Sandeela Kanwal: “Honor Killing”, Race and Religion

NPR did a piece on the “honor killing” of Sandeela Kanwal on January 26, 2009. Kanwal was the daughter of Chaudry Rashid, a Pakistani immigrant who lives in a suburb of Atlanta. The police in Clayton County (where Kanwal and Rashid lived) say that Rashid killed his daughter because she wanted to divorce her husband and Rashid felt that this would bring shame upon his family. They also say that he confessed to the crime. Rashid’s lawyer points out that Rashid had no access to an interpreter in person, that the murder weapon is missing (it was burned) and that Rashid did not understand his rights when they were read to him.

The case and the NPR article bring up a lot of questions and concerns on my part concerning race and religion. Police say that Rashid told them that he killed his daughter because she wasn’t being true to her religion or her husband. Rashid himself has connected Islam to the murder of his daughter. Throughout the NPR piece, Rashid’s religion is mentioned. Sgt. Stefan Schindler mentions that the town they live in (Tara, GA) does not have a lot of Muslims in it. Shahid Malik, who is suppose to be a representative Pakistani community (how can one person be the representative of an entire ethnic community?!), says that this case will “hurt the Muslim community, Pakistani community”. Lastly, in the article, the reporter, Jamie Tarabay, mentions that two other “honor killings” that have taken place in the U.S. One was perpetrated by an Egyptian Muslim immigrant, the other by a Turkish immigrant.

Islam and Muslims are constantly evoked in this piece, which is disappointing. The most obvious reason is that “honor killings” aren’t solely perpetrated by Muslims. By constantly connecting Muslims to “honor killings”, the problem seems like a “Muslim problem” that needs to be dealt with by Muslims. It once again makes Muslims seem like heartless animals who are only concerned with honor.

Another reason I am concerned with connecting Muslims to honor killings is because it presents a face of Muslims that is only South Asian and Arab. Whether it is right or wrong, people in the U.S. connect honor killings to Asian and Arab countries. When honor killings are focused on as a “Muslim problem”, we are turning Muslims into ethnic groups from those parts of the world. Muslims once again become foreign, scary and dangerous every time Muslims and “honor killings” are connected.

Additionally, I am troubled by the focus on “honor killings” as a phenomena of certain ethnic groups instead of “honor killings” being one of the many manifestations of how patriarchy can lead to violence against women. The way “honor killings” was reported in the story and the way it is reported in general, “honor killings” are often disconnected from the larger issue of patriarchy (which affects all women) and instead focused on as a purely localized issue that affects certain racial groups. I would like “honor killings” to be focused on as part of the global fight against violence against women.

This is one of the reasons why I dislike the term “honor killings”. It makes it hard to connect these crimes to this global fight and instead makes it seem like an issue that only Muslims have to combat. This isn’t to say that we should have our head in the sand about these crimes and act like they don’t exist or not address them because they “make us look bad”. When someone kills their daughter in the name of Islam, yes, that person should be given a lesson on how 1) Islam condemns violence against women and 2) how Islam respects human life regard of gender. That said, I wish that the Western media would stop focusing on “honor killings” as an isolated issue.

It seems that only one person in this whole ordeal got this point.  Alan Begner (Rashid’s lawyer), hopes the state doesn’t make this about Islam or ethnicity. This death could have happened, he says, in any culture, with any family.” Thank you Mr. Begner!

  • Jackie

    Here’s a letter I wrote to the NYT in response to a series of op-eds that had been written about women and “honor” killings. When I taught in the U.S. I used to start my class on “Women and Islam” by asking the students if we had “honor” killings in the U.S. They all would be horrified at the idea. I would then ask them to start reading the newspaper more carefully.

    Dear Editor,

    Although Nicholas Kristof (like William Safire before him) is to be
    commended for bringing attention to the plight of women in Pakistan, like many in the U.S. he shows an extraordinary degree of ignorance, or perhaps disregard, about the violence faced by women a bit closer to home. And while one rape every two hours in Pakistan is a shocking statistic, what about more than twenty-two rapes every hour in this country. Given that Pakistan’s population is approximately 160 million, vs 290 million for the U.S., women in the U.S. clearly face more violence on a daily basis than those in Pakistan. The rate of murders is also comparable. Every year approximately 1,700 women are murdered in what the CDC has termed cases of “intimate partner violence” (ipv), whereas according to Kristof approximately 720 women are murdered in “honor killings” every year in Pakistan.

    I have never understood why we don’t just call them honor killings in
    the U.S. Perhaps because we’re supposedly “civilized” and they’re
    not. However, not only do men murder their wives and girlfriends in
    the U.S., they also kill them when they are pregnant (the recent Scott
    Peterson case, and 1989 Charles Stuart case in Boston, being among the most notorious), or kill the children in front of their mother before killing the mother. One has only to read the local paper of any major newspaper in the U.S. to find such stories.

    And yet where is the outcry from the white American male? And why is it that once again, as in earlier colonial times, “white men are
    saving brown women from brown men” (a phrase coined by Columbia University Professor Gayatri Spivak). What is it about white women, and women in general of the U.S., that makes their lives less worth saving, and their bodies and integrity less worth defending?


  • Rochelle

    So I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and am actually writing a paper now about the recent debates over the term ‘honor killing.’

    Whether we like it or not, ‘honor killing’ refers to specific kind of crime, that differs in many ways from other forms of violence against women. This is not to say that they only occur in Muslim communities — this is certainly not true — or happen in all Asian/Middle Eastern/Arab societies. But the fact is the concept of ‘honor’ and mechanisms behind honor killing are very specific and unique processes that differ from other forms of global domestic violence.

    Honor killing is directly related to patriarchy, and in this way should be discussed as part of a global trend of violence against women that occurs everywhere. But to lump it together with crimes of passion, and vanilla-grade Western domestic violence and rape does not do anything to help women who are at risk of honor killing. This is because the honor killing by its nature carries with it specific characteristics that make it harder to prosecute in a court of law and negates some of the usual safegaurds found in other cases of domestic violence.

    This is not to say that honor killing is the only kind of ‘culturally justified’ abuse of women’s human rights. There are tons in Western culture as well, but that doesn’t remove difference. We need to be specific, but not single out.

    I like what the International Campaign against Honour Killings has to say about it:

  • Broomstick

    A murder IS a murder, period!!!!!!!

  • Broomstick

    nice letter, by the way, Jackie.

  • Fatemeh

    I gotta agree with Broomstick & Faith: murder is murder. I really disagree with the term “vanilla-grade Western domestic violence”, which constructs domestic violence in the West as some sort of ho-hum deal that could never be as horrific as what happens to Muslim women. Not only is that blatantly false (watching the news and reading the newspaper is enough evidence of this), but I just don’t buy that there are significant enough differences between the two. When you come right down to it, a man or a group of people assume they have a right over a woman’s body or women’s bodies, and feel it’s acceptable to do what they wish with them. That happens any place in any group.

  • Emil

    I do think it’s worth making a distinction between IPV and what’s traditionally referred to as “honor killings”, if only to make an observation regarding them. Honor killings (of the sort the term most frequently denotes) certainly occur in the US. However, they’re much less prevalent than IPV. Personally, I’ve most frequently (though certainly not exclusively) heard of those committed by “European” Americans when they occur in smaller rural communities. Tellingly, these communities have tighter-knit extended family structures than most urban or suburban families, as well as more community awareness of said family units. Compared to, e.g., Pakistan, the standard urban or suburban American family structure is much looser, and there is less sense of the family as something external to the members, so a family member has less personally at stake in the actions of their children/siblings (whereas being unable to “control” their spouse would still be “shaming”).

    Which is to say, I’m tempted to view these boilerplate honor killing articles with their sanctimonious insinuations about how much more civilized and less (“unreasonably”) patriarchal the writer’s culture is compared to those crazy brown foreigners are tend to entirely miss the fairly glaring fact that the same patriarchal homicidal tendencies they so loudly decry abroad would naturally play out differently in different cultures. It doesn’t mean that they’re not there, it just means they (wonder of wonders) look different in different contexts.

  • Jamerican Muslimah

    Fatemeh said, “When you come right down to it, a man or a group of people assume they have a right over a woman’s body or women’s bodies, and feel it’s acceptable to do what they wish with them.”

    BINGO. When it comes to Muslims and domestic violence, the violence is somehow exoticized in a way that “regular domestic violence” is not in the United States. Having worked in the domestic violence field for many years I can see how differently some of the judges, attorneys, victim’s adovcates and others react when the perpetrators and victims are Muslim. Many progressive people in the DV movement understand that dwelling on what triggered the violence is not as important as ending it. I’ve been in court to witness many a DV case and as Fatemeh is saying, it all comes down to the same thing- patriarchy and the control of women’s bodies.

  • Rochelle

    @ Fatemeh:

    “Vanilla-grade Western domestic violence” was a poor choice of words: It’s not any less horrific, it’s just more common in Europe/North American than honor killings, which perhaps makes it more horrific in fact.

    The difference between the two is that honor killing implies specific notions of honor that by fault of translation is not congruous to English notions of ‘honor’, which even in English is a very ambiguous word. Honor is a specific mechanism within some communities that implies strict codes. Thus is a person’s daughter in one community has an affair or loses her virginity and it is generally thought of a private concern and does not severely determent his reputation within the community. But in some instances, the reputation and right to respect within a community is based on the image of his daughters/female family member’s chastity. Losing one’s honor has severe implications for social, political, and economic status that is just not as relevant in other forms of domestic violence.

    Another difference is that in an American courtroom (I’m American, so I know its laws better than Europe) an honor killing may be much more difficult to prove because it usually involves the entire family. Either the whole family refuses to testify or they were direct accomplices to murder. If an honor killing is seen as just any kind of murder, the police will be much less likely to look at the family members as accomplices beyond he who admitted to the crime. This is why a lot of families put the burden of actually pulling the trigger onto the youngest brother because he’s a minor and won’t get much jail time.

    I understand the repulsion towards the word honor killing because the phrase gets used so often in the media to justify racism and Islamaphobia. But if you look carefully, the activists working against honor killings in the Middle East/Asia will not deny that honor killing is indeed an appropriate term to describe a specific crime. It is those of us in the Diaspora, where these crimes often occur among minorities, that would like to pretend the term is meaningless because it further isolates the Muslim, Asian, and immigrant communities.

  • Fatemeh

    I think Emil brings up a great point: “the same patriarchal homicidal tendencies they so loudly decry abroad would naturally play out differently in different cultures. It doesn’t mean that they’re not there, it just means they (wonder of wonders) look different in different contexts.”

    @ Rochelle: Thanks for your point-by-point explanation of the differences; it’s very helpful. And my intent isn’t to be arrogant; I know how irritating it is to have others tell you that you’re wrong about your own field of work/viewpoint. I would say that your viewpoint, as an activist with the International Campaign Against Honour Killings, has a fair amount of weight, and your point about the diasporic lens through which some of us view these murders is a good one. But I just don’t know whether I can fully agree; my gut is disagreeing, and I’ll mull it over.

    For now, I think Jamerican’s point is the best: “Many progressive people in the DV movement understand that dwelling on what triggered the violence is not as important as ending it,” though understanding the trigger is the first step to ending violence.

  • Aynur

    @ Rochelle “Thus is a person’s daughter in one community has an affair or loses her virginity and it is generally thought of a private concern and does not severely determent his reputation within the community. But in some instances, the reputation and right to respect within a community is based on the image of his daughters/female family member’s chastity. Losing one’s honor has severe implications for social, political, and economic status that is just not as relevant in other forms of domestic violence.”

    ITA. It doesn’t have the same ramifications here in the US compared to some other country (i.e. Turkey) where family honor is very important.

  • Sobia

    @ Rochelle:

    I think a part of the problem many have with the term honour killings is

    1) because it is usually associated with brown people (whether Muslims or Sikhs)

    2) because how can we say that the women who are murdered in North America (I’m North American) by their spouses are not murdered for honour? As you said the idea of honour is different here therefore the way in which it plays out here may be different (for instance people may not cite religion), but it can come down to honour as well.

    Part of the reason the diaspora has an issue with the word could be because we see women from other cultural/religious groups murdered for what often appear to be issues of honour, yet they are not labeled as such.

    What are the characteristics, according to Western research, of a man who is violent toward his partner? He is usually a controlling person who has a sense of entitlement, is competitive with others, blames others for everything that goes wrong, does not like being challenged or questioned, will often interrupt others (especially women), will make lewd or sexual jokes at inappropriate times. Pretty much this guy has got an ego and when he feels disrespected by “his woman” (who he feels he owns) he will beat, or even worse kill, her. She has after all violated his ego and respect.

    Hmmm…maybe we could call these “Ego killings” or “Respect killings”?

  • Rochelle

    Thanks Fatemeh, but for the sake of full disclosure, I don’t work for the International Campaign Against Honor killing, but the organization I do work for shares a lot of information back and forth with ICAHK and I respect them a lot.

    Interesting bit: I used to be totally, 100% against the term ‘honor killing’ and thought it was complete bullshit and racist and Islamaphobic and counterproductive, so on so forth. Then I started writing this paper and reading a lot about it, which made me change my mind. So it’s probably the case that it’s quite complicated and none of us have gotten to the bottom of it yet.

  • Rochelle


    “…because how can we say that the women who are murdered in North America (I’m North American) by their spouses are not murdered for honour?”

    The could very well be murdered as a consequence of their sexual deviance provoking them. However, this does not make it an honor killing:

    The difference is that what we think of as ‘honour killings’ all have certain things in common that make them unique. These are:

    1. First, honor killings almost always involve the murder of a woman by her family members. Most often, the perpetrator comes from the victim’s family of birth, not her family of marriage. Although we tend to think of the husband suffering the most humiliation from his wife’s adultery or sexual impurity, the husband is less likely to be the killer than the victim’s brother (most likely), father, or cousin.

    2. Second, the perpetrator is usually not acting alone. There is either an explicit or implicit approval or even encouragement by other members of the family to commit murder. Honor must be restored for the collective, not just the individual. Honor killing necessitates a supportive audience who will condone murder and reward it with honor restored

    3.Third, suspicion is usually enough to prompt an honor crime. As long as the rumor exists among the community of a woman shaming her family’s honor, even if there is no evidence, the men have been dishonored. Quite often, honor killings take place because the victim has “been away from home” or “comes back late”. While there is nothing to prove any wrongdoing, the visual lack of control by her male kin sends a message to the community that his honor has been lost.

    4. Finally, many experts on honor killing insist that an essential characteristic of the crime is that it is premeditated. Honor killings, they say, are planned crimes, usually among the men in the family or community authorities, and meticulously carried out.

    For all these reasons and more, honor killing can be categorically distinct from other forms of domestic violence. Just because a husband kills his wife because she cheated on him (which is quite common the USA), this does not mean it was an honor killing.

    I think the more important issue at stake, and the real point of disagreement among us is: Why is it important to distinguish honor killings as a seperate category? The reason for this is in the West is because only when we understand what makes honor killing unique can we work to prevent these crimes and prosecute them adequately. The system in place right now just doesn’t cut it, especially in the US/Canada and Europe.

    Look, we can all agree that honor killing has nothing to do with Islam. They’re totally disjointed. Also, we can agree that the VAST majority of “brown” societies do not condone honor killing and that their occurance should not be used to ‘essentialize’ the culture of these societies. Western culture condones violence, Latin American culture condones violence, pretty much every culture in some way shape or form condones violence against women. But that doesn’t mean we should overlook specific cases just because it happens everywhere.

  • Muffy

    I think I’m going to have to agree with Rochelle on this point: Honor killings are a distinct phenomenon, and we can only adequately deal with them if we recognize them as such. This doesn’t make honor killings worse than other crimes, just distinct. Just as another example, look at alcohol-induced violence. Domestic violence that is due to alcoholism is no worse than domestic violence that is not due to alcoholism. However, alcohol-induced violence does have a specific cause, namely alcohol abuse, and we must confront this underlying cause (alcohol abuse) if we hope to solve the larger problem (domestic violence that results from alcohol abuse). Likewise, honor killings are unique in terms of their causes (e.g. the concept of “honor” that exists in certain culture), perpetrators (e.g. family members, who often conspire to cover up the evidence), and other things that Rochelle described.

    I agree, however, that there is often racism/Islamophobia behind lots of the rhetoric against honor killings, which is unfortunate, as this probably hurts the cause. I wish that more people understood how this problem is less of a religious one and more of a cultural one (e.g. they are rare amongst Muslims in Indonesia but practiced among Palestinian Christians — stuff like that).

  • Faith

    Thanks for the comments everyone. They have been informative to say the least.

    “The system in place right now just doesn’t cut it, especially in the US/Canada and Europe.”

    Rochelle could you explain this better? I’m wondering what is meant by this.

  • laila


    Thank you for those points that make “Honor Killing” unique from other murders. It makes alot sense to me, in particular number “2. Second, the perpetrator is usually not acting alone. There is either an explicit or implicit approval or even encouragement by other members of the family to commit murder.” against their daughter, sister, cousin. I think the participation of more than one family member (father, mother, brother etc.) make it a defining difference.

    But there’s something about the label “Honor Killing” that for me doesn’t hold enough weight as “Murder” would or even “Execution”. “Execution” because it’s premeditated by a group of people or more than one family member, although not as legal penalty but social penalty. Actually, don’t perpetrators of “Honor Killing” usually receive very light sentences (1-2 years) for the murder of their family member, whereas if the women were unrelated to them the perpetrator would receive a harsher sentece?

    I agree that Murder is Murder, but the murder of a pregnant woman is different, just like gang related murders of women are different etc. I believe violence against women does come in many differnt forms, there is no “one size fits all” formula, or else how will we solve them. One thing they all do have in common is the “manifestations of how patriarchy can lead to violence against women”.

  • Ruchama

    I think the term “ego killings” or “respect killings” is interesting. In what we think of as honor killings, the “point” of the killing is to preserve the killer’s respect in the community. (Or at least, that’s the stated point.) In what we think of as typical “western” domestic violence, the “point” is to restore the killer’s self-respect. Kind of the difference between “I’m killing you because you made me look like less of a man” and “I’m killing you because you made me feel like less of a man”?

    I’m mostly just kind of throwing this out there — just an idea, trying to get my own thoughts in order. The “made me less of a man” part is common to both, and maybe it’s a societal emphasis on family versus a societal emphasis on individual that makes the look like/feel like distinction?

  • Sobia

    It all comes down to the man and his honour and ego it seems.


    Thanks for the break down. It makes sense. I guess my discomfort comes from the holier-than-thou attitude that pervades these stories often. As if to say that “we” in the West are somehow so much more civilized because we don’t kill women for that reason. We have other reasons.



    Thanks for sharing that letter! Very well written I’m sure it opened some eyes :)

  • Rochelle

    @ Faith and Laila:

    Well that’s what’s tricky. We want to distinguish honor killing in North America and Europe for the sake of prevention and prosecution to the fullest extent of the law, but on the other hand we want to communicate that honor killing is just as bad as murder in countries like Turkey, Jordan, Syria, Pakistan, etc.

    The reason why the system in place is not enough for honor killings in North America/Europe is because a) it doesn’t provide culturally-sensitive safe spaces/mechanisms to help women at risk of honor crimes. So the prevention process is inadequate. Then when it comes to prosecution, most cases only focus on one suspect, and as we know honor killings often involve the entire family. Also many family members refuse to testify, making it difficult to prosecute, for fear of retribution. Finally, the ‘it’s our culture’ argument is used many times in court as a way of defense, which appeals to liberal-minded multiculturalists idiots who think that a) this really is ‘brown’ culture, and b) that we should excuse it.

    Then in other countries where honor killings are more prevalent, the culture argument resurfaces, and provides a lot of leniency for honor killings, even when the punishment for murder is very severe. We need to show that honor killings are murder and should not be excused. The ironic thing is that a lot of these laws that excuse honor killings stem from the Napoleonic code under colonialism, because it’s true that honor-type crimes (although not exactly honor killings) were prevalent in the history of Western culture, especially in 18th century puritanism.

  • saliha

    Sobia said, “It all comes down to the man and his honour and ego it seems.”

    What I took from Rochelle’s rather convincing points (I’m still mulling some things over) is that it isn’t just the men in the family. While women suffer the burden of honor, women in the family are likely to be supportive because their honor is at stake too. I can totally see how the “misbehavior” or rumors of such of a sister can effect another sister or brother’s chances at marriage. While I’ve never dealt with these kinds of murders I have often seen how the reputation of one family member can negatively impact the entire family.

    @ Rochama
    Really interesting thoughts.

  • Zahra

    This is a very interesting conversation. I work to end partner abuse in a (largely but not exclusively) non-Muslim community in the US, so this really hits home.

    I do want to point out that, at least in the US, partner abuse often involves a partner killing members of the victim’s family of origin–parents, sisters, and most often children–to keep the victim in the perpetrator’s power. (Which would seem to be different from what Rochelle describes.) These killings, like the murders of primary victims, are often very premeditated.

    The term “crime of passion” really makes me angry, because it does not speak to the reality of the people I see harmed by intimate violence every day. Batterers are NOT people who just lose self-control in the face emotionally trying events, like infidelity; they are people who use abuse (emotional, financial, and sexual as well as physical) to totally subsume a person to their will. I would also add that suspicion is very much a factor–very often batterers don’t even need that, because their purpose is to attain total control of their partners.

    My organization believes that battering mimics the larger inequities of our society–not only sexism, but racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, ableism, etc.–and that as long as these inequities exist, batterers will internalize them and use them to demean and gain power over others the way that social groups do. So we believe that ending battering requires working for justice in other ways, as well as empowering and supporting survivors. It’s a multi-pronged effort.

    Do you think that a similar approach would work for the killings you’re talking about here (in combination with other, hands-on support), or is an entirely different method needed? It seems to me that there could be room for collaboration if some of the answers share territory (not just the problems).

  • Katie

    The article does point out that this isn’t Islam, but rather a “tradition” (if that’s the right word for it) in some villages and some areas. I agree with your arguments, but I think on the whole, NPR had a comparatively sensitive handling of the issue.

  • Level Best

    I agree entirely with Jamerican Muslimah in comment #7. As an older, American-born Christian, I have read/heard for decade after decade of disaffected boyfriends, would-be boyfriends, fiancees, husbands, ex-husbands and etc., all also American-born Christians, killing their women and sometimes children. This phenomenon is almost invisible as a news story (domestic dispute) unless it’s dramatic like the man in the Santa suit slaughtering his family. At most the majority of the cases are called crimes of passion, a sign of the economically depressed times, and the like. It’s all patriarchal violence of men towards women. But with comparable Muslim men and women? “Honor Killing!” It’s unfair labeling.

  • golby260

    Hey, there :) *delurks for a bit*

    One minor correction: the town is Jonesboro, not “Tara,” although I don’t blame you for making that mistake…and, yeah, not a lot of Muslims around here — they tend to be more in Atlanta, or probably Decatur.

    I first heard of this case last year, and I was surprised that, given how Republican our whole state is (even though Clayton County (70%+ for Obama :D) and the AJ-C are decidedly not so), this case wasn’t hyped up more. I mean, someone highlighted it in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I think some right-wing blogs tried to take off with the story, but I guess Jonesboro is too boring a town to make the “Islam is taking over EVERYTHING! FREAK. OUT. NOOWWW!! O.O” case with. Not even the Clayton newspapers seemed to care all that much more than they could have. Oh, well.

    I read your blog almost everyday. Keep on keeping on. :)

    [This comment has been edited to fit within moderation guidelines. Mod note: Golby, In the interests of relevance, I shortened your comment quite a bit. But I loved the local history lesson; thank you!]

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  • Scott

    Here is an article that describes the differences (there are many) between typical domestic violence and “honor killings”.

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