International: Debate over the term ‘honor killing’

Muslim World Journal of Human Rights

In her recent article 'To Specify or Single Out' in the Muslim World Journal of Human Rights, WLUML networker Rochelle L. Terman asks 'Should We Use the Term “Honor Killing”? The use of the term ‘honor killing’ has elicited strong reactions from a variety of groups for years; but the recent Aqsa Parvez and Aasiya Hassan cases have brought a renewed interest from women’s rights activists, community leaders, and law enforcement to study the term and come to a consensus on its validity and usefulness, particularly in the North American and European Diaspora. While some aver that the term ‘honor killing’ is an appropriate description of a unique and particular crime, others deem it as rather a racist and misleading phrase used to promote violent stereotypes of particular communities, particularly Muslim minorities in North America and Europe.

This article works to lay the groundwork by presenting both sides of the debate over the term ‘honor killing’ and analyzing the arguments various groups use in order to justify their particular definition of the term, and if and how they support its use in public discourse. I argue two main points: one, that ‘honor killing’ exists as a specific form of violence against women, having particular characteristics that warrants its classification as a unique category of violence. Second, I show that while ‘honor killings’ are recognized as such in many non-Western contexts, there is a trend among advocacy organizations in the North American and European Diaspora to avoid, ignore, or rebuke the term ‘honor killings’ as a misleading label that is racist, xenophobic, and/or harmful to Muslim populations. This is a direct response to the misuse of the term mostly within media outlets and public discourse that serves to further marginalize Muslim and immigrant groups.

An excerpt: Many critics point out that Western media erroneously use the term “honor killing,” even when no honor dynamics are at stake. As we have seen, honor killing involve a specific set of criteria that make it unique from other forms of domestic or intimate partner violence. Just the fact that a murder of a woman has occurred in a Muslim/Arab/South Asian community does not warrant the label “honor killing.” However, media reports often label particular crimes “honor killing” for the sole reason that they occur among Muslims and/or South Asians. The gruesome murder of Aasiya Hassan provides a useful illustration of a scenario in which the media dubiously applies the label “honor killing.” Aasiya was decapitated by her husband, Muzzammil, after attempting to get a divorce as well as a restraining order against him for domestic abuse. Ironically, Muzzammil was heralded as a respected pillar of Buffalo’s Muslim community after founding Bridges TV, a network aimed to combat negative stereotypes of Muslim-American immigrants, even though he clearly had a reputation of being violent after his previous two marriages ended due to domestic violence. After Aasiya was murdered, reporters flocked to the case, broadcasting the crime as an “honor killing.” Their evidence was primarily the gruesome nature in which Aasiya was killed; decapitation often serves as an image connected with Muslim extremism, terrorism, and “backwards” culture—”honor killing” seemed to fit part and parcel with these other notions.

Aasiya's horrendous murder provided a wake-up call to many in the Muslim community as well as outside of it concerning how we use the term “honor killing.” Although many of the details of this case have yet to be broadcast at time of writing, we can reasonably assume that Aasiya’s murder was probably not an honor killing using the four criteria explained above. First Aasiya was murdered by her husband, not her kin members, which is more rare in honor motivated crimes. Second, all evidence points to Muzzammil acting alone. Honor killings almost always involve other members of the family or honor group. But by all police reports, Muzzammil was acting alone, without either the explicit or implicit help or approval of family members. Third, honor killings are motivated by the public “dishonoring” of men by their female relatives; but no such thing occurred in this case. Yes, Aasiya has asked for a divorce, but so did Muzzammil's first and second wives, and no honor crime had been attempted in those cases. Why should he be so dishonored now? Fourth, we are still unsure as to whether this crime was premeditated. Perhaps most importantly, an honor killing necessitates an accepted, even if informal, code of honor that exists to legitimate murder and rewards it with honor (Wikan 2008: 248). We cannot establish that such a code existed in this case.

The case of Aasiya Hassan reminds us the danger in concluding that a murder is an honor killing, even when it occurs among Muslims, even when there are good grounds that the perpetrator felt disgraced, and even when the victim did something that transgressed sexual norms. It seems that media reports labeled this incident an honor killing not because of the specific dynamics of the crime but because of the perpetrator and victim’s nationalities and religion.

In short, those who wish to remove the demarcation between “honor killing” and domestic violence point to a double standard fueled by a Culture Clash and Culture talk logic. Western media gives a disproportional amount of attention to intimate partner violence in immigrant communities by labeling them as a uniquely disturbing phenomenon, “honor killings.” Even though rates of rape, sexual harassment, and inter-family murder are staggeringly high in the “West,” the media singles out Muslim and other immigrant communities for perpetrating these types of crimes, thereby ignoring the whole truth concerning violence against women. This seeming hypocrisy has led many to question the term “honor killing.”

Download the full article: Muslim World Journal of Human Rights: Vol. 7 : Iss. 1, Article 2. DOI: 10.2202/1554-4419.1162 Available at: