Honour-Based Violence is part of a spectrum of violence against women that all too readily has become associated with certain cultures. Drawing from her research and activism Dr Aisha K. Gill *[1] tackles the racialisation of HBV and women’s complicity with it

aishacnmViolence against women and girls (VAWG) committed in the name of ‘honour’ is attracting increasing attention around the world. Unfortunately, most media accounts and policy discourses blame the problem wholesale on the culture of minority ethnic communities, particularly those from South Asia. However, honour-based violence (HBV) occurs across a wide range of communities, ethnic groups and religions (see: here and here ) This comment piece argues that the problem is most effectively approached from a multidisciplinary perspective that recognises the fact that there are multiple causal factors and, thus, many possible solutions. Efforts to tackle HBV are likely to fail until the problem is understood as part of the broad continuum of VAW: HBV, like all forms of VAW, emerges from the patriarchal values and traditions that underpin gender discrimination and inequality in all communities.

Gender, honour and honour-based violence

Many academics define honour as the opposite of shame in that individuals in communities that value honour do not just seek to obtain and maintain honour but also to avoid shame. Honour and shame are dynamically interrelated in that maintaining honour and avoiding shame is a continuous process. Honour relates to the behaviour expected of members of a particular community, while shame is associated with transgressions against these expectations.

HBV is most commonly committed in communities where concern to protect one’s family against dishonour is seen to outweigh the value of women’s autonomy – and even their lives. Honour is often equated with the regulation of women’s sexuality as measured by their conformity with social norms and traditions, especially those concerning modesty and pre-marital chastity. The oppression that women face as a result of honour systems takes different forms depending on their location, the regional culture and their family’s socio-economic status. For example, in some South Asian families, women’s participation in professional and/or academic pursuits contributes to the family’s honour; in others, a sister or daughter who works outside the home is a source of shame. Hence, gender-role expectations vary widely, ranging from the extremely patriarchal to the comparatively egalitarian (see BBC Crimewatch).

Although the word ‘honour’ has many positive connotations in common parlance, it is often invoked to justify violence, abuse and even murder. Its role in motivating and legitimising VAW needs to be better understood if such crimes are to be effectively challenged, especially given the gendered implications: the overwhelming majority of cases involve male perpetrated and female victims.

killings committed worldwide between 1989 and 2009 were male, though a German study on honour killings committed between 1996 and 2005 found that, of the 20 cases unequivocally classified as honour killings, 43% of victims were male. Like women, young men in communities with honour-centric value systems must respect and heed the wishes of more senior (usually older) male relatives.

Subordinate men are most likely to cause dishonour as a result of their behaviour towards women, including through (i) their choice of romantic and/or sexual partners, (ii) refusing an arranged marriage, (iii) coming out as gay, bi-sexual or transgender, and/or (iv) refusing to commit an act of HBV (Gill, 2014[3]). Nevertheless, the fact remains that the majority of victims are female and the majority of perpetrators male.

However, women of all ethnicities can be complicit in HBV. New research by Eisner and Ghuneim (2013[4]) found that amongst a sample of 856 ninth grade 15-year-olds students in Amman (the capital of Jordan) supported acts of VAW committed to preserve family honour. The study revealed that almost half of boys and one in five girls believed that killing a daughter, sister or wife who has dishonoured or shamed her family is justified. These attitudes arise from children being socialised to accept patriarchal traditions, including those centred on the importance of maintaining female ‘virtue’.

Culture, immigration and honour-based violence

Contrary to common perception, HBV is not confined to a particular religion, culture, type of society or social stratum. Although honour crimes are found in many different societies, each unique cultural context should be evaluated to determine how and why these practices have arisen. Nevertheless, both the mainstream media and many individual politicians and professionals continue to attribute HBV to particular geographical regions, cultures, faiths and/or societies. In Europe, most reported honour killings occur in South Asian, Turkish or Kurdish migrant communities. However, there have been cases in the UK, Brazil, Italy and America where the perpetrators were from Roman Catholic or Irish Traveller backgrounds (Chesler, 2010). Increased awareness of HBV in the late twentieth century led to the first national and international efforts to prevent and eliminate it. In Western countries with large multi-ethnic immigrant communities, HBV stopped being seen as an issue face by non-Western countries: in Britain, for instance, HBV is now recognised as a significant and growing problem.


The British-based Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation (IKWRO) revealed that in 2010

“more than 2800 incidents of ‘honour’ based violence were reported to police across the UK” (IKWRO, 2011).

When IKRWO asked for further information, 12 police forces provided additional figures for 2009, 9 of which

“showed an increase in ‘honour’ crime between 2009 and 2010”; indeed, “The overall increase across the twelve forces was 57%. In London ‘honour’ crime has doubled to more than 5 times the national average[5].

The 5 worst-affected areas were London (495 incidents), the West Midlands (378 incidents), West Yorkshire (350 incidents), Lancashire (227 incidents) and Manchester (189 incidents) (IKWRO, 2011). Meanwhile, the United Nations Population Fund estimates that worldwide between 5,000 and 12,000 women are murdered in the name of honour each year, mainly in the Middle East and Asia. However, it is impossible to determine the true number of honour killings or the true incidence of HBV; reports to the police are rare and sporadic, not least because both male and female family members often try to cover up honour crimes. Moreover, many victims of honour killings are abducted before being murdered and their absence is never reported.

 ‘honour’-based violence and so-called ‘honour’ killings
‘honour’-based violence and so-called ‘honour’ killings

Ultimately, while useful, incidence data do not explain how social and cultural norms and traditions motivate HBV. In policy terms, honour crimes are distinguished from other forms of VAW; however, many NGOs working on cases of HBV prefer to refer to them as VAW cases because the latter encompasses the violence experienced by women from both mainstream and minority communities. However, many government initiatives in Western countries continue to view HBV as a problem only insofar as the experiences of its victims (foreign/‘othered’ women) and its perpetrators (othered men from othered cultures) temporarily threaten the moral and, by extension, liberal culture of the nation. As a result, honour crimes are attributed almost exclusively to the supposedly immutable and intrinsic traditions, customs and religious beliefs of these othered, minority ethnic cultures, while little attention is paid to perpetrators as individuals or to the patriarchal values and norms that underpin all forms of VAW.

Moreover, such approaches fail to recognise that significant variations exist across cultures in the importance individuals attach to dominant social norms and values. The degree to which norms are internalised by individuals depends on a multitude of factors, including (i) the specific norms and values that were expressed by significant others, particularly parents, during the person’s childhood, (ii) the individual’s exposure to other cultural norms, (iii) the individual’s membership of a sub-group or sub-culture with its own sets of norms, and (iv) the individual’s personal motivation to accept various cultural norms.

The role of human rights

Women’s rights activists have made significant contributions to the global struggle against VAW. Some of this work has centred on encouraging the development of legislative measures to strengthen criminal codes and international human rights instruments. The international human rights discourse has been vital in reframing various types of VAW as human rights abuses that both countries and individuals can be held accountable for. For instance, recent United Nations reports on honour killings have urged countries to directly acknowledge that HBV is primarily perpetrated against women, so awareness-raising and gender-equality education is critical to tackling the phenomenon. While this international framework for addressing HBV is important, its success is dependent on governments’ willingness to apply it.

Women are killed in all societies. Worldwide, women are statistically in the greatest physical danger from men known to them and often control of women’s sexuality is a key motivating factor in all forms of VAW. Placing HBV under the umbrella of VAW captures both the similarities and the differences between forms of VAW, encompassing questions of whether murders in the name of honour are regionally or culturally specific while still recognising the continuities between this and other forms of violence primarily afflicting women. If we are to tackle VAW in its myriad forms, we must acknowledge commonalities without ignoring diversity: critically, we must address the complex ways in which inequality and discrimination can affect our efforts to eradicate this violence.

[1] * This comment piece is based on the following book chapter which includes all references citied:

Gill, A. (2014) ‘Honour’, ‘honour’-based violence and so-called ‘honour’ killings, in Gill, A., Roberts, K., Strange, C. (eds) ‘Honour’ Killing and Violence: Theory, Policy and Practice, London: Palgrave Macmillan.

[2] Chesler, P. (2010). ‘Worldwide Trends in Honor Killings’, Middle East Quarterly, Spring, 3–11.

[3] Gill, A. (2014) ‘Honour’, ‘honour’-based violence and so-called ‘honour’ killings, in Gill, A., Roberts, K., Strange, C. (eds) ‘Honour’ Killing and Violence: Theory, Policy and Practice, London: Palgrave Macmillan.

[4] Eisner, M. and Ghuneim, L. (2013)  accessed 2 March 2014.

[5] Source: Nearly 3000 cases of honour violence every year in the UK

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Dr Aisha K. Gill is a Reader in Criminology at the University of Roehampton. She has been involved in addressing the problem of violence against women and girls at the grassroots level for the past 15 years. She has extensive experience of providing expert advice to the government, Ministry of Justice, Scotland Yard, Crown Prosecution Service and the voluntary sector on legal policy issues related to so-called ‘honour’ killings and forced marriage. Her current research interests include rights, law and forced marriage; gendered crimes related to patriarchy; ‘honour’ killings and ‘honour’-based violence in the South Asian/Kurdish diaspora and femicide in Iraqi Kurdistan and India; missing women; acid violence; post-separation violence and child contact; and sexual violence and exploitation. She is often in the news as a commentator on forced marriage, violence against women and so-called ‘honour’ killings. She writes for mainstream popular as well as academic audiences. @DrAishaKGill

Feminism, Womanism and Intersectionality series “Complicit No More” curated by Yasmin Gunaratnam tackles the cross-cutting facets of complicity as they play out within our relationships to our bodies, each other, our communities, to media representations and to mobilisation.

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3 thoughts on “Challenging Mistaken Assumptions about Honour-Based Violence

  1. A very well-written analysis. Social norms are indeed based on reciprocal expectations (Bicchieri, 2006) and these expectations are defined in this case by rewards (honour) and punishment (shame) for social players. I may add that this construct is also typical for binary, undifferentiated societies, entailing that honour-shame based cultures prevent social role differentiation, which is inevitable in complex societies. It explains also why girls are often excluded from education.


  2. Brilliant presentation of the facts. I found the section on international human rights most important of all. Despite general apathy in the West towards human rights, and proactive efforts from MSM outlets like the Daily Mail attempting to abolish the Human Rights Act – the continued development of humanitarian law has shed much needed light on various crimes and abuses across the world. Greater awareness of VAW and HBV in recent years is one example of this.

    I agree with the author, a multidisciplinary approach is most needed. How else can people around the world unite against the divergent aspects of global Patriarchy that we all face, both men and women alike?


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