Valentina Colombo / Sep 28, 2009

Last September 15th Sanaa Dafani, an 18 year old girl of Moroccan origin, was killed by her father because she loved a 31 years old Italian. The father was immediately arrested while the mother tried to find a reason for his act: “My husband loved Sanaa. Maybe she was wrong. I could forgive my husband. Yes, I could. He is my husband, my sons’ father. Sanaa dressed and ate in a proper way, but he did not want her to go out in the evening with bad boys or friends. My husband loved Sanaa. Maybe she was wrong. He always sent her messages: come back home. He wanted her beside him.” Almost the same words were pronounced by Hina Saleem’s mother three years ago. On August 11th 2006 Hina, a 21 year old girl of Pakistani origin, was slain by her father because she wanted to live like a Westerner and had decided to go and live with a non-Muslim man.  On April 7th 2007, Du’a al-Aswad, a 17 year old Kurdish girl of Yazidi faith, was stoned by a raging crowd in Iraq because apparently she had offended her family’s honor. In Turkey, almost 200 honor killings are committed every year, in Syria, between 200 and 300.  In Pakistan there are between 800 and 1000 honor killings every year. These numbers are sad and worrisome.

The problem of honor killings is known; what is less known is that research made by the American psychologist Phyllis Chesler shows that in the period 1989-2009, there have been 87 victims in the West and 130 in the Third World - and that 84% of honor killings committed in the West are by Muslims. When Chesler exposed these results last September during the International Conference on Violence against Women, she was immediately reminded by the Egyptian minister, Moushira al-Khattab, that Islam does not allow this; that the problem are some Muslims and that the Prophet Muhammad respected women. 

Even radical Muslims point out that honor killing does not belong to Islam. In a document issued by the Muslim Council of Britain - - after some honor killings in the UK - - you can read the following: “Let us consider the example of the Muslim man recently given a life sentence for slitting his daughter’s throat in an “Honour Killing” after she began dating a Christian. This is a tragic story of irreconcilable cultural differences between a father who had a traditional ‘Muslim’ upbringing, values and background and a daughter who had adopted non-Islamic cultural life. But a devout Muslim who understands their religion correctly would certainly never take another life. In reality, such tragedies have nothing to do with true faith.” ( These words are the typical beating-about-the-bush of Islamic extremists - which have to be read between the lines. The document acknowledges the Muslim background of these homicides and underlines the culpability of the girls because they left behind their Islamic principles.  Muslim women cannot marry Christian men unless he converts to Islam. All this does not imply a homicide, but it clearly shows that in Islam there is no freedom of choice, at least for women.

Even the words of sheikh Atiyyah Saqr, former head of Al-Azhar Fatwa Committee in Cairo, are very ambiguous: “Like all other religions, Islam strictly prohibits murder and killing without legal justification. Allah, Most High, says, “Who so slayeth a believer of set purpose, his reward is Hell forever. Allah is wroth against him and He hath cursed him and prepared for him an awful doom.” (An-Nisa’: 93) The so-called “honor killing” is based on ignorance and disregard of morals and laws, which cannot be abolished except by disciplinary punishments. It goes without saying that people are not entitled to take the law in their own hands, for its the responsibility of the Muslim State and its concerned bodies to maintain peace, security, etc., and to prevent chaos and disorder from creeping into the Muslim society.”  In other words the Islamic state, following the sharia, even though it does not accept honor killings, allows the stoning of the adulteress.  Honor killing is replaced with “legal” death.

Honor killing is the product of a male chauvinist society; it can find justification in the Koran and in Islamic tradition. Du’a’s death confirms what has just been said. The Kurdish girl was not only stoned, but her body was mutilated and covered with stones. At the end the crowd started shouting “Allahu akbar”, “God is greatest”, and reciting the shahada, that is the Islamic profession of faith. 

One year after Du’a’s murder, the Saudi activist, Wajeha al-Huwaider, wrote: “Had Du'a been an animal, someone would have [probably] taken notice and tried to rescue her from these inhuman men. But she was a woman, and in the Greater East, the life of a woman is worth far less than the life of an animal. […] All those who believe that honor [resides] in the woman's body are potential murderers, and [could] someday murder a woman when their false sense of honor is aroused. All those who agree that a man has the right to murder a woman, or to cause her physical harm [for the sake of preserving] his honor, are potential killers.”

To all this one can add that in most Islamic countries laws which counteract honor killings almost do not exist. For instance, on July 1st 2009, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad abolished Article 548 of the Penal Code, which had waived punishment for a man found to have killed a female family member in a case "provoked" by "illegitimate sex acts," as well as for a husband who killed his wife because of an extramarital affair. The article also lowered penalties if a killing were found to be based on a "suspicious state" concerning a female family member. The article that replaced it still allows for mitigated punishment for "honor killings," but requires a sentence of at least two years. The new text of Article 548 reads: "He who catches his wife, sister, mother or daughter by surprise, engaging in an illegitimate sexual act and kills or injures them unintentionally must serve a minimum of two years in prison." In the previous text, the killer benefited from a complete "exemption of penalty". We could say that something is starting to change, but we are still very far away from a true fight of honor killings in the country.

Islam and the male chauvinist tradition are the worst enemies of Muslim women. It cannot be denied, as the Egyptian Minister tried to do, that Islam has something to do with this. In the Koran, in Sura IV, we read: “Should any of your women commit some sexual offence, collect evidence about them from four [persons] among yourselves. If they so testify, then confine the women to their houses until death claims them or God grants them some other way out” and “Admonish those women whose surliness you fear, and leave them alone in their beds, and [even] beat them [if necessary]”. If the Koran does not quote honor killings, it can be of some use to justify them. The Swiss-Yemeni liberal intellectual, Elham Manea, is perfectly right when she says that Muslims should admit that there is a problem concerning women in general and honor killings in particular in Islam itself. This is not meant to be anti-Islamic. Manea is a secular Muslim who does not wish to conceal problems; on the contrary, she wishes to face and solve them to improve the condition of Muslim women. 

Only in this way can the West and the Muslim world fight  violence against women who only want to be free, as the Lebanese poet Joumana Haddad describes in a poem of hers: “They put me in a cage so that/My freedom may be a gift from them,/And I have to thank them and obey./But I am free before them, after them,/With them, without them. […] I am a woman./They think they own my freedom./I let them think so,/And I happen”.

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