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August 19, 2009

Murder by any other name

Shahina Siddiqui

The term “Honour killing” has always bothered me because it provides a so-called rational, a defence in the mind of the perpetrator of a most heinous crime – the taking of life.

Most people in the West are familiar with the term “crime of passion” labelled on a murder when a perpetrator (usually a man) kills his partner or wife, whom he suspects of infidelity.

Our tendency to label crimes against women as such, underscores the deep misogyny that still exists in our societies today.

Think about it: in both of these cases the woman has done some perceived wrong to the “man” and is therefore to be punished. By continuing to apply these labels we perpetuate the subjugation of women to man-made standards and norms.

The violence against women, whether it is the killing of their spirits, their psyches or their  bodies, are all just gender driven violence; and it continues because we as a society are afraid to peel off the layers of “respectability” to see the bare nudity of our biases and prejudices against women.

Unfortunately these biases are not merely the domain of men, but women equally partake in them:  be it in the form of gossip or that little voice that whispers “she must have done something."

The burden that Islam puts on men to lower their gaze when in the company of women (not just burqa clad women, but all women) is a strong warning to men that before casting the first stone be warned that your gaze strayed and thus the fault is yours, not the women's. Because if you didn't abstain from “gazing” or “spying” (another forbidden act in Islam) and “slandering” (a major sin in Islam), you cannot be in a position to be judge, jury and executioner.

The burden of proof and the evidentiary threshold against adultery in a court of Islamic law is almost impossible to meet. It is obvious that when it comes to punishments for indecent behaviours the spirit of the law is more prohibitory than punitive.

Imagine if this were the case in a court of law in a civil society, how much greater the abhorrence of vigilantism and taking of the law in one's own hands would be. 

Furthermore the punishment - whatever the court may deem just - is applied equally to both men and women - a fact, shariah bashing pundits fail to mention.

Those who argue that the so called “Honour Killings” are a religious phenomena particular to Muslims fail to appreciate that, firstly they are totally wrong, secondly, and most importantly, they are providing a fig leaf to morally void criminals, whose male egos cannot surrender to a higher power or consider the lives of women as one on par with that of men.

This deep rooted bias against women goes back to the interpretation by men of Judeo /Christian scripture that blames Eve for Adam’s fall from grace. Eve is portrayed as the temptress who counsels and persuades Adam to disobey God and to partake from the forbidden tree. On the contrary, the Qur’an lays no such blame; in fact, it holds both of them equally responsible.

Arabic, the language of the Qur’an, refers to women as Nisa and to men as Rijal: neither pronoun derivative nor dependent on the other.

With the dawn of Islam in a male dominated Arab society that devalued women and, then Islam’s spread to nations that were either influenced by patriarchal Judeo / Christian views of women or by their respective traditions that were also unfriendly to women, the resistance to conform to Islam’s egalitarian, yet equitable treatment of women in all spheres of life, was a challenge that many of the host cultural and religious traditions resisted internalizing or sustaining.

The deep- rooted misogyny rears its ugly head at every turn, sometimes overt other times covert.

The fact that some Muslims have not been able to realize in practice the great revered status awarded to women by God and his Prophet Muhammad for long periods of time through history, is not the fault of the faith but a testament to the durability of the male need to control and the women's weakness in succumbing. Of course not all men are monsters and not all women victims.

To successfully prevent and eliminate the cycle of violence against women we have to go beyond finger pointing and political manoeuvrings to concrete and effective solutions that will lead by example and by the force of law and social persuasion. Social revolutions have to be based on honest discourse and abstain from sensationalizing human tragedies.

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