By Linda Nguyen
Around the world, at least one out of every three women reports being beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime. Usually, the abuser is a member of her own family or someone known to her.
Samia Sarwar’s family didn’t want her to get a divorce. So, they killed her.
In her family’s mind, this was an honour killing. Samia’s crime was that she wanted to leave her husband. It didn’t matter that Samia was trying to escape an abusive marriage. To them, she was shaming family honour.
Honour killings like Samia’s, are rampant in Pakistan, Jordan, Turkey and other Asian and African countries because murderers, who are also family members, go unpunished. In these societies, women are still considered as property of their families and this allows murderers to argue that it’s their religious right to kill for honour.
The United Nations estimates 5,000 women a year die in honour killings. But these numbers are just skimming the surface because honour killings go widely unreported. It is believed that these killings are a “complex, historical phenomenon” rooted in many societies, and reports are showing that honour killings are also prevalent in communities in North America and Europe.
As much as we take our freedom for granted in Canada, there are girls around the world who are killed for wanting to go to university or marry someone they love. Women are also killed because of rumours that they have had extramarital affairs or that they were being flirtatious. In one extreme case, a woman was killed because her husband dreamt she had an affair.
In Samia’s case, it was her uncle and mother who approached Samia and shot her in the head because it was the only way to avenge the dishonour she had brought on the rest of the family. What may be difficult to understand is that the victims’ husbands, fathers or brothers are most often responsible for honour killings. Women rarely get a chance to defend themselves. Even if they do, an accusation of immoral behaviour is shameful enough.
In Turkey, the government is debating whether to ban adultery. The law, which was removed in 1996, made it illegal to have an affair outside of marriage. The law was abolished because it “penalized women more than men” but Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan argues that bringing it back would not hurt women but instead “help protect women from deception.” Yet under this law, women are guilty if they’ve had a one-time affair while men are only convicted if they’ve had a long-term affair.
Last year in Jordan, it was reported that a woman is killed by a male family member every two weeks for “honour”, and one tribal leader retorted, “A woman is like an olive tree. When its branch catches woodworm, it has to be chopped off so that society stays clean and pure.” Later that year, three brothers hacked their two sisters to death with axes to “cleanse the family honour.”
In Jordan, the average sentence for an honour killing is six months imprisonment. Adab Saoud, a Jordanian government official, says honour killings aren’t just about violence against women by men but a cultural problem as well. “Obviously these killings are wrong and against our religion. But it is so hard to understand the extent of the social, cultural and traditional pressures on these men. They are constantly told the family honour is at stake, they are virtually blackmailed.”
Exaggerated domestic violence need not end in honour killings anywhere in the world, and no matter what sort of pressures male family members faced, it still does not begin to explain why Samia Sarwar was shot dead in her lawyer’s office, or why police have yet to lay charges against her killers who, sadly, are her own family members.
If you need help or someone to talk to, call or visit:
Assaulted Women’s Helpline, open 24 hours a day, every day
at 1-866-863-0511 (toll-free) or www.awhl.org
Kids Help Phone, open 24 hours a day, everyday
at 1-800-668-6868 (toll-free) or www.kidshelpphone.ca