SOAS University of London

Centre of Islamic and Middle Eastern Law

Expert Meeting on Violence in the Name of Honour

Dr Purna Sen (LSE)

Date: 4 November 2003Time: 12:00 AM

Finishes: 5 November 2003Time: All Day

Venue: Ministry of Justice, Stockholm, Sweden

Type of Event: Meeting

On the 4th-5th November 2003, the Swedish Minister of Democracy and Integration Issues, based within the Ministry of Justice, convened an expert meeting to address violence committed in the name of honour. This seminar gathered some 50 participants from across Europe and the Middle East, including government representatives and non-governmental organisations working to address 'crimes of honour'. The expert seminar was intended to provide background material to the international conference planned by the Ministry in 2004, including highlighting measures at international and national levels to combat honour-related violence, in light of international human rights commitments, and providing outline proposals for stronger national action against honour-related violence, and greater international cooperation. Dr Purna Sen (London School of Economics) presented a paper on behalf of the CIMEL/INTERIGHTS 'Crimes of Honour' Project in regard to the Project's work, and discussed the inter-linkages between 'crimes of honour' and human rights. With regard to the presentation's discussion of sex workers, please note that the Project does not work on this issue and does not necessarily endorse Dr Sen's views.

'Honour Crimes' and Human Rights

Dr Purna Sen

London School of Economics,
For CIMEL / INTERIGHTS 'Crimes of Honour' Project

Thank you for inviting the CIMEL/INTERIGHTS 'Crimes of Honour' Project, in which I am a partner, to address this conference. I shall say a little about this project in a moment but would like to begin with a brief reminder of the types of behaviours we name to be 'honour' crimes and consider similarities with other violence against women that is not normally categorised as 'honour' crimes. I also want to attend to the dangers inherent in separating out different 'types' of abuse, particularly in the part of the world where we sit for this meeting. My main messages are that it is important to problematise 'honour' crimes as an issue of human rights and violence against women, that cultural voices are heterogeneous and that cultures can and do change.


The CIMEL/INTERIGHTS 'Crimes of Honour' Project starts from the understanding that crimes against women that are associated with notions of 'honour' can be found in different areas, cultures and groups and are contested in many ways across different locations. It is not a matter of 'insiders' to a culture being party to these practices and 'outsiders' being able inherently to criticise and bring change. The Project brings together voices, both individual and organisational, that contest such practices and justifications thereof, sharing ways in which 'honour' crimes have been challenged and demonstrating the variety of internal initiatives against these. Links between partners is premised on the exploration of significant commonalities across locations (geographical, religious, cultural etc) on the central issue of the control of women and female sexuality, around concepts or practices that enable or excuse men's violence. In many places the motif is 'honour'; in others it is (men's) 'passion'. This understanding brings together partners from Latin America, the Middle East, South Asia and Western Europe. We also recognise that notions of 'honour' are not unique to the areas which currently provide the focus of international concern (the Middle East in particular) but have a history in parts of Europe. For example European parallels can be found in recent history in Greece and Italy.

Information about the CIMEL/INTERIGHTS project can be found on the following website -

Human rights and violence against women

The term 'honour crime' is increasingly used in popular discourse to refer to killings of women by family members. But these crimes in fact cover a range of behaviours and practices that include not only killings but also false imprisonment, forced marriage (especially to foreclose individual selection of partners) and barring of women from employment or education. The language of 'honour' gives a social or cultural cloak of legitimacy to such actions, thereby excusing, justifying or exonerating them. Each of these forms represents a means though which 'honour' is played out on and through the bodies and lives of women and is therefore about a common theme of control of women, especially women's sexuality.

Considering the range of behaviours to which the term therefore refers, it is clear that many human rights are violated though such constraints on and abuses of women – including but not only the rights to

  • life
  • liberty
  • security of the person
  • movement
  • expression
  • work
  • family
  • private life
  • marry and found a family
  • education
  • (highest standard of) health
  • freedom from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment
  • non-discrimination

Women everywhere suffer the same sort of violence that I have earlier named as 'honour crimes' – physical abuse, killings, controls on mobility, friendships and so on. In the main it is private actors, men, who are the perpetrators of such abuses of women, whether or not named as 'honour crimes'. But the principle of due diligence places upon the state a responsibility to be pro-active in preventing, investigating, punishing and providing redress for such violations of human rights. The appropriateness of a human rights framework in addressing 'crimes of honour' should be clearly understood. In this respect it can be understood and framed as an issue of violence against women and of human rights.

Framing 'crimes of honour' as a cultural issue to be found only among specific communities that are minorities in the west is an alternative approach, but one that carries dangers. As we sit in northern Europe discussing this issue I would like to contextualise our discussion with examples of the ways in which this approach can be divisive and dangerous.

At an abstract level the temptation to define and limit 'crimes of honour' to minority groups or Middle Eastern communities identifies these as 'problematic' groups or cultures. In turn, this rests upon and promotes a homogenised interpretation of culture – one which says that a given group has a given (monolithic?) culture which, by implication at least, uniformly condones such practices. It homogenises 'members' of a group, builds a divide between them and those 'outside' it, assumes in outsiders an ability to criticise and constructs the problematised group/culture as a backward 'other'. Such a formulation fails to recognise and therefore hear or support, voices of dissent among 'insiders'. It also strengthens the hands of conservative voices among cultural debates.

In fact, internal voices of dissent exist in all cultures and links can be forged between them, as in the cimel / interights Project. In Jordan, local activists are involved in contesting legal provisions supporting 'honour' as a justification of violence, as well as promoting pro-active measures that provide women avenues for safety from crimes of 'honour', such as increased shelter provision. In Brazilian courts the concept of a conjugal defence strongly associated 'crimes of passion' with the defence of 'honour'. These have been actively contested by women's organisations.

At a practical level problematising whole communities or cultural groups can have clear and undesirable practical consequences. In western Europe the problematisation of minority groups is often played out through state controls on immigrant populations. Constructing minority communities as inherently backward, or problematically different highlights the need for specific and special treatment. Exploring some local examples is illustrative. Northern European countries have adopted policies that have reviewed and increasingly restricted the mechanisms and rules for immigrants to gain residency rights. At the same time, in several northern European countries the language used to refer to minority groups is 'immigrants', thereby formalising and legitimising their construction as 'others', as inherently and consistently different from the native population.

Many European countries impose a period of time during which an incoming spouse must remain with a settled spouse in order to secure rights of independent residence. These rules have been tightened in recent years in Iceland and Denmark. Iceland has moved from having no such period to introducing a three-year residence requirement in 2002. Denmark has gone from 3 years to an exceptionally long period of seven years, adding a number of other criteria on which any application will be judged. These include a requirement of having an 'attachment' to Denmark, such as having other family members in the country, having completed education of having a permanent connection to the labour market and having language proficiency in Danish. Not only must the attachment be proven but it must be demonstrated to be greater than any attachment to another country.

Increasing attention on the issue of forced marriages in Denmark, again cast as an immigrant problem, lead to the introduction of a higher age for family reunification (24) than for marriage (18), anticipating that forced marriages, family-re-unification and immigration were closely dovetailed. The climate in Denmark concerning immigrants has been described as 'growing hostility towards migrants' at the UN [Committee on Elimination of Discrimination Against Women 12/06/2002].

Problematising minority groups, or exoticising forms of violence, entails the danger of casting women as compliant with prevailing norms and of failing to afford adequate protection to women against violence and especially so in a context of growing discomfort at best, hostility possibly, against minority groups.

Changing Cultural Norms

There are indeed some cultural traditions in which the notion of 'honour' has a high value and which have in turn supported this as a defence or excuse for men's violence against women, however it would be wrong to move from this recognition to cast cultures as homogenous. It is essential to encompass the possibility of cultural change, an aim for which internal dissent strives. I take an example from Sweden to show that you are yourselves familiar with such dynamics – the case of prostitution. In many cultures, prostitution is viewed as 'the oldest profession', something that is an inescapable part of life that has always been around and will always be there: a 'cultural norm', in some sense. It may be such views that informed the 1972 recommendation from a group of parliamentarians to legalise brothels in Sweden. The following decades saw Swedish dissent mobilised not only to ensure that this specific proposal was not implemented but to move in a different direction to criminalise the buying of sexual services. In 27 years, the cultural norm that might have seemed unassailable at the time was completely overturned, with Sweden enacting innovative anti-prostitution legislation in 1999 that is now the focus of attention from many countries.

Here we see an example of internal heterogeneity, internal cultural dialogue and contestation over the use, sale and commodification of women's bodies and sexuality, primarily for the use of men. The same sorts of issues and dynamics underlie the 'honour' crimes issue – not only is it possible for internal contestation, but it is happening. Casting entire populations, cultures, communities as problematic fails to see this and fails also to forge constructive alliances among actors who might share values. Such alliances are an essential part of positive and powerful initiatives against 'crimes of honour' and stand as an important alternative to conservative alliances that construe cultural values as primordial and never changing.


In conclusion I would like to welcome the proposal of the Swedish Ministry of Justice to hold a public conference in 2004 on crimes against women in the name of 'honour'. I would like to urge that the framework for such a meeting ensures that such crimes are understood

  1. to be part of a whole range of abuses of human rights
  2. as an aspect of the realm of violence against women
  3. as practices which are actively contested from within
  4. not as given cultural values that are monolithic or unchanging
  5. not simply chosen cultural expressions among specific countries or minority groups
  6. not as justifications for increasing controls or restrictions upon such groups in European countries.

Thank you.