"Honor" Killings, Muslim and Otherwise:

A friend of mine passed along this New York Post column about a Pakistani immigrant's strangling his daughter -- in Georgia, outside Atlanta -- because she cheated on her husband and "wanted to end her arranged marriage."

The crime, which the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports on, is awful; and this murderous practice should be condemned more broadly, as should fellow community members and police who turn a blind eye to this sort of behavior, or to similar "honor" violence that falls short of killing.

But at the same time, I'm not sure that I'd cite this as an example of the barbarism or menace of Islam, as I've seen some do. It probably is connected in some measure to Muslim attitudes towards women and towards sexual behavior. But unfortunately very similar practices are common in many cultures, including our own.

To begin with, it remains the law in America (and I suspect many other Western countries) that if a spouse -- who will usually be the husband -- kills the other spouse shortly after discovering the spouse's adultery, the killing may be classified as a manslaughter rather than a murder. Manslaughter is generally treated as a far less severe crime, with far lower penalties.

It's true that the killing has to be done in the "heat of passion," and the ostensible theory is that the crime is in some measure more understandable and more forgivable because of its emotional basis, not that the crime is justified as a matter of honor. Still, my sense is that much of people's sympathy with the killers has to do with the fact that they were dishonored, and not just distressed or angered for reasons unrelated to their sense of their own honor. And in any event, regardless of the rationale, the law does make killing of an errant spouse into something less than murder -- not the same as the killing of a daughter for her dishonoring the family name, but not very far from that, either.

What's more, until the 1970s, this very same state of Georgia sometimes allowed spouses to kill their spouses when necessary to stop or prevent an act of adultery with no criminal consequences at all -- such killings were considered entirely justifiable, and not just mitigated from murder to manslaughter. See Scroggs v. State, 93 S.E.2d 583 (Ga. App. 1956). Even in the 1975 case that rejected this rule, one judge praised the rule and would have retained it. From 1915 to 1925, Texas courts took the same view, though apparently limited to husbands killing their wives. See Cook v. State, 180 S.W. 254 (Tex. Crim. App. 1915).

And until the 1970s, Georgia, Texas, and two other states expressly allowed husbands to kill their wives' lovers. (Some of the states extended this privilege to wives as well, and some didn't have a "heat of passion" requirement.) One of the cases elaborating on such a statute, State v. Greenlee, 269 P. 331 (N.M. 1928), specifically argued that the law "recognizes the ungovernable passion which possesses a man when immediately confronted with his wife's dishonor." Plus it is generally believed that juries have often acquitted the killers in such situations -- including fathers who killed their daughters' lovers, precisely on "honor" grounds -- even independently of the law. To quote another Georgia case (from 1911, quoting an earlier case from 1860), "What American jury has ever convicted a man for slaying the seducer of his wife or daughter?" That has likely changed in considerable measure since 1911, but my guess is that it remained largely true at least until recent decades.

And that's just the legal system's toleration (partial or complete) of such killings. As a matter of practice, many murders and even more assaults in America each year stem from adultery, perceived adultery, or even just a desire for a divorce.

Naturally, none of this remotely justifies the Pakistani father's killing of his daughter (though under some of the broader manslaughter statutes, such as the "extreme emotional disturbance" statutes that track the Model Penal Code, it's possible that his act would be mitigated to manslaughter).

But it does suggest that we shouldn't treat this sort of "honor" killing as somehow especially telling of some unique regressiveness on the part of Muslim or Pakistani culture; unfortunately, this isn't that different from the regressiveness of some American subcultures, and of the law in some parts of America until a few decades ago. And while we should react with outrage at this honor killing, we should likewise react with outrage at the much more typical (for America) killings of non-Muslim wives and girlfriends -- and husbands and boyfriends -- who seek to leave a relationship, or who have even committed adultery.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Killing of Sexual Partners as Mere Manslaughter:
  2. "Honor" Killings, Muslim and Otherwise: