From the Desk of Alex Binkley, Contributing Editor

Respectful talk about ‘honour' killings desperately needed

By Janet Keeping
President, Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership
Troy Media Corporation

Following the murder of four females found in a car near Kingston, Ontario, this summer, so-called "honour" killings were much in the news. Although many Canadians are uncomfortable talking about this difficult subject, we have to be able to talk publicly about cultural difference on gender equality.

The Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership recently held a roundtable on "honour" killings. Fourteen men and women of various educational and cultural backgrounds — for example, several Muslim women along with militant atheists and feminist religious scholars — discussed what is unique about "honour" killings and what well-intentioned people can usefully say about them.

There was little disagreement about what "honour" killings are — one or more members of a family kill a female family member because she has behaved "dishonourably." Nor was there disagreement over what sets "honour" killings apart from other domestic violence — the killers believe they are justified. To them, family "honour" is more important than the woman's or girl's life.

There was also general agreement that these killings are not an integral part of any religion (for example, Islam or Sikhism). The problem, rather, is cultural traditions which equate family "honour" with the sexual purity or subservience of "their" women.

We did disagree, however, on whether "honour" killings should be labeled as such and whether talking about them publicly can do any good.

Some people thought that, even though "honour" killings are different from other domestic violence, well-intentioned people shouldn't say so publicly because the word "honour" might lead law enforcement officials to treat these killings as less serious than other violence against women. But there is, as far as we know, no evidence at all of that happening in Canada. In Syria or Jordan, for example, yes. But in Canada, murder is murder. That your motive was protecting family "honour" just doesn't cut it as an excuse.

Indeed, far from warranting less serious treatment, "honour" killings — because they specifically target females — could be punished more severely under the hate crime provision of the Canadian Criminal Code because they are "motivated by bias, prejudice or hate based on ... sex."

Some roundtable attendees thought that a public discussion of "honour" killings exacerbates the stereotyping of people from countries where it is much more prevalent. Their fear of racist backlash outweighs their expectations of any good that could come from an open examination of "honour"-based violence in Canada.

This is a tough call. But, on balance, it would seem that the benefits of talking about "honour" killings — in a respectful and honest way — outweigh the risks of harm that some greater hostility may indeed be directed towards those who come from cultures in which "honour"-related violence is traditional. But their larger pain may stem from having to acknowledge that it's true; they do come from cultures where the status of women is treacherously low.

How can we hope to eradicate the practice and help prevent the violence if we can't even talk about what's happening?

Canada is ranked fourth highest of 177 countries, behind only Iceland, Norway and Australia, in the UN Development Program's Gender Development Index. So most people who move to Canada from countries where the status of women is lower, usually much lower, can't feel good to have to acknowledge this.

But if the rest of us engage sincerely with these difficult issues, then the hurt of honesty doesn't hit only the "other." All Canadians should feel shame that violence against women is still very widespread and that, even worse in this context, there are vestiges of laws and traditions that in effect deny women's equality. Consider the defense of provocation which is still law. It reduces what would be murder to manslaughter, with much lower penalties, because the killer (read: jealous husband) was uncontrollably enraged. How close does that leniency towards rage come to forgiveness of "honour" killings in other countries?

Open discussion of ugly truths isn't pleasant for any of us. But the consequences of silence on awkward public policy issues are nearly always worse. Those who are eager to revile cultural difference aren't going quietly away. Racist and hateful websites are proof that those on the fringe will find their outlet. And if people of goodwill do not speak up, the debate will be dominated by those who do not have the public good — our shared best interests — as their priority.

Better that we talk about cultural difference — be it "honour" killings, or polygamy, or preference for boy babies — in an honest, respectful way, than that we abandon the field to extremists and miss opportunities for positive social change.

October 13, 2009 — Return to cover.