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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.

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).