Welchman, Lynn and Sara Hossain, eds. ‘Honour’: Crimes, Paradigms and Violence Against Women. London: Zed Books, 2005.

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“Preface: Violence against Women and ‘Crimes of Honour'” by Radhika Coomaraswamy (pp. xi-xiv)

Summary: Discusses her experience as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women to argue that the concept of ‘honour’ is closely linked to policing of traditional gender roles and that ‘crimes of honour’ are connected to domestic violence and constitute a violation of human rights. However, addressing ‘crimes of honour’ on either of these fronts is complicated by appeals to cultural relativism. To address ‘crimes of honour’ and other instances of violence against women, Coomaraswamy recommends drawing on existing international standards that hold states responsible for addressing violence against women while also recognizing that legal action alone will never be enough. She also argues that strategies must always be culturally sensitive and allow women to participate in the communities they choose.

“Introduction: ‘Honour’, Rights and Wrongs” by Lynn Welchman and Sara Hossain (pp. 1-21)

Summary: Welchman and Hossain complicate the terminology employed in their book’s title by exploring the complications and implications of definition when it comes to talking about ‘crimes of honour.’ They discuss feminist arguments that have been made both for and against the invocation of the term ‘crimes of honour,’ weighing various concerns about making these issues legible within a Western context, connecting this particular kind of violence with other forms of domestic abuse, paying heed to significant cultural differences, and drawing attention to traces of colonial legacies that emerge in the language of ‘crimes of honour.’

Notes:

  • The collection is born out of a human rights law framework, although the editors acknowledge that a law-based approach alone will never be enough to address problems of ‘crimes of honour’ and other forms of violence against women.
  • Defining ‘crimes of honour,’ the editors write: “At its most basic, the term is commonly used as shorthand, to flag a type of violence against women characerized by (claimed) ‘motivation’ rather than by perpetrator or form of manifestation.” (4)
  • Feminists have troubled the use of ‘crimes of honour’ because it implies that men’s honor depends on regulating the bodies of women, because it employs the language of perpetrators, and because it can function to conceal other motivations underlying acts of violence against women
  • Still, other feminists have argued that the term works to fundamentally trouble the association of ‘honour’ as a good thing, which can call into question the ways in which this kind of violence is dealt with at the level of the law
  • ‘Crimes of honour’ have  been compared with ‘crimes of passion’ (a term frequently invoked in Western contexts) to highlight the ways in which certain acts of violence committed against certain bodies are often treated under the law as less reprehensible and thus punished less severely
  • One of the key differences drawn between ‘crimes of honour’ and ‘crimes of passion’ is the relationship between perpetrator and victim, meaning that ‘crimes of honour’ are not just perpetrated by lovers or husbands but also by (male and female) blood relatives
  • “The remarkably increased level of international attention being given to ‘crimes of honour’ (however or whether defined)brings with it a risk both of crude stereotypes and associations, and of a reaction that may act (or be used) to undermine counter-initiatives and to complicate domestic strategies of response.” (13-4)
  • We need to maintain a critical orientation towards ‘crimes of honour’ that resists reinscribing colonial notions of the civilized West in contrast to the violent masculinity and passive feminity of the “backwards” non-West
  • One of the key debates circulating around ‘crimes of honour’ is the degree to which it should be associated with other forms of violence against women since the association at once allows for important cross- and intra-cultural connections while it also runs the risk of flattening the specificity of this particular form of violence.

“‘Crimes of Honour’, Value and Meaning” by Purna Sen (pp. 42-63)

Summary: In this chapter, Sen continues the definitional discussion begun in the editor’s introduction to the book by addressing the tension between needing to address the cultural specificity of ‘crimes of honour’ while also working to avoid using discussions of ‘crimes of honour’ to vilify particular cultures (especially with regard to the post-9/11 treatment of Islam). Sen proposes six elements that distinguish ‘crimes of honour’ while also positioning these crimes within a larger continuum of violence against women that can form the basis of important, critical, and self-reflexive cross-cultural responses to violence.

Notes:

  • Begins the piece by tracing the historical importance of concepts of ‘honour’ within Western cultures (specifically within the medieval concept of chivalry and within Western monarchies) and their connection to acts of violence to trouble the association of ‘crimes of honour’ with non-Western contexts
  • Uses this connection between ‘honour’ and Western culture to highlight the ways in which discussions of ‘honour’ have been used to assert the moral superiority of the West by casting concerns with ‘honour’ as the ‘backwards’ concerns of the Other
  • These attempts on the part of the West to liberate non-Western women from the grip of ‘honour’ results in resistance to Western discussions of gender relations and complicates non-Western women’s attempts to challenge violence and gender discrimination within their own cultural contexts
  • “Codes of honour serve to construct not only what it means to be a woman but also what it means to be a man, and hence are central to social meanings of gender. Honour is thus intrinsically linked to norms of behaviour for both sexes and is predicated upon patriarchal notions of ownership and control of women’s bodies.” (48)
  • Reduced penalties for ‘crimes of honour’ offer state legitimation of the gendered codes that these crimes are predicated on and imply that the crossing of gendered bounds or the transgression of gendered codes of behavior understandably provoke violence
  • “The challenge then is to be able to acknowledge if crimes of honour do have specific characteristics and to do so in ways that do not suffer the same traits of a Western, Orientalist gaze, as described above. […] To posit a specificity that is flawed and that fails to see linkages is problematic; to deny specificity if it exists is also problematic.” (49-50)
  • Six key features of crimes of honour: gender relations that problematize women’s behavior especially by controlling their sexuality; the role of women in policing these gendered codes of behavior; collective decision about what constitutes an appropriate response to the transgression of these codes; women’s potential participation in this violence; ability to reclaim honour by perpetrating the crime; and state legitimation of this violence through reduced or non-existent penalties.
  • “My case here is that there is something specific and particular about honour-based killings of women, and that one feature of their specificity is their being rooted in collectively monitored and policed codes of behavior, the policing being in part carried out through the killings.” (51)
  • Challenges the Western association of honour killings as emblematic of the ‘backwardness’ of non-Western cultures by highlighting the use of domestic violence in the West as a means of regulating the behavior of women
  • Sen looks to two frameworks often used to address honour killings: first, an approach that connects crimes of honour with forms of violence against women in the West, making honour a problem that everyone needs to grapple with; and second, using the language of human rights and violence against women as the basis for solidarity
  • While these two approaches both present important possibilities, they also risk Orientalizing cultural contexts like the Middle East or flattening the specificities of honour killings
  • Sen suggests drawing on the six features of honour killings that she has outlined to respond to honour killings in a way that respects both the specificity of these crimes and their connection to other cross-cultural forms of violence against women in a way that encourages individuals to be critical of their own cultural position so that they are not only critiquing forms of violence that occur in other cultural contexts, but also violence against women that happens in their own
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