Can we redefine ‘honour killings’?

There is a Punjabi proverb that says ‘one does not share the bread, but one shares the shame’.  And yet, honour and shame, while attributed to individual acts are not about the individual, but about the family. The honour of the family, in particular its male members, is located in the bodies of women.

Unni Wikan argues that it is not clear that honour and shame are binary opposites[1]. Drawing on studies conducted in Cairo and Oman, she argues that the location of these concepts in the everyday life of the community, and not just in select discourses, is essential. She shows that honour and shame relate differently to behaviour: that shame arises from an identifiable act, whereas honour is an attribute of the whole person[2].

But the debate continues. How else can honour and shame be seen? Whereas Nafisa Shah argues they are ‘two parallel states, honour is masculine, shame is feminine. Just as men have honour, women have shame. A woman’s shame summarises her public reputation and social position in much the same manner as honour does for men’[3], Tahira Khan suggests they are ‘dialectical states’: shame is the opposite of honour and both are male attributes, men possess honour and suffer shame[4].

Honour and shame are intrinsically linked in everyday discourses that shape women’s behaviour and the control of it. Purna Sen suggests that ‘codes of honour serve to construct … what it means to be a woman’[5]. Others link it to patriarchy and possession. Fatima Mernissi in her book ‘Beyond the Veil’, also makes a connection between honour and possessions. She argues that there is a strong link between money and female sexuality on the one hand, and the social construction of honour and purity on the other. Her point is that although honour is linked to material wealth, its location is firmly fixed in the body of women[6]. The woman’s body and her sexuality are the idioms of honour and shame. 

Is it possible then to redefine honour killings? The popular shorthand referring to killing women because an alleged shame besmirching the family honour as ‘honour killing’ becomes a tool for the defamation of women. What stops us simply calling it murder? In every other instance of killing it is called murder, and yet the killing a woman because someone alleges she has shamed them is not called murder.

Honour killings are murder, whatever the reasons attached.


[1] Wikan, U. (1984). “Shame and Honour: A Contestable Pair.” Man, New Series 19(4): 635 – 652. p 636

[2] Ibid. p638

[3] Shah, N. (1999). Women in revolt. Dawn. Karachi.

[4] Khan, T. S. (2006). Beyond Honour. Karachi: Oxford University Press. p 46

[5] Sen, P. (2005). ‘Crimes of Honour’, value and meaning. In L. Welchman & S. Hossain (Eds.), ‘Honour’: Crimes, Paradigms, and Violence Against Women. London and New York: Zed Books. p 48

[6] Mernissi, F. (1987). Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society (Revised Edition ed.). Bloomington: Indiana University Press. p 46-64

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