Not So Far Away
Why U.S. domestic violence is akin to honor crimes
This article originally appeared in Women's E-News on April 7, 2016.
By Jessica Winegar
The dramatic finale of the FX series "The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story" aired this week after topping television ratings for over a month. The Oscar-winning documentary about an honor killing, "A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness," recently aired on HBO to critical acclaim.
One was set in Brentwood, a suburb of Los Angeles. The other was set in Punjab, Pakistan. One is called a domestic violence homicide. The other is called an honor crime.
A round-up of statistics from the Violence Policy Center, Bureau of Justice Statistics, National Institute of Justice and the Center for American Progress found that more than 18,000 U.S. women were killed in this country by intimate partners between 2003 and 2014. In the U.S., more than 22 percent of women will experience an extreme act of violence at the hands of an intimate partner in her lifetime, according to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Why do we not call these acts of violence in this country honor crimes?
Human Rights Watch defines honor crimes as "acts of violence, usually murder, committed by male family members against female family members who are perceived to have brought dishonor upon the family" and defines those family members as "husband, father, son, brother or cousin." There are 5,000 honor crimes each year in the world, according to the site, mostly in the Middle East and South Asia. In Pakistan alone, there are 1,000 honor killings every year.
But there is a common nefarious defense by perpetrators that links these cases of violence against women in the U.S and those acts called honor crimes in the Middle East and South Asia.
In both arenas, the woman who transgresses the boundaries of what men will accept has to be punished. And the men doing the punishing are from her domestic world.
In both domestic violence and honor crimes, male relatives and/or intimate partners rape, beat, psychologically abuse and kill.
Critique of Western Discourse
The 2013 book "Do Muslim Women Need Saving?," by Columbia University anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod, shows how Western discourse on honor crimes tends to present them as problems of distant Middle Eastern, South Asian or Islamic "cultures."
Indeed, in the U.S., anti-Islam activists such as Pamela Geller frequently stereotype Muslim men as so obsessed with female obedience that they kill women on any suspicion that the women have dishonored them.
But such acts are prevalent here too, perpetrated by men of all religions. A Massachusetts man was sentenced to life for stabbing his wife because he found a text message on her phone that he thought was a sign of an affair. A Texas man was indicted on charges of beating his pregnant girlfriend because he thought the baby wasn't his. An Illinois man was convicted of strangling and knifing his girlfriend because he thought she was cheating on him.
In her new book, "Adultery: Infidelity and the Law," Deborah Rhode, a professor at Stanford University in California, confirms that "suspicion of adultery is a frequent cause of domestic violence and the primary motivating factor in a majority of cases of homicide of wives killed by husbands."
Certainly there are differences within and between societies and regions of the world, in terms of both the frequency of the crime and the social support and legal recourse available to women.
In the U.S., police are trained to intervene to protect victims, and there are significantly more institutional supports for them, both governmental and nongovernmental.
Morocco and Algeria have created new laws against violence against women, but the Morocco legislation does not cover marital rape or offer adequate procedures for implementation, despite the United Nations' recommendation to Moroccan leaders that it do so in line with international standards.
There are no legal loopholes in the U.S. for men to argue they had a right to kill out of honor, or as in recent cases in Jordan and Pakistan, that they can be forgiven by their victims or their families.
The social pressure to forgive can be huge – as it was for Saba, the survivor of the attempted honor killing in "A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness." She said she forgave her father and brother "because of family pressure, because of societal pressure." Some of those applying pressure use religion to deny women protection. This happened recently in Pakistan, where a new domestic violence law is being criticized as "un-Islamic."
Long Way to Go
But there is a long way to go in the U.S. too, in terms of justification, incidence, reporting and sentencing.
The latest American Psychological Association study shows only 1-in-4 acts of domestic violence end up in police reports, and fewer than 2 percent of these cases result in jail time for the perpetrator.
Intimate partners are responsible for half of the rapes women experience, yet 97 out of 100 reported rapists receive no jail time, according to an analysis of Department of Justice data by the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, based in Washington, D.C.
Still, 13 states make exceptions for marital rape. Federal law allows for a crime of passion defense, which is often used by male perpetrators to get lesser sentencing, such as voluntary manslaughter vs. homicide.
Some scholars of law and sociology agree with domestic violence advocates who argue that our legal system in the U.S. fails abused women often because it doesn't take into account coercion as a form of violence.
Not recognizing that domestic violence cases in the U.S. are similar to honor crimes abroad is myopic and problematic for two reasons.
Such a view negates the chance to more fully understand the factors of domestic violence in the U.S. These vary by demographics and geography, but also bear a relationship to the rationales of honor crimes.
It also gives the false impression that women are safer in the U.S. than in these other societies. But the numbers demonstrate otherwise.
On the same week millions again tuned in to a TV series recreating the U.S. murder trial of a known abuser, and also an Oscar-winning documentary about an honor crime in Pakistan, women are beaten, raped and murdered by men they know in every city in every country in the world.
Violence against women is a global problem with epidemic proportions right here at home. No hollow reassurance that "there are no honor killings here" will offer real solutions.
- Jessica Winegar is the Harold H. and Virginia Anderson Chair and associate professor of anthropology and Middle East and North African Studies at Northwestern University. She is a fellow with The OpEd Project's Public Voices Fellowship at NU.