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Westerners Who Condemn So-Called "Honor Killings" Must Confront Gender Violence Within Their Own Culture

To consider honor killings in Muslim communities a crime unto itself overlooks the patriarchal roots of much of the intimate partner violence against women in the Western world.
 
 
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When Sanaa Dafani, a young woman living in the small town of Pordenone, Italy, was murdered this past fall, local media were quick to label the crime a case of "honor killing."

Eighteen-year-old Dafani, who was born in Italy to Moroccan parents, was killed by her conservative Muslim father, who had been angered by her Western lifestyle. In Dafani's case, this meant wearing jeans and dating a man.

Dafani's death shocked the country, and many blamed Muslim traditions for the murder: "Here's another case demonstrating that the Islamic culture cannot be integrated into our society," said Enzo Bortolotti, a representative of the Northern League, an influential right-wing party.

Honor killings, homicides carried out by male family members to redeem the shame that women have supposedly brought upon their families, are often associated with, and blamed on, tribal customs in the Arab and Muslim world. In some particularly conservative Muslim countries, such as Iran and Pakistan, honor killing is still legal according to local tribal authorities, although it is often condemned by the central governments. In other countries, this practice is formally prohibited but is widespread and treated leniently: in Turkey, for instance, there are more than 200 honor killings a year--half of all the murders committed in the country. Many of them are easily disguised as suicides, while others are punished with just two or three years of jail.

But evidence suggests honor killings are still relatively common in the West as well, not only among Muslim immigrants, although such crimes may take a different name.

Honor Killings in Immigrant Communities

A wave of honor killing among Muslim immigrant families has recently been reported in Europe and North America.

In November, 20-year-old Noor Faleh Almaleki was reportedly killed in Arizona by her Iraqi-born father because she was "becoming too Westernized." Last March the case of Guelsuem Semin, a 20-year-old ethnic Kurd murdered by her brother in an apparent case of honor killing, shocked Germany.

Every year about a dozen young women of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent are killed in Britain in honor-related cases, according to British police sources recently quoted by the Guardian newspaper.

Honor Killings vs. Crimes of Passion

Some women's rights advocates have argued that this practice cuts across culture and religions, although it may take different names at different times. They argue that associating it with Muslim immigrants alone is both dangerous and incorrect.

"Until thirty years ago, it was common to hear about honor killings among Italians. But now when a man kills his wife, they call it a crime of passion," argues Cinzia Tani, an Italian writer and journalist who specializes in women's issues. "It's the same concept taking different names: a man kills a woman of his family in order to assert his control over her body. The only difference is that back then the homicide of a woman was 100 percent acceptable. Now at least it is considered a crime, as the term itself suggests, even if it is still considered more acceptable than other kinds of homicides."

"Violence against women is widespread in almost any country, regardless of ethnicity or religion," says Farian Sabahi, an Iranian-Italian academic who teaches Islamic history at the University of Turin.

Although data suggest that violence against women is more common and tolerated in traditional Muslim societies, the difference when compared with Europe is not as significant as one would expect.

According to a 2009 survey, four out of ten women in Turkey experience domestic violence. In Italy gender-based violence strikes "only" 32 percent of the female population (about 80 percent is believed to take place within the family).

Most surprising, perhaps, is the perception of domestic violence among women: while only 10 percent of Turkish women report it as a crime, in Italy this figure is around 18 percent.

Gender-based violence is surprisingly common even in countries thought to be more egalitarian. In Britain, 45 percent of women have reportedly experienced some form of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking. Similarly, 37 percent of German women have reportedly experienced some form of physical violence, and 25 percent say they have been abused by a partner.

"Sadly enough, many leaders are turning violence against women into a pretext to attack Islam, to show that it is backward," says Sabahi. She argues that associating honor killings with Muslim culture alone is just plain wrong. "It's not an issue of civilization, but rather of lack of thereof," says Sabahi. "Women in Italy should be particularly aware of this: our legal system recognized honor as an 'extenuating circumstance' in murders until 1981."

In Italy, several episodes in recent years suggest that violence against women is still tolerated both by some Italian authorities and parts of society when the victim is perceived as having dishonored or upset her murderer.

Last year local church authorities defended a man in Macerata, a small town in central Italy, who had attempted to kill his wife because she asked for a divorce. Francesca Carletti-Baleani wanted to leave her husband because he had cheated on her. Bruno Carletti responded by beating her until she was unconscious, wrapping her body in a plastic bag and dumping it into a trash bin on the outskirts of town.

Carletti-Baleani miraculously survived, and her husband confessed to attempting to kill her. "It was an act of love," wrote Father Igino Ciabattoni, a leader of the White Cross Catholic organization. The priest also accused the victim of "torturing her husband" because she refused to take him back.

In 2007, in the Sicilian town of Palermo, Renato Di Felice served only two days in prison, despite being found guilty of purposely killing his wife, Maria Concetta-Pitas, in 2003: the couple's children had testified that their mother had been disrespectful toward her husband, moving the judge to a mild sentence.

"All statistics suggest intimate partner violence is on the rise," says Cinzia Tani. "Often the victims are working women, whose husbands or boyfriends cannot tolerate their economic independence," she argues. "Paradoxically, emancipation has increased this kind of violence against women."

Tani also argues that society is often indulgent to those men killing their spouses or girlfriends in cases of infidelity. "Those men are rarely depicted as murderers by the media, and courts are likely to treat them more leniently," she says.

"The stereotype is still dominant: if a woman cheats on her man and gets killed, she must have brought it upon herself," Tani suggests. "Interestingly enough, when it's a woman who becomes violent out of passion, it is not so easily tolerated."

Passion and honor-related crimes against women seem so engrained in Italian society that in 2006 a German court granted extenuating circumstances on the basis of "ethnic and cultural background" to a Sardinia-born man who had his girlfriend gang-raped because he feared she might have cheated on him.

"All Italians, and those living in Sardinia particularly, felt insulted and outraged by this German sentence," notes Sabahi. "Yet when similar crimes take place among the Arab immigrants, Italian authorities tend to blame it on Islam, without caring about offending the Muslim community."

Sabahi believes "racist prejudice will not help" stop violence; she believes education is the key. "Institutions should focus on protecting women, rather than bashing culture," Sabahi says. "A good way to make women safer is to make them more educated and more independent economically." According to the World Health Organization, "there is evidence that women with less education are generally more likely to experience violence than those with higher levels of education."

Nevertheless, the WHO acknowledges that the relationship between education and intimate-partner violence is rather complex: "In some cases, women who are becoming more educated and empowered face a greater risk of violence as their male partners try to regain control."

To consider honor killings within Muslim communities a crime unto itself overlooks the patriarchal roots of much of the intimate partner violence against women in the Western world. Moreover, associating it with a particular minority can offer authorities an alibi for turning a blind eye toward the broader issue of violence against women.

Anna Momigliano is an Italian journalist based in Milan. She has reported for Italian language publications from the Middle East, China and Africa and is the author of Karma Kosher, a reportage book about Israeli youth. She also writes about Italian affairs for American publications.