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Islamic Perspective on "Honor Killings"

by Muslim Women's League
April 1999

Due to recent media attention, the problem of “honor killings” has come under increasing global scrutiny. In various countries throughout the world, particularly in the Middle East and parts of South Asia, women who bring dishonor to their families because of sexual indiscretions are forced to pay a terrible price at the hands of male family members. Attempted murder and other forms of corporal punishment have been reported. The most severe manifestations of punishment affect only a small percentage of women, even though the notion of family honor and shame is extremely important in most communities of the Muslim world. Women from other faith groups may also be subject to similar attitudes from within their own communities in those countries. Clearly, the prevailing view that devalues and belittles women is derived from sociocultural factors that are justified by a distorted and erroneous interpretation of religion, especially of Islam.

Islam recognizes and celebrates the inherent dignity bestowed by God upon all human beings regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or religion. The Qur’an is explicit in its emphasis on the equality of women and men before God:

And their Lord has accepted of them and answered them, “Never will I suffer to be lost the work of any of you, whether male or female, you are members, one of another…” (3:195; see also 33:35)

Individual accountability before God is stressed throughout the Qur’an, beginning with the story of Adam and Eve: as a result of their transgression (committed together and simultaneously) they were banished from Paradise and made to toil on Earth. God chose to forgive them both and so their sin is not inherited by subsequent generations. Similarly, as exemplified in the following verse:

Whoever chooses to follow the right path, follows it but for his own good; and whoever goes astray, goes but astray to his own hurt; and no bearer of burdens shall be made to bear another’s burden (17:15)

It is clear that one individual, no matter how guilty, cannot transfer that guilt to another. So for a woman who does engage in illicit sexual activity (zina), she and she alone bears the consequences as determined by God.

The problem of “honor killings” is not a problem of morality or of ensuring that women maintain their own personal virtue; rather, it is a problem of domination, power and hatred of women who, in these instances, are viewed as nothing more than servants to the family, both physically and symbolically.

Islam is clear on its prohibition of sexual relationships outside of marriage. This prohibition does not distinguish between men and women, even though, in some countries, women are uniformly singled out for punishment of sexual crimes while the men, even rapists, may be treated with impunity. In order for a case to even be brought before a Muslim court, several strict criteria must be met. The most important is that any accusation of illicit sexual behavior must have been seen by four witnesses; and they must have been witness to the act of sexual intercourse itself. Other forms of intimacy do not constitute zina and therefore are not subject to any legal consequences even though they are not appropriate and are considered sinful.

On the other hand, a woman falsely accused of zina has in her support the Qur’an, which spells out harsh consequences for those accusers who are unable to support their allegations with four witnesses. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was known for his clemency, even if the accusations met the criteria, for he recognized the seriousness of the matter. In addition, there is no evidence whatsoever that he condoned any form of retribution that singled out women and he was swift to ensure that those accused of any crime received due process to guarantee justice.

Unfortunately, the legal safeguards to protect women and men from indiscriminate and unlawful enforcement of presumed Islamic injunctions have been forgotten. Indeed, the legal system and law enforcement agencies including police officers and prison guards, have been implicated in the perpetuation of the problem by their willful lenience towards men who have carried out an assault in the name of “honor” and by their abuse and denigration of women who stand accused.

Muslims today must unequivocally reject this distortion of Islam that is used to violate the most basic Islamic rights of human decency, integrity and justice. Unwillingness on the part of the Muslim community to address these issues in a forthright and unapologetic manner is borne out of an inherent distrust of perceived “Western” attempts to taint the image of Islam in the interest of global politics. This is no excuse for us to turn a blind eye to injustices committed against Muslims and others, especially when the perpetrators are members of the same faith.

Confronting the problem of “honor killings” and other crimes that disproportionately affect women requires a change in attitude that pervades all levels of society where such attacks occur. Muslim leaders can provide an important example to their followers by taking an unequivocal stand against behavior that is in direct violation of Islam. In addition, legal reform must occur with the intention to protect the victims and punish the perpetrators, all totally possible within a legitimate Islamic legal framework. Concomitant attention must be paid to meeting basic human needs and solving problems stemming from poverty and illiteracy that are often at the root of disturbing social trends that seek out the most disenfranchised to serve as scapegoats.

O you who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to God, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor: For God can best protect both. Follow not the lusts (of your hearts), lest you swerve, and if you distort (justice) or decline to do justice, verily God is well-acquainted with all that you do. (4:135)  

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