Upending the Orientalist Logic of “Honor Killings”

“Honor killings” figure prominently in portrayals of majority-Muslim countries as barbaric threats to Western culture. Islamophobic politiciansincluding President Trump in his Muslim ban executive orderpresent murders of women by male family members for perceived sexual indiscretions as a timeless characteristic of Muslim culture and law. Molly Bangs, a Senior Associate at The Century Foundation, has a new report out that flips the orientalist logic of the “honor killings” narrative on its head, demonstrating that laws protecting men who kill women whose sexual choices they disapprove of are widespread in the West and arrived in the Middle East through colonialism rather than the institution of religious law. I spoke with Molly over email to discuss her report and its implications for how we think about gender-based violence as a foreign policy issue.

Sam Ratner: I think the best place to start is with how you came to the topic and what the conventional wisdom is regarding so-called “honor killings.” What made you dig into gender-based killings in the US and Muslim-majority countries, and how would you describe the policymaking community’s current understanding of the problem?

Molly Bangs: When Dr. Alanoud Alsharekh came to The Century Foundation to discuss her work on gender-based killings in Kuwait and spoke of the legal codifications of such practices in the country’s penal code as remnants of colonialism, some of my coworkers and I got to talking about comparisons that could be drawn between Kuwait, other countries in the Middle East, and our own United States. The policymaking community, to my knowledge, has not previously focused on “honor killings” as being an issue in the US (except when the killer is a Muslim immigrant), instead separating such murders from the pervasive cases of intimate partner violence resulting in death at the hands of non-immigrant Americans. So recognizing the orientalist choices of labels for these murders on the basis of who the perpetrators are, I started to analyze the colonial roots of the Kuwaiti and American legal systems (and their sequential development), and found many similarities deriving from British Common Law and the French Penal Code in terms of men’s ownership of women and presenting the murder of women in cases of adultery as excusable and less than first-degree murder.

I think I did not previously think critically about recognizing these murders as what they arepractices on the most extreme side of the widespread, global spectrum of gender-based violencein large part because of how “honor killings” are so often covered by the media and researched in academia as a practice that is inherent to predominantly Arab societies. This being said, having studied post-colonial genealogies of feminism with Lila Abu-Lughod at Columbia, I am also very much aware of struggles between universalist and relativist approaches to women’s human rights around the world, and therefore wary of any approach to the topic of gender-based killings that in recognizing their universal nature, flattens differences between cultures and women’s varied experiences in them.

SR: When you looked into the laws around gender-based killings, what did you find? What is the current legal reality in the countries you looked at?

MB: I focused on Kuwait and the US. While Kuwait is a small country and is obviously not necessarily representative of gender-based violence across its region, I believe it’s a useful case study given its success in rolling back doctrines surrounding “honor killings” and the role colonialism played in shaping its laws—not dissimilarly to the formation of the US legal system.

Though a former British colony, the Kuwaiti legal system is largely based off of Egyptian law. Egyptian law, in turn, was derived largely from the French Penal Code, which included a clause declaring that “in the case of adultery…murder committed upon the wife as well as upon her accomplice, at the moment when the husband shall have caught them in the fact, in the house where the husband and wife dwell, is excusable.” Kuwait’s Article 153 modified this clause to stipulate that if a male catches any female family member in “an unsavory sexual act with a man” and kills the man, the woman, or both, than it is treated as a misdemeanor—and is punishable by a maximum of three years in prison or 14 Kuwaiti dinars (roughly $46).

Dr. Alsharekh’s advocacy organization, Abolish 153, lobbied the Kuwaiti parliament for three years and, in May 2017, succeeded in passing a bill to repeal the law. While there is a current legislation backlog and the change has yet to be implemented, this lesser legal classification for gender-based killings on the basis of male guardianship will end in Kuwait. Abolish 153, which was formed as a regional organization, aims to expand their educational and lobbying campaigns to other countries in the Middle East and North Africa with similar laws in place.

Turning to the US case study, American legal doctrine reducing murder charges to manslaughter in the case of adultery have been in operation for well over 200 years. This legal doctrine is rooted in British common law which, dating back to the 1600s, utilized a provocation framework for mitigating homicide to manslaughter in cases where a killer was provoked into committing homicide due to a sudden rage of passion and loss of control. By 1707, English courts had formulated four major common law categories of adequate provocation, including the accused seeing his wife engaging in an adulterous act with another man. The British case Regina v. Mawgridge (1707) upheld this justification for manslaughter on the basis that a wife is her husband’s property: “jealousy is the rage of man, and adultery is the highest invasion of property… so a man cannot receive a higher provocation.”

Some jurisdictions in the United States began to feel that the common law categories did not sufficiently cover all of the circumstances under which provocation may occur. The reasonable man standard—which leaves to the jury the task of deciding whether there were events or circumstances significant enough to have provoked a reasonable man into killing—was adopted in the US in 1862. This is important to note because under common law, a man needed to prove that he had actually witnessed his wife engaging in a sexual act with another person. The reasonable man standard, in application, has vastly expanded the circumstances under which a man can claim he was legitimately provoked into violence—there’s now legal precedent in the United States from court cases that determined the following: a man doesn’t actually need to be an eyewitness of the adultery; a man’s belief that the adultery was occurring (even if he was wrong!) falls under the same grounds for provocation; and the “cooling period” of discovering these “crimes of passion” (under which the killer purportedly could not control his action due to blind rage) is now relaxed immediately to almost a day later.

When combined with extreme emotional disturbance legal arguments, the bottom line is that in the United States, such gender-based killings are increasingly liberally qualified as second-degree manslaughter. The only US jurisdiction I have found that has voted to remove adultery as a viable reason to reduce murder charges to manslaughter is Maryland, which did so in 1997.

SR: You touched on it in your last answer, but can you talk a bit more about the role colonialism played in the spread of gender-based violence laws? How does the colonial focus on gender in law compare to what we know about pre-colonial justice systems in what’s now Kuwait?

MB: I was trained in political science, rather than history or law, but from what I’ve studied, I think it’s hard to understate the role of colonialism in these laws codifying gender-based violence. Since you asked about Kuwait, I’ll expand on that case a bit in the context of its region. As so many Middle Eastern countries’ legal systems underwent modification with the fall of the Ottoman Empire and waves of independence in the latter half of the 20th century, there are many similarities amongst them, mostly imitating the Egyptian Civil Code of 1942—authored by Egyptian jurist Dr. Abdul Raazaq Al Sanhuri with the help of a French professor Dr. Edouard Lambert—which was derived heavily from French civil code.

In the case of Kuwait, which was under British colonial rule from 1899 until 1961, just before independence, the UK-led Kuwaiti government commissioned Sanhuri to lead a judicial committee charged with overhauling Kuwait’s legislative framework. This framework would remain in place post-independence as a part of the 1962 constitution. Sanhuri’s ideas also directly influenced Iraq’s laws, and Syria, Libya, and Qatar are among other countries that have borrowed them.

The second part of your question regarding what we know about pre-colonial justice systems is a very interesting one that frankly I would be better equipped to answer if I spoke Arabic and/or had access to Kuwaiti legal archives. But I was interested in the same thing when drafting this report, and I found a book by Liat Kozma that struck me—an endnote speaks to this point:

The author of this report has not found English-language evidence of honor killings’ social/legal permissibility prior to the colonial era in Kuwait (nor has she had access to Kuwaiti legal archives). The available existent scholarship on Kuwait focuses on the origins of Article 153 and the homicides as being imposed by Egyptian via English via French via Ottoman penal codes (Alanoud Al Sharekh, Lama Abu-Odeh, Muhamad S. Olimat). That said, historian Liat Kozma has studied nineteenth-century Egypt police records—accessed through the Egyptian National Archives—that demonstrate honor killings were not a common (or commonly reported) occurrence in pre-British colonial Egypt, and in the case that they did occur, as did the murder of a girl named Sariyya in the al-Minya Province of Upper Egypt in 1865, they were prosecuted as crimes. This history, which Kozma delves into in her book Policing Egyptian Women and demonstrates neither the practice nor the legal tolerance of honor crimes are inherent to Egypt, is significant for the Kuwait case due to Egypt’s role in forming the Kuwaiti penal code (Liat Kozma, Policing Egyptian Women (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2011)).

Of course, I’m not claiming this case is representative of all of the legal systems I reference above, but it suggests incredibly interesting opportunities for future research.

SR: The other big area of interest for me with your report was the state of activism on this topic. You talked earlier about Dr. Alsharekh’s role in inspiring this project, and I was wondering if you could expand on what makes Dr. Alsharekh’s activism so compelling and what the current state of her movement is in Kuwait.

MB: Absolutely. Dr. Alsharekhwho was actually interviewed at length on this topic by my colleague Lily Hindy (formerly a senior associate at Century, now a history PhD candidate at UCLA)you can listen here. In that interview, she discusses how Abolish 153 was founded as a regional movement, but because freedom of speech and expression is much higher in Kuwait than in other Middle Eastern and North African countries, her team decided it would be a good place to start. That said, as she told Lily, the topics of honor and women’s sexuality are definitely still taboo in Kuwait, so they had to get creative about awareness raising prior to even getting to the lobbying stage with the Kuwaiti parliament. So when their efforts got off the ground in 2014, they actually used art as their protest space and began holding art shows that served as a behind-the-scenes awareness raising techniques. This was critical, because most people she encountered didn’t know that the law even existed. Her team also wrote a lot of op-eds, utilized social media, and held the first (as well as three or four more thereafter) gender sensitivity trainings in Kuwait’s history, in both Arabic and English. As Dr. Alsharekh put it, this “non-confrontational” policy approach worked, and after a few years, with the help of shifting demographics of parliament—four young male MPs and the sole woman MP ultimately signed the bill abolishing Article 153 in May of 2017.

Dr. Alsharekh is also working on rolling back other Kuwaiti laws related to women’s rights and gender based violence. Article 183, for instance, mandates that if a woman is kidnapped and raped and her rapist and guardian agree they should get married, then she can’t do anything about it. So she’s working to repeal this as well. Finally, she’s also training a group of women to run for political office in Kuwait to combat gender inequity in terms of representationso the future looks bright on that front as well.

SR: You note that the last big change on removing gendered double standards for murder in American law was in Maryland in 1997. How did the Maryland movement succeed, and why hasn’t there been more success on that front in other states since then? Are there any efforts underway currently to change other state laws?

MB: As far as I know, no other US jurisdiction has explicitly removed adultery as a means of adequate provocation, thereby reducing sentences to second-degree manslaughter (rather than first-degree murder). The Maryland movement took off after three years of lobbying by women’s groups like the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence hand in hand with advocacy by families of victims of these gender-based killings. I’m not aware of grassroots movements to change other state laws right now, but I hope such efforts will gain traction.

I do know that a number of legal scholars in the United States are working on this issue. Susan D. Rozelle has argued for a widespread revisitation of provocation as it has developed across US legal systems, noting: “The infidelity paradigm rests on a fundamentally flawed and inadequately examined premise: … that to a certain extent we cannot expect people to control themselves when faced with the sight of a faithless spouse. This is not true. We should, and in fact do, have more control over our passions than the defense and the prevailing scholarship assume… the existence of laws at all presumes that people can control their actions. If people cannot, then the laws themselves would be pointless.” I think this sums it up pretty nicely, don’t you?

SR: I do! Let’s close with some reading recommendations: what’s the best thing you’ve read recently?

MB: Reflecting on things I’ve read this summer, I would have to say the “A Free Press Needs You” opinion pieces from newspapers across the states, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, and The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation by Drew Westen were my favorites.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Molly Bangs is senior associate at The Century Foundation. Her writing focuses on women’s and human rights as well as social and environmental justice.

Sam Ratner is a contributing editor at Zitamar News, where he covers security issues in southern and eastern Africa.

4 thoughts on “Upending the Orientalist Logic of “Honor Killings”

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