Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Debating a Taboo: Gender, Honour Killings and Fear of “the Other” By Traci Birge

Also in this series:
Traci Birge continues here her analysis on the theme honour killings, and she is taking on the issues with yet wider perspectives. Traci is a PhD candidate with a solid research background with, among other merits, peer-reviewed and expert scientific publications. She knows what she is talking about when referring to scientific research methods. Her research credibility is proven by an examined academic education and collegial recognition from her academic supervisors and colleagues. On behalf of the readers of Professors blogg, I thank Traci Birge for her valuable and scholarly guest contribution/ Professors blogg.
Vino Rosso. Ferrada de Noli, Ink and water colour. Rome 2003
Debating a Taboo: Gender, Honour Killings and Fear of “the Other”
By Traci Birge

Discussing honour killings contrary to the accepted social wisdom is taboo. Across societies, we are expected to uphold the dominant social narrative, whether it be tolerance or moral outrage.  In both cases, women are the losers when social forces use spin to frame the narrative of gender violence to suit political goals, including maintaining the status quo. Ferrada de Noli breaks the taboo by exposing social-political forces shaping our perceptions on this topic in Sweden.
In my previous text, I presented some thoughts on Professor Ferrada de Noli’s post about poor science and cultural-racist positioning found in some gender research in Sweden, and particularly that related to the conceptualisation and study of honour-killings. I found Professor Ferrada de Noli’s text very thought provoking and began writing a comment to his posting that turned into a submission of its own. In discussing this topic with someone who follows closely the rhetoric and arguments of Finnish anti-immigration advocates and racists, I learned that honour killings are
1. attributed broadly and (nearly) exclusively to the Muslim community and 2. honour killings are part of the racist anti-immigration narrative in Finland.
As a researcher, I was particularly interested in Professor Ferrada de Noli’s experience with the Ethics Review Board and his assertion that this State institution is approving poorly designed projects that have a negative impact on some members of Swedish society (mainly Muslim immigrants). Professor Ferrada de Noli states that his reason for resignation from the Ethics Committee was in protest of a lack of ethics and scientific rigour- namely that the research proposal submitted to the Ethics Review Board was lacking in empirical data to support the assertions that form the theory and the theoretical positioning of the proposed research project. In addition to this being poor science, Professor Ferrada de Noli found the case to be particularly egregious because 1. The project used non-scientific assertions as justification in seeking to bypass Swedish law protecting individual privacy and 2. Specifically targets the Muslim community at-large in a way that has the potential to further perpetuate racial stereotypes and bigotry. 
The intersection of race and gender and multiculturalism are difficult topics and much disputed and debated. As I’ve done more research, I find that I agree more than ever with Professor Ferrada de Noli’s assessment of cultural-racist positioning in the conceptualisation of honour killing and media complicity in propagating this narrative to serve vested interests in Western society. In the following I present some of the research on the intersection of race, society and gender in the conceptualisation of honour killings amongst immigrant communities in the West that has influenced my outlook.
Gender, Honour Killings and Fear of “the Other”
There are many feminists, including gender researchers and women’s rights activists, who question the usefulness, meaning of, and reason behind the construct of “honour killings” in a Swedish or European context. I found in my research that I am not alone in wondering why honour killings and “crimes of passion” are so fully separated when the end result is the same (intimidation, violence, fear, death). Researchers in gender and women’s studies have also considered (and far more thoroughly and astutely) these same issues. Javeria Rizvi Kabani (2004), for example, considered how the court and media in Sweden have handled cases of honour killings in Sweden from 1994-2004. In her research, Kabani found much evidence of media bias and writes that she even had to revise her research approach because of the bias in Swedish media regarding honour killings. Kabani (2004) writes:
 “An examination of close to one hundred Swedish newspaper reports of these cases revealed extremely biased and stereotypical reporting of cases involving Muslims and immigrants of Middle Eastern origin.”
The author examined court cases of identified “honour killings” in Sweden (she identified “more than 10 cases” from 1994-approximately 10 year period). She found that cases were not treated consistently and that media played a strong role in framing the narrative of what an honour killing is. She also describes one of the “honour killing” cases where the media framed a case of ex-spousal murder/killing as an “honour killing” despite the fact that it does not fit the commonly understood definition. In fact, the killing was the culmination of an ugly divorce and custody battle. However, the perpetrator and victim were immigrants, so it became an “honour killing” in the public’s mind (and with the media’s help). Regarding that case, Kabani (2004) notes that:
 “This case is a prime example of how (imagined) meanings based in little fact are projected by media on to single incidents and which later transforms into ‘common realities’ and stereotypes of ‘the other’.”
One of the important questions that must be asked is whether a voyeuristic fascination of honour killings as a manifestation of “the other” is actually a type of social porn that results in denial of services to, and marginalization of, women of immigrant communities through 1. acceptance of unacceptable violence by associating it with the feared “other”;  2. denial of needed interventions and shelter services due to the perception that the issue is outside of the scope of domestic violence and 3. demonisation of entire cultures and religions, especially the male members of immigrant communities.
Kabani and other researcher-advocates for women’s human rights issues, notably Meeto & Mirza (2007) point out that media chooses to portray immigrant or “ethnicised” women as perpetual victims and that this narrative does not empower these women.  Meetoo & Mirza write:
“Honour killings when reported in the British press are often sensationalist, and engage in cultural stereotyping which puts the gaze on the ‘other’ (Majid and Hanif 2003; CIMEL/Interights 2001). The young women are constructed as either romantic heroine, struggling for the benefits of the ‘west’ against her cruel and inhuman father and family, or victim, succumbing to her backward and traditional ‘eastern’ culture (Puwar 2003; Ahmad 2003). “
Meeto & Mirza also note that honour killing is specifically applied to “ethnicised” (their term) women, while “crimes of passion” are reserved for the West. They write: “Women’s involvement in honour crimes is not just a phenomena in relation to so called ‘ethnic’ communities. As Stanko (1985:53) shows many survivors of domestic violence in a western context who have attempted to seek help from their own mothers do not always receive support, being told to put up with it because ‘he’s your husband’.”
The above writers do not belittle or minimize the damage done by honour killings, nor do they accept any excuses that “culture” can justify these atrocities. What they do say is that the intersections of culture, gender, immigration and integration are very complicated. They know that case and context specific care and intervention is needed to assist ALL victims of gender violence. They also recognise that sensationalization of “honour killings” can work against women from immigrant communities, especially when used as a kind of “media social porn” to perpetuate fear of “Islamisation” and where society becomes outraged but does nothing or very little to improve services for victims.
Luopajärvi (2003) notes that there is difference in definition between honour killings and crimes of passion. Her definition and colleagues’ observations below are astute and also illustrate why some feminists question the usefulness of the strong distinction between honour crimes and other gender violence, like crimes of passion, in countries like Sweden. She writes:
“The idea of passion is based on the notion of excuses. Here the actors are excused, not the acts. To summarise, “honour is based on ideas of kin, status, honour and collectivety, while passion is based on ideas of individualism, romantic fusion, and sexual jealousy.” Therefore in ‘honour-cultures’ the women who get killed are daughters, sisters and mothers, while in ‘passion-cultures’ it is wives, ex-wives and girl friends that are the victims of murder and other crimes. To somewhat simplify the issue: the results of ‘crimes of honour’ and ‘crimes of passion’ are the same – but the reasons are different. Thus Abu-Odeh points out, crimes of honour occur in the “East”, crimes of passion in the “West”” (bold is mine). Luopajärvi, who has written extensively on honour killings as human rights violations, continues, “…it may be that an honour rationale underlies also so-called killings in the name of passion in the west. “
Indeed, Kabani also states, “I am conscious of the fact that there are many girls in Sweden living under controlled circumstances, including Swedish girls who are subjected to men’s violence. “
Meeto & Mirza (2007) recognise that society must provide victims of violence support and protection and that interventions may be case or type specific. Support should be framed in a way that best serves the needs of the victims, not a political agenda. Meeto & Mirza (2007) emphasise that the voyeuristic sensationalism of honour crimes in the West must be placed in the context of current Islamphobia. The authors note:
”Many young women from ethnic minority communities are at risk of not being fully protected by the State as equal citizens as they are invisible…However if honour killings and forced marriage as forms of domestic abuse and violence are constructed as ethnicised problems by politicians and the media, as witnessed in the current preoccupation with ‘the Muslim woman’, it can create not only more multicultural marginalisation but also a racist backlash at a local and national level.”
Because of the complexities described by the authors cited herein, Meeto & Mirza (2007) advocate for a human rights approach to the issue of violence against women, including “honour killings”.  They write, “a human rights approach to domestic violence which transcends the cultural context may provide a way forward, as it highlights patterns of domestic violence across all cultures and gives gendered violence the status of a global risk through creating a collective awareness of the issues.”
Framing the debate: Whose feminism counts?
In her recent New York Times article that was undoubtedly an ode to the achievements of Gloria Steinem and her generation of feminists, Sarah Hepola (2012) asks the question “Where is the next Gloria Steinem, and why…has no one emerged to take her place?”. This question is answered later in the article by Latoya Peterson, editor of the blog Racialicious, who states: “We’ve entered a period where there isn’t a single narrative about anything. ‘Feminism’ has given way to what other women have termed ‘feminisms’ — all the various ways that we seek justice and equality.” As much as journalists might like to have that one “go-to” person for all “women’s-issues” the truth is that we have moved on. Women, and feminism, are not defined by any one ideology. We have different approaches and perspectives. The (often fierce) debate on sex work is a prime example of this. The Assange case in Sweden is another. 
In a recent interview, the first democratically elected female president in the world, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir of Iceland, provided a definition of feminism that I can only endorse. She stated:
 “I am a dedicated women’s rights advocate but I’m also a men’s rights advocate and even becoming more of a men’s rights advocate as I want to see gender equilibrium in our society. I don’t want men to experience what women experienced before, that women are so strong that men have to struggle in order to maintain equal rights. To me it is important that men and women have the same rights in our society…. The golden mean is the road to travel. All extremism is bad. It contradicts the nations psyche and a social struggle that becomes too extreme is counter productive. Of course I follow public debate on this issue and I say: Show caution, extremism can ruin a good cause”. (translation here).
My personal view is that there is no place in feminism for gender supremacy or racism. Feminism is about equality here and now and that means supporting the victims of injustice, brutality and violence without turning whole communities into collateral damage.
Closing Remarks
I highly recommend the references cited here for further information.
My previous post here at Professors Blogg resulted in me being swept up in the misinformation campaign of some few trolls who wish to misrepresent the position of Professor Ferrada de Noli for reasons I do not fathom.  The slander included calling me racist and trying to intimidate me from writing further on this subject. Indeed, a comment represented very well the classic social-learned misogynist aggression aimed at intimidating female voices that present opinions different from their own.  I will not be intimidated. I am glad to engage in constructive civil discourse on the topics I have addressed. This means I will not engage with insult-laden posts by attention seekers striving to attain an academic legitimacy, which neither they nor their arguments possess, by attempting to access high circulation and well-respected forums such as the PB. I take to heart this wise advice: “There are two kinds of people: those who are honestly interested in dialogue and those who are not. Know which you are dealing with”. 
“The truth will set you free. But first, it will piss you off.” -Gloria Steinem

Hepola, S. (2012) Gloria Steinem, a Woman Like No Other. New York Times 4/16/2012. Available electronically viewed 30/3/2012
Kabani , J.V. (2004) Honour Killings in Sweden: the Need for Intellectual and Institutional Coherence for Working Towards the Realization of Women’s Human Rights. (publication information incomplete) p. 358-371 available electronically viewed 30/3/2012
Luopajärvi, K. (2003) Honour Killings as Human Rights Violations. Research Report 17. Åbo Akademi University. Institute for Human Rights 143pp. electronically available viewed 30/3/2012
Lövdahl, E. (2012) Forréttindi að fæðast á Íslandi. Monitor – pdf-blöð pp. 22 March 2012 11-15. available electronically viewed 1/4/2012 translation from source viewed 1/4/2012
Meetoo, V.  & Mirza , H.S. (2007) There is Nothing ‘Honourable’ About Honour Killings’’: gender, violence and the limits of multiculturalism. Women's Studies International Forum, 30 (3). pp. 187-200. ISSN 02773395 available electronically viewed 30/3/2012

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