A GIRL befriends boys. What could be more normal and ordinary? Yet for doing just that a Turkish teenager was reportedly buried alive by her father and grandfather. This recent piece of news has been met with shock and outrage worldwide. Crimes such as this, however, are in no way exceptional.
Indeed, a Court in Arizona is currently hearing the case of a man accused of running down and killing his daughter whom he allegedly considered too “Westernized.” The United Nations estimates that 5,000 women are murdered by family members each year in so-called honour killings around the world.
When women are seen as the carriers of a family’s honour they become vulnerable to attacks involving physical violence, mutilation and even murder, usually at the hand of an “offended” male kin and often with the tacit or explicit assent of female relatives.
“Honor assaults” are carried out to “repair and cleanse” a breach of family or community norms, particularly when sexual conduct is involved. But triggers could also be a woman’s desire to marry or live with a person of her own choice, to divorce, or to claim an inheritance. At times, self-appointed “avengers” are prompted to act just on mere gossip and unsubstantiated suspicions. The perception of fault is even more important than its actual occurrence. Women are condemned to violent sentences without benefit of a hearing of their side of the story and without possibility of appeal.
This twisted logic and the violence it unleashes are pursued even when women have been the targets of unwanted male attention or have been the victims of rape, including incestuous violence. As a result, they are victimized twice while their aggressors’ behavior is condoned.
Often perpetrators can count on full or partial exoneration of penalty due to laws that are lenient or that are patchily applied. At times, the assailants may even end up basking in the admiration of their community for having stopped the errant behavior of a disobedient woman and erased its stain with blood.
But violent “honor attacks” are crimes that violate the right to life, liberty, bodily integrity, the prohibition against torture or cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment, the prohibition on slavery, the right to freedom from gender-based discrimination and sexual abuse or exploitation, the right to privacy, the obligation to renounce discriminatory laws and harmful practices against women.
It is both simplistic and misleading to think that these practices belong to retrograde cultures which disdain civilized conduct. The fact is that in all countries of the world women endure violence in spheres that are familiar to them and in which they should expect safety rather than assault. Honor attacks are steeped in the same attitude and stem from the same mind-set that also produces domestic violence. These attacks are rooted in the desire to control women and suppress their aspirations and voice.
Women are entrapped within their home walls by the isolation and powerlessness that violence builds around them. As a result, many assaults against women perpetrated in the domestic sphere remain shrouded in silence and shame rather than being denounced for what they are, that is, egregious human rights abuses.
Although women’s economic self-reliance may offer pathways out of societal constraints and domestic abuse and subjugation, violence against women has been on the increase even in countries where women have achieved financial independence and high social status. That forces some successful entrepreneurs, as well as respected parliamentarians, brilliant scholars and professional women to lead double lives. In public they are regarded as role models among the top echelons of society. In private they are humiliated and attacked.
The typical response to domestic violence is sending women to shelters and removing them from the environment in which they live. In contrast, perpetrators are seldom forced to leave or flee in shame and fear from their own dwellings or their social milieu.
Such approach must be reversed. There is a clear State responsibility to protect women, punish their attackers and make perpetrators shoulder the cost and consequences of their self-righteousness and brutality. This must be done, irrespective of the perpetrators’ situation in a society, their motivation, and their relationship to the victim.
At the same time, men and women, boys and girls must be educated about women’s human rights and everybody’s responsibility to respect the rights of others. This should include recognition of women’s right to control their bodies and their sexuality, as well as having equal access to inheritance, property, housing and social security.
Women are fighting back to ensure that change in attitudes occurs and is consolidated. They increasingly challenge their assailants to explain in court what exactly is honorable about their actions. Women increasingly demand that their tormentors too face the consequences of violence. We must support these courageous women. We must help others to come forward and shred the veil of silence and societal connivance that has allowed cultures of violence to take root.
The writer is the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights