SOAS University of London

Centre of Islamic and Middle Eastern Law

CHANGE Seminar: When Human Rights and Culture Clash

Various Speakers

Date: 7 January 2004Time: 6:00 PM

Finishes: 7 January 2004Time: 8:00 PM


Type of Event: Seminar

CHANGE, an international women's human rights NGO based in the UK, organised a multidisciplinary seminar on 7 January 2004 entitled 'When Human Rights and Culture Clash.' The event was held to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Vienna Declaration on Human Rights.

The seminar was divided into two sessions; the morning session examined 'Issues in Marriage' and was chaired by Christine Chinkin (Department of Law, London School of Economics). The afternoon session, chaired by Georgina Ashworth (CHANGE), examined 'Honour and Private Violence', and formed part of CHANGE's consultation as a UK Partner working with the Shehrazad Project on 'Honour-Related Violence', coordinated by Swedish NGO Kvinnoforum. Sanchita Hosali, of the CIMEL/INTERIGHTS 'Crimes of Honour' Project gave a presentation in the afternoon session on problematising 'crimes of honour'.

Issues in Marriage

Poverty and Child Marriage, Naana Otoo-Oyortey, Forum on Marriage and the Rights of Women and Girls, UK

Naana Otoo-Oyortey's talk began by defining child marriage as the marriage of any person under the age of 18 years and referred to international human rights norms as contained in the Convention on Child Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. In contextualising child marriage, four factors were noted:

  1. the practice of arranged marriages involving minors;
  2. the perception of child marriage as a cultural and/or religious obligation both within communities and by outside observers;
  3. forced marriage, defined by the absence of consent of either or both parties to the marriage; and
  4. the 'exchange of goods', such as bride price or dowry.

Several trends in child marriage were identified, including the gendered nature of the practice - as research has shown that girls are overwhelming the victims of child marriage, with estimates that globally 51 million girls aged 15-19 are married.

The link to poverty is seen most vividly in the consequences of child marriage, including 'capability failure' which is caused by lack of education, poor health and well-being resulting in the continuation of the feminisation of poverty and inter-generational poverty.

The Campaign on Bride Price in Africa, Patrick Ndira, Mifumi, Eastern Uganda

Patrick Ndira's talk drew on the work of the Mifumi Project in Eastern Uganda in working to address bride price - the 'purchasing' of a wife, paid by the husband to the woman's family. The Project's work has highlighted four important issues related to bride price:

  1. girl-children and women are being used as stakes to secure bride price by their families, emphasising the commercial element of bride price;
  2. women and girls being forced into marriage for such economic gain by the families;
  3. if a bride price is not paid in full then women are often disinherited, leaving them destitute upon the death of their husbands; and
  4. homelessness is an important issue as disinherited women and those who refuse forced marriages or run away, are often left without a place to live.

Nationally, the biggest challenge has been 'naming' the problem, as state law and policy does not use the term bride price but prefers the term bridal wealth - which is wholly inappropriate as this is not a gift given to the woman, nor is it even negotiated in her presence. At the international level, there is a need to bring the issue within a rights discourse and in particular to make the link to other 'harmful cultural practices', particularly FGM as FGM can bring a higher bride price.

Non-Consensual Sex in Marriage, Georgina Ashworth, CHANGE, UK

Georgina Ashworth gave a brief overview of the CHANGE publication Non-Consensual Sex in Marriage which was the result of a global investigation into the incidence of non-consensual sex in marriage, aimed at promoting women's sexual and human rights in marriage. The study revealed that marital rape is often exempted from or not recognised within criminal definitions of rape. Non-consensual sex in marriage is a prime example of law and customs colluding in the acceptance of male-perpetrated violence against women. However, there are still areas of advocacy that can be linked to non-consensual sex in marriage, in particular women's health, and in the future links should be made to HIV-AIDS campaigns which tend to ignore gender inequalities and relations within marriage.

Honour and Private Violence

Georgina Ashworth began the session by introducing the Shehrazad Project and outlined its aims and objectives, including the desire to form a UK research/action network to relate to Kvinnoforum and the other European partners, and to draw up a status report on the UK for a conference to be held later in 2004.

"Honour-Based Killings" in Kurdistan and the Kurdish Diaspora, Dr Nazand Begikhani, Kurdish Women Action Against Honour Killings

The first part of Dr Nazand Begikhani's presentation focused on definitions and strategies in addressing 'honour killing' in Iraqi Kurdistan, particularly the need to understand the cultural and historical specificity of a given context - a need to understand the social norms through which society operates. In the Kurdish context, the negative stereotyping of Kurdish people and populations, in general and in relation to simplistic and sensational media reporting on 'honour killings', creates significant difficulty for those working from the inside. The second part of the presentation focused on the role of the community in 'honour killings' as indicated firstly, by the need to restore honour and secondly, the involvement of the extended family/community in the commission of the murder. The conception of such killings as motivated by the restoration or repurification of 'honour', rather than death, is often indicated by the violence involved, which usually exceeds causing death. Dr Begikhani drew attention to the recent case of Heshu Yones who was violently stabbed to death by her father in West London. In drawing attention to the role of the family and/or community Dr Begikhani noted that this was particularly visible in Kurdistan of Turkey and also in the Diaspora, where there have been documented cases of 'family councils' instructing minor males of the family to kill the female victim, as well as cases of hired assassins. However, combating 'honour killings' in the Kurdish community requires analysing the deeply embedded cultural notions of 'honour' and 'shame' rather than simply demonising the whole community.

Problematising 'Crimes of Honour', Sanchita Hosali, CIMEL-INTERIGHTS Project on Strategies to Address 'Crimes of Honour'

Sanchita Hosali, drawing on the forthcoming paper of Dr Lynn Welchman, Co-Director of the 'Crimes of Honour' Project* (with the author's consent), spoke about the importance of 'problematising' 'crimes of honour' - of deconstructing its complex and problematic terms and of constructing the issue as one of human rights and violence against women, and cautioned against alternative approaches which seek to construct the issue as belonging to particular cultural groups or communities, religions or countries. She began by introducing the Project before moving on to plot several important points in problematising 'crimes of honour'. Firstly, the term 'crimes of honour' and its various synonyms were analysed - deconstructing the value added by using the term 'honour' as well as the conceptual and practical problems of the label. This analysis provided the point of departure to examine manifestations of 'crimes of honour', explaining, that for the Project the framework is based on human rights and violence against women, which allows for a continuum of manifestations of 'crimes of honour', rather than equating 'honour crimes' with a specific practice such as 'honour killings'. In discussing the relevance of human rights law to addressing 'crimes of honour', Sanchita Hosali also identified and critiqued approaches which promote the careless association between 'crimes of honour' and specific groups, religions, or societies, particularly Muslims and Islam. The talk concluded with a few words of caution surrounding an emerging European rhetoric on 'crimes of honour' which appears to be tending towards problematisation of certain minority cultures and communities rather than the targeted practice.

* Welchman, L. ''Crimes of Honour': Problematising a Project', Joseph, S. (ed.) Women's Human Rights in Muslims Societies (forthcoming)

(By Sanchita Hosali, Research Assistant, CIMEL-INTERIGHTS Project on Strategies to Address 'Crimes of Honour')