PERSPECTIVE ON WOMEN’
By Amina Al-Haddad, 14
In recent times, a great deal of media coverage has
been devoted to the phenomenon of so-called ‘honour
killings’, whereby mainly women, but also sometimes
men, are killed by close acquaintances for having done
something that has humiliated their family. The media
portrayal of this subject has covered both the occurrence
of the phenomenon in developing countries, and its occurrence
– or the threat of its occurrence – among
Muslim communities in the West.
A common theme arising out of this coverage has been
the assertion that Muslim societies have an endemic
problem with regard to their treatment of women and
that honour killings are merely a manifestation of this
problem that is rooted in the Quran. One is encouraged
to reach the conclusion that Muslims must change their
attitude towards the Quran so as to protect the rights
of women (Ayaan Hirsi Ali appearing on the BBC Newsnight
programme, 13 July 2005). And as one commentator at
the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council
puts it: “Some might argue that the far away practice
of honour killings, tragic though it might be, should
not be of any particular concern to Australia. Yet such
indifference would be a mistake because the oppression
of women in the Arab world flows from the same cultural
wellspring that feeds the Islamist extremism that threatens
us all.” Although the author of this diatribe
lacks the subtlety of many of his journalistic colleagues,
a consistent, underlying theme of recent media coverage
of honour killings has been that Islam somehow promotes,
or at least does not condemn, honour killings and, by
extension, the wider oppression of women.
Women in Muslim societies are commonly portrayed as
the ‘bearers of the honour’ of their families,
tribes and communities. A slur on her character is therefore
a slur on the entire system with which she is associated.
It is this interpretation of ‘traditional society’
that has resulted in the perception that the ‘social
distance’ between men and women, their respective
conduct and dress codes are all tools that facilitate
the ‘patriarchal control’ of women. In short,
the suggestion is that the structural and institutional
control that exists over women in Muslim societies is
oppressive and leads to (and perhaps condones) horrific
practices, of which honour killing is one of the most
It is impossible to find any basis in Islam for such
a barbaric practice, and one can have nothing but sympathy
for the families of the victims, and pity for those
(Muslim or otherwise) who perpetrate such debased crimes.
However, using the occurrence of honour killings in
Muslim communities as justification, there is today
an increasingly strident demand that traditional Muslim
societal norms be radically overhauled. We should examine
more closely the motives of those calling for change,
as well as the intellectual basis for the campaign.
We should ask whether the problem of honour killings
is being treated rationally and objectively, or whether
the issue is being exploited in order to justify wide-ranging
change in Muslim societies.
Simplistically, what is being suggested is that Muslim
societal structures are oppressive to women. This leads
to abuse such as honour killings. The argument that
leads on from this is that change should be fostered
to allow Muslim women to enjoy the benefits of liberation
that women in non-Muslim societies enjoy. It needs to
be emphasised that this inaccurate diagnosis of the
problem and proposed solution is based upon an isolated
number of instances of abuse in Muslim communities.
Whilst reaffirming that Islam condemns the abuse of
women in absolute terms, for the sake of comparison,
it is instructive to survey the situation in our own
society. To what extent have women been isolated from
abuse following the widely trumpeted liberation of women?
An abundance of data exists concerning the prevalence
of physical and sexual abuse. For the sake of brevity,
reference will mainly be made to research from Amnesty
International about violence against British women (see
• Domestic violence accounts for nearly a quarter
of all recorded violent crime in England and Wales.
• One in four women will be a victim of domestic
violence in their lifetime.
• On average, two women per week are killed
by a male partner or former partner. Nearly half of
all female murder victims are killed by a partner
• The British Crime Survey estimates that approximately
three-quarters of a million women (754,000) have been
raped on at least one occasion since age 16.
• One incident of domestic violence is reported
to the police every minute.
Other high-level statistics include:
• 2 women are killed each week by a current
or former partner (Homicide Statistics, 1998) –
1 woman is killed every 3 days.
• An analysis of 10 separate domestic violence
prevalence studies by the Council of Europe showed
consistent findings: 1 in 4 women experience domestic
violence over their lifetimes and between 6-10% of
women suffer domestic violence in any given year.
(Council of Europe, 2002)
• 1 woman in 9 is severely beaten by her male
partner each year. (Stanko et al, 1998)
• Domestic violence has a higher rate of repeat
victimisation than any other crime. (Home Office,
• Every minute police in the UK receive a domestic
assistance call – yet only 35% of domestic violence
incidents are reported to the police. (Stanko 2000
& Home Office 2002)
• The 2001/02 British Crime Survey (BCS) found
that there were an estimated 635,000 incidents of
domestic violence in England and Wales. 81% of the
victims were women and 19% were men. Domestic violence
incidents also made up nearly 22% of all violent incidents
reported by participants in the BCS. (Home Office,
• On average, a woman is assaulted 35 times
before her first call to the police. (Jaffe 1982)
• 25% of women experiencing domestic violence
are assaulted for the first time during pregnancy.
(Royal College of Midwives, 1997)
• Foetal morbidity from violence is more prevalent
than gestational diabetes or pre-eclampsia. (Friend
picture is equally bleak when we examine the facts about
rape and sexual violence:
• There were 14,000 recorded rapes in 2003 and
11,441 recorded rapes in 2002. This represents an
• One in 20 women in England and Wales has been
the victim of rape.
• Only one in five attacks is reported to the
• Women are most likely to be sexually attacked
by men they know in some way, most often partners
(32%) or acquaintances (22%).
• ‘Current partners’ (at the time
of the attack) were responsible for 45 per cent of
rapes reported to the British Crime Survey.
• ‘Strangers’ were only responsible
for 8 per cent of rapes.
An especially ugly aspect of honour killings is that
these crimes are often perpetrated by family members
on their daughters and wives. From the above statistics
it is clear that the principal perpetrators of domestic
and sexual violence against women – if the UK
is taken as representative – are family members
and people known to their victims. This is a grotesque
reality of abuse everywhere, in every society.
The extent of violence against women is so well recognised
as being a deep-rooted problem in this society that
research has even been conducted to assess the impact
of these crimes in terms of the loss to the economy:
• In September 2004, Sylvia Walby of the University
of Leeds estimated the total cost of domestic violence
to services (criminal justice system, health, social
services, housing, civil, legal) to be £3.1
billion annually, while the loss to the economy is
£2.7 billion. This amounts to over £5.7
billion every year.
• Prof Elizabeth Stanko estimated the cost in
1996 of providing services to women and children facing
domestic violence in one London Borough to be about
£90 per year per household & the total cost
for Greater London to be £276 million per year.
• Sylvia Walby also cites the human and emotional
cost: domestic violence leads to pain and suffering
that is not counted in the cost of services. This
amounts to over £17 billion a year.
My aim is neither to attempt to justify the crimes of
people in Muslim communities, nor is it to gain any
satisfaction in the daily tragedies faced by women in
other societies. As a professional Muslim woman, I feel
the need to be an active participant in society by working
to speak out against such evils. No individual can be
isolated from the effects of these crimes. All victims
are innocent. But as citizens, we must recognise the
danger of allowing ourselves to uncritically accept
simple characterisations of people of other backgrounds
and faiths (and crucially, their beliefs) as brutal
and oppressive, whilst at the same time ignoring manifestations
of the same behavioural traits in our own midst.
Is the focus on honour killings and the efforts of some
to use the issue to effect an overhaul of Muslim societal
norms and structures – ostensibly to ‘advance
the cause of women’, remove oppression and abuse
– intellectually robust? Is it based upon a balanced
view of the reality in Western and Muslim societies?
Is the current focus on honour killings properly assessed
in the light of prejudice-free objectivity? When we
look at the statistics, it is clear that, given the
vast scale of the problem of domestic violence and sexual
abuse against women at large, the scale of abuse perpetrated
in the name of ‘honour’ is minuscule. This
makes it no less horrific, but when one realises that
honour killings account for a tiny percentage of domestic
and sexual crimes against women, it is curious why it
receives such disproportionately large number of column
The assumption that the unfortunate souls, who are responsible
for such crimes, are acting in accordance with Islam
and the sanction of the Quran is baseless. The actions
of a few are used to characterise the behaviour of more
than a billion people. But when that ‘few’
have a different nationality, race or belief, the same
conclusion is not drawn. Therefore despite evidence
to suggest that the abuse of prisoners in Iraq formed
part of an institutional strategy, we are told it is
the guilty soldiers alone who are “bad apples”.
As Rahila Gupta writes, “the killing of women
as the ultimate method of exerting control over them
is not the preserve of any one class, community, race
or religion. The Met estimates that there were 12 "honour"
killings last year across all communities, including
Sikh, Christian and Muslim, while more than 100 women
are killed by their partners in England and Wales every
year. All domestic murders of women take place within
a "cultural" context. Yet culture is the prism
through which we view only the actions of minorities”.
Is this objective or fair?
Amina Al-Haddad, BA Hons,
14th July 2005
Research Analyst, OCCRi