Causes and Risk Factors for "Honor" Killings and Crimes

Last updated November 2008

The prevalence of crimes committed in the name of "honor" in many different societies is caused by a variety of factors, including cultural norms, legal provisions that permit reduced punishments for killings committed in the name of "honor" or passion, legal systems and law enforcement actors tolerant of "honor" killings, and social and economic factors.

Crimes committed in the name of "honor" are often said to have cultural roots in the concept of honor, as well as in overall patterns of discrimination and stereotypical male and female roles that cast women in inferior positions. A U.N. Population Fund report on "honor" killings in Turkey noted that the belief that familial and male honor are dependent on the control of women and girls leads to the exclusion of females from the public sphere in addition to crimes committed against them in the private sphere. The report found that some individuals interviewed in Turkey "approached honor as 'the most important thing and above everything else in their lives' though they could not define it more concretely." Others related the concept of honor clearly to women, sexual relations, girls’ virginity and marital infidelity, all of which were believed to necessitate male control over female relatives. Among professionals with higher education, non-governmental organizations’ (NGO) activists and people living in large cities, perceptions of honor were broader, encompassing general morals and decency in human relations rather than just women’s sexuality according to the U.N. Population Fund report.

Cultural influences often combine with legal systems that treat "honor" killings as less serious than ordinary murders to assure potential killers that they will be punished lightly, if at all. Differential treatment of killings committed in the name of "honor" by the law has deep roots. Many laws that excuse "honor" killings are derived from Article 192 of the Napoleonic Code, which says that if a man commits a crime with an “honorable motive” he will go free. In many societies, the notion of an “honorable motive” has been combined with cultural conceptions of women as the embodiment of their male family members’ honor to produce the belief that men are justified in killing women whose behavior is somehow dishonorable.

There are many examples of legal provisions that are more lenient toward honor killings than they are toward other murders. Jordanian Law No. 16, Article 340 provides a reduced sentence for a male who kills a female relative engaged in illicit sex, while Article 98 provides a reduced sentence for someone committing a crime in a “fit of fury.” As applied, “fury” is typically presumed in cases involving “honor.” Article 237 of the Egyptian Penal Code reduces punishment from life in prison to only three to seven years for the murder of a wife (but not a husband) caught in an adulterous act. In Haiti, Article 269 of the Penal Code states that “in the case of adultery as provided for in Article 284, the murder by a husband of his wife and/or her partner, immediately upon discovering them in flagrante delicto in the conjugal abode, is to be pardoned.” The law is not applicable to murder by a wife of her husband.

In addition to the law itself, the legal system and law enforcement actors may reinforce the belief that men who kill their female family members in the name of honor or passion are less culpable than other murderers. For example, in Pakistan, police often do not investigate killings committed in the name of "honor" on the grounds that the crime was justified by culture and tradition. From:  Manar Waheed, Domestic Violence in Pakistan: The Tension Between Intervention & Sovereign Autonomy in Human Rights Law, Note, 29 Brooklyn J. Int’l L. 937, 952 (2004). Waheed also reports that the court system allows a crime victim or her heirs to absolve the perpetrator of prosecution through forgiveness at any step of the process. In Jordan, people who threaten their female family members are not prosecuted for those threats, even though they are illegal according to a Human Rights Watch report. At most, the police make the threatened woman’s family promise not to harm her. In the Palestinian territories, judges can halve a murderer’s sentence if the victim’s family waives the right to file a complaint for murder, sometimes resulting in a sentence as short as six months. If the defendant has already served that much time awaiting trial, he may be released at the trial’s end.

The intersection of culture and law can also lead to lax punishment of murders purportedly committed in the name of "honor" when a legal system allows a defendant to use his membership in a minority culture as a defense. For example, in the trial of Dong Lu Chen for the brutal 1989 murder of his wife in New York, the defense introduced testimony from an anthropologist who claimed that a “reasonable” Chinese man would react with violent rage to his wife’s admission that she was having an affair.  From: Sita Reddy, Temporarily Insane: Pathologising Cultural Difference in American Criminal Courts, 24 Sociology of Health & Illness 667, 2002. Reddy reported that the judge believed that Chen was “just the product of his culture,” and because he was unable to control his culturally-induced violent reaction, Chen was found guilty of the reduced charge of second-degree manslaughter and received a punishment of just five years on probation.

Advocates have strongly challenged the use of culture as a justification for reduced punishment of certain murders. For example, Leti Volpp argues that the Chen case is an example of defense attorneys promoting “politically expedient stereotypes as to culture… which play into already existing notions of how barbaric” Asian cultures are. From: Leti, Volpp, Cultural Defenses in the Criminal Legal System, Asian & Pacific Islander Institute on Domestic Violence, last accessed 8 August 2008. This defense amounts to exploitation of racism. According to Volpp, when cultural explanations become dominant, other factors influencing people’s actions become invisible, reducing the possibility for social change.

Similarly, scholar Sherene H. Razack cautions that an overemphasis on culture as a factor in "honor" killings among Muslim immigrant communities in the West can lead to racism against members of those communities. From: Sherene H. Razack, Imperilled Muslim Women, Dangerous Muslim Men and Civilised Europeans: Legal and Social Responses to Forced Marriages, 12 Feminist Legal Studies 129, 163, 165 (2004). Razack concludes that this racism causes isolation of Muslim young people from the rest of society, while compelling older generations to attempt to fortify their besieged culture by adhering more strictly to traditional practices and seeking marriage partners for their children in their countries of origin, furthering the isolation. Razack believes a better approach to this type of violence is to recognize the material, political, and historical factors that give rise to specific forms of violence against women, and create space for internal contestation of patriarchal norms.

The Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women has recognized “economic and social issues” as factors contributing to "honor" killings. Some scholars have suggested that lack of economic development and opportunity causes poor men to value “honor” as a means of gaining and maintaining status in their communities. From: Rachel A. Ruane, Murder in the Name of Honor: Violence Against Women in Jordan and Pakistan, 14 Emory Int’l L. Rev. 1523, 1572 (2000). Others have noted that the growing desire to control women’s actions could be a backlash against women’s increasing entry into the public sphere. From: Barbara Stark, Women, Globalization, and Law: A Change of World, 16 Pace Int’l L. Rev. 333, 359 (2004).