I had occasion today to give myself a quick refresher course on honor killings, one form of which is already present in the Torah as of Leviticus 21.9:
And the daughter of any priest, if she profane herself by playing the whore, she profaneth her father: she shall be burnt with fire.
and found myself once again noting that there is a substantial swathe of regions of the world where honor killings are found, and that where it is found (including in immigrant communities from those parts of the world) the practice is not confined to any one religious group.
Hence this DoubleQuote:
I think it is appropriate to consider honor killing a form of religious violence when the claim is made by those who do the killing that they are acting in the name of their religion — but that it is also important to distinguish such acts committed in a cultural context in which they are practiced across religions from acts that are the exclusive province of one religious tradition.
There are examples of honor killings which are performed in the name of Islam, and/or advocated by Islamic scholars — and the same could no doubt be said of other religious traditions — but honor killing as a genre is fundamentally more cultural than religious.
Sources: Brandeis study — BBC — Sydney Morning Herald
The analytic point:
From my point of view as an analyst, it is important to note and compare both religious and cultural drivers — neither avoiding mention of the one out of “correctness” — nor overlooking the other for lack of comparative data.
36 thoughts on “Honor killings”
I like Charles James Napier’s approach.
“You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; [then] beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.”
Honor killings by Muslims remain a worldwide scandal despite the fact that non-Muslims may also perform honor killings. To put it another way, we should punish honor killers severely regardless of their religion, but who doesn’t expect most of those punished to be Muslim?
I disagree with characterizing Leviticus 21.9 as a description of “honor killing”, for several reasons:
Although the verse specifically mentions a daughter bringing shame on her father, there is nothing to suggest that the father is the one responsible for accusing her or carrying out the sentence. If one assumes that the reason for singling out the daughter of a priest is to address the issue of temple prostitution — a common pagan practice of the day — then it reads more as a warning to the father about what will happen to his daughter if he allows her to become a prostitute, not an encouragement to kill her after the fact.
Generally speaking, the Torah is fairly clear on “due process” for serious crimes and sins. It’s hard to interpret this verse as allowing or commanding a father to kill his own daughter in that larger context.
It’s also important for context to point out that serious sexual sins like adultery were punishable by death for both women and men (Deuteronomy 22:22-30). And a woman who cried for help, or who had a sexual encounter in the countryside where she couldn’t be heard, was assumed to have been a victim. She would be presumed innocent, and the man executed.
There’s a lot in Leviticus and Deuteronomy that appears sexist, unfair, or even barbaric to our modern sensibilities, but lumping those things in with honor killings is not intellectually honest, in my opinion.
So, Setbit, if I may:
Are you saying that “she shall be burnt with fire” is to be understood as something other than a death penalty — as, for instance, a description of the daughter’s fate in the afterlife, or a metaphor for her psychological state? From my POV, it’s an honor killing if bringing “shame” or “uncleanness” is the offense and the penalty is death, regardless of whether it’s the family or tribe that carries out the punishment.
The version given here reads:
That sounds pretty affirmative and literal to me. And the commentary on Parashat Emor here declares:
As you say, there is much in Leviticus and Deuteronomy that “appears sexist, unfair, or even barbaric to our modern sensibilities” — but I should add that I don’t entirely share those sensibilities, having the sense that I am myself only separated from Abrahamic times by a small number of centuries and the happenstance of my birth.
Having said that, I welcome informed comment from a rabbinic perspective on matters of Jewish scriptures, just as I would on Islamic matters from an imam or murshid.
As to my intellectual honesty, I invite you to get to know me better before pronouncing on it.
As I understand it, you are correct in saying that the majority of contemporary honor killings occur in Muslim contexts, and also in saying that they also occur in other contexts. My attempt is to be clear about the implied Venn diagram, so to speak.
I lack the temperament of a Napier, but I admire the wit.
Citing the Old Testament as an example of honor killings in Judaism is a bizarre corruption of the religion. There are no longer priests in Judaism, and they disappeared about 2000 years ago.
I am curious whether you can document a single honor killing among the Jews? The overwhelming majority of these killings are among Muslims, and any attempt to deflect responsibility from Islam to “culture” smacks of submission and fear.
DHL, there are still priests (kohanim) in Judaism. While they don’t have many sacramental duties any more, orthodox rabbis maintain that the laws relating to the priesthood apply to these people. For example, many Israeli kohanim go to Cyprus to get married when their spouse is ineligible according to Jewish (and thus Israeli) family law under the strict requirements imposed on kohanim.
I do not know what the modern orthodox view on Lev 21:9 is, though.
I am not for a moment suggesting that there are honor killings in Judaism today, but I do still tend to read the instruction in Leviticus as mandating them — although as I said, by my definition, which I may need to reconsider, it’s from my POV, it’s an honor killing if a “shameful” act invokes the death penalty, “regardless of whether it’s the family or tribe that carries out the punishment”.
The reports I quoted suggest that about 66% of honor killings are found among Muslims, and that people from the same part of the world and who share the same overall culture –and are not Muslims — also live by an honor code and practice the killings.
As to my writings smacking of submission and fear, I think you’re implying that I am fearful and submissive — on very brief acquaintance. I find ad hominem argument neither courteous nor persuasive.
My understanding is that the Sanhedrin moved away from Jerusalem to Yavneh at a time when there was a breakdown of law and order, with many offences being committed for which they would have been obliged to impose the death penalty if sitting in Jerusalem. My source tells me the court could impose the death penalty only when sitting in the Hall of Hewn Stones on Temple Mount, so the move to Yavneh allowed them to avoid condemning large numbers of people to death. He also informed me that the Talmud describes as “murderous” a Sanhedrin that condemned even a single person to death in fifty years.
If that’s correct, and I have as yet no reason to doubt it, then Judaism moved away from much of what appears, as Setbit put it, “barbaric to our modern sensibilities” close on two thousand years ago.
You write, “I do not know what the modern orthodox view on Lev 21:9 is”,
Neither do I — but (fwiw) for a current rabbinic reading of another “death penalty” issue which may throw some light on the nuances involved, see the detailed discussion of the status of Deut 21:18-21 in this Parashah commentary from 2002.
You must remember that Islam is a heresy of Judaism. Mohamed was infuriated that the Jews of Medina rejected this “improved” version of Judaism he presented to them. Much of the hostility of Islam toward the Jews arises, I believe, from this early rejection of the Prophet and his teachings. The Christians reacted in a somewhat similar vein although with less ferocity. It is no surprise to find precedents in the Torah for the Quran.
A fairly common punishment among Hindus for an unfaithful wife is to cut off her nose. There is a considerable medical literature in England on this practice and how to repair the damage. The repair of noses by rotation flap skin grafting is an ancient practice in India due to the use of the punishment. It was first introduced to England in the 1790s by surgeons who had served with the army in India.
I’m not claiming that the verse doesn’t indicate the death penalty. I’m no rabbi (IANAR?), but the verse seems to indicate a capital offense, and that would be consistent with other verses that prescribe the death penalty for adultery and prostitution.
My point is that there is no suggestion that the father/priest is authorized to act as sole judge, jury, and executioner. The prostitution is a criminal offense, and should presumably be handled in a manner consistent with other serious crimes.
The verse clearly states that the woman’s crime reflects on her father. By the same token, if a doctor’s daughter were caught injecting his elderly patients with lethal doses of morphine and stealing their Social Security checks, that would certainly reflect poorly on him, both as a father and a physician. But if that woman were subsequently tried, convicted, and executed, would we call it a “medical honor killing”?
It’s the extreme stretch of the term “honor killing” that I object to. While my calling it intellectually dishonest was a mistake — it goes to your state of mind and therefore implies an ad hominem attack — I don’t think it’s overstating the case to call it intellectually indefensible.
Setbit, at the time this passage was written, jurisdiction was generally in the hands of the “elders,” tribal councils not unlike those who we see today demanding “honor killings.”
Charles, of course Judaism is very skeptical towards the death penalty these days (2000 years out of power tends to do that to a community) but I don’t know how they view the honor issue.
Sure, I get that. But the elders weren’t some extra-judicial body, they were the normal legal process.
My point is that the only thing in Leviticus 21:9 that is different from any other Old Testament law is the mention of the crime being profane, and the fact that it’s listed along with other regulations for priests.
If you define honor killing as any execution of a woman performed by a judicial process that includes religious morality as one of its core values, well then okay, I guess. But if you lump that in with intra-family vengeance on a female relative who’s been the victim of a sexual assault, then the term is now broad enough to be pretty well useless.
I would phrase that differently. The responsibilities may accrete to Kohanim, but there is no longer any power related to the blood line. There is no Jew who can order an honor killing. The very idea is anathema to modern Jewry.
This discussion, while interesting, carefully avoids placing blame where it belongs: on a savage revolutionary theology that is incompatible with Western culture, and modern life.
The Muslim concept of the defense of Islam through the murder of those who would “defile” it is accepted throughout the Muslim world. It is not accepted or practiced in the Jewish world, and one would be hard pressed to find much discussion of it, even theoretical.
One can find many archaic passages in the Old Testament. Should we also discuss the capital crime of wearing two different fibers of cloth in one garment?
The reality is stark and clear. Muslims perpetrate honor killings across the globe. Until we as a society address the issue, any discussion does indeed smack of fear and submission.
Yes indeed, some of the parallels between Judaism and Islam are of considerable interest to me. My understanding is that his interaction with Christians would have likely been with Nestorian / Monophysite and / or gnostic varieties — a history that interests me, but that i have lacked the time and library to pursue.
I am also grateful for your comment about India.
[on the more general topic of the history of medicine]
Some twenty years back I had a copy of Garrison-Morton, and used to keep an eye out for Osler, Cushing, Fulton, etc. I once found a copy of the second edition of William Beaumont’s “Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice and the Physiology of Digestion” on a table at a San Marino, CA library sale for $2 — quite a wonderful find. I’d read about his encounter with the wounded soldier when I was maybe eight or ten years old, and the image of a doctor feeding bits of meat directly into the stomach acid to observe what happened had stuck with me across the years.
Your analogy between the cohen’s daughter and a contemporary physician’s daughter gives me food for thought: I don’t know that it will prevent my making mention of that verse in Leviticus when I discuss honor killings, but I shall be more circumspect in my wording — one of the benefits of being challenged in conversations such as these.
I don’t want to be ruled by a “savage revolutionary theology that is incompatible with Western culture” but my interest in this post is in understanding the savagery as a culture-wide phenomenon which happens to overlap with a swathe of the Islamic world, while leaving other parts untouched.
Two elderly Sikh gentlemen were shot recently in the city where I live, and it is plausible to think they were shot because they were taken for Muslims. I find that savage, too — and far closer to home.
My effort, accordingly, is to clarify and distinguish — so I attempt to acknowledge threats where the occur, and to avoid casting blame on those who do not deserve it.
I am not an expert on the military or organizational side of things, but my view of our actual status vis-a-vis AQ would be one I’d glean from my online friend Leah Farrall’s recent article on the subject in Foreign Affairs:
Spare me your relativism.
Tens of thousands of victims of Islamic terror in the last few years, and because two elderly Sikhs were shot, and because it is “plausible” that they were mistaken for Muslims, everyone is equally savage? Plausible based on evidence? Or plausible because if we call Islam what it is– a bloodthirsty theology incompatible with the modern world — they might cut our heads off?
Fair enough. I applaud those who bring these difficult verses up, because it provides a forum for discussing what the Torah, Koran, Bible, and other religious texts actually say, as distinct from what people assume they say.
Nowhere did I say that “everyone is equally savage”.
I am more personally touched when my neighbors shoot one another than I am when people thousands of miles away do more and worse, because it is my home. But I have not spent fifteen years studying local gang graffiti and attempting to analyze them, and I have spent about that long monitoring AQ and related utterances — and at times I have been able to point to details that, because my special interests are somewhat obscure, other analysts have missed.
None of that adds up to making an equation — although I do tend to think there’s a great deal to the Jewish and Muslim saying that if you blot out one human life, you extinguish a whole world.
When I was in university, back in the 60s, I knew a Lebanese grad student. He was a Maronite Christian and had obtained a Green Card. He told me that he had had to kill his sister the previous summer for some act of hers that brought shame on his family. Now, perhaps he was just lying, but perhaps he was not. Christian ‘honor killings’ in the Arab world are not unknown.
A fairly common punishment among Hindus for an unfaithful wife is to cut off her nose. Michael Kennedy
Really? Currently? First I’ve heard of it. Honor killings and bride/dowry burnings occur, especially in rural India,* but that “fairly common punishment” bit is something that I’ve never heard discussed and the diaspora papers keep pretty good track of the more negative aspects of Indian culture. I tried looking on Pub Med and didn’t find the articles that you were talking about.
Do you mean historically?
*There are tremendous regional variations in India in terms of behavior. Whenever I talk to another person of Indian descent in the States, we almost always have different ideas about Indian culture. I’ve never had a conversation where what we were taught overlapped. The heterogeneity is dizzying.
It looks as though Sushruta’s Samhita contained the first detailed account of nasal reconstruction ca. 600 BC. I don’t have access, but you could no doubt find more here:
Rick Nelson, Nasal Reconstruction in Ancient India
Science 26 April 2002: 656-657.
There’s also this letter:
S. Saraf, Sushruta: Rhinoplasty in 600 B.C. The Internet Journal of Plastic Surgery. 2007 Volume 3 Number 2, online at no charge.
It seems that James Findlay and Joseph Constantine Carpue would be two (early, European) names to conjure with. I found this offered at Christies:
It went for $20.000, give or take.
We live and learn…
Thank you John, for your anecdote of your student friend — true, embroidered or fictitious, I’d imagine it must have been quite a moment when he confided in you.
Thanks Charles. That was what I thought – a historical phenomenon. I wonder if it occurs much today?
In terms of violence toward women, I tend to read about the other two things I previously mentioned.
As are the meetings of heads of clans. They deliberate, they decree, they send out an executioner to do the deed. It’s just how things are done in some cultures, and it’s a legal process, like it or not.
Throughout, you have been conflating two different phenomena: Killings of clan members who have brought “shame” upon their family (what is traditionally understood by the term “honor killing”) and violence by Muslims against those who are seen to oppose Islam. While the latter is certainly despicable, here Charles was only talking about the former.
good post, charles. your point is sound that “honor killing as a genre is fundamentally more cultural than religious.”
can we push it a step further, as follows? honor killing of women mainly occurs in cultures that are deeply if not virulently tribal. and that mostly means parts of africa, the middle east, and south asia.
latin america shares some cultural traits with those regions, but it’s not fraught with such honor killings. the reason, i’d suppose, is that tribal and clan identities are generally weaker in latin america. in contrast, what troubles the region more, mexico in particular, are called “femicides” — the murder of women by men who treat women as property. a perceived insult to a man’s honor may lie behind such femicides, but it’s an individual and not a tribal phenom of local culture.
is there evidence that honor killing is of lower incidence in cultures where islam (not to mention other religions) is prevalent but that are also relatively modernized and less tribalized? for example, indonesia? malaysia? i don’t recall hearing about honor killings of women being characteristic there.
I think that the violence inherent in Islam cannot be parsed. Honor killings are one aspect. Murder of those who would criticize is another. The murder of Jews simply for being Jews is a third.
Finding culpability for current Muslim honor killings in the old testament, the origins of Islam, cultural differences, and whatever other excuses there may be is to ignore the elephant in the room.
If Islam’s violence were to end today, what would we be discussing? Rock throwing among the Haredim in Jerusalem? The Amish slashing tires in Pennsylvania? Catholic nuns protesting outside abortion clinics?
I will happily tolerate that kind of religious fervor!
I am not trying to assign culpability for honor killings to the Old Testament here. But if we want to understand the phenomenon of honor killings, we cannot discount the evidence (some of which is assembled here) that honor killings are much older than Islam, and that even today they are not limited to Islamic cultures.
That does not mean that Islam does not have its share of the blame to bear, but any theory postulating Islam as the only cause falls short of accounting for the reality of honor killings.
Thanks, David. I suspect that honor killings may be more susceptible to analysis in terms of your “Tribes, Institutions, Markets, Networks” framework than my religious approach, although in my view the two perspectives dovetail quite nicely.
Indeed, I’m particularly grateful to see comments here from John Burgess, who describes himself on his invaluable Crossroads Arabia blog as:
and David Ronfeldt, a distinguished analyst whose work for RAND includes such relevant titles as In Search of How Societies Work: Tribes — The First and Forever Form, and Al-Qaeda and its affiliates: A global tribe waging segmental warfare, and whose 2006 Christian Science Monitor article Todays wars are less about ideas than extreme tribalism is germane to our discussion here.
Both have posted here on occasion before now, both have expertise in areas of considerable interest to me, and both have blogs that I follow via RSS.
I have spent quite a few hours trying to develop cross-blog discussions as part of my paid work for a charitable foundation, and the richness of the interactions here and at Zenpundit is both a delight and a bit of a surprise…
No, this verse is not talking about honor killing.
Leviticus mandates the death penalty for ALL adulterers.
The only difference here is that, because of the family’s position in the priesthood, the adulterous woman is executed one way instead of another.
No fathers or brothers “taking the law into their own hands” – a high court of 21 judges, or the Sanhedrin of 72 judges, are the only ones capable of implementing the death penalty. (And as can be expected, this was very rarely carried out due to lack of evidence.)
The “honor” being defended here is not of the particular family, but of the entire people.
So, no – no comparison to barbaric tribal practices of Muslims and others.
It’s quite telling that this law only applies until the girl is 12 years old – at which point Judaism grants her independent rights (including property ownership) unheard of for women in the Muslim world.
This is a grotesque comparison, and worse, ignorant. A law that last could have been enforced two thousand years ago–and based on Jewish history, where execution was almost unknown, doubtful even then. Far more than that, though, in the context of the passage, this clearly refers to the priestly families, the elite of the sect, and, as more than one commenter has pointed out, goes through a lengthy formal trial, during which the accused, who let us remember is a prostitute, has more than enough time to leave the country, or go to a place of refuge, or simply repent of her deeds and so avoid punishment.
This not only cannot compare to “(dis)honor killings,” it is the antithesis of them. As other commenters have also pointed out, rape is much easier to demonstrate in Jewish law, and there is nothing in Judaism, in way, shape, form, intent, allusion, emanation, peneumbra, et al that would in any remote way justify killing the victim of an outrage.
What a theory! Muslims apparently are only familiar with a few passages of Leviticus and Exodus, having somehow missed the entire rest of the massive edifice of Jewish law and writings. Even more so, until 1948, Jews had lived among Muslims for centuries…somehow, I guess, they didn’t notice that the Jews weren’t burning their daughters alive. “Shlomo was just barbequing shiska-bob? Huh! I though for sure he was burning his daughter Miriam. Well, maybe next week. Oh, and aorry about incinerating Fatima, dear, I guess I misread that Leviticus 21:9 again. Hmm I wonder if there’s a Leviticus 20 or 22? Or even some book other than Leviticus that Jews read. Nah, that’s crazy talk.”
More importantly, why are you dragging the Jews into this? They have nothing whatever to do with this matter. The solution is to be found in a culture’s own past. Also, are you honestly so ignorant of literary history that you are unfamiliar with honor killing? Greek drama much? The Arthurian cycle? Shakespeare? Yes, it must have been all those readings of Othello that forms the basis of Muslim anti-western sentiment, Romeo and Juliet that taught them the imporance of separating the sexes, Henry IV that made them wary of the late blooming George W Bush…
I am seeing the force of the argument that says family killings are different from judicial killings, and accordingly withdraw my remark that the quote from Leviticus concerned “one form of” honor killing. I should perhaps add that it was not, and would not be, my intention to slur Judaism, any more than I would wish to slur Christianity, Islam, Buddhism or (for that matter) atheism or agnosticism.
I am not much enamored of the idea that adultery should be a death penalty offence, but back then it was, and as I said in an earlier comment, the Sanhedrin seems to have gone out of its way to avoid trying cases in which the death penalty could be demanded, for which I am very grateful. From my perspective, the rule of law is a relatively recent human invention, and I am grateful for it, even if then – or now – there are examples of its process with which I am less than comfortable. And specifically as regards the various death penalty offenses mentioned in the Tanakh, I wish that those Christians who would like us to deploy the full range of “Old Testament law” in America – applying the death penalty to disobedient children, adulterers, etc – could “catch up” with what the rabbinic authorities appear to have understood at least by the time of the Tannaim, just under two thousand years ago.
My thanks to you for clarifying my understanding.
I am not quite sure why you mention Muslims, twice, though – which brings me to my response to Joe Y.
You write, “Muslims apparently are only familiar with a few passages of Leviticus and Exodus” – Muslims? Why are you dragging the Muslims into this? Those Muslims who are practicing honor killings are doing so for cultural, not religious reasons – as shown by the fact that their Christian, Sikh and other neighbors do the same, while Muslims in other parts of the world have no such practice. It seems unlikely that they read Exodus or Leviticus at all…
Furthermore, we live in times when being – or merely “looking like” — a Muslim can get you killed in the USA, not often, perhaps, but on occasion — and continuing to pick on Islam as the cause for honor killings when culture provides a more accurate explanation is frankly not very helpful under these circumstances.
FWIW, those Muslims I know who *do* read the great world scriptures are as opposed to honor killings as you and I.
Also, you ask why I have not mentioned Shakespeare, the Greek tragedians, the Arthurian corpus, etc., and one simple answer is that I am primarily concerned in my writings with *scriptural* sanctions for violence, ancient or modern — and neither Shakespeare nor Sophocles nor Chretien de Troyes is considered (as far as I know) so inspired as to be able to give the divine imprimatur to particular legal formulations.
My ignorance is another matter, and I don’t dispute it.
Charles Cameron: My references were satirical; What I was trying–not with complete success, obviously–to do was show, in fact, my agreement with your statement that “honor killings” are peculiar to the culture in which they arise, not a product of an outside culture’s religious or literary influence.
The one aspect I disagree with you about is Islam’s partial culpability in not giving a solid condemnation to this practice. I’m not saying that the religion can’t make a strong case against them, but there is clearly a deep flaw–from the Judeo-Christian point of view at least (I lack enough famiiarity with other religions)–in its not being wholly condemnatory of them.
Just to take one example with which I have some knowledge, is the Torah law on marriage to women captured in battle. Muhammed’s behavior in the Koran in this situations was unallowable in Torah law. It’s not that there probably weren’t Jews who violated this law, but the religion could not be construed in any way, shape, or form to allow it. There is something amiss in Islam that it cannot do the same with “honor” killings.
There is something wrong in Islam that it is not able to at least put an official stop to this practice, to officially anethmatize it. What kind of people declare a Fatwa against Solomon Rushdie, but not against fathers who murder their daughters?
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