Fisk on Honour Killings

Robert Fisk has two articles in The Independent on “honour” crimes. The first follows one individual case, and notes that:

“honour” crimes are neither a uniquely Muslim phenomenon nor a religious tradition. Christians practice the “honour killing” of women. So do Hindus. From south-east Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan to Pakistan and India, in Egypt and Gaza and the West Bank – across an area far wider than the old Ottoman empire – women are shamefully murdered to “cleanse” their families amid the squalor of mountain villages, refugee camps and city slums. “Honour” crimes are the greatest taboo of the region which, through emigration, has spread to Europe and the Americas.

The second is an relentless march through a whole series of cases, which I found harrowing to read. The crimes are carried out by Muslims, Hindus, and Christians. Fisk makes no excuses for any group. He describes honour killings as a “mass crime, a tradition of family savagery”. Here is a random section from his report.

Through the dark veil of Afghanistan’s village punishments, we glimpse just occasionally the terror of teenage executions. When Siddiqa, who was only 19, and her 25-year-old fiancé Khayyam were brought before a Taliban-approved religious court in Kunduz province this month, their last words were: “We love each other, no matter what happens.” In the bazaar at Mulla Quli, a crowd – including members of both families – stoned to death first Siddiqa, then Khayyam.

A week earlier, a woman identified as Bibi Sanubar, a pregnant widow, was lashed a hundred times and then shot in the head by a Taliban commander. In April of last year, Taliban gunmen executed by firing squad a man and a girl in Nimruz for eloping when the young woman was already engaged to someone else. History may never disclose how many hundreds of women – and men – have suffered a similar fates at the hands of deeply traditional village families or the Taliban.

But the contagion of “honour” crimes has spread across the globe, including acid attacks on women in Bangladesh for refusing marriages. In one of the most terrible Hindu “honour” killings in India this year, an engaged couple, Yogesh Kumar and Asha Saini, were murdered by the 19-year-old bride-to-be’s family because her fiancée was of lower caste. They were apparently tied up and electrocuted to death.

A similar fate awaited 18-year-old Vishal Sharma, a Hindu Brahmin, who wanted to marry Sonu Singh, a 17- year-old Jat – an “inferior” caste which is usually Muslim. The couple were hanged and their bodies burned in Uttar Pradesh. Three years earlier, a New Delhi court had sentenced to death five men for killing another couple who were of the same sub-caste, which in the eyes of the local “caste council” made them brother and sister.

Robert Kagan argued in The Return of History, that tradition cannot ultimately win over the forces of globalisation and modernisation, and that modern nations who embraced such forces also had to develop a modern morality.

“Along with this dominant modern culture, they have accepted, even as they may also deplore, the essential characteristics of a modern morality and aesthetics. Modernity means, among other things, the sexual as well as political and economic liberation of women”.

While some might find it hard to imagine Robert Kagan and Robert Fisk ending up in the same place on an issue, the fundamental issue is one of universal human rights. Those rights had to be fought for in the West, and they will have to be fought for today in more repressive cultures throughout the world. Yet, for some, women’s rights have to be set to one side:

Women’s suffrage in Britain was achieved not by imposition from abroad but through long internal social debate, which is as it should be in so obviously sovereign a matter. Emmeline Pankhurst would not have succeeded had she been a foreigner. Social change will come eventually to Afghanistan, but it must come from within, and at its own pace.

Human rights transcend sovereignty. Those who argue change must come from within society, cannot be blind to the fact that the pressures of globalisation and modernisation already assail every state in the world (with the possible exception of North Korea). No one argues that mobile phones should be developed from within societies at their own pace, but you’ll find women’s rights have to jump a higher hurdle to please some liberals.

A primary objective for democracies and their populations should be to expand the umbrella of rights to others currently oppressed by autocratic governments or repressive local cultures.

Fisk is right, honour crimes are a “mass crime”. It requires mass action.