Honour Crimes: An Oxymoron?
What Makes a Crime an Honour Crime?
The crimes are horrific. Three girls and their aunt drown in their car, in a canal. The aunt turns out to be their father’s first wife. All four have been murdered by the girls’ father, their mother and their brother. The crime of the daughters has been to want more freedom, to have a life like their friends. The crime of the first wife was to be infertile and in the way.
Another case, another girl. She has been strangled to death by her brother and father, their blood still, literally, on their hands and under their fingernails as she fought for her life. Her mother said that she thought the men were only going to break her daughter’s arms and legs. Her punishment was to atone for wanting more freedom, the wish to dress like her friends, and the desire to have a job with her own income.
In both cases, the Shafia family and Aqsa Parvez, the murders were labelled “honour crimes” and were pronounced to be against “our Canadian values and the core principles in a free and democratic society that all Canadians enjoy.”
Honour crimes and killings are defined as “the premeditated murder of a relative (usually a young woman) who has allegedly impugned the honor of her family” or alternatively, “The purpose of honor crimes is to maintain men’s power by denying women basic rights to make autonomous decisions about marriage, divorce and sexuality.” These crimes may include major restrictions on a woman or girl’s life, a forced marriage or, in the worst case scenario, murder.
A wedding photo of Donna Jones and Mark Peter Hutt, taken in September 2007. Jones was found burned, broken and bruised on a mattress made of couch pillows in the basement of her west Ottawa house on Dec. 6, 2009
Now consider some equally horrific crimes: A husband who stabs his wife to death in front of their terrified children because, after years of abuse, she was planning on leaving him. “You leave me. I kill you,” he said as she lay bleeding, the knife still lodged in her throat. 
Or the Ottawa man whose own lawyer called a “monster” who tortured his wife “beyond comprehension” for years, finally dousing her with boiling water, and waiting while it took two weeks for her to die of the burns and subsequent infections before he called an ambulance once she had stopped breathing. 
Men like these control their partners movements, often cutting them off from family and friends. They force their wives to stay in the relationship with threats, violence, coercion and constant assaults on their self-esteem. Do these crimes fit the definitions of honour crimes and honour killings above? Are they really so different?
In a Globe and Mail article entitled, “Honour killings in Canada: even worse than we believe,” Gerald Caplan links the so-called honour killings perpetrated by those of South Asian or Middle Eastern background to Canadian men of all backgrounds who murder their wives, girlfriends or ex-partners. “[B]oth kinds of murders have a common root. Both are honour killings, reflecting a twisted, pathological male sense of honour. Both are executed by men who feel they haven’t received their due deference, men who consider “their” women, whether daughter or partner, to be their chattel, to do with as they choose.” 
Is it useful to make a distinction between these types of crimes when both appear to be “honour-based” or does the creation of this distinction lead to the labelling of people based on ethnicity, religion, or country of origin, while allowing us to remain wilfully blind to other, equally atrocious crimes, that happen quite commonly among the dominant ethnic and religious communities in our country? Does this distinction help us to better understand and thus better respond to these crimes, or does it feed the illusion that other forms of violence against women have nothing to do with “honour”?
For many people, the use of the word “honour” in relation to any crime is an insult, a misuse of an otherwise laudable word. “There’s no honour in killing your own daughter, let’s stop calling it such,” said Darshna Soni on her Twitter feed. “We are all honourable people,” declares a banner on Karma Nirvana’s website which addresses forced marriage and other forms of “honour” crimes in the UK.
Alia Hogben, Executive Director of The Canadian Council of Muslim Women, believes that these murders should simply be categorized as femicides to show that all murders of women because they are women come from the same root of patriarchal control.
On the other hand, Aruna Papp, author of Unworthy Creature: A Punjabi Daughter’s Memoir of Honour, Shame and Love, feels that it is important to distinguish between other forms of violence and honour violence. She believes that if we do not do so we will miss important information that helps identify and deal with cases of honour-based violence. She states that “Many Canadians are uncomfortable singling out any ethnic community for fear of being accused of perpetuating racism or stereotypes about certain ethnic groups. It is not racist to name the communities where girls are being tortured and forced to marry old men they have never met. The entire community or the culture is not being condemned, only the practices which violate the women’s human rights.”
It is true that patriarchal control of women’s bodies, sexuality, and autonomy manifests itself somewhat differently depending upon ethnic background, geographic location, individual familial patterns, religious interpretation or tradition, and other factors. Yet the results are eerily similar. Practices of the Fundamentalist Mormon sect in Bountiful BC, and in parts of the US, compare almost act for act to those of Fundamentalist Muslims in the Middle East. Despite happening in different countries, on different continents, to women of different ethnicities and religions, they are so similar that survivors could easily tell each other’s stories as their own with only a few changes. If they are so similar, is there a good reason why one set of crimes is defined as “child abuse,” “wife abuse,” and “family violence” while the other is described as “honour crimes”?
Here we are faced with some important questions in need of answers. Do we use the term honour crimes, or do we opt for “honour” crimes, so-called honour crimes, or crimes of dishonour? If honour is used in any way to describe these crimes, do we include those crimes in which a man murders his wife, his girlfriend, or his ex-partner because he believes they are shaming him by leaving him, or dishonouring him by talking to other men? Or do we throw out the term “honour” altogether and refer to these crimes as femicides or another similar term? And what are the implications of our choice of terms? Do they make it easier or more difficult to identify and deal with these crimes? Will they isolate some communities while ignoring violence in others? Will they make it easier or more difficult for victims come forward and get help? We can’t simply leave these decisions to journalists. These are questions that need to be discussed by survivors and those at risk, by service providers and academics, by anyone and everyone who truly wants to put an end to these crimes, whatever their name. We’d like your input. This is a discussion we need to start.
~ Shirley Gillett
1 Gerard Laarhuis, prosecutor in the Shafia trial
 Man murdered wife in front of their children, Megan Gillis, QMI Agency, CNews http://cnews.canoe.ca/CNEWS/Crime/2012/04/04/19594026.html
 ‘Monster’ Ottawa husband found guilty of first-degree murder in death of wife tortured ‘beyond comprehension’ Chloé Fedio, Postmedia News, The National Post, 2013/06/07 http://news.nationalpost.com/2013/06/07/monster-ottawa-husband-found-guilty-of-first-degree-murder-in-death-of-wife-tortured-beyond-comprehension/
 Gerald Caplan, The Globe and Mail, July 23, 2010 http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/second-reading/honour-killings-in-canada-even-worse-than-we-believe/article1314263/
 Alia Hogben, Social Services Network Family Violence Conference, 2012
 Aruna Papp: Calling out honour-based violence, The National Post, November 25, 2012 http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2012/11/25/aruna-papp-calling-out-honour-based-violence/
Women in forced marriages number in the hundreds in Ontario
25% of women in forced marriages were teens when they married
CBC News Posted: Sep 20, 2013 7:34 PM ET Last Updated: Sep 20, 2013 8:17 PM ET
Hundreds of women in Ontario are in marriages against their will, with a quarter of them married when they were just teenagers, according to a three-year study looking into the practice.
The South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario, or SALCO, released its findings today looking at 219 cases of forced marriage that were identified in the province between 2010 and 2012.
The report, titled Who/If/When to Marry: The Incidence of Forced Marriage in Ontario, found that both men and women in the province are coerced into marriage, but 92 per cent of those affected are women. In 25 per cent of the cases, the people involved were just 16 to 18 years old when they were married.
‘This is a Canadian problem, and it does transcend communities, religion and ages’– Shalini Konanur, SALCO
It’s the first study to provide a closer look at these non-consensual unions, which are defined as marriages where individuals are forced to wed against their will, under duress or without full, free and informed consent from both parties.
“I think the reality is that number is just a tipping point of all those cases we know are not getting reported,” said Shalini Konanur of SALCO.
“And you have to remember our collection was just in Ontario, so the national picture would be much more, I think, bigger.”
The study found that the majority of the people affected are Canadian citizens and permanent residents, with people in 31 per cent of cases living in Canada for more than a decade before being forced into marriage.
“This is a Canadian problem,” said Konanur, ”and it does transcend communities, religion and ages.”
One woman, who goes by the name Haya and does not want to be identified, had been living in Ontario for several years before her father took her to Pakistan to force her to marry her cousin.
“I thought, ‘Yay, we’re going to go back home for a vacation,’” Haya told CBC News.
“It turns out my dad ends up taking my passport, telling me I can’t go back home to Canada and I’m just going to have to end up getting married,” she said.
Haya managed to escape from Pakistan and is now living in Mississauga, Ont., but said she was disowned by her father.
The report lists a variety of reasons people are pressured into marriages — usually by family members, community elders or religious leaders — including upholding cultural tradition, family reputation and honour.
The report says shame and fear are common themes in many of the cases it examined. In some cases, victims were threatened with violence.
“In our society, we are fairly good at understanding issues of violence, particularly violence against women,” said Uzma Shakir, a former director at SALCO. “But this is an aspect of that violence that we are not quite familiar with.”
The report lists several recommendations on how to deal with forced marriages across the country, including a national public awareness campaign, building a better framework for assessing cases and providing legal and social support for victims of the practice.
The Forced Marriage Project of Agincourt Community Services Association was funded by Status of Women Canada from March 2010 to March 2013. We are pleased to announce that with further support from Status of Women Canada we will be continuing this very important work of addressing forced marriage and other forms of violence against women, including so-called “honour” crimes.
During the past three years we have raised awareness about forced marriage through our website, newsletter, Facebook page, forums, youth arts workshops, and TTC ads. We have also conducted numerous trainings with our workshop series for service providers, which cover: 1) Introduction to Forced Marriage; 2) Working with Parents; 3) Engaging Youth; and 4) Intervention in Cases of Forced Marriage. We have had a number of opportunities to assist Canadian women and girls, who have been taken abroad for the purpose of forced marriage, to be safely returned to Canada. And we have had many opportunities to help and support others at risk of, or leaving, a forced marriage. Their courage and commitment to end forced marriage and to help others facing similar situations has provided us with the inspiration and passion to keep up the good work.
In the coming years we will continue the work of the Forced Marriage Project, including offering the workshop series to interested individuals and agencies (keep an eye on our newsletter and Facebook page for updates). And over the next two years we will be expanding the scope of our project. We want to engage Scarborough-based agencies and stakeholders, as well as those that serve residents of Scarborough, and survivors and at-risk individuals, in conversations around this urgent issue. Our goal is to create a multidisciplinary team who can work together to make sure that forced marriage victims and those facing so-called “honour” crimes, can have their needs met and justice served whether they seek assistance through the police; hospitals; newcomer and settlement services; shelters; schools, colleges, and universities; or through any other type of agency or organization.
Be a Part of Our Needs Assessment
In the upcoming months we will be conducting a needs assessment to gather information. We would appreciate your participation in this endeavour whether you work for an agency, an organization, or are a part of a community group; and whether you are a service provider, survivor or at-risk individual, or an interested member of the public. Everyone has valuable information to share and everyone has connections to some agency, organization or group that individuals might access to seek support when facing a forced marriage or other so-called “honour” crimes. Please encourage them to be a part of this needs assessment as well.
If you would like more information on the needs assessment or on this new phase of our initiative, please contact our project coordinator, Joanne Barnes, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 647 218 6912. Joanne has been with Agincourt Community Services Association for four years. She has grounded experience in the field of violence against women, particularly in the area of social ownership of female sexuality and the social, economic and emotional repercussions for women. Joanne joins Shirley Gillett who has worked with the project since its inception.
We look forward to working with you as we continue to address forced marriage and its attendant concerns in our community, our country, and around the world. Together we can spread the word and change the world.