Burnt Alive!

News report from Pakistan say that 25 year old Shabana Bibi was doused in gasoline and set alight by her husband and his father, after she left the home without her husband’s permission. She was not running away. She did not defame him. She simply went out for a visit without taking permission. Shabana Bibi died after suffering burns to 80% of her body.

Some are calling the murder of Shabana Bibi an honour crime, but that is too simplistic. By calling it an honour crime are we simply affirming the notion that a woman carries in her body the honour of all her family? Are we agreeing that at the root of this crime are issues to do with honour? Have we sold the reality of this crime out to notions of honour and shame? Are we doing women a disservice by allowing murder committed against them when they act independently of male approval, to be referred to as honour crimes?

Family members often act in this way because of perceptions that something done by the woman has brought shame to them. But what do they mean by that? What shame did Shabana Bibi’s action bring on her husband and his father? Certainly they did not have the tight control of her that they may have wanted the community to believe they had. Shabana Bibi did not submit to their controls unquestioningly. Their power over her life was not absolute.

That’s where shame and honour are a strange paradigm to describe what necessitates such violence. Honour crimes are predicated on women being made commodities, when they are simply objects to be delivered from one man’s home (their father’s) to another man’s home (their husband’s). Their only value is calculated in terms of their power of reproduction and as an object of sexual satisfaction. The value of this ‘commodity’ then must be protected. This means men restrict women’s space in the family, their mobility, their behaviour and their activities.

Where gender is an organisational principle of a society, and patriarchal values are enmeshed with tradition and culture to predetermine the social value of gender, women are burdened with the rules of honour and shame. And so it is that honour crimes are the publicly articulated justification of that social order and its concomitant rules. This is a social order that requires the preservation of ‘honour’, an honour that is vested in male control over women, and specifically women’s sexual conduct – whether that is actual, suspected or potential.

Maybe we have to begin to tackle these so called ‘honour’ crimes by addressing gender as an organisational principle of society. The value of a woman is not her reproductive ability or sexual purity. And we can stop calling the murder of a woman because she has rejected this social ordering an ‘honour crime’.

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