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Honour killings - Patriarchal crime against women’s autonomy

By: Anoushka Chakraborty* |

Honour killings are committed by family members on women who are considered to have disgraced their family. The author takes a look at the impact of normalisation, regulation and excusing of honour killings on the members of the society. The author also takes a look at the patriarchal notions that led to the existence of laws that protect those who commit such killings. This article attempts to bring out the role played by honour killings in the production and retention of gender relations in contemporary society.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’

- Martin Luther King Jr.

Honour killings are killings committed by family members on women who are regarded as members who have disgraced their family.[1]

A paradigmatic example of an honour killing would be the murder of a female family member by her father or her brother for taking part in or being suspected of taking part in, sexual practices outside the realm of her marriage, or before marriage.

Taking a look at stratification of society with respect to gender, and the impact of this on honour killings:

One must first analyse the laws that regulate and to some extent, even excuse these murders. A simple cursory glance at these sections helps one reach the conclusion that such laws are in fact only specific to the female gender.

Tracing the gender-specific out-look of these honour killings back to the Incas, a civilisation that came into existence in the 13th century. The laws of the Incas excused males when they killed their wives for adultery.[2] However, wives were hung till their feet until dead if they decided to do the same to their husbands.[3]

Although the following articles have been repealed, to understand their meaning and implications, as well as the mentality behind the origin of these articles, we must take a look at them. With reference to article 324 of the French penal code[4], article 188 of the Ottoman Code [5], article 340 of the Jordanian Penal Code,[6] article 548 of The Syrian Penal Code[7], or the Lebanese Penal Code article 562,[8] one realises that these articles specifically state that such crimes be committed against a female member of the family. Additionally, these articles work to excuse these crimes of honour and award a reduction in penalty to the perpetrators for the commission of such crimes.

Taking a look at honour killings with regards to patriarchal and patrilineal societies,

the normalisation of honour killing stems from the interests of a patriarchal and patrilineal society which is simply to maintain tight control over the family structures that are designated by the structure of the society. In a patrilineal society, the reproductive power of the family is vested in the male members of the family. The commission of an honour killing is not to control the sexual behaviour of the female members, but to ensure that the reproductive power of the family remains vested within the control of the male members of the family. [9]

In such a patriarchal system, the elements in defining a man’s claim to pride in society, are honour and shame. [10] In such a system of patriarchy, the women are ascribed specific roles. The bodies of the aforementioned women, in a patriarchal system, are meant to serve simply as the repositories of the honour and property of the men in their families.[11]

With reference to the virginity of the woman in the family, those around her consider her virginity to be nothing but their property. First, her virginity belongs to her father, then when she is married off, this property serves as a gift from the brides’ family to her husband. An honour killing takes place when the respective member of the family – ‘the property owner’ of the woman’s virginity believes that she has compromised on the most important aspect of her being, her virginity. When such a system is in place, the virginity of the women is reduced down to a commodity that must be protected by the male members of the family.

This belief, that a woman’s virginity is the property of her family, can be traced back to the 1075 BC, where it is mentioned in the codes of Hammurabi and Assura.[12]

Taking a look at how a woman’s autonomy is controlled by the patriarchal notions in a narrower scope with regards to a society with shame-based heterosexuality, we look at the Arab society in particular.

In Arab society, the discourse with regards to gender, and the one with regards to virginity overlap so completely that it is hard to distinguish between the two. Being a virgin ends up falling under the daily requirements and practices of an Arab woman.[13]

In heterosexuality such as the Arab one which is based on honour (or shame), it is demanded, under the possibility of facing a social penalty, that the definition of the lady as being female is with regards to her virginity. When her virginity ceases to exist, her value on society seizes to exist and honour killings may be committed against her. The performance of being female that leads the body to be called such is simply the virginity. In this context, the hymen has two roles- Firstly, it acts as a mark of virginity, and secondly, that it delineates the female body in order to regard it as such. This hymen, is what distinguishes the female body from the male, as the latter does not bear any such marks of their virginity.

Every prohibition that is compiled with by the woman, constructs her as a female, and simultaneously as virginal. The list of daily practices that are necessary for the construction of the body as female/virginal is very long.[14] An honour killing takes place when any of these practices are not performed by the female.

Failure to perform their heterosexuality in such an honour or shame-based society has led to the murder of women for minor miscues.[15] Women have been killed for being spotted talking to a man behind a fence,[16] or, exiting the car of a strange man.[17] In both these instances, the woman is seen as having put into jeopardy, not her vaginal hymen but her social and physical hymen.

Taking a look at the impact of this shame-based heterosexuality on male members of society, one realises that the killing of a female family member by a man to defend his own honour epitomises, in a dramatic way, the performance of the male gender.

The physical, social and vaginal hymen also falls within the ambit of his gender as something that he is required to supervise, guard and defend against any incursions. An important part of his life is to assure the virginity of the unmarried women in his family. In such a society, a man is defined as someone whose sister’s virginity falls under a social question for him.[18]

The laws in such a shame-based society reflect the intolerance of society towards any sexual behaviour exhibited by the females, and regarding such behaviour as threatening to the masculinity of men. In such a society, gender relations with regards to honour killings come as a result of a triangular form of interaction. This is between social violence (which is the killing itself); violence by state (which is the regulation of these killings through various laws referring to it as a crime of honour i.e. those who commit this crime do it in the name of honour, however, the identification of these crimes as honour killings by the state, gives it a sense of validation and normalisation) and; the reaction and response of the contemporary society- men and women in the society to the balance between social violence and state violence.

Taking a look at the aspect of stratification with respect to class, with regards to honour killings, within the aspect of stratification of society with regards to gender, one must pay heed to the stratification of class present within the gender strata. Poor women are more frequently the victims of honour killings, as revealed by reports of these crimes.[19] The reason why this disparity within classes exists within the gender strata with regards to honour killings is that the poor people are much more conservative than the rich. Therefore, they hold traditions and moral norms at a much higher pedestal.[20] As honour killing is considered a ‘tradition’ to be committed against wayward females, many conservative families cannot seem to let go of this notion.

Additionally, in the poor parts of modernising states, or in rural areas, the income is low, education in a formal sphere is lacking, and upward mobility within the classes is next to impossible. Taking all these factors into consideration, awareness of the laws is highly lacking.

When a woman is a member of a poor family, there is also a higher degree of dependability of the wife on her husband, or the daughter on her father.


‘Perhaps our awareness is the first step to our liberation’

- Stanley Milgram

Violence against the autonomy of women, especially with regards to their sexuality is one of the least recognised forms of gender violence. Shariah law requires that the husband must be obeyed by his wife, and in case of a situation perceived as disobedience of an order from the husband, he may be justified in committing physical assault, or even killing her.[21] This principle has led to a legal defence which preserves the family honour and protects the reputation of husbands in more than twenty middle eastern countries.[22] However, restricting the definition of such crimes by associating them with specific religious communities or traditions prevents the acknowledgement of the reality that these crimes are in fact widespread throughout the world, across different regions as well as communities.

However, one definite distinction of these crimes is that they are gender-based. The gender roles that create such an environment have a negative impact on not only the women but also the men of society. Raising awareness of the existence of such gender roles and the impact that they have on the lives of individuals is a very crucial step in getting rid of the practice of honour killings.


* The author is a student at West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata.

[1] Cad. “Pakistan: Women Oppose Honour Killings.” Off Our Backs, vol. 29, no. 8, 1999, pp. 3–3., [2] Sophia A. McClennen, Latin American Chronology, January 18, 2001, available at [3] Sally Falk Moore, Power and Property in Inca Peru 78 (1958). [4] French Penal Code of 1810, § 324. [5] The Imperial Ottoman Penal Code, 1858, § 188 [6] Jordanian Penal code, 1960, § 340 [7] Syrian Penal code, 1949 §548 [8] Lebanese Penal code, 1943 §562 [9] Matthew A. Goldstein. “The Biological Roots of Heat-of-Passion Crimes and Honor Killings.” Politics and the Life Sciences, vol. 21, no. 2, 2002, pp. 28–37. JSTOR, [10] N Altinbaş, “Honor-related Violence in the Context of Patriarchy, Multicultural Politics, and Islamophobia after 9/11” American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, 2013 [11] Chesler, P. “Worldwide trends in honour killings.” Middle East Quarterly, 17(2), 2010, pp. 3–11 [12] Fordham University, Internet Ancient History Sourcebook, Aug 1, 2002, available at [13] Qasim Amin, The Liberation of Women 93 (1953) [14] Sana al-Khayyat, Honour and Shame: Women in Modern Iraq 33 (1990) [15] Ruggi, Suzanne. “Commodifying Honor in Female Sexuality: Honor Killings in Palestine.” Middle East Report, no. 206, 1998, pp. 12–15. JSTOR, [16] Reimers, Eva. (2007). “Representations of An Honor Killing.” Feminist Media Studies, 7, 2007, pp. 239-255. 10.1080/14680770701477867. [17] Joe Treen, Die, My Daughter, Die!, People Weekly, Jan. 20, 1992 [18] Odeh, Lama Abu. “Honor Killings and the Construction of Gender in Arab Societies.” The American Journal of Comparative Law, vol. 58, no. 4, 2010, pp. 911–952. JSTOR, [19] Supra note 16. [20] National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. “Addressing the Social and Cultural Norms That Underlie the Acceptance of Violence: Proceedings of a Workshop—in Brief.” Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. [21] Fadl, Khaled Abou El. “Law of Duress in Islamic Law and Common Law: A Comparative Study.” Islamic Studies, vol. 30, no. 3, 1991, pp. 305–350. JSTOR, [22] Lehr-Lehnardt, Is Honor Killing a NeverEnding Monster, September 27, 2002, available at



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