Honour killings and their export to the west - a critical legislative challenge of family life and human rights

av Göran Lambertz
Publicerad i International Society of Family Law 2002



1       Introduction[1]


1.1    The honour killing of Fadime Sahindal


I want to tell you about Fadime Sahindal. On 21 January this year she was shot to death by her father in her sister´s apartment in Uppsala, Sweden. Fadime was well known in Sweden. She had spoken out publicly for her right to lead her life the way she wanted, and to marry the man she loved. She had brought her father and brother to court in 1998 for threats they had raised against her. She knew that her life was in serious danger. She was 26 years old when she died.


Fadime came with her family to Sweden from Turkish Kurdistan when she was 6, about 20 years ago. The family is Kurdish. The murder was a so called honour killing. Fadime had broken the strict rules of her family. By choosing a Swedish boyfriend, and by disobeying her parents, she had brought shame on the family. In the eyes of her father and brother, and many others, she must die in order for the family´s honour to be restored.


Fadime had been hiding from her family in northern Sweden. She was studying sociology and was on her way to Africa as part of a project in her studies. The evening of the murder Fadime was visiting her sister in Uppsala. Her father found out where she was, went to the apartment and shot Fadime immediately as the door was opened and he found her inside. She died instantly. The father was sentenced to life in prison by the District Court in Uppsala. He appealed. The Court of Appeal in Stockholm confirmed the sentence. And on July 10, 3 ½ weeks ago, the Supreme Court decided not to try the case. So the sentence of life in prison has gained legal force and is definite. But Fadime is dead.



1.2    How does this relate to our Conference?


The overall theme of this Conference is ”Family Life and Human Rights”. We will discuss the challenge of human rights and their relation to legal problems of family life. The aim of the Conference is to provoke thinking and discussions on some important issues which will shape the future of family law.


Someone may ask how honour killings can be relevant to this Conference. Well, the title of this could have been: ”The active implementation of human rights into family law as a means of tackling structural problems of society connected to family life”. Such a title would obviously suit the theme of the Conference perfectly. What I am doing is take one very dramatic and important example of such structural problems of society. I am hoping this will serve as a good illustration to the more general subject, even though I will not discuss that subject from a general point of view.


The death of Fadime, and the conflict between different cultures and different gender ideologies which her death represents, brings to the fore some of the most crucial human rights:

- the right to life

- the right to security of person,

- the right to liberty, and

- the right to freedom against discrimination based on sex.


But it also touches on human rights of a somewhat different nature:

- the right to respect for one´s family life,

- the right to freedom of expression,

- the right to freedom of religion,

- the right to realisation of indispensable cultural rights, and

- the right to freedom against discrimination based on national or social origin.


As regards honour killings it is necessary for us, as lawyers of family law and human rights, to take on some questions which touch on the core of this Conference. Let me first mention a few such questions of a purely legal or legislative nature:


First: Are victims of honour killings (like Fadime) deprived, from a strictly legal perspective, of their human rights? This may sound like a very theoretical question, to some even a bit silly. But it is important to make this clear as we deal with the more important issue of which measures to take.


Second: Could the perpetrators of honour killings (like Fadime´s father) claim that their human rights are violated if they are not allowed to rule over their families in accordance with their culture and traditions?


And third: Should we let human rights influence our national laws to a greater extent, for example in family law? Should States, for instance, make it an explicit obligation for parents to exercise their parental responsibilities in a manner consistent with the human rights of the children?


The question of a more active influence from human rights is probably the most important one from a strictly legal and legislative perspective in a discussion about honour killings, especially where we deal with family life and human rights – the theme of this Conference. It is, in fact, a well known question for us in family law if put in general terms: How should the laws about duties and rights of individuals be influenced by human rights requirements primarily directed to States? Or slightly differently: How can we guard the respect for human rights in everyday life, particularly family life?


Honour killings present critical legislative challenges which highlight these questions.


These issues, and some other questions raised by honour killings which I will soon come back to, relate closely to some of the themes of the conference, particularly to Equality, State intervention and Domestic violence. This will be demonstrated as I move on.


Having said all this, I will from here on not focus primarily on the legal and legislative issues, although I will touch some more on them. I will deal mostly with some even more fundamental issues raised by honour killings.



1.3    I will deal with honour killings exclusively


One difficult question is this: Could and should honour killings be defined as a phenomenon of its own, or must it be treated together with other kinds of violence against women? Could it be separated, for example, from the so called dowry deaths in India (women killed because the dowry they bring to the marriage is considered insufficient)? Could it be separated from those murders of passion and gender hatred which happen in societies all over the world? From the rapes which happen in war, or the raping of women recently ordered in a couple of cases by village councils in Pakistan? From the stoning of women charged with adultery in some countries? The question whether it is reasonable to deal with honour killings separated from all these other actions of violence against women is certainly an important one. But others have discussed it and will in the future. I will deal, here, with honour killings exclusively.


What singles honour killings out is the motive of shame and honour plus the fact that the murderer normally gets - unlike other murderers - a lot of appreciation for what he has done. Honour killings are accepted and encouraged by many in the social environment, including mostly the female relatives of the victim. In many countries the law allows, formally or in practice, for a lighter sentence if it can be proved that "honour" was the driving force behind the killing.


One other issue that I will not deal with is the use of the term “honour killing”. Many despise the term and say that these killings have nothing to do with “honour”. That is worth discussing, but I will not be doing it here.



2       Questions


What are the questions, then, that the case of Fadime, and ”honour killings” in general, raise?


I have already mentioned three questions of a purely legal or legislative nature. But the most important questions from a broader perspective are, as I see it, the following. They can be divided into two groups.


First: Questions concerning the rights of the daughter as opposed to the rights of the family. What are, and what should be, the rights of a daughter to make decisions about her own life? What are, and what should be, the rights of her family to impose on her the rules and traditions of generations of their culture? Could there be a ”fair balance” (as we are often looking for in private law) between family rights - including the right to exercise the family´s traditional culture - and the rights of the daughter to a life style she wants?

Second: Questions concerning the duties of and the challenges to the State. What are the duties of the State to protect a person from violence by the family? What are the duties of the State to make efforts to ensure that her family leaves her in peace? What are - more generally (to quote from the invitation to this Conference) - “the challenges of human rights” to the legal system of a country which is faced with a conflict between its own values and the rules and traditions of families from another culture? Should the national legislators do more to force those with strongly patriarchal customs to give these customs up? Should (and could) the international legislator do something? What pressure could (and should) be put on those States which continue to more or less accept honour killings?



3       Background


3.1    The history of honour killings and their occurrence today


Let me say a few words about the history of honour killings and about their occurrence today.


Honour killings have always existed. They occur today in many countries in the Middle East and Eastern Asia, some in Africa. They occur, for example, frequently in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. And others. It is certainly not - as some may think because of the publicity around it - merely a Kurdish custom. And it is not a custom which is altogether tied to Islam. It does exist to a large extent in those countries where Islam is the prevalent religion, yes. But it also exists among Christians, and others.


The background of an honour killing is, in most cases, that the woman has been engaged in sexual activities before or outside of marriage. In many cultures a man´s honour, and as a consequence the family´s honour, is related to the sexual purity of the women in the family. This view is deeply rooted. According to century long traditions it is the duty of the father and the sons to make sure that the daughters stay within very tight rules of ”decency”. If the daughters do not stay in line, then they bring shame on their families. And this can happen even if the woman did not consent to the sexual relation. It happens today that girls and women who have been raped are killed because it is considered that they have brought shame on their families. Let me say that once more, even though it is well known: Girls and women who have been raped are killed by their families to restore the honour of the family. If this is not the most barbaric custom existing today, then I do not know what is.


A woman can also be killed because she has chosen to live with a man who is not approved by the family, or because she wants to divorce her husband. Young women are killed because they want to live an independent life and refuse to be imprisoned at home.


We have no way of knowing the number of honour killings. But it is fair to estimate, while still being rather conservative about the number, that around 1000 honour killings occur every year in the world. Three every day. Three today, this Saturday 3 August 2002. Three women killed, to preserve or restore the honour of the killer and family. And three tomorrow, as you move on to Oslo on a beautiful ferry ride. Three today and three tomorrow, and so on, and so on.



3.2    A few other examples


These are some other examples of the custom of honour killings from the last few years:


  1. In April 1999 Imran, a 28-year-old married woman in Pakistan, was seeking a divorce from her husband after 10 years of marriage. He had been constantly violent to her for years. She had an appointment with her lawyers in their office in Lahore. For different reasons she had agreed - reluctantly - to meet her mother there. The mother arrived at the lawyer's office with a male companion. The man immediately he saw Imran shot and killed her. Imran's family considered that the divorce was shaming to the family's honour. Therefore she must die.


  1. In Jordan last year a man killed his daughter with a meat cleaver. She had been having sex with a boy she loved. In January this year the father was sentenced to six months in prison for the murder. Six months.


  1. In Turkey last year 14 year old Mehmet killed his 16 year old girl cousin Ayse. It happened outside of the city of Urfa, in southeastern Turkey. The girl´s father said afterwards that they had had problems with Ayse for many years. She had left the house without permission many times and had friends who were not approved by the parents. She had once called a radio station and made a wish that they would play a song about love. And there were rumours in town that she was seeing boys. Men in town had started ridiculing Ayse´s father; was he not man enough to handle the situation? Ayse´s father took the decision to kill her. Mehmet, 14 years old, was chosen to commit the killing.


  1. Also in Turkey, in the fall of last year, a teenage couple fell in love and left their homes to live together. After only a few hours they were frightened and regretted what they had done. So they went to a police station and said they were scared of what could happen. The police called their parents who came at once. The parents promised the police that they would not harm the teenagers. But when the girl reached the home village with her father he threw her off the tractor they were riding on and drove it over her until she was dead.



3.3    What is the situation for the girls and women concerned?


The murder of a girl or a woman is the most extreme manifestation of an oppression against females with centuries deep roots. This oppression is expressed daily in many different ways. In Sweden, for example, it is common nowadays that Kurdish girls tell how they are forced by their parents to come home directly after school and to stay at home. They are not allowed to see friends, except at home, and certainly not allowed to go to parties or to places where they might meet boys. They are to wait for their parents to find a suitable partner for them. They live as if in a prison. Many of them say they live two completely different lives, one in school and one at home. The brothers, on the contrary, live an ordinary free life, doing essentially what they like.


The girls in these families are often both scared to death - and scared to live. If they break the rules even a little, they will be called whores. And violence is a constant threat.



3.4    How are honour killings viewed today?


Honour killings demonstrate an enormous gap between some cultures in the east, on the one hand, and almost everybody in the west on the other hand. Here the reactions to the honour killings have been, more than anything, shock! We just cannot understand it. How is it possible that a father or a brother will kill his own daughter or sister because she, for example, chose her own boyfriend? It is absolutely impossible for us to comprehend.


In the cultures where the strong traditions of honour, linked to the chastity of women, are centuries old, it is quite the opposite. It is evident for them that sexual disobedience by a daughter destroys the honour of the family and must be dealt with forcefully. In a speech which Fadime made for the Organisation ”Save the Children” in Sweden, she said:


”My father´s reaction when he found out about me and my boyfriend was totally understandable to me. As father and head of the family he had to guard the honour of the family. … They must prove to everyone that they could master the problem and preserve their honour. A behaviour such as mine must be punished, and my debt must be paid in blood.”


The view that honour killings are inevitable is shared by millions, men as well as women. There is a concept that women are property and a perception that violence against family members is a family matter and not a judicial issue. The countries where these traditions have deep roots have been reluctant to prohibit honour killings. And in countries where they have been prohibited, the killer very often manages to get away without being punished, or with only a light sentence. Honour killings are not viewed as murders. After all, they are committed to preserve the honour of the family by getting rid of somebody who has acted ‘sinfully’. So how could it be viewed as just any murder?



4       Discussion


4.1    What should be expected by those countries where honour killings are frequent?


So what should be done? First: What should be expected by those countries where honour killings are common?

Let me first stress one risk in dealing with these matters: There is an obvious danger that a discussion on honour killings will bring in elements of racism and xenophobia. We must beware of this. It must be made quite clear that honour killings certainly give no justification whatsoever for racist or xenophobic arguments. But at the same time - the risk that racists may feel invited to the debate must not prevent us from conducting an open and serious discussion. Such a discussion can very well stay clear of the dark.


States which do not yet recognise domestic violence as a crime, or punish it only very lightly, must bring their penal codes up to international standards. And the old inhuman traditions must be abolished. The rest of us must do all we can to influence the Governments concerned. The UN must act, as it has done to some extent, and it must continue acting. To make a change actually happen women need to rise and get the strong and active support of us men. But real change will require engagement and participation by all of us.



4.2    What should be done in countries which import honour killings through immigration?


Now, what should be done in countries which import honour killings through immigration?


For some of us in the west honour killings have become a most pressing problem. And it must be dealt with at once. But how? I believe we need to start from four basic principles:


First principle: it can never be accepted, or respected, that a person breaks the law of the country where he resides. Those who break the law must be brought to court and punished.


Second principle: The State must take full responsibility for the security of women threatened by men in their families. Experience shows that not enough is being done for the security of these women.


Third principle: Honour killings are both a cultural and a gender problem. It is not only a gender problem. Those who say that it is - and there have been many in the public debate - are closing their eyes to the real world. We must accept this as partly a cultural phenomenon. Most cultures have their degenerate varieties. It is better to speak up about them than to pretend that they do not exist.


And fourth principle: We need, I believe, Integration of immigrants by free will but with certain strict requirements and with generous offers of education for those who wish to learn about their new homeland. Any society where conflicts of cultures occur must make great efforts to facilitate that the cultures can exist side by side in harmony. But we cannot let some groups of immigrants remain total outsiders in society. There is a need, for example, while we accept and support all cultures, to make it absolutely clear that some traits of some cultures will not be accepted.


How should this last principle be implemented in practice? I will mention one possibility which goes – again – to the very core of the theme of this Conference.


I believe that the legislator needs to be active and constructive to push for the right kind of integration. It should be carefully considered, for example, if the States should not make it an obligation, in their family law, for parents to exercise their parental responsibilities in a manner consistent with the human rights of the children. What does that mean? It could be made a rule of law, for example, that parents must treat their children according to the principle of freedom of discrimination based on sex. Or is that going too far? I am not sure. But I believe it is worth consideration. Such rules would mean that the obligations of human rights are transferred to the individuals, for example the parents ­– without lifting the responsibilities from the shoulders of the State, of course. I admit it is difficult to provide an effective sanction for breach of such rules. But such provisions would at least have a clear educational value. And thereby they would probably be effective, at least in the long run.


One thing is certain: It is imperative that the governments and authorities in the west dedicate enough resources to allowing women to break free from isolation and enforced silence – and protect them when they do.



5       My conclusions


My own conclusions are these:


Firstly: Honour killings should always be regarded and treated as murder. The custom must come to an end everywhere, and we must all put pressure on those who are stalling.

Secondly: States which have imported these customs must provide women in danger with effective protection. They must do everything possible to put an end to patriarchal violence against women.


And thirdly: We need to use legislation, for example in family law, to deal with unacceptable traditions. We should demand of families that they respect fundamental human rights in their every day life.



6       Final words


6.1    Coming back to the questions of a legal nature


At the beginning I asked three questions of a legal nature. I will repeat them now, and I will try to give short answers to them:


First question: Are victims of honour killings (like Fadime) deprived, from a strictly legal perspective, of their human rights? - To answer this question we need to take into account that the international instruments on human rights are directed to the States, not to individuals. The right to life and the right to security for one´s person are fundamental rights. Fadime was certainly deprived of these rights. She was killed! But legally the question is whether the State of Sweden violated its duty against her, her human rights in the strictly legal sense. My assessment is that there was no such breach. She was not killed by the State, and the State gave her some security, probably enough to save the State from a sentence of having violated her human rights.


Second question: Could the perpetrators (like Fadime´s father) claim that their human rights are violated if they are not allowed to rule over their families in accordance with their culture and traditions? - No, they could certainly not! There is no human right to protect parents who want to rule over their children in the harsh way that is practised in the families concerned. And there is certainly no human right that even comes close to supporting the custom of honour killings!


And the third question: Should we let human rights influence our laws to a greater extent, particularly family law? Should States, for example, make it an explicit obligation for parents to exercise their parental responsibilities in a manner consistent with the human rights of the children? - As I have already said I believe that States are not doing all they could through legislation to help, for example, girls who are held prisoners at home. And I said that I believe States should use their legislative power to a greater extent to come to grips with the problem of some cultures exercising traditions which are not acceptable. Of course it is an extremely delicate question what should actually be included in such legislation. But that difficulty could be mastered and should certainly not prevent us from trying.



6.2    The importance of this Conference

The theme of the Conference is Family Life and Human Rights. I must say before I finish that I most strongly support this broadening of the traditional family law perspective. And in looking at the subjects to be discussed and the abstracts we can be absolutely sure that this will be a greatly valuable Conference where we will in fact take part in the shaping of the future of family law.



6.3    Please remember


Lastly, I ask you to remember this:


Many of the questions that are raised by the honour killing of Fadime and thousands of others are extremely difficult to answer. But the questions must be raised, again and again. And we should be clear that as long as we watch the killings continue without seriously trying to deal with the problem, we as legislators or powerful opinion makers have a certain responsibility for the deaths of these young women.


It is too late for Fadime. But many women today live under serious threat by their families, mainly fathers and brothers. Are we doing enough to protect them? Are we doing enough to make families understand that honour killings can never and will never be a solution, and that if somebody commits such a murder he will be put in prison for very very long. No, we are not doing enough!


Fadime is a symbol, and as a symbol she will live. She was different. She was very open and very clear about her situation, about her grief and about her deep loneliness. And she was an activist; she was working for a change. She was an extremely brave young woman, and she paid the ultimate price for it.


A young Kurdish woman in Sweden wrote a poem when she found out about the death of Fadime:


We were many who failed

to lend a hand to Fadime

before she fell.

Let us be many

to lend a hand to those

who stand up today,

the way she did,

before they too fall.


I think this concerns, and addresses, all of us.

[1] Except for details this article is identical to a presentation made at the opening of the 11th ISFL World Conference, Copenhagen 3 August 2002.