“Honor killings” figure prominently in portrayals of majority-Muslim countries as barbaric threats to Western culture. Islamophobic politicians—including President Trump in his Muslim ban executive order—present 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.