The United Nations estimates that 5,000 honour killings occur annually. They take place in Bangladesh, Brazil, Ecuador, Egypt, India, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Pakistan, Morocco, Sweden, Turkey, the UK and Uganda. In countries not reporting to the UN, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and the Palestinian territories, the situation seems even worse.
Honour killing is rooted in age-old patriarchal cultural traditions. It has a long history in developing countries of the Muslim Middle East and Hindi South Asia, but also in Catholic countries, including Italy and in Latin American, and even in the UK and Canada. These killings are a rebellion against modernity. They are attempts to stop or contain social development, to hold onto older traditional values especially concerning social relations and sexuality.
A series of honour killings in Europe and Canada over the last few years illustrates this disturbing phenomenon in the 'civilised' West. Most upsetting, in 2006 in Southport, on the Gold Coast, a violent domestic dispute involving the murder of a mother, Yasmine Hussain, was initially reported as an honour killing, the first reported case in Australia since 9/11. When the smoke cleared, the daughter, Kaihana (pictured), was charged with killing her mother in a fit of rage over her boyfriend. She remains in prison awaiting trial.
Last year in Britain, Bachan Athwal, a 70-year-old grandmother was convicted for the murder of her daughter-in-law, Surjit Athwal; Mahmod Mahmod, 52, and his brother, Ari Agha Mahmod, 51, were convicted of the murder of their 20-year-old sister, Banaz Mahmod.
In Berlin in 2005, Hatan Surucu, a 23-year-old German woman of Turkish background, was shot and killed by her three brothers for breaking with family values. According to Seyran Ates, a Turkish civil rights lawyer living in Germany, 'Such killings reflect the widely held view in Islam that the honour of a man lies between the legs of a woman.'
In Holland, the number of reported honour-related violent incidents in the Rotterdam region has increased significantly. According to the regional health authorities, the number of such reports more than doubled during the first half of 2007 to 70, up from 30 for all of 2006. As the report's author noted, 'This is just the tip of the iceberg.'
In Canada, a couple of years ago a 14-year-old female rape victim was strangled to death by her father and brother because she had supposedly tarnished the family name. In a second case, a man killed his wife and daughter after finding out his brother had molested them. And a teenage girl from a Turkish background was murdered by her father after he learned that she had a Christian boyfriend.
Honour killings most often involve young women attempting to break from the pre-modern cultural traditions of their immigrant families — families plunged into the maelstrom of increasingly post-modern secular society. (The occasional male victims tend to be accused of adultery and homosexuality as well as rape, exhibitionism and pedophilia.) In most cases, perpetrators of honour killings appear motivated by deeply held moral convictions and seek to restrict the influence of Western values, especially involving dress, socialisation and sexuality.
These killings are not isolated events, but have become part of the tapestry of immigrant alienation, which finds varied expressions. One need only recall the riots in France in 2005 when immigrant youths burned cars, buses and buildings. Similar, but smaller, disturbances flared up in Berlin (in Neu Kölln and Kreuzberg) over school integration problems. And then there were the Danish riots in February 2006 over the publication of cartoons depicting Mohammed.
Traditionally-oriented immigrants confront many challenges adapting to life in the secular West. Language difficulties, residential segregation, limited job opportunities and poverty often make immigrants, especially young people, feel like losers.
Immigration in Australia was a hot issue in the recent election. John Howard championed his standard get-tough position, including introducing citizenship tests. Kevin Rudd, while moving quickly to sign the Kyoto protocol and setting a date for troops to leave Iraq, insists on maintaining current immigration policies, but to do so on a more humane basis.
'Compassion lies in how you execute your responsibilities under the [immigration] convention and making sure that it is done both in the spirit and letter of the convention,' he opined shortly after his election.
Immigration has long been a thorny issue in Australia. Since the end of World War II, nearly six million immigrants have remade the country. During this period, Australia's population has changed from one in which over 90 per cent was of Anglo origin to the current status in which about 30 per cent are from non-Anglo backgrounds. This tendency will only increase in the coming decades.
Failure to address the human issues associated with Australia's changing population mix can contribute to increased social tension. At one extreme this could lead to the kind of violence against Muslims and Arabs demonstrated in the 2005 Cronulla riots. At another extreme, it could fuel deeper feelings of alienation among immigrants, especially among more traditionally-minded immigrants, that could result in honour killings. Either would represent a failure of social policy to adapt to the changing nature of what it means to be an Australian.
International Campaign against Honour Killings
David Rosen is an author and commentator based in New York City.
Kalhana Hussain Ten News image from Happy Antipodean blog.