survey (BCS) found that there were an estimated 635,000 incidents of domestic violence in England and Wales. 81% of the victims were women and 19% were men. Domestic violence incidents also made up nearly 22% of all violent incidents reported by participants in the BCS. (Home Office, July 2002)
• On average, a woman is assaulted 35 times before her first call to the police. (Jaffe 1982)
• 25% of women experiencing domestic violence are assaulted for the first time during pregnancy. (Royal College of Midwives, 1997)
• Foetal morbidity from violence is more prevalent than gestational diabetes or pre-eclampsia. (Friend 1998)

The picture is equally bleak when we examine the facts about rape and sexual violence:

• There were 14,000 recorded rapes in 2003 and 11,441 recorded rapes in 2002. This represents an 8% increase.
• One in 20 women in England and Wales has been the victim of rape.
• Only one in five attacks is reported to the police.
• Women are most likely to be sexually attacked by men they know in some way, most often partners (32%) or acquaintances (22%).
• ‘Current partners’ (at the time of the attack) were responsible for 45 per cent of rapes reported to the British Crime Survey.
• ‘Strangers’ were only responsible for 8 per cent of rapes.

An especially ugly aspect of honour killings is that these crimes are often perpetrated by family members on their daughters and wives. From the above statistics it is clear that the principal perpetrators of domestic and sexual violence against women – if the UK is taken as representative – are family members and people known to their victims. This is a grotesque reality of abuse everywhere, in every society.

The extent of violence against women is so well recognised as being a deep-rooted problem in this society that research has even been conducted to assess the impact of these crimes in terms of the loss to the economy:

• In September 2004, Sylvia Walby of the University of Leeds estimated the total cost of domestic violence to services (criminal justice system, health, social services, housing, civil, legal) to be £3.1 billion annually, while the loss to the economy is £2.7 billion. This amounts to over £5.7 billion every year.
• Prof Elizabeth Stanko estimated the cost in 1996 of providing services to women and children facing domestic violence in one London Borough to be about £90 per year per household & the total cost for Greater London to be £276 million per year.
• Sylvia Walby also cites the human and emotional cost: domestic violence leads to pain and suffering that is not counted in the cost of services. This amounts to over £17 billion a year.


My aim is neither to attempt to justify the crimes of people in Muslim communities, nor is it to gain any satisfaction in the daily tragedies faced by women in other societies. As a professional Muslim woman, I feel the need to be an active participant in society by working to speak out against such evils. No individual can be isolated from the effects of these crimes. All victims are innocent. But as citizens, we must recognise the danger of allowing ourselves to uncritically accept simple characterisations of people of other backgrounds and faiths (and crucially, their beliefs) as brutal and oppressive, whilst at the same time ignoring manifestations of the same behavioural traits in our own midst.

Is the focus on honour killings and the efforts of some to use the issue to effect an overhaul of Muslim societal norms and structures – ostensibly to ‘advance the cause of women’, remove oppression and abuse – intellectually robust? Is it based upon a balanced view of the reality in Western and Muslim societies? Is the current focus on honour killings properly assessed in the light of prejudice-free objectivity? When we look at the statistics, it is clear that, given the vast scale of the problem of domestic violence and sexual abuse against women at large, the scale of abuse perpetrated in the name of ‘honour’ is minuscule. This makes it no less horrific, but when one realises that honour killings account for a tiny percentage of domestic and sexual crimes against women, it is curious why it receives such disproportionately large number of column inches.

The assumption that the unfortunate souls, who are responsible for such crimes, are acting in accordance with Islam and the sanction of the Quran is baseless. The actions of a few are used to characterise the behaviour of more than a billion people. But when that ‘few’ have a different nationality, race or belief, the same conclusion is not drawn. Therefore despite evidence to suggest that the abuse of prisoners in Iraq formed part of an institutional strategy, we are told it is the guilty soldiers alone who are “bad apples”.

As Rahila Gupta writes, “the killing of women as the ultimate method of exerting control over them is not the preserve of any one class, community, race or religion. The Met estimates that there were 12 "honour" killings last year across all communities, including Sikh, Christian and Muslim, while more than 100 women are killed by their partners in England and Wales every year. All domestic murders of women take place within a "cultural" context. Yet culture is the prism through which we view only the actions of minorities”. Is this objective or fair?

Amina Al-Haddad, BA Hons, MSc
14th July 2005
Research Analyst, OCCRi