Defining So-Called “Honor” Crimes and So-Called “Honor” Killings

Last updated May 2010

Laws should acknowledge “honor” crimes and “honor” killings are a form of violence against women and girls. Drafters are encouraged to use an expansive definition for “honor” crimes and killings. A definition must be broad enough to encompass “honor”-based violence in all its forms, such as murder, driving to suicide, rape, gang rape, torture, assault, virginity testing, kidnapping, forced marriage, forced eviction, stove burnings, acid attacks and maiming. Legislation should clarify that the detailed list should not serve to exclude from sanctions some behavior that is not included. 

Defining “Honor”
Drafters should use the phrase “so-called honor” or use quotation marks around “honor” to imply the absence of “honor” in these crimes. Drafters should be aware of the complexities in defining “honor”-related violence. Laws that use the term “honor” risk reinforcing discriminatory misperceptions that women and girls embody the “honor” of the male and community and that there is “honor” in acts of violence against women. Additionally, using this term masks political, social and economic motivations that may contribute to “honor”-related violence. Nevertheless, drafters are urged to use the term “honor” when describing these crimes against women and girls. Using the term “honor,” as opposed to a more ambiguous or restrictive term such as “custom” or “tradition,” will properly identify “honor” crimes as such and prevent loopholes that allow perpetrators to escape accountability. Laws should clearly state there is no “honor” in or justification for “honor”-based violence.
 
CASE STUDY: Turkey’s Penal Code prohibits aggravated homicide, which includes killings in the name of “custom” (Article 82(k)). Labeling aggravated homicides as a crime of custom, however, has created a loophole for “honor” killings. Offenders may argue that crimes of custom or tradition are restricted to certain areas or perpetrated only by certain groups, thus excluding other honor killings from this definition. The Turkish First Criminal Supreme Court has so interpreted this provision, by ruling that the applicable article applied only to custom killings, whereas the case at hand was an “honor” killing because it did not involve a formal family decision. Furthermore, the term “custom” fails to acknowledge the prevalent discrimination against women that motivates killing in the name of “honor.” See Leylâ Pervizat, Tackling Honour in the Aftermath with a Good Practice, May 11, 2009, U.N. Doc. EGM/GPLHP/2009/EP.02, http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/egm/vaw_legislation_2009/Expert%20Paper%20EGMGPLHP%20_Leyla%20Pervizat_.pdf, p. 8.(Turkey Penal Code (2006)). Since January 2009, however, the Turkish First Criminal Supreme Court has found that a formal family decision is no longer required for the offense to constitute a custom killing. Nevertheless, the term “custom” fails to acknowledge the prevalent discrimination against women that motivates killings in the name of “honor,” and is ambiguous. See: Since January 2009, however, the Turkish First Criminal Supreme Court has found that a formal family decision is no longer required for the offense to constitute a custom killing. Nevertheless, the term “custom” fails to acknowledge the prevalent discrimination against women that motivates killings in the name of “honor,” and is ambiguous. See: Communication from Asuman Aytekin Inceoglu, Bilgi University, to Rosalyn Park (May 17, 2010) (on file with The Advocates for Human Rights).
 
A definition of “honor”-based violence should reflect three basic elements: 1) control over a woman’s behavior; 2) a male’s feeling of shame over his loss of control of the behavior, and; 3) community or familial involvement in augmenting and addressing this shame. See: Family Killing Fields: Honor Rationales in the Murder of Women BAKER et al. VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN.1999; 5: 164-184. Laws should describe “honor” crimes and killings as violence stemming from a perception to safeguard family “honor”, which in turn is embodied in female behavior that challenges men’s control over them; it includes sexual, familial and social roles and expectations assigned to women and as prescribed by traditional ideology. Behaviors include: adultery, extramarital sex, premarital relationships that may or may not include sexual relations, rape and dating someone unacceptable to the family, violations of restrictions imposed on women and girls’ dress, employment or educational opportunities, social lifestyle, or freedom of movement. Drafters should be cautious about explicitly listing types of behaviors in the definition, as listing specific forms may result in excluding some behavior that is not on the list from sanctions.
 
See: Report on Violence against Women in the Family, Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, 1999, ¶ 18.
 
CASE STUDY: Drafters may wish to look to international instruments for guidance in defining “honor” crimes and killings:
  • “Honor” crimes defined as a “crime that is, or has been, justified or explained (or mitigated) by the perpetrator of that crime on the grounds that it was committed as a consequence of the need to defend or protect the honor of the family.” See: 2003 report, rapportuer of the Council of Europe Committee on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men, ¶ 1.
  • “Honor” killings defined as “the murder of a woman by a close family member or partner as a result of (suspected or alleged) shame being brought on a family by the action (a suspicion or allegation will be enough) of the woman” (¶ 10). See: 2003 report, rapporteur of the Council of Europe Committee on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men.
  • “Honor”-based violence defined as that “exercised in the name of traditional codes of honor. Where the “honor” of the family is at stake, according to the family, and the woman suffers the consequences, it is proper to speak of a so-called “honor crime.” This is a more expansive definition that takes into account the collective and community nature that condones “honor”-based violence. See: Explanatory Memorandum by Mr Austin, Rapporteur, The Urgent Need to Combat So-called “Honour Crimes,” Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, 2009, ¶ C.I.1.
 
CASE STUDY: Pakistan’s Criminal Code (2005), Section 299(ii) defines “honor” crime as an “’offence committed in the name or on the pretext of honour’ means an offence committed in the name or on the pretext of karo kari sivah kari or similar other customs or practices.” “Karo kari” and “sivah kari” are the same custom called by different names in different parts of the country. “Karo kari” means literally “black man black woman,” and in Sindh, the term encompasses the practice of labeling a woman as “kari” and killing her for alleged violations of “honor”; sometimes the “karo” or “black man” is also killed. By labeling the murder “karo kari,” the perpetrator expects to be forgiven by the victim’s relatives. In Balochistan, the same custom is known as “sivah kari,” or just “black woman.” The practice of “karo kari” has expanded in recent years across Pakistan, growing beyond its original origins as a Baloch and Pashtun tribal custom, something the law appears to acknowledge by using the term “or similar other customs or practices.” In the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) it is called “tor tora;” in Punjab “kala kali.” “Karo kari” is generally acknowledged as the shorthand term for premeditated “honour” killings in Pakistan. Defining “honor” crimes by reference to these very specific customs could exclude other types of acts or behaviour that do not explicitly fall within that definition from prosecution. See Amnesty International, Pakistan: Violence Against Women in the Name of Honour (1999); Expert Paper prepared by Shahnaz Bokhari, Good Practices in Legislation to Address Harmful Practices Against Women in Pakistan, United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women, May 2009.
 
Drafters should be cautious about legislative vagueness that could allow an interpretation that associates crimes of “honor” with crimes of passion, thus allowing the perpetrator to benefit from a crimes of passion defense. Laws should make clear that crimes committed in the name of “honor” do not constitute crimes of passion or crimes committed in a fit of fury for defense purposes. Laws should state that “honor” crimes and “honor” killings are an act of violence against women and girls, and governments are expected to exercise due diligence in preventing and punishing these acts.
 
CASE STUDY: A failure to clearly differentiate between crimes of “honor” and crimes of passion can cause potential problems in the application and enforcement of the law. For example, in United Nations Resolution 55/68, the General Assembly expressed concern over violence against women, including “crimes committed in the name of honour” and “crimes committed in the name of passion” (¶ 1). The potential risk was demonstrated when one representative questioned how states could be expected to exercise due diligence in preventing crimes committed in a fit of fury. Regardless, the government must exercise due diligence for all acts of violence against women and girls.