It all looks like violence against women to me
Moncton Times & Transcript, Thursday August 27th, 2009
In the true story that inspired the book and the movie Burning Bed, one of the first times the husband is violent is after he sees that she had her blouse tucked in her pants while he was away.
That's something to remember when we pass judgment on 'honour' killings that occur in North America or elsewhere.
Victims of partner violence are often also victims of his obsession with controlling her, especially her exposure to others -- she may be made to wear baggy clothes, not allowed to visit family, not allowed to have a job. If these women leave, they are at high risk. Many a murder by a partner -- and New Brunswick has its share -- has been about his jealousy or suspicion that she has been or will be unfaithful.
And then there's the general attitude. In a 2002 attitudinal survey of a few hundred New Brunswickers by the provincial government, 48 per cent said it is not a crime to slap your girlfriend around if she flirted with another man in a public place and 35 per cent said it is not a crime to rape your wife.
When 'honour' killings occur in North America, our reaction and that of the media is so much greater than to our more usual violence. We sometimes hear comments that 'honour' killings are an abomination and that immigrants need to learn that such traditions are not tolerated here.
It all looks like violence against women to me. The difference seems to be one of degree.
'Honour' killings -- the murder of a female believed to have brought dishonour to her family by acting independently -- are not part of any religion but are a tradition in some regions of the world -- the United Nations estimates 5,000 women die from it every year. In Canada in the last decade, about a dozen women have died as a result of such dishonourable acts.
There are obviously differences between our brand of violence against women and 'honour' killings.
In 'honour' killings, brothers might kill sisters, male cousins kill female cousins, or fathers kill daughters. Women might be killed for having been raped. (We might want to remember that here, until recently, and still never far from the surface, a woman's style of dress could be said to invite rape, and sexual assault victims faced 'fishing expeditions' into their medical or sexual past.
Still today in Canada, most sexual assaults are not reported because of the stigma and the fear of mistreatment in the justice system.)
A victim of an 'honour' killing might have married for love, disrupting a planned marriage and her family's expectation of a bride price.
A recent Amnesty International report on 'honour' killings said that women who have sought divorce through the courts are sometimes killed because seeking divorce "is seen as an act of public defiance that calls for punitive action to restore male honour." Many Canadian women killed by their partners were guilty of wanting a divorce.
Some 'honour' killings feature more than one family member plotting the murder. In some regions, those who commit an 'honour' killing don't face the social rejection that we like to think our wife batterers get, though the minor sentences sometimes handed to our wife batterers or murderers seem to point to a lingering ambivalence.
The most devastating difference between our brand of violence against women and 'honour' killings is that, in some countries, courts commute or reduce sentences of 'honour' killers, and sharia law authorizes the murder of women who have sex outside of marriage.
But then again, for a long time 'crimes of passion' were not sentenced as strictly as others, and even today in Canada, people who have admitted killing may invoke the 'provocation' defence, which can reduce the offence significantly.
The provocation defence is used almost exclusively by men who have killed their partner or ex-partner, often when she tried to leave.
As the National Association of Women and the Law says on this topic, "It is not passion or loss of control that allows an accused to commit the offence; it is his belief system of male supremacy that empowers him to do so."
I note in passing that there was a time when English common law classified a wife's murder of her husband as 'petty treason' -- rebellion against authority, just like a slave rising against a master, or a subject against a sovereign.
In Canada, great strides have been made here to recognize women as equals, and to make violence against women a crime.
Some would argue that the denigration of women remains part of our culture.
That is a notion that is harder to dismiss on days when our news is dominated by domestic hostage-taking and murders, sexual assaults by United Nations peacekeepers and gunmen who seek out groups of women.
Though we have made great strides, it would be ill-advised -- if not racist and chauvinist -- to look down our nose at groups where violence against women is even more rampant or barbaric.
Cultures have treated, and are treating, women as second class citizens to varying degrees.
We need to support the women and groups who are trying to end 'honour' killings in their cultures.
We need to reach out to newcomer women here who may be at risk.
We are our sisters' keepers.
- Elsie Hambrook is Chairperson of the New Brunswick Advisory Council on the Status of Women. Her column on women's issues appears in the Times & Transcript every Thursday. She may be reached via e-mail at [email protected]
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