Monday, August 10, 2009

"Honour killings" and the game of categories

"Honour killings." "Domestic violence." "Wife assault." "Violence against women." "Inter-partner violence."

All of these phrases are categories; many of them overlap. The current debate over so-called "honour killings," and whether they are sui generis or, alternatively, a subset of domestic violence, has turned from the actual murders to their inclusion in or exclusion from the various categories deployed. Perhaps we should take a look at the ideological function of these categories.

So-called "honour killings" have become Muslimized of late, because Muslims from a couple of countries are indeed alleged to have committed them. Whether the crimes are identified with a specific world religion or (as I would argue) with backwoods patriarchal cultural lifeways doesn't seem to matter to the Usual Suspects. Once again, the pleasant sound of grinding Islamophobic axes fills the air.

But Muslims from Afghanistan and Pakistan didn’t invent this notion. "Honour killings" were until recently considered a legitimate legal defence in Brazil. Then there is the European tradition of "crimes of passion,"
often treated more leniently by the courts than other forms of murder, and usually, if not always, committed by men against their "unfaithful" wives and/or lovers.

Now, the recent "honour killings" are of a different kind, no question about it. Teenaged girls have been allegedly murdered by their families for stepping out of their defined roles, something that rightly arouses horror and anger amongst the civilized. Those facing charges happen to be Muslim, although it seems more than a stretch to blame the killings on that specific religion. But that is precisely what seems to be happening.

There's Naomi Lakritz, who earlier fussed about an alleged anti-male subtext to feminist anti-violence concerns—she objects to all males being tarred with the brush of Marc Lepine or, more recently, George Sodini—but has no difficulty at all, it appears, doing the same thing to Muslims. (She does throw in the case of a little Liberian girl in Phoenix, unaware, apparently, that the alleged "shunning" of the girl by her family seems to have been a misunderstanding.)

And then, of course, we get her incessant, tiresome refrain--where is the sisterhood? Not everywhere at once, apparently. Her latest tirade, in fact, seems to boil down to the fact that feminists get to publish books while she doesn't, and have the temerity to let people know about them.

The deaths of some teenaged girls, in short, offered a perfect opportunity for Lakritz to advance her clearly anti-feminist and anti-Muslim agenda.

Or take Barbara Kay (please). In her characteristically shrieky way, Kay dismisses the idea that these killings should be included in the wider category of domestic violence, claiming that "liberals" are engaging in man-hatred by doing so. And she predictably concludes that this move merely reflects "our liberal elites’ pleasure in dancing to the vivacious gallopade of the multicultural-correctness polka." Alas, a polka is not a gallopade, but for some, all dances look alike--and so do all Muslims.

The increasingly wingy Phyllis Chesler (who once claimed to have uncovered a fifth column of Muslim taxi drivers) joins the fray as well, insisting that "honour killings" are in a class by themselves. And these murders, another expert agrees, are indeed "different":

The main difference between the two types of crimes is that honour killings are rooted in patriarchal values, while domestic violence generally has no such social justification to resort to, said Amin Muhammad, a professor of psychiatry at Memorial University of Newfoundland.

Whew. To deny that "patriarchal values" have anything to do with other forms of domestic violence against women is…remarkable.

In any case, categories, once invented, tend to take on an ontological status almost comparable to objects in the physical world: they acquire a sense of reality and fixedness that can be seriously misleading. But we need to remind ourselves that we create categories because they can be useful as we negotiate the world around us and the societies (there's a category for you) of which we are a part. They do not have an existence independent of those who deploy them.

Murder, some will say, is murder. Others will want to look carefully at the motives for it, and on that basis divide the crime into categories. The victim of a lynching is just as dead as the victim of a crazed gunman at the École Polytechnique, or a person killed in a hold-up, for that matter. But is it useful, on the one hand, to conflate all forms of violence into a huge category that is essentially impervious to analysis, or, on the other, to construct a lesser category whose only purpose appears to be to target immigrants of one particular religion?

The limits of categorization should be precisely that usefulness. Lynching, for example, has a specific social form and victims, and is motivated by racism. Ditto pogroms. Rape (other than in prisons) tends to be committed by one gender (male) against another (female). It is useful to create these sub-categories of violence in order to address their specific causes and eliminate them.

Indeed, too-large categories can be harmful. "Domestic violence," for example, obfuscates the fact that, while women do assault their husbands, most of the violence goes the other way. While anti-feminists like to play the "gender symmetry" game, the facts do not bear them out.*

Is it useful to create the admittedly large category of "violence against women?" Oddly enough, militant anti-feminists like Naomi Lakritz seem to think so--when the violence is perpetrated by Muslims from other lands. It seems quite safe, in that context, to advance notions of patriarchy and gender control. Indeed, anti-feminist commentators have made very free with feminist concepts in this connection. But the aforementioned Barbara Kay insists that our home-grown men would shrink away from such a thing:

In reality, for a Western man to kill a girl or woman under his protection for any "reason" at all — let alone her sexual choices — runs so counter to our own chivalric tradition of honour (vestigial as it is), that such rare acts are always linked to psychological derangement.

That's frankly not even worth discussing.

But to continue and conclude: is the category "honour killings" useful?

I, for one, think not, although I agree that the attitudes that underlie it need to be exposed and countered. We are dealing with something, after all, that can't even be said to be a cultural practice in the killers' countries of origin, if by "cultural practice" we mean a custom that is currently widely observed and accepted. As we have seen, though, the category has been grossly misused for political effect.

Killings of women and girls by family members are not specific to "Muslims" as a group. The adherents of that religion come from many different cultural backgrounds and hence have many differing sets of values. Yet they have all been homogenized into a caricatured "Other" by the likes of Naomi Lakritz and Phyllis Chesler.

Extraneous and irrelevant politics need to be removed from the discussion. The deaths of these teenagers should not simply be used to push an anti-feminist agenda--if anything, it should be the other way around--or a xenophobic one. Or (in the case of Lakritz, albeit obliquely) an anti-Palestinian one. What these murders represent is a set of patriarchal and family values that no humane society can tolerate. But those values are not specific to Muslims, not even to cultural subsets of Muslims, nor to the countries from which they immigrate.

Like the word "terrorist" (conservatives exclude Scott Roeder and George Sodini, for example), the term "honour killing" is being selectively applied. Such murders are an extreme expression of misogyny, but misogyny, as noted, is hardly specific to Muslims or immigrants. If we are to tackle the abhorrent phenomenon of "honour killings," we had best look at the values that give rise to it, and publicly confront those values wherever and whenever they appear in our society. And we should apply the same Canadian standards of justice to everyone who commits such crimes. Isn't that a more constructive approach than the current xenophobic feeding frenzy?

* And see Kimmel, M. "'Gender Symmetry' in Domestic Violence: A Substantive and Methodological Research Review," Violence Against Women (2002) 8: 1332-1363).

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