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Honor Killing Is Not Just a Muslim Problem

It’s the most extreme form of institutionalized violence against women on the planet

Phyllis Chesler
April 16, 2018
Photo: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images
Supporters of Tehrik-e-Minhaj ul Quran, an Islamic Organisation protest against 'honour killings' of women in Lahore on November 21, 2008. Human rights lawyer Zia Awan said that more than 62,000 cases of women abused in Pakistan since the year 2000 and 159 women died in honour killings in the year to September 30.Photo: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images
Supporters of Tehrik-e-Minhaj ul Quran, an Islamic Organisation protest against 'honour killings' of women in Lahore on November 21, 2008. Human rights lawyer Zia Awan said that more than 62,000 cases of women abused in Pakistan since the year 2000 and 159 women died in honour killings in the year to September 30.Photo: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

I co-pioneered the study of violence against women in the late 1960s. I focused on women living in North America and Europe who had been psychiatrically diagnosed and hospitalized; were the victims of rape, sexual harassment, incest, intimate partner battering, pornography and prostitution.

I also documented the profound double standards and anti-woman biases which led to good mothers losing custody of children to abusive fathers and husbands; women sentenced to long or life prison terms when they killed batterers in self-defense; and the violence women faced as they fought for their reproductive, educational, economic, political, and religious rights around the world.

My generation of feminists believed in universal human rights. We were not multi-cultural relativists. We called out misogyny when we saw it and did not exempt a rapist, a wife-beater, or a pedophile because he was poor (his victims were also poor); or a man of color (his victims were also people of color); or because he had an abused childhood (so did his victims).

Like other American feminists, I was also active in the civil rights and anti-war movements—but unlike such feminists, I had “once lived in a harem in Afghanistan.” This is the opening sentence of my book An American Bride in Kabul. I lived with my mother-in-law in a polygamous household in posh purdah; this meant I was not allowed out without a male escort. My father-in-law had three wives and twenty-one children—facts my Westernized husband failed to mention during our American college courtship. I saw women in burqas stumbling around on the streets of Kabul, and forced quite literally to sit at the back of the bus.

Therefore, I was aware early on that worldwide, most women were illiterate, impoverished, and forced to marry men not of their choosing when they themselves were still children. As girls, they were expected to meet impossibly high standards of subordinate behavior—and, if they failed to do so, they risked severe punishment. Thus, for example, women in Afghanistan, Egypt, India, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia led lives that were far more difficult and endangered than American women did.

In the early 1970s, I was alarmed about the mass gang-rapes of girls and women in the war between Pakistan and Bangladesh. I knew that the victims’ families would reject or kill them. By the 1990s and early 21st century, I was, similarly, concerned with the fate of kidnapped and sexually enslaved women in North Africa at the hands of paramilitary units; and in the increasing use of gang-rape as a weapon, not merely as a spoil of war, in Bosnia, Congo, Guatemala, El Salvador, Rwanda, and Sudan.

Given world events, I began to focus on tribal gender and religious apartheid and on the lives of women living in tribal shame and honor societies.


An honor killing is the cold-blooded murder of girls and women simply because they are female. Being born female in a shame-and-honor culture is, potentially, a capital crime; every girl has to keep proving that she is not dishonoring her family; even so, an innocent girl can be falsely accused and killed on the spot.

A girl’s fertility and reproductive capacity is “owned” by her family, not by the girl herself. If a girl is even seen as “damaged goods,” her family-of-origin will be responsible for her care for the rest of her life. This is a killing offense. Her virginity belongs to her family and is a token of their honor. If she is not a virgin, the shame belongs to her family and they must cleanse themselves of it with blood; her blood.

Imagine growing up in a family where you are closely monitored, harassed, perhaps even beaten daily; threatened with death if you are seen talking to a boy or if your veil has slipped.

Imagine knowing that members of your own family-of-origin might one day kill you for the slightest offense or for no offense at all–and coolly get away with it; imagine knowing that you cannot escape, that no relative, and no legal forum will protect your right to live and to live free from normalized violence.

Becoming too “Westernized,” wanting to choose one’s own spouse, refusing to marry a first cousin, daring to have infidel friends or allegedly engaging in sex outside of marriage—are all killing offenses. From a tribal point of view, this shame-and-honor code does enforce social stability but at the price of individual rights and personal freedom.

At first, I did not appreciate the advantages of marrying one’s first cousin. However, upon consideration, I realized that one’s mother-in-law/aunt might be kinder to a girl whom she has known since birth and whose family-of-origin may live nearby. Perhaps such a mother-in-law/aunt may not prohibit her daughter-in-law/niece from visiting her own mother. (This is sometimes the case.)

Keeping money and land within one’s own family has always been seen as important. First-cousin marriage maximizes this advantage. The disadvantages of first-cousin marriage include all the consequences of inbreeding and lifelong misery in a marriage one may abhor.

The institution of polygamy, or so it is argued, allows first, second, third, and fourth wives to remain with their children and to continue family life as usual. Since divorce is unthinkable in tribal societies, this may be seen as a “kindness” to womankind.

Of course, the competition among male siblings for paternal attention and resources and between co-wives can be quite ugly. Purdah protects privileged women from the lust and violence of non-family men; it does not protect them from boredom or from intimate family rape.

In small, agricultural regions, entire communities, not just individuals, demand that anti-woman honor codes be upheld. Any family that fails to kill a “disobedient” girl or woman will find that no one will marry their other children or deal with them economically. In this context, one can understand (without accepting) the claims made by countless honor killers, namely, that they were only acting in self-defense; that communal norms drove them to it.

When I first began this work, I did not fully comprehend how difficult it might be for a girl or woman to escape being honor killed. From birth on, she has been indoctrinated into believing that she has been born evil and has to cleanse that shame every minute of every day.

Such a girl will have no psychological understanding that she is a human being and entitled to individual or human rights. She will not view herself as an “individual,” but as a daughter, granddaughter, sister, niece, and wife—as a member of a family, clan, religious, or tribal collectivity whose welfare she has been born to serve.

Her body does not belong to her but to the collectivity. If her first-cousin/husband beats her very badly, her role is still to remain with him. Her own family will be dishonored if she leaves her marriage.

Therefore, those who escape to save their own lives are among the bravest and most resilient of girls and women. Their families will pursue them forever and thus, they usually require new identities and the equivalent of a witness protection program. They pay a high price for their freedom and survival. They can almost never risk seeing their immediate or extended family again. Some find the price too high and return, most often to their detriment.

Once people with such tribal traditions and psychologies travel to the West, the exacting shame-and-honor codes should no longer apply. But apply they do, at least among Muslims and, to a lesser extent, among Sikhs.


By 2003-2004, I was writing about honor killings based on newspaper accounts, internet sources, first-person interviews, and on a proliferation of memoirs. I began to think of such calculated conspiracies as “horror” murders, not “honor” murders. The shame belonged to the perpetrators, not to their vulnerable victims. My understanding of this subject only evolved over time.

By 2005, in my book The Death of Feminism, I reviewed the honor killings in the West and was astounded by the fact that so many were torture-murders. By 2007-2008, I called for law enforcement and school officials to recognize the signs of a potential honor killing. In the West, with a few Sikh exceptions, it seemed to be a Muslim-on-Muslim crime.

I also described honor killings in America such as that of Palestina Isa (1989) and Methel Dayem (1999); both were Palestinian-Americans. I wrote about Samia Sarwar/Imran who was honor killed in Pakistan in 1999 and whose case made world headlines. Her mother had arranged for and was present when a contract killer she’d hired murdered her daughter.

There were many more honor killings in Europe than in America, since there was a large immigrant, mainly Muslim, population there. Thus, in 2005, I wrote about some of the high profile cases such as that of Tulay Goren (1999), Hesha Yones (2002), Fadime Sahindal (2002); Sohane Benziane (2002); Sahjda Bibi (2003); Shafilea Ahmed (2003); and Hatun Surucu (2005).

I could not have written as knowledgeably about honor killing had I not simultaneously embarked on a series of academic studies about such femicide—and had honor killing cases not been reported in the English-language media.

In 2009, I published my first academic work on this subject in Middle East Quarterly, charting the specific differences between Western domestic violence and honor killing/femicide. While many insist that honor killings are like Western domestic violence, this is not the case.

In honor killings, murders are carefully planned conspiracies and may be perpetrated by multiple family-of-origin members. Brothers, uncles, fathers, and other male relatives usually commit the murder, although mothers have also been known to collaborate in the murders of their daughters; sometimes, they are hands-on perpetrators.

Batterers who murder in the West are usually acting in an unplanned and spontaneous way. They alone are the perpetrators. Their own families do not assist them nor does the victim’s family-of-origin. In the West, fathers rarely murder their teenage daughters. This is what happens in a classic honor killing.

Honor killings in the West are sometimes marked by excessive violence, such as repeated stabbing, raping, bludgeoning, or being set aflame. Such killings are similar to what serial killers do to unknown, often prostituted, women.

In the West, batterers and wife killers are not celebrated—they are shunned. If possible, they are also prosecuted. Hindus in India, and Muslims, worldwide, who commit honor killings, are viewed as heroes who have saved their family’s honor. Thus, they feel no shame or remorse.

I initially sailed into what was, for me, uncharted territory. Over time, I increasingly made it a point to find and cite all those whose work in this area had preceded mine. Their names are legion and are listed in the bibliographies of my studies. Researchers in the 20th century, (Ginat, Glazer and Abu Ras), others in the 21st century, (Berko, Brandon and Hafez, Ghanim, Feldner, Kulczycki and Windle, Lasson, Pope, Rosen, Saltzman, Storhaug, Weber, Welchman and Hossain, Wikan), studied the phenomenon of honor killing. Without exception, scholars agree that an honor killing is not like Western domestic violence.

Only those who believe that it is shameful to expose anything negative about Muslims, especially if it is true, silence such exposure by “shaming” it as racist and “Islamophobic.”

In the 1990s and into the 21st century, an increasing number of journalists also began to cover honor killing cases, especially if the perpetrators were brought to trial; memoirs and books were written about honor killing and attempted honor killings among immigrants in the West and in developing countries. A number of important films appeared on this subject including: Banaz: A Love Story; Dukhtar; A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness; The Price of Honor, FOX: Honor Killings in America.


There is no way to “measure” the incidence of hidden crimes such as incest or honor killing. One can do so but only imperfectly.

The United Nations still continues to insist that there are only 5,000 honor killings, worldwide. However, in 2010, according to two legal researchers in India, there were roughly 900 reported honor killings in the northern Indian states of Haryana, Punjab, and Uttar Pradesh alone while 100-300 additional, recorded honor killings took place in the rest of the country. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, 800 women were killed for honor in Pakistan in 2010.

Both figures likely represent only the tip of the iceberg. According to the Aurat Foundation, a Pakistani human rights organization: “At least 675 Pakistani women and girls were murdered during the first nine months of the calendar year 2011 for allegedly defaming their family’s honor.” Almost 77 percent of such honor cases ended in acquittals.

Although no “true” measure of incidence is possible, I decided to do what was feasible. For my next study, I relied upon the global, English-language coverage of reported honor killings in 29 countries and territories as long as all the variables I wanted to study were known. Given these limitations, it is amazing that I found so many statistically significant differences.

In “Worldwide Trends in Honor Killing,” I studied 230 cases which took place between 1989-2009 in Europe, North America, and in the Muslim world. There were two kinds of honor killings or rather two very different targets. A classic honor killing targeted victims who were an average age of 17; the second, less frequent honor killing targeted victims who were an average age of 36. These age differences were statistically significant.

The younger-age victims were killed by their families-of-origin 81 percent of the time, worldwide.

The group of older-age women most closely resembled a Western-style domestic violence dispute turned murderous. They were usually killed by their husbands but even here, there were significant differences. Nearly half (44 percent) the time, murderous husbands were assisted either by their own families or by their victim’s family.

Motives were significantly different across continents; in the West, victims were killed for being too “Western;” in the Muslim world, it was mainly for allegedly committing an “inappropriate sexual act.” The rate of torture-murders were at their highest in Europe. Perhaps those who were tempted to assimilate had to serve as human sacrifices and object lessons of what could happen to those who “Westernized.”

From the time I published this study, my incidence rate of Muslim-on-Muslim honor killing rates, (91 percent, worldwide), has been used again and again, both with and without attribution, and usually without proper context. After all, this percentage is true in only one study, and in a study limited by whether the honor killing was or was not fully reported in the English language media.

Even as I planned my third study (a comparison of Hindu and Muslim honor killings in Pakistan, India, and the West), I continued to read and write about honor killing cases when and if they were reported.

I began to document such cases in 21st century North America, such as that of Khatera Sadiqi (2006); the Said sisters (January 2008); Noor Almaleki (2009); the Shafia sisters and their father’s first wife, (2009). I continued monitoring the American and Canadian mothers who either lured their daughters to their deaths (the 2008 Said case in Texas); assisted their husbands in making a getaway (the 2011 Almaleki case in Arizona); or who knew that their daughter’s bones would be broken but who chose to say nothing (the 2007 Parvez case in Canada).

My 2012 academic comparison of “Hindu and Muslim honor killings in India, Pakistan and the the West,” documented significant differences in terms of motives. Hindus honor kill when caste violations are committed; Muslims for many different reasons; Hindus often kill the men as well as women, whereas Muslims, rarely do. Hindus do not bring this custom with them when they come to the West; Muslims, and to a much lesser extent, Sikhs, do.

At the outset, I did not understand the role that women played in honor killings as conspirators, collaborators, and as hands-on perpetrators. As the author of Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman, I should have suspected this, but since maternal filicide is such an unthinkable act, my understanding dawned slowly.

Women have internalized the same patriarchal and tribal beliefs that men have—and in addition, are more responsible for keeping other women in line, especially their daughters. Most mothers want to ensure that their daughters are allowed to live, marry, become mothers, and maintain honorable reputations.

Women are known instigators and collaborators, and are sometimes either the ones who lure their daughters home to certain death or are themselves hands-on perpetrators. Such mothers have rarely been charged in America. I documented this in “When Women Commit Honor Killings” in 2015.

Once I was certain about the probable tribal origin of honor killing, I made a point of stressing that. Surprisingly few Muslim or ex-Muslim dissidents “heard” me; they were too invested in blaming Islam. Some Hindus tried to persuade me that Hindus did not perpetrate such crimes but, even if they did, that they had probably learned it from Muslims. More interesting: Even fewer Islamists understood that my tentative conclusion helped support the argument that honor killings are not necessarily religiously mandated.

This is important because it gives genuine Muslim reformers a basis upon which to condemn it as “anti-Islam.”

Ultimately, I held—and still hold—both the Hindu and Muslim leadership responsible for failing to abolish this barbarous custom.

Although people know that the majority of honor killings in the West are Muslim-on-Muslim crimes, the American mainstream media nevertheless persists in focusing on Hindu honor killings in India and rarely on Muslim honor killings in North America. A recent “Islamically correct” pseudo-academic study on this subject ridiculously suggests that Hindus in America bear watching, that they are the problem.

Abolishing human sacrifice will require mass education, consistent law enforcement, and the vigorous assistance of the clergy.


When one writes an individual article, one has no way of knowing if one’s reader today has read all of one’s previous articles on the subject or is at all familiar with the subject.

I am struck by how my own understanding of honor killing evolved over time, partly as a function of what my research data revealed; in part, based on what became known about the facts of a particular case; in part due to the interviews I conducted—and, of course, as fleshed out by my reading of memoirs, trial transcripts, human rights and Congressional reports as well as by other academic research.

I’ve been enormously privileged in that I’ve been able to put my scholarship to good use. Thus, on the basis of my studies, lawyers, and immigrant advocates have asked me to submit affidavits about honor killing in court cases where girls or women, in flight from being honor killed, were seeking political asylum or emancipation from their families.

In 2015-2016, a professor of Law at the University of Arkansas Law School, contacted me about our mutual interest in honor-based violence. She visited, we remained in touch. In 2016-2017, she organized a conference on this subject and invited a small group of grassroots activists—three from the UK, (Rashida Begum, Ruth Beni, Diana Nammi), an American law enforcement officer (Chris Boughey) and myself. I was to be the only academic who had conducted studies of honor killings. This conference was to be hosted in April, 2017, at the King Fahd Center at the University.

It was not to be. A few days before the conference was to take place, the Professor and the Acting Director were forced to disinvite me. Some pro-Palestine and pro-Islam professors warned them that there would be serious trouble were I even to appear via Skype, from afar. This administration-approved dis-invitation led to a small media firestorm.

But the story has a happy ending. One of the feminist activists with whom I work, Mandy Sanghera, based in the UK, said that dis-inviting me had dishonored us all. She vowed to create another conference, probably in the UK. In November, I participated in another conference about honor-based violence at University College London, together with Asma Ashraf, Sabin Muzaffar, Anna Purdie, Mandy Sanghera, and Gwenton Sloley. Sanghera tells me that other universities in the UK want us to present there as well.

One of the many questions with which I wrestle is this: Is an honor killer, by definition, “mentally ill” according to Western standards?

What if he or she has been extremely abused in childhood, suffers from the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress, including paranoia, a trigger-temper, and rage-aholism, and believes that such murder is being undertaken in “self-defense?” What if this belief system and psychological configuration is no longer possible to change? How is an honor killing, which is a family conspiracy and an act of domestic terrorism, different from an act of truck-bomb or human-bomb terrorism? Both are embedded within a system of beliefs which are not compatible with democracy or the rule of law.

My answers to these questions are still evolving.


Excerpted from A Family Conspiracy: Honor Killing by Phyllis Chesler. Copyright © 2018 by Phyllis Chesler. Posted by arrangement with New English Review Press.

Phyllis Chesler is the author of 20 books, including the landmark feminist classics Women and Madness (1972), Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman (2002), An American Bride in Kabul (2013), which won a National Jewish Book Award, and A Politically Incorrect Feminist. Her most recent work is Requiem for a Female Serial Killer. She is a founding member of the Original Women of the Wall.