Monday, 22 October 2012

What is honour?

The Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation (IKWRO) recently published data collated from 39 police forces across England and Wales indicating that at least 2,823 incidents of so called ‘honour’-based violence occurred in the UK in 2010. This term has now come to personify a variety of violent acts that are perpetrated – primarily against women – as a result of deep family and community connections to Izzat or ‘honour’. This collective ‘honour’ is seen to act as social capital – simply put, individual and collective social status – which, like any other asset, must be secured and protected. Subsequently, as ‘honour’ is generally held within the sexuality of women and their reproductive capabilities, violence is often regarded as both a necessary and justified method by which to control the freedom of women. Yet despite the fact that violence in the name of ‘honour’ is neither a new phenomenon nor an exclusively Islamic practice – indeed the practice is thought to predate any written religion – today within the UK it is increasingly being represented as an ethnicised strain of violence against women, perpetrated by Muslims and sanctioned under Islamic law.

Problematically this representation, in conjunction with an increase in immigration and the terrorist attacks of 7/7 and 9/11, has arguably led to a rise of what Edward Said referred to as “cultural othering” of Muslim communities. Indeed, despite the fact that Muslims are not a heterogeneous group, the Muslim man is now typically portrayed as the ‘deviant other’ whilst the Muslim woman is the ‘passive victimological other’ in need of rescuing from her brutal and oppressive culture. Subsequently, whilst the government has recognised the need for action against the practice of ‘honour’ violence, such responses have arguably been created against a monolithic depiction of both the impact of ‘honour’ on Muslim women and of the needs and experiences of those who have been victims of HBV in the UK – something reflected in the distribution of minority ethnic specific women’s services. Subsequently whilst ‘honour’ violence is predominantly managed as a gendered issue within ‘mainstream’ domestic abuse policies which are, to a large degree, ethnically blind, it has also become incorporated into multicultural policies which are essentially gender-blind – an indication of a legal and justice system which struggles to facilitate difference.

Nevertheless, as the result of a wider shift from multiculturalism to civic integration, the UK remains focused on implementing tough criminal justice provisions against such violence – evident in the governments’ recent announcement that forced marriage will become a criminal offence by 2013. Yet it is questionable to what extent imposing Westernised criminological ideals is appropriate for responding to minority group problems. Indeed Dr Aisha Gill from the University of Roehampton suggests that such an approach may conversely act as a barrier for victims seeking help. Consequently by focusing on Muslim communities within a rural context – something largely ignored in previous studies, over the next three years I shall be exploring this complex issue further. By moving away from the traditional victim rhetoric that often dominates studies surrounding ‘honour’ violence, and by positioning Muslim women at the centre of the research, my PhD thesis endeavours not only to explore the meaning of ‘honour’ and its impact on the lives of women (victims and non-victims) from within these communities, but to determine the availability and appropriateness of current provisions in place for responding to such violence, and the viability of alternative responses such as the integration of Sharia Law.

Samantha Walker is a PhD student and Graduate Teaching Assistant in Criminology.

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