The mass media in Canada have rushed to ascribe the “honour” killing phenomenon to Arabs and Muslims rather than recognize it as a product of patriarchy.
I was an expert witness at the Shafia trial in a Kingston, Ont., courtroom, where a husband, wife, and son face murder charges in the deaths of four family members. My role was to explain to the court the nature of the phenomenon known as “honour” killing. During my testimony on Dec. 5, 2011, the crown prosecutor asked me to read a passage from the United Nations Commission on Human Rights’ report of the “Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, its Causes and Consequences” (dated Jan. 31, 2002), which states: “Honour killings in West Asia have their roots in the crude Arabic expression ‘a man’s honour lies between the legs of a woman’” (p. 13, Sec. 28). Most media reports highlighted the quotation and erroneously attributed the quote as my own on the issue of religion and culture (The Huffington Post, Toronto Star, and National Post); this is by no means a minor oversight. I am not the source of this quotation, which is overtly racist, nor was it my choice to use it in my testimony.
The ascription of any characteristic – real or imaginary, negative or positive – to a particular race lends itself to racism. To claim that a patriarchal notion of male honour is an essential value of Arabs is one such attribution of negative traits to an entire group of people. It is a racist claim, as it identifies “Arabness” as the source or cause of male violence in the name of “honour.”
While “honour” is a component of gender relations in some societies, including Arab culture, it has nothing to do with “Arabness.” It is, rather, a product of patriarchy. Patriarchy is the regime of gendered power relations everywhere, including here in Canada. Violence against women is universal and it appears in numerous forms across the world, including “honour” killing in different societies. In other words, in the universal form of violence against women, there is a particular form known as “honour” killing.
While ideas of “honour” continue to shape aspects of gender relations throughout Asia and Africa, women and men in these societies have persistently fought against this crime since the late 19th century. This is especially the case in Arab countries where resistance against “honour” killing is recorded in the press, literature, law, and the arts. A noticeable record of such struggle is the work of Arab women activists and intellectuals.
It is, thus, regrettable that our mainstream media do not hesitate to identify “honour” killing with “Arabness,” Arab culture, and – through another misidentification – Islam. The court case is about Canadians of Afghan – not Arab – origin and I find mass media resort to Arabs and Islam as more than an oversight or error of judgment. Is it by accident that most media coverage “racialized” a crime allegedly perpetrated by Canadian citizens and has given it a distinct Islamic and Arab character?
The study of “honour” killing is sensitive and requires a complex analysis, a responsibility which I have taken seriously. I engage in public debates, nationally and internationally, on this topic. I strongly believe that no one has the right to take the life of a woman or deprive her of freedom of unmitigated control over her body and sexuality. However, media coverage of “honour” killing often fails to capture its complexity and thus resorts to simple explanations through outright racism against a particular community or religion. In the current political climate, Arabs and Islam remain the main targets of this “racialization” and racism.