Gender and Force in the Media

Murderous Honor Past and Present: Webster’s Duchess of Malfi and Contemporary Crimes of Honor

by Sarah Youssef, University of Cologne, Germany

1The freedom to determine your own life is a human right. Violence against women encompasses crimes allegedly committed in the name of ‘honor’, such as ‘honor killings’,

assault, confinement and imprisonment, and interference of marriage, where the publicly articulated ‘justification’ is attributed to a social order claimed to require the preservation of a concept of ‘honour’ vested in male (family and/ or conjugal) control of women and specifically women's sexual conduct: actual, suspected or potential. (Welchman and Hossain 4)

In communities where the concept of woman as property is supported, male honor is defined through the female body. This implies that murders committed in the name of ‘honor’ are not perceived as crimes, and therefore a judicial issue, but as a family issue. The term ‘honor killing’ is frequently attributed to murders committed within minority communities of the Middle East and Asia (Welchman and Hossain 9). But crimes committed with the “mitigating value” ‘honor’ are not exclusively committed within these, dominantly Muslim, communities (ibid.). According to Welchman and Hossain the terminology regarding those crimes is connected to stereotypical assumptions. Therefore the same crime committed within western cultures is referred to as a ‘crime of passion’ (13). This difference in terminology is closely linked to defense strategies, since crimes committed in the name of ‘honor’ are premeditated and crimes of ‘passion’ are not. Regardless of this terminology, in 2000 the United Nations included both ‘crimes of passion’ and ‘crimes of honor’ in resolutions on violence against women (Welchman and Hossain 10), hence underlining the fact that terminology does not absolve the crime.

2In recent years ‘honor killings’ have gained increased attention from the public, media and politicians. According to the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Right Organisation (IKWRO), based in the UK, there is a yearly average of twelve reported murders committed in the name of ‘honor’ in the UK. The case of Banaz Mahmod, a 20 year old woman of Kurdish origin, who was tortured and killed by her own family in 2006, gained a lot of public attention and led to a heightened awareness towards crimes of ‘honor’ in the UK. The numbers in Germany are similarly shocking. According to the Bundeskriminalamt, the criminal police of the federation, 125 cases were reported between 1996 and 2005 with increasing numbers. On November 21, 2007 Aylin Korkmaz was attacked by her husband in southern Germany with two knives and stabbed 26 times in her upper body and face. In the following trial her husband stated that she had ‘dishonored’ him by divorcing him five months prior to the deed. The court ruled 13 years for attempted murder. Instead of hiding her 260 stiches that will always document the wounds inflicted upon her body, Korkmaz went public: she wrote a book, attended numerous interviews and is still frequently seen advocating for women’s rights. Recently another case, the trial against the murderers of Arzu Ö. has drawn increased media attention and has once again led to a greater public interest in ‘honor-based’ violence against women in the Western Hemisphere. The 18 years old Arzu was abducted by her brothers and shot because the family disapproved of her German boyfriend. However, a recurrent problem is that many women are taken abroad to be killed, and thus just disappear (Brandon and Hafez 52). The cases of Aylin and Arzu are only two of the United Nations’ estimate of around 5000 yearly cases of ‘honor killings’ worldwide.

3The rising number of so-called ‘honor killings’ necessitates that governments and human rights activists have to look beyond Muslim and minority communities and address this violence as a socio-political issue on a global scale. Consequently, crimes committed in the name of ‘honor’ have been addressed by the United Nations for the better part of the past three decades. Jane Conners states that the United Nations approach to violence against women “has transformed from one centered purely on the advancement of women, crime control and criminal justice and addressed predominately within the UN entities concerned with those issues, to one which incorporates a human rights perspective” (22). In 1975 the World Plan of Action adopted by the First World Conference on Women, which was held in Mexico, did not explicitly refer to violence against women but rather addressed the issue in terms of “dignity, equality” or “security” of women (22). Five years later at the Copenhagen Conference a resolution on “battered women and the family” was included into the final report of the conference (ibid). But it was not until 1985 that violence against women was truly addressed as an international issue. The “Report of the World Conference to Review and Appraise the Achievements of the United Nations Decade for Women: Equality, Development and Peace” states:

Violence against women exists in various forms in everyday life in all societies. Women are beaten, mutilated, burned, sexually abused and raped. Such violence is a major obstacle to the achievement of peace and the other objectives of the Decade and should be given special attention. Women victims of violence should be given particular attention and comprehensive assistance. To this end, legal measures should be formulated to prevent violence and to assist women victims. National machinery should be established in order to deal with the question of violence against women within the family and society. Preventive policies should be elaborated, and institutionalized forms of assistance to women victims provided. (Paragraph 258)

Hence the subject of ‘honor’ crimes has emerged as an international concern beyond its initial address a decade earlier. Crimes against women in the name of ‘honor’ are recognized as a violation of human rights. Additionally the UN and non-governmental institutions are particularly interested in renegotiating terminology, since the use of the term ‘honor’ functions as a justification and absolution of the crime.

4 According to the Human Rights Watch Oral Intervention at the 57th Session of the UN Commission on Human Rights, ‘honor’ crimes “are acts of violence, usually murder, committed by male family members against female family members who are perceived to have brought dishonor upon the family” (Item 12, HRW). Welchman and Hossain state that there is no agreement on the definition of ‘honor killing’, yet there are aspects that assist in clearly differentiating domestic violence and femicide from ‘honor-based’ violence (HBV). ‘Honor-based’ violence is a very specific case of gender-based violence against women, where the term honor needs to be seen as a symbolic term pointing to a legal defense strategy of the perpetrators and encompassing specific social and cultural markers of the community in which the crime was committed. In this context man's honor is defined through the female body, hence any transgression from the gendered norm is regarded as dishonoring the male representative of said norm. Honor here is regarded in terms of a value-system and a tradition to be protected and reinstated if needed. Joanne Payton, information and research officer at the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation (IKWRO), describes how the word ‘honor’ is defined differently for men and women of Arab and South Asian communities, stating

‘Honour’ in its more feminine aspect is located in the negative, passive characteristic: stoicism, endurance, obedience, chastity, domesticity, servitude. In its more masculine form it features active and positive qualities: dynamism, generosity, confidence, dominance and violence. Female ‘honour’ is static: it can neither be increased nor regained, and once lost is lost forever. […] The positive, autonomous male ‘honour’ of any man, family or tribe is built upon the foundation of the negative, dependent female ‘honour’ of female relatives and tribeswomen, just as a trader’s reputation is based on merchandise. (69)

Hence male honor is defined through activism, and confidence, as well as through the degree of passivity among the women in the family.

5Historically, violent abuses of human and civil rights especially against women are issues that have existed for a long time. Gender-based violence is also a recurring theme in literary and dramatic traditions. In fact, theater and cinema, among the arts, offer a great opportunity for the exploration, analysis and reflection on the complex phenomenon of ‘honor killing’. In Western dramatic history, we can find numerous examples of literary texts that deal with gender-related issues of ‘honor’ and violence. The Early modern period has been a particularly prolific time in this respect, with tragedies like Shakespeare’s Othello (1604), Middleton’s The Changeling (1622), and Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (1612).