When honour is shame

By Lubna Khalid
Tue, 08, 16

Honour killings are a scourge in most Muslim countries, and are carried out with impunity in Pakistan, too. This week You! takes a look at the occurrence of honour killing around the world and in Pakistan...

Honour killings are a scourge in most Muslim countries, and are carried out with impunity in Pakistan, too.  This week You! takes a look at the occurrence of honour killing around the world and in Pakistan...

Most people grow up believing that the word ‘honour’ stands for all that is noble in human beings, but it becomes a matter of shame and horror when the word is prefixed to ‘killing’.When honour is shame

According to Human Rights Watch, “Honour killings are acts of vengeance generally committed by male family members against female family members, who are accused of bringing dishonour upon the family.”

Honour killings are a scourge in most Muslim countries, and are carried out with impunity in Pakistan, too, where almost 1000 women are executed every year by their male relatives in the name of honour. Since it is women who bear the brunt of this inhumane practice, honour killing is also referred as ‘Femicide’.

Women are generally killed for refusing an arranged marriage, choosing a non-Muslim husband, refusing to wear hijab, promiscuity or alleged promiscuity or trying to leave or divorce an abusive husband.

The concept of satisfying honour through violence cannot be ascribed to any particular region. There are recorded instances of bloodshed in the history of almost all countries, cultures, races and religion. You! takes a look at the incidence of honour killing around the world and in Pakistan....

Around the ancient world...

Perhaps the most famous war for avenging honour was fought between Sparta and Troy. According to Greek mythical legends, Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty, made Helen, Queen of Sparta, fall in love with Paris, who was the prince of Troy. Helen ran away with Paris who took her to Troy. Menelaus, the affronted husband, demanded her return, but Priam, king of Troy refused to hand over Helen. To avenge his honour, Menelaus gathered a great army which was led by his brother Agamemnon. The Greek army laid siege to Troy and the war that ensued lasted 10 years. It ended with the complete routing of the Trojans when the Greeks won the war by a ruse. Uncountable lives were lost, all for the sake of honour. It’s a totally different story that when Menelaus saw Helen, all thoughts of vengeance were driven from his mind by the loveliness of the face that had launched a thousand ships, and legend says he took her back.

Unfortunately, all women rightly or wrongly accused of wanton behaviour do not possess the beauty to save their lives, and are killed in the name of honour. And, those arguing it’s just a legend should consider that legends are made from real life stories, and show that Greeks’ concept of honour wasn’t really different from the eastern cultures.

During the early times of Mexico, Aztec law allowed stoning or strangulation for females charged with adultery. The Incas of Peru had law permitting husbands to starve their wives to death as punishment for cheating on them.

In Ancient Roman times, the head of the household was vested with the right to kill any woman of the family for compromising the family honour.

King Henry V111 of England had two of his wives - Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard - beheaded on charges of adultery.

Shakespeare’s play Othello is an ode to misplaced jealousy of a husband who smothers his wife to death, and ruins himself.

In Western societies, men settled their disputes over honour by fighting duels. But as enlightenment dawned, this practice became illegal.

The Napoleonic Code, which was passed in 1810, did not allow women to murder unfaithful husbands, while it permitted the murder of unfaithful women by their husbands. It was abolished by the French legislature in 1975, but the law passed by Napoleon was copied by Middle Eastern Arab countries, where it is still in place.

Among the Ching dynasty in China, fathers and husbands had the right to kill females deemed to have dishonoured them.

The antiquated notions of satisfying honour by killing women of the family are a thing of the past as far as the western societies are concerned. But unfortunately, most Islamic countries have not moved on and the stigma of honour killing prevails among their patriarchal societies.

Honour killing in Muslim countries and communities:

In 2000, the United Nations estimated that 5,000 honour killings were committed worldwide annually. Middle East Quarterly Report states that honour killings tend to be more prevalent in countries with a majority of Arab-Muslim population which accounts for 72 percent of the cases worldwide.

In many Arab countries, the practice of honour killing dates back to pre-Islamic time. Interpretations of these rules vary. Some Arabs regard it as their right under both tradition and Sharia (by the process of ‘al-urf’ (custom), though this contradicts the views of the vast majority of Islamic scholars (fuqaha). Example: in 2008, Israr Ullah Zehri, a senator from Balochistan, defended the honour killings of five women belonging to the Umrani tribe by a relative of a local Umrani politician by claiming that ‘these are centuries-old traditions’.

Saudi Arabia

Honor killing is rampant in Saudi Arabia, where a woman was killed in 2008 by her father for chatting with a man on Facebook. In another incident, the Saudi religious police arrested two sisters, aged 19 and 21. Their brother shot them to death in front of their father when they left a women’s shelter in Riyadh, because their arrest had brought dishonour on the family.


Honour killings are common in Egypt. If caught in an extramarital relationship, a woman is often killed by her male relative/s who is/are awarded light sentence/s with judges often viewing the case with leniency.


In Jordan, the government has encouraged the parliament to pass harsh laws to counter honour killing, but the parliament claims that harsh laws against perpetrators of honour killing would increase promiscuity in the country.


In honour killings prevalent among Turkey’s Kurdish community, the family elders designate a member to murder the female relative accused of tainting family honour. However, Turkish laws pertaining to honour killing are exemplary. In 2006, a Turkish court sentenced five members of the same family to life imprisonment for the ‘honour killing’ of 16-year-old Naile Erdas who became pregnant as a result of rape.

Naile’s brother was sentenced to life for the murder. Her father, mother and two uncles were also given life sentences for instigating the murder, while a third uncle was jailed for 16 years and eight months for failing to report the murder. It was one of the heaviest sentences handed down in Turkey for such a killing.

AfghanistanWhen honour is shame

In Afghanistan honour killings are a norm. The latest case is that of a 14-year-old Afghani girl Zahra who was tortured and burned to death by her in-laws. Her father claimed she was murdered for eloping with a cousin of her husband. ATED PRES Afghanis living in western countries continue to follow their barbaric customs.


Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran condemned the practice as ‘un-Islamic’, though punishment under Iranian law remains lenient for those who commit honour-based killings.


In Indonesia, which is the country with the largest Muslim population, there have been no reported cases of honour killing, confirming the fact that honour killing stem from barbaric cultural traditions and have no place in Islam.


In India, the recorded honour killings are about a 1000 per year. Women are killed for marrying or befriending males from different castes or religions. India has taken more assertive legal action, including awarding the death penalty to large numbers of persons who have colluded in murder.


Aqsa Parvez of Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, was strangled to death by her brother Waqas, at his father’s behest. Her crime was refusing to wear hijab.

In Kingston area of Ontario, Canada, Mohammad Shafia, an Afghan murdered his three daughters, along with his first wife, Rona. His daughters were 19, 17 and 13 years old. Their crimes? One married a Pakistani guy and the others had wrong boyfriends.


Ghazala Khan, a Pakistani woman, was shot dead in Denmark by her brother after she had married against the will of the family. About nine people from her family took part in arranging and performing the murder.


Pakistan is a country where women can be killed outside courts, burned to death by their mothers and shot to death in the lawyer’s office. About 1000 honour killings are reported per year, but it goes without saying that most honour killing cases are not reported at all, especially in the rural areas.

Qandeel Baloch, born Fauzia Azeem, was a bold young feminist known for her daring social media posts. She was strangled to death by her brother because she posted ‘shameful’ photos on social media. For the first time in Pakistan, the police have charged the killer, Waseem, with a crime against state. This is a great breakthrough because the murderer will not be able to get away scot-free by getting a pardon from his parents.

Samia Shahid, a British national of Pakistani origin from Bradford, was allegedly murdered by her family in the name of honour. Her father and first husband have been arrested in connection with the case. Samia Shahid was previously married to her cousin, Muhammad Shakil, but the couple got divorced due to differences. Two years back, Samia married Syed Mukhtar Kazim in Leeds against her family’s wishes, and moved to Dubai. Her sister called her and told her that their father was very ill. Samia came back to visit her family in Poteh, a village near Dina in Punjab, on July 14, and found out that her father was perfectly all right.

Kazim informed the police that in his last conversation with Samia on July 20, she cried on the phone and told him that she was afraid for her life. According to police officials, Mobeen, Samia’s cousin informed the deceased’s husband Mukhtar Kazim on the same day that Samia died due to cardiac arrest. Samia was already buried when Mobeen informed Kazim about her death. Kazim is convinced that her own family killed Samia and lodged an FIR against them.

Naz Shah, Bradford West MP, wrote to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, calling for an investigation into Samia’s death. She also wants her body to be exhumed. Mohammed Shahid, father of 28-year-old Samia Shahid, was arrested along with her ex-husband Chaudhry Shakil and her cousin Mobeen. Police investigations are still ongoing.

Anti honour killing bill

In an interview to CNN, law minister Zahid Hamid said that the anti-honour killing bill would be presented in front of a joint sitting of Pakistan’s Senate and the National Assembly in a matter of weeks. The minister expected the bill to be passed. The proposed law would remove a loophole that allows the victim’s family members to pardon the killer. This loophole means most perpetrators of honour killings escape punishment.

The proposed legislation on honour killings recommends 25 years’ imprisonment even if the heirs of the victim pardon the convict. A spokesperson for Jamaat-e-Islami said his party would not oppose the bill, but Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam has not endorsed the bill. The Council of Islamic Ideology, has warned that it would not support any law that removed the forgiveness loophole, even though the council considers honour killings a crime.

Reasons why killers go free

The laws governing honour killings in Muslim countries are weak. The Palestinian Authority gives pardons or suspended sentences for honour murders. In Syria, a man can still benefit from extenuating circumstances if he serves a prison term of no less than two years in the case of killing. In 2003, the Jordanian Parliament voted down on Islamic grounds a provision designed to stiffen penalties for honour killings. 

In Pakistan, honour killings are tried under the 1990 Qisas and Diyat Ordinance of Pakistan, which permits the individual and his or her family to prosecute the offender (qisas), or demand diyat (compensation). Since most honour killings are committed by a close relative, even if a case reaches a court of law, the victim’s family may ‘pardon’ the murderer, or be pressured to accept diyat (financial compensation).

Honour killing and Islam

There is no mention of honour killing in the Quran or ahadiths. However, since Islam has influence over vast numbers of Muslims in many countries and from many cultures, some use Islam to justify honour killing even though there is no support for honour killing in Islam. There have been fatwas (religious edicts) issued against this heinous crime. This scribe spoke to Mufti Naeem Ashraf from Jamia Darululoom, Karachi, about the role of ulema in curbing honour killing.

“There is no room for honour killing in Islam - it is not allowed under any condition,” says Mufti Naeem emphatically. “A human life is as sacred as Baitullah. People who kill in the name of honour should study the Khutbah Hajjutul Widah, last sermon or the farewell sermon of the Holy Prophet (pbuh).

“Even if a male of a family catches his kinswoman in a compromising state, he does not have the power to kill her. He can approach the qazi (judge) who has the authority to proclaim sentence if the allegation is proved beyond doubt. No one is allowed to take the law in their hand.”

So how can this practice be curbed?

“Wrong upbringing leads to such crimes. The first responsibility lies with the parents, who should instil correct moral values in their children. A mother should teach her son to respect women. A father should watch over the society his sons keep. Instead of being harsh, parents should be affectionate towards their children and correct them gently, and give them religious knowledge along with their education.

“Religious scholars can tell their congregation that Islam forbids killing a human being, no matter what the provocation. People should take guidance from ulema. Ulema raise their voices against vices and have written books about women rights. Media should invite ulema so their word can reach everyone. NGOs should move forward and work with ulema,” concludes Mufti Naeem.