‘Honour’ Killing and Violence

Theory, Policy and Practice
Aisha K. Gill, Carolyn Strange and Karl Roberts (eds.)

Book Review

‘Honour’ Killing and Violence: Theory, Policy and Practice`, edited by Aisha Gill, Carolyn Strange and Karl Roberts, and published by Palgrave, is the newest addition to a gradually growing body of literature on ‘honour’-based violence (HBV) and ‘honour’ killings. This distressing type of inter-personal violence occurs in many countries across the world, and is an important issue for gender and development specialists to deal with. HBV is committed against (mainly) women by (mainly) men on the grounds that family or community honour has been threatened, and those concerned must be punished or killed to restore collective ‘honour’ and the status pro.

Over the last twenty years or so, this form of inter-personal and community violence has drawn growing international attention, and this new book can be seen as part of increasing worldwide concern. Slowly, and in the face of various types of resistance, change has begun to take place in terms of both social attitudes and policy responses. This shift is reflected in a number of publications in the 2000s exploring HBV, including the seminal essay collection ‘Honour’: Crimes, paradigms and violence against women, edited by Lynne Welshman and Sara Hossain (2005). An indication of the calibre of the book is that Lynn Welshman has contributed the lengthy Foreword.

The three editors (from the UK and Australia) have enlisted an impressive range of international experts in the field, mainly academics and policy-makers, who write about India, Scandinavia, the UK, Germany, and the US and Canada. The contributors are from a range of academic specialisms that include history and psychology, as well as the social sciences and the legal profession. The result is an interdisciplinary, comprehensive and unique collection which will provide practitioners, women’s groups, development workers, policy-makers, academics, students and researchers with a range of ideas and analyses on which to draw.

This subject of study has grown as the horrifying nature and extent of HBV have begun to become clear through the work of women’s activists internationally, and of researchers and policy innovators. However, as Aisha Gill points out in her Introduction (and as expounded in her previous work), there have been problems in that this form of violence is often attributed by criminal justice and other agencies to supposedly backward cultures in an essentialist way which ignores social, economic and political complexities. Violence in the name of ‘honour’ is better conveyed, most of the authors of this book suggest, as one form of violence against women (VAW) and of gendered violence. As Roué Reddy (Chapter 2) and other contributors point out, the carrying out of HBV relates to interlocking concepts of male ‘honour’ and female ‘shame’, with the experience of shame likely to result in family or collective action, often extending to killing the woman (and sometimes the man) concerned.

HBV does not relate to any particular culture, society or religion, and especially not to Islam, specifically. The book develops in various ways the alternative analysis which is gaining increasing purchase across the world in terms, rather, of understandings of patriarchal relations and the position of women as subordinates of men within various family forms and societies, resulting in the commissioning of specific forms of violence against them or their associates. The complexities of this understanding of HBV as gender-based violence are teased out in a welcome way in this book, adding weight and complexity to these gendered analyses of the issue, and moving away from cultural stereotyping. These complexities can be hard to fully comprehend, and this book is at the forefront of expanding our understanding. Thanks to the authors for their valuable contributions.

There is, perhaps inevitably and necessarily, some repetition in the arguments across various chapters in which the issue of culture, patriarchy and HBV as a form of gendered violence is returned to by almost all the contributors. However, the authors add new theoretical concepts. Rupa Reddy (Chapter 2) elaborates arguments comparing HBV within legal practice as either a ‘species’ of violence on its own or a ‘subspecies’ of domestic violence, favouring the latter. Karl Roberts in Chapter 4 develops the idea of a multi-layered, motivational model of HBV and a Theory of Planned Behaviours (TPB) which will help us with the possibilities for tailored interventions. (Karl Roberts wonders about the categorising of HBV as violence against women because some men also experience it, although this can perhaps be addressed by thinking of it in terms of ‘gendered violence’. Where men are the victims, it is usually solely due to their association with women.)

Selen Ercan (Chapter 10) differentiates culture-based frames from gender-based frames, and, in Chapter 5, Joanna Bond develops ideas about HBV in terms of honour as a new form of ‘property’, or ‘currency’. She contributes a cost-benefit assessment in which practitioners and policy-makers can have impact by adding to the ‘cost’ side of the equation (improved police and legal responses, increased prison and other sentences for perpetrators, and, importantly, removing legal provisions that, unforgivably, have previously allowed for decreased sentences for killings if they were carried out in the name of ‘honour’).

Various policy developments are presented as possible models on which to draw. Approaches in the Scandinavian countries are discussed by Anja Bredal (Chapter 7), Canadian initiatives by Dana Olwan (Chapter 9), and German and UK responses by Selen Ercan (Chapter 10), all of which will have resonance for policy-makers in other countries. Jocelynne Scutt (Chapter 6) explores court prosecutions in Australia to illustrate her gendered legal analysis of ‘honour’ killing and other forms of VAW.

Suruchi Thapar-Bjorkert (Chapter 8) develops a revealing and detailed analysis of honour-based violence in parts of Northern India, in terms of the primacy of alternative panchayat legal systems in place of the rule of law, and of the ways in which masculinities and masculine hegemony are experienced in the post-colonial era. Chapter 9 by Aisha Gill further discusses ‘culturalist’ concepts of HBV, also in terms of colonialist and post-colonialist understandings, to deepen our understandings of these concepts, and presents a detailed, and not otherwise available, analysis of the case of the ‘honour’ killing of the British woman, Shafilea Ahmed.

Overall, this book provides a medley of forward-looking ideas and approaches which have much to contribute. It could be suggested that women’s activists who have led the struggle against HBV are not really represented among the authors. It is also the case that many of the examples are from the West. However, this can be useful in terms of challenging ideas that HBV occurs only in non-Western countries (although in the West currently, it is additionally true that HBV most frequently occurs in diasporic communities with their origins elsewhere). European and American countries still practise violence in the name of ‘honour’, but did so more often in the past, and Carolyn Strange, in Chapter 3, contributes an especially helpful historical analysis of HBV in Euro-American societies.

The various analyses are all presented in a more or less academic way which may be difficult for some women activists, NGOS and development workers to feel entirely comfortable with. However, in general, this book is an extremely useful addition to the academic and policy literature and to engendering social change for women across the world in terms of the horror of ‘honour’ violence and killings.

© 2015, Gill Hague, Emeritus Professor of Violence Against Women Studies, Centre for Gender and Violence Research, School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol, UK

‘Honour Killing and Violence: Theory, Policy and Practice  is published by Palgrave Macmillan
Review originally published in Gender & Development 23.3 (2015)