Farzana Iqbal's death and the psychology of honour killings

Pakistani Mohammad Iqbal   holds up an image of his wife Farzana Parveen, who was allegedly beaten to death with bricks by her father and other family members for marrying a man of her own choice, in Chak 367.

Pakistani Mohammad Iqbal holds up an image of his wife Farzana Parveen, who was allegedly beaten to death with bricks by her father and other family members for marrying a man of her own choice, in Chak 367. Photo: AFP

Last week Farzana Iqbal became the latest known victim of ‘honour killings’ as she made her way to a courtroom in Lahore, Pakistan.

The 25 year old, whose husband had been accused of kidnapping her, was due to give evidence that she had married of her own free will. As she approached the courtroom, a crowd of men including her brothers, uncles and father, hurled bricks at her in a brazen attack lasting 15 minutes. Only her father has been charged.

It’s an all too familiar story, which leaves us shaking in disbelief and asking ‘How?’ How can a man kill his own daughter or sister or niece in such a brutal fashion, and only for the ‘crime’ of marrying the man she loves?

In his book Honor: A History, James Bowman defines honour as, “The good opinion of those who are important to you.”  In ultra conservative societies such as Pakistan, as well as parts of the Middle East and India, ‘those who are important to you’ can be broadly defined as ‘everyone who knows of your family name.’

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In these cultures reputation is everything. To protect it, people restrict their own behaviour and police their family members to ward off any gossip. Back in the 80s and 90s, the recently arrived Lebanese community in Sydney to which my family belonged, was preoccupied with reputation. It was ironic, the way people tried to sniff out the slightest whiff of scandal in the lives of others, even as they tried to prevent themselves becoming the focus of that week’s gossip.

As a teenage girl, my life revolved around  ‘what people will say.’ I remember the resentment my sisters and I felt that these nameless, faceless people who’d never even met us, could so thoroughly dictate our lives. That dress is too short. People will talk. No, you can’t go to your school formal, people will talk.  How can I let you sleep at your friend’s house? What will people say?

It’s hard to convey to those who have never experienced it, how it feels to be immersed in such a culture. It’s like living in an invisible prison; to the outside world everything appears normal, but the fear of bahadli -disgrace- consumed so much of our waking moments. Of course, in this particular community in Sydney, which was actually comparatively liberal, the stakes were not quite so high. But if even those of us who grow up in the west can be affected like this, you can only imagine what it must be like to live in places where the honour code is all they know.

This is what so many westerners, living in a society driven by individualism, have difficulty comprehending: to those cultures in which honour is paramount, nothing else matters, and all family members are expected to play their part.

As journalist Barbara Kay explains:

‘To understand honour culture, one must think of oneself not as an individual but as a role. You are not John or Julia; you are a son or a daughter, a brother or a sister, a father or a mother, a father-in-law or a mother-in-law. Your role dictates your behaviour and your obligations. When one steps out of the prescribed role to act as an individual, the smooth functioning of the family collective is threatened.’

And this is where it gets dangerous for women. In such deeply patriarchal cultures, the honour of men is found, as the Ecuadorian saying goes, ‘between the legs of a woman.’ In some ways women are placed on a pedestal, cherished for their ‘purity’ and ability to be mothers. But -and here is the catch- if they fall from that lofty perch, not only is there no getting back up again, but the reputation of the entire family is irrevocably tarnished.

And so the role of women is not to do anything that may cast doubt on their purity or modesty. Simply been seen in the company of a man who is not a relative is enough to set the wheels of gossip in motion. Because women are considered the keepers of virtue, the ones who are meant to reign in the uncontrollable desires of men, their failure to do so is seen not only as a terrible transgression, but as a complete failure of them as a person.

When a woman’s worth is tied up solely in her chastity, what happens when that chastity is compromised? She becomes literally worthless and it is considered no great loss if she is disposed of. 

Make no mistake, this is misogyny in its worst form. Although men are sometimes the victims of honour crimes, the vast majority are young women. Often acting under enormous social pressure, their attackers will claim that the women had to be killed because they were ‘too western.’ Of course ‘too western’ is just shorthand for the desire to be free. This should not be exclusive to western countries. Indeed, early Islam afforded women far more freedoms than any Muslim majority country does today. I will never cease to be amazed and dismayed at how a religion rooted in freedom and human rights could be so thoroughly corrupted.

To this end, any attempt to tackle honour crimes has to be two-fold, the first is to free people from the illusion that what others think of them matters more than all else. I don’t hold much hope that this can be done in countries like Pakistan or much of the Arab world any time soon since many of them appear to be getting more, not less, conservative. But it can certainly be tackled in immigrant communities in the west. That Lebanese community I described above is almost unrecognisable in how far it has progressed in the last twenty years.

The second is to challenge the status of women as the keepers of virtue. I have written before that nothing has contributed more to the oppression of women than the obsession with virginity. Women’s lives literally depend on abolishing the notion that sexual virtue is the hallmark of a ‘good’ woman.

The insidious nature of patriarchy places the safety and lives of women at risk, and it warps the minds of men. I won’t insult the women who suffer from the threat of such violence by claiming it hurts men as much it hurts women, but the burden of honour costs men too. It costs them knowing who the women in their lives really are, preventing them from having meaningful relationships. It also impacts on their own quality of life. It is no way for anyone to live, to be suspicious of your own family, viewing them as potential sources of disgrace rather than individuals, and to wallow in constant fear of ‘what people will say.’

Honour crimes are on the rise and more than ever, we need to heed the words Hillary Clinton spoke in her 1995 UN address: ‘Women’s rights are human rights,’ because improving the status of women, improves the lives of everyone.

27 comments

  • This crime is symtomatic of a lack of education and an enclosed society. It is difficult to be step outside the walls when the consequences can be so great. The governments must do more to punish the perputrators to discourage this type of behaviour and also educate the young, the generation of the future. Until the governments in these countries step and take serious action, these killings will continue.

    Commenter
    JBD
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    June 02, 2014, 8:26AM
    • "Indeed, early Islam afforded women far more freedoms than any Muslim majority country does today." Do you have a source for this claim? Women in Turkey, for example, are more similar in position to women in say Greece or Italy than they are to women in pretty much every Middle Eastern country.

      Commenter
      Cimbom
      Location
      Real World
      Date and time
      June 02, 2014, 9:16AM
      • Ruby is correct, its both fascinating and shameful to read about the actual actions taken by Mohammed during his lifetime to promote the role of women and then the changes that happened after his death to water these down or brush them under the carpet completely.

        Commenter
        Piper
        Date and time
        June 02, 2014, 2:16PM
      • Turkey is not yet a muslim country again - it was made a Secular Country by Ataturk

        Commenter
        ML
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        June 02, 2014, 3:00PM
    • You’ve skipped the cause and gone straight to the effect.

      They may react from a sense of honour (the effect), but the social rules of what is honourable and how to defend honour are dictated by the local religion (the cause).

      So yeah, we could expend a lot of energy trying to understand their sense of honour and trying to negotiate better ways for people to respond to affronts to their honour…or we could look at the root cause. If you remove religion from the equation then honour changes from indoctrination to something that can be negotiated by society. And if you remove all religious reference to honour killings, make honour related violence illegal then you can start to change behaviour.

      It frustrates me seeing religious violence tolerated due to an unwillingness to criticise religion.

      Commenter
      Tom Calthorpe
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      June 02, 2014, 10:15AM
      • Tom, by all means, criticise it. I for one believe in open debate and discussion of religion and philosophies, But people these days seem to think its open season to disrespect with absolute impunity and that its license to maliciously smear in a way that isn't meant to invoke thought, analyse or engage. We might say, that's my right. But would you as an individual in a civilised community, accept say someone at your office, or a friend of yours, who opens or continues a discussion about motherhood or consenting sex by injecting personal attacks to say, your family or your children, or bring up pedophillia in a manner which goes beyond respectable sensitivities? No, we as a community find it distasteful, and we move to discourage communally or legislate it even through any number of actions.
        You make an interesting pt that religion is the root cause but I think culture is the culprit. Culture is the prism in which we view most things. An example, before Islam, honour killings and female genital mutilation was practiced by the same peoples that went through religion after religion carrying on cultural traits and habits past each religion which may or may not have attempted to temper or worsen the issue. The Egyptians (during the time of the Pharoahs) practiced it on their women during a time when women could actually own property in their own name, practice 'law', be business women, (but not be scribes, write, etc) - AND apparently could walk around in sheer clothing due to being mutilated, presumably because it would have taken too much time and effort to rape her. Is it a force of religion? Or cultural practicalities? Take religion out and I contend, we will just find another scapegoat.

        Commenter
        Green Tea
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        June 02, 2014, 3:11PM
    • I can relate to a certain degree, to this article. As an Asian with origins in a multicultural nation, having lived in Muslim nations before and having family ties to the fairly culturally conservative Muslim archetype, I would like to add that much of it is tied to culture, with the people using Islam, or religion, to validate and propel their beliefs. An example of what I mean of culturally rooted behaviour being propelled by religion (meaning using religion as the permission/right to validate that cultural practice as "truth") is the concept of modesty. In the past, Chinese/Western perception of modesty had its penalty as death or absolute family disgrace. Religion was used as the reason that validated this perception as truth - biblical scripture and Confucian theory was used amongst many others, to propel the actions and perceptions of the people. Modernisation & reformation happened amidst strong resistance. East and West today have evolved to a point culturally where the cultural behaviour of old has moved with the times, and religion is then used to validate the newly evolved culture of East and West respectively. For the West, its now love, peace, charity, etc.
      In the same way, countries like India and those in the Middle East are so culturally entrenched in the past, and past behaviour and custom that it still remains similar to behaviours and perceptions of old. Honour killings happen in India - many Hindu and Sikh communities practice honour killings on their women based upon the strict cultural code they cling to, as with Islamic communities of certain cultural backgrounds.Religion is used by man to validate his beliefs. Only until they go through that cultural revolution, will they use religion to validate those new perceptions.

      Commenter
      Green Tea
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      June 02, 2014, 10:33AM
      • What psychology? It's religion.

        Religion teaches hatred and intolerance. The 'west' is slowly removing this cancer from society, we just have to wait for the rest of the world to catch up. Punishing the major churches for these crimes will help.

        Commenter
        ij
        Date and time
        June 02, 2014, 10:51AM
        • I'm sorry but I disagree that religion is a "cancer" upon humanity. Without offense meant to you, it is a very simplistic and binary way of thinking that fails to consider and take into account the impact religion has had on mankind for better and worse. Religion today simply reflects the age it was brought to life in. Back in the day, it was treason against the king for the queen to sleep with another man and her head would be chopped off, whilst he could sleep around with impunity. The man of the household had life and death of the women in his family at his hand. In the East at one point of time, torture for a woman for the "crime" of promiscuity again included having her eyes gouged out, strapped naked to a pole, her breasts chopped off and her female parts mutilated - all based on an 'accusation'. People had no rights in a caste system type society and in a world where aggression meant dominance women were relegated and treated less than animals. Religion served to temper the brutality of the time in a manner which would be socially acceptable, bringing upon concepts and principles unheard of to a people who would simply not have accepted a blanket "free love and equality" type movement and dismissed it as absolute horse crap. The development of humanity and civilisation was built upon the stability - and instability, that actions, philosophies and justifications religion brought. The foundations of many of the world's movements and systems - from charitable and thought to legal and political frameworks are inspired and informed by tenets of religion which again, was unheard of in a largely divisive and tribal set of communities.

          Commenter
          Green Tea
          Location
          Melbourne
          Date and time
          June 02, 2014, 2:46PM
        • @Greentea, we have all the human rights we now have IN SPITE of religion, not because of it! Don't believe me? Then try making a definitive case against slavery based solely on references to the Bible or Koran and see how far you get.

          Commenter
          spadeboy
          Date and time
          June 02, 2014, 3:22PM

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