It really was two crimes in one. When Aasiya Hassan was allegedly beheaded by her husband in upstate New York, the response by many Muslim groups was to make sure that no one connected the murder to Islam, rather than to be concerned that a man may have brutally murdered his wife in the name of Islam. Unfortunately, none of this came as any surprise to feminist Phyllis Chesler. Chesler shines a light on this dishonorable outrage, most recently, in a study for The Middle East Quarterly calling out the differences between “honor killing” and domestic violence. She blogs regularly about Islamic gender and religious apartheid, including honor killing, here and recently took questions from National Review Online editor Kathryn Lopez.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What exactly is an honor killing? And is it odd for there to be one in, say, New York State?
Phyllis Chesler: The beheading in Buffalo, N.Y., is a hybrid case which involves some features of Western-style domestic violence and a Pakistani-Islamic method of murder. However, in 2004, in Scottsville, N.Y., a Turkish-Muslim woman was honor-murdered, and in 2008, in Henrietta, N.Y., a serious honor murder was attempted by an Afghan Muslim. However, honor killings usually take place in shame-and-honor societies, mainly in the Third World. In the West, such murders are mainly done by Muslims (it is a Muslim-on-Muslim crime), and to a much lesser extent, by Sikhs. Strangers are not usually honor-murdered; only daughters, wives, or sisters are. It is an intimate family crime, a premeditated one, with many warnings given. It is also a family collaboration.
A traditional Muslim family’s “honor” is based on how strictly it can control its female members. If a daughter, sister, or wife, even one who is living in the West, refuses to “cover,” wears makeup, has non-Muslim friends, insists on going to college, wants to choose her own husband or leave an abusive husband, wants to live on her own, or dares to have an affair — she is seen as having “dishonored” her family. This is a capital crime. She is not merely admonished or shunned as other traditional religions in the West might do. She is killed. The murder is typically carried out by multiple family members, not just by one loner. A grandfather, male cousin, mother, and sister may all collaborate on this.
In my study, I spell out some of the major distinctions between Western-style domestic violence, which of course I deplore, but which does not always or even often end in femicide. Honor murders are femicide; they may involve battering but are also a highly ritual form of religious/cultural murder.
Although most Muslim organizations claim that such honor killings have absolutely nothing to do with Islam, many scholars and critics of Islam strongly disagree. Muslim countries do not often prosecute honor killings. More progressive countries, like Jordan, deal with the intractable problem of honor-related violence against women and honor killing by locking up the potential victims, often for as long as a decade. Sharia law believes in fathers’ and husbands’ physically punishing disobedient women. It does not clearly admonish its followers not to kill women who are viewed as “dishonoring” their families. The Islamic state will not prosecute honor killers, or will do so reluctantly, slowly, inexpertly, etc.