Ending Honor Based Violence

March 23, 2015| by Zainab Khan, UNA Women


At the UNCSW 59, an event organized by BASIRA (British Arabs Supporting Universal Women’s Rights) and UN Women UK covered the issues of honor based violence (HBV) as a form of abuse which is at the discretion of cultural and societal norms that perpetuate violence through systemized and institutionalized misogyny.

Speakers included Raheel Raza, a globally acclaimed women’s right activist featured in the documentary Honor Diaries, the first film to break the silence on honor based violence; and Ahlam Akram, founder of BASIRA, and a peace and human rights campaigner, writer, and broadcaster.

The majority of victims who experience honor based violence are women, as their behaviors fail to comply with specified gender roles. Key indicators inclusive of honor based violence include pressure to protect either self or familial reputation, which stems from social, cultural, or religious values. This may include:

•  Choice of sexual/marital partner

•  Education and employment

•  Dress

•  Behavior and contact with the opposite sex

•  Rejecting a forced marriage

•  Pregnancy outside of marriage

•  Interfaith relationships

•  Leaving a spouse or seeking divorce

Where honor based violence is prevalent, family and society predominates over the individual, and therefore any individualistic choice which challenges the collective identity and aims of the family are be considered a selfish violation. This illustrates the complexity of the embedded and ingrained belief system in many communities. Arguably, this has resulted in counterproductive efforts in policy issues and responses to treat victims and survivors of honor based violence.

Honor based violence is generally collective in nature, and is carried out in swift repercussion to justify behaviors deemed “dishonorable.” Most often, these acts of abuse are fatal; otherwise, the psychological, physical, and emotional trauma that lingers with survivors becomes a life-long battle. The outreach, awareness, and advocacy of this form of violence has increased within the past several years; yet, the occurrence rate has been on a rise. The United Nations Population Fund estimates that  at least 5,000 women are killed each year for dishonoring their families. This is a grossly underestimated number, as many times the abuse is unreported.

To understand its complex dynamics, it should be noted that it stems from collectively learned set of behaviors and norms that are accepted by entire families and communities, which is then passed on from generation to generation. It is institutionalized and codified misogyny that promotes patriarchal violence. Many times, the abuse and violence is celebrated as a victory. A woman who defies the prescribed set of behavioral norms is stigmatized, shunned by family members, and isolated from her community.  The sheer pressure to conform in order to keep the status quo leads to many women believing that they deserve to suffer the inflicted abuse.

 The abuse is cyclical in nature, as quite often the victims feel trapped within their situational context, either by the perpetrator or the society itself. There is deep shame or guilt associated with speaking out or standing up for oneself, as it may be associated with a sense of betrayal. Often, women who speak out against such acts of violence are ostracized, or disowned by their communities.  They may be rejected by their only known networks, which also results in culturally embedded barriers to treatment access and resources. The stigma associated with seeking help or assistance for inflicted abuse leaves survivors with little to no hope in re-building their lives.

The dialogue generated by a mass movement in speaking out about such violence and victimization makes it significant to represent the heightened cultural politics of honor based violence. The source of the violence itself is a monumental paradigm to break. As of now, the reactive measures can only be attributed to outreach and awareness. Challenging norms and values that are centuries old requires a major shift in policy and legislation to protect victims from culturally endorsed violence. Political instability and fragile social systems demonstrated through extremely religious or ethnically motivated civil conflicts across parts of Africa, South Asia and the Middle East have contributed to the heightened prevalence of violence perpetrated against women.

Attributing the source of the trauma to its complex origin can be challenging, as many social and civic institutions struggle to maintain cultural relativism. There should be zero tolerance against abuse that violates human rights across the boards, regardless of religion, culture, nationality, gender, or ethnicity. Whether the violence is perpetrated in the US, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Pakistan, or Congo, the suffering that is experienced by the individual cannot be justified under any rationale. Intervention and recovery is productive most if the assessment of the entirety of the situation is taken into consideration. For many victims of honor based violence, the endurance of trauma can be continuous and on-going for years, sometimes even decades. Changing the narrative of patriarchal dominance and violence requires a facilitation of proactive and preventative measures to ensure that no woman undergoes such trauma or violence in her lifetime.