The truth about honor killings

Canada moves to add this gender-based violence to its criminal code -- and the U.S. should follow its lead

Published July 13, 2010 10:20PM (EDT)

Canada is on the verge of adding honor killings to its federal criminal code, affirming the practice of murdering girls and women who supposedly bring dishonor to a family as "barbaric cultural practices" and "heinous abuses." Besides making honor killings a unique criminal charge, the Canadian government is looking at other strategies to address the gender-based violence, including the launch of television programs that will highlight the consequences of the abuse.

The government's action seems to be prompted by a new report from the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. Released this past weekend, the report found that honor killings in Canada's immigrant communities are on the rise. It emphasized that these crimes must be acknowledged as a practice that is unique from traditional homicide because of its cultural roots and the targeting of females, according to The Montreal Gazette. The United Nations estimates that each year 5,000 mostly Muslim women and girls are shot, stoned, strangled, stabled, burned, or smothered by family members with the intention of cleansing shame from the family's name. While most of these crimes occur in the Middle East and South Asia, immigration is taking them around the globe.

Hardly limited to Canada's border, honor killings have also made their way into the United States. Marie Claire recently published an extensive feature on the practice, numbering the women that have been murdered for ostensibly shaming their families in just the last few years. There were the two teen sisters in Texas shot by their father, apparently because they had boyfriends. A 19-year-old in Illinois killed by her husband after an argument about her Western-style clothing. A 20-year-old in Phoenix who was run over by her father in a parking lot while walking with her boyfriend's mother. A 25-year-old woman in Georgia strangled by her father for wanting out of an arranged marriage. And a 37-year-old in Buffalo, New York beheaded by her husband for wanting a divorce. Typically chalked up to "standard" domestic violence or to cultural relativity, there has been little attention on these crimes as emerging from a unique practice, which, according to the Canadian report, is the key to effectively addressing them. These killings carry patterns that are unique from Western-style domestic violence -- such as the approval of the surrounding culture and families.

Marie Claire and Human Rights Watch are partnering on a campaign to Congress to support the Family Violence Prevention and Service Act, which historically provided life-saving shelter for people threatened by family members -- but the measure expired in 2008. The campaign asks Congress to reauthorize and fully fund the act, which was first enacted in 1984 and was supported by six votes to continue the services before abruptly falling flat two years ago.

Reauthorization needs to happen. But the U.S. would do well to also follow Canada's model of particularizing honor killings as a crime. Currently, the federal Office on Violence Against Women has no unique listing for honor killings, nor do honor killings seem to be embedded in other listings. (A search on the site for "honor killings" produces zero results.) A Spring 2009 issue of Middle East Quarterly points out that the U.S. is also lagging behind Europe in responding to honor killings for what they are; that lack of acknowledgment means that the U.S. doesn't have the special programs or training that could save the lives of girls and women who are under threat. While even the United Nations General Assembly was finally persuaded in 2005 to look at the specifics of honor killings, and while cases of honor killings within our borders are apparent, the U.S. has not followed suit. This is insensible, especially when international models already exist for how to integrate attention to honor killings with a broad strategy for eliminating violence against women and girls. Like Canada, it's time to step up. After all, it's not just our honor that's at stake.

By Anna Clark

Anna Clark is a freelance journalist in Detroit. Her writing has appeared in The New Republic, Grantland, the Columbia Journalism Review, and elsewhere. She can be found at and on Twitter: @annaleighclark.

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