Thursday, December 15, 2005

'Honour Killings'

The crime of honour killings has been documented and described for a few years now. The depiction is an example of the name encompassing the explanation such as ‘Islamic terrorists’ – which is popularly interpreted as: ‘they are terrorists because they are Muslims’. ‘Honour killings’ as such is interpreted as: ‘they kill to preserve their honour’. I have always found this explanation not quite satisfactory. Though honour is undoubtedly involved as families kill as a response to disgrace – I have thought that possession as opposed to honour helps explain such actions better.

The theory here would be that male members of the family hold on to female members as possessions. The act of possession has consequences for life choices and behaviours. Choosing an alternative marriage partner or having a boyfriend contravenes the rule of possession. As such, the act of killing is an attempt to re-claim a possession that the murderer is in danger of losing.

I want to relate this theory to an important Guardian article from this weekend by Katharine Viner which summarises some research that she conducted along with others into the murder of women (mostly) by their spouses between December 2003 and December 2004. They found that up to 120 people are killed by their partners each year and the researchers said: “The thread that runs through this… is the man's sense of ownership of the woman, and his control over the continuation or cessation of the relationship.” That is, that these are also crimes of possession. As a relationship unravels, the ex-boyfriend kills the former girlfriend: “If I can’t have her, nobody else can”.

This returns me to ‘honour killings’ and what I regard as the construction of lay prejudice. What differentiates ‘honour killings’ from those that were investigated by Viner and others is that families and relatives are involved in honour killings as opposed to spouses (do spouses kill in order to maintain their face in front of their friends?). This could be due to the differential nature of possession across cultures, the Western form being more individualistic and relationship-focused, the Eastern form being more family-focused. As such, the depiction of honour killings is, I would suggest, a form of prejudice as these kinds of killings receive massive media focus whereas as Viner writes of the cases that she investigated: ‘few are reported in the national press’.

This should be of concern because as I listen carefully to conversations in Bradford, it seems clear to me that there is at present an active process which involves the attempted construction of prejudice through lay theories that denigrates others while ignoring the very similar crimes (and perhaps more frequent) that are occurring within British society. It is also important because ‘honour killings’ fit so easily and frequently into lists of negative attributes when others are mentioned. Finally, it is important because it highlights the differences in trajectory from crime to media story. It is my concern that it is a discursive prejudice that determines the outcome.