Is there any difference between domestic violence and honour killings?

Christopher Cullen found guilty of murdering estranged wife Victoria Comrie Cullen at Taren Point.

Christopher Cullen found guilty of murdering estranged wife Victoria Comrie Cullen at Taren Point. Photo: James Brickwood

During the trial of Christopher Cullen, found guilt last week of murdering his wife Victoria Comrie Cullen, a witness described an altercation he heard the day of her death:

"I heard screams …She was just screaming out of pain…I thought maybe it was just domestic violence or something."

Meanwhile, in France last month, after four people from a single family were found shot to death, a Reuters headline said police described the incident as a "family matter."

These two seemingly innocuous comments reveal much about how we regard domestic violence in the West. Namely that it is an unremarkable occurrence that happens within the confines of a family, with little consequence for the rest of us.


And yet, even as the number of women killed by their partners in Australia grows (now averaging two per week), we continue to be repulsed and fascinated by honour killings in non-Western cultures.

This fascination is easily explained. The existence of honour crimes (essentially violence based on the notion that women deserve to be killed or harmed as punishment for bringing shame onto the family) is one of the ways the West reaffirms its difference and superiority over other cultures.

We don't do these sorts of things. We take crimes against women seriously. We value women and condemn violence against them whenever it occurs.

But is there really any meaningful difference between what we call domestic violence and so-called honour killings found in, for instance, Muslim, Sikh, and Hindu cultures?

In both cases women are the primary targets. In both cases they are terrorised by those who wield power and control over them. In both cases they are often killed.

Of course, domestic violence plays out differently in Australia compared to honour killings in the Middle East or India. In the former, the target is usually the partner of a sole perpetrator, whereas, in the latter, the victim is usually a daughter, with multiple family members often involved in her attack.

While the reasons for these differences have to do with cultures that celebrate individualism versus those which prioritise the family as a unit over its separate members, noted feminist writer and academic Phyllis Chesler used them to declare honour crimes more reprehensible than "ordinary domestic violence".

That Chesler actually uses the term "ordinary" in this context is astonishing. In doing so, she effectively diminishes violence against women, provided it is committed by Western men.

Ordinary domestic violence. Just domestic violence. A family matter.

This is how violence against women is normalised when it follows the Western narrative. In this narrative, domestic violence is an individual problem, one that is committed by certain violent men, men wider society can do very little about. Their actions neither involve nor reflect the rest of us.

Honour killings, on the other hand, are regarded as the products of a sick society, one that glorifies violence against women. Therefore, the entire culture is culpable. Indeed, Chesler differentiates honour crimes from "ordinary" domestic violence partly by claiming the West doesn't celebrate such crimes the way Muslims (and Chesler focuses mainly on Muslims) do. Rather, in the West, "wife batterers are ostracized."

This is simply not true. When public figures are involved, as they so often are, they are often given ridiculously light sentences and their violent history does not impinge on their careers. Just ask Charlie Sheen and Floyd Mayweather. Famous men may not be the sum total of those who beat their partners, but what message does our refusal to hold them accountable send out to other men? What does it say about us as a society?

In the case of MMA fighter 'War Machine,' his supporters went as far as to blame his savage attack on fiancé Christy Mack firmly on her; it was her fault for cheating on him. She made him do it. As Clementine Ford put it when discussing this victim blaming of Mack, violence against women is almost always:

"(P)redicated on the belief that women's bodies - and particularly women's sexuality - is something that belongs to men. In the minds of people justifying the abuse of Christy Mack, she took something that didn't belong to her - her body - and gave it to someone who didn't own it. In this collective narrative, she stole from a man and he had no choice but to punish her for it."

With that in mind, how does an American man beating his partner almost to death for sleeping with another man really differ from a Pakistani man beating his daughter to death for marrying a man against his will? If only she hadn't cheated on me, I wouldn't have had to beat her. If only she hadn't married that man, we wouldn't have had to kill her.

The commonality here is the perception that, in certain circumstances, it is permissible for others to wield power and control over women.

Whether "ordinary" domestic violence or grotesque honour killings, the outcome is the same: women are dying at the hands of their partners and other family members. Women's blood, it seems, is the necessary salve required to cleanse shame and restore both Eastern family honour and Western male pride.

We need to apply the same critical lens to all domestic violence as we do to honour crimes. While we clearly see honour-based killings as a product of society and culture –which they are– we refuse to do the same for our own epidemic of violence against women, choosing instead to normalise it even as we demonise other cultures for what amounts to the same crime.

As long domestic violence is perceived as "just" an "ordinary" event occurring between individuals, rather than as a pattern emanating from a widespread belief that women's bodies are not really their own, and as long as this violence is bolstered by a society willing to look the other way, women will continue to die at alarming rates in our own supposedly egalitarian society.

Because when you're counting dead women, it matters not if they were killed for family honour or for the sake of male entitlement.