Anjuli Kaul | Shortlisted | Nazir Afzal Essay Competition 2023

How is ‘honour’ abuse different from other forms of domestic abuse?


In 2003, Shafilea Ahmed was murdered by her parents at age 17 after enduring years of abuse at their hands. Her parents felt that she had dishonoured her family by wearing western clothes, being friends with boys and refusing to marry the man they chose for her [1]. Shafilea’s tragic story is one of many others who experience honour-based abuse (HBA). In 2022, there were 2,887 HBA-related offences recorded by the police in England and Wales [2]. In order to effectively identify and support victims of HBA, we must first understand the distinct nuances that separate HBA from other forms of domestic abuse (DA).

Definition of HBA

HBA is defined as “a collection of practices, which are used to control behaviour within families or other social groups to protect perceived cultural and religious beliefs and/or “honour” [3]. Whilst there is no specific offence for HBA under UK Law, the term encompasses a range of other legislative offences including forced marriage, coercive control, abandonment (e.g., forcing someone to leave the country or leaving them there), physical abuse and more.

Whilst HBA may include other typologies of DA, such as physical, psychological or financial abuse, they are considered to be only “cosmetically similar” with a deeper exploration revealing differences in aetiology and outcomes [4].

Motives: shame and honour

One of the biggest distinguishing aspects of HBA is the central role of honour and shame as motives in the abuse perpetration. The term honour takes on a broad range of meanings in different cultures but is generally considered to be a virtuous trait describing the fulfilment of an individual’s duties to a social group, of which the social group approve [5]. These duties are determined by socio-cultural beliefs, which members of a community are expected to adhere to. In the context of HBA, these cultural norms are heavily rooted in patriarchal ideations of men and women’s roles in society, and therefore expectations of honourable behaviour are usually asymmetrically applied to women [6]. In practice, the notion of honourable behaviour seeks to regulate women’s sexual behaviours and their conformity to social traditions [7]. Examples of honourable behaviour include wearing modest clothing, sexual “purity” and obedience to the family [8]. Deviation from these social expectations is seen to bring shame on both the victim, their family and their community, and HBA is subsequently employed as either a corrective or punitive measure to maintain the social status quo and protect the perpetrators’ reputations [8-10]. It is these motives of social shame and perceived honour that make HBA distinct from other forms of DA where the abuse typically takes place within the context of a closed relationship [11].

Role of cultural norms

Cultural norms play a unique role in HBA compared to other forms of DA. In addition to creating the social code of honour, these norms also create an environment in which HBA is normalised. Oftentimes, HBA is associated exclusively with particular ethnicities and religions which can perpetuate racial stereotypes and alienate different communities [12]. Instead, HBA can be understood to occur in any community with a collectivist honour culture - that is a community with strong social ties to one another, socially and/or religiously conservative ideologies, and entrenched patriarchal norms which facilitate the perpetration of violence against those that don’t conform [8, 9]. Cultural clashes between younger and older generations can also contribute to HBA, particularly in instances where the younger generation is raised in a more socially liberal environment than their culturally conservative elders [13].

These cultural norms serve as unwritten laws not only to restrict women’s behaviours but to place men in a dominant and authoritative role where they are expected to discipline women who transcend them [10, 14]. Cultural expectations play such a central role in HBA, that they may override feelings of familial love and empathy for women and girls in the community, shown in its most extreme form in instances of honour killings [8]. Although patriarchal norms are also significant contributors to other forms of DA [15] it is the particularly potent role of this collectivist honour culture that differentiates HBA [8].

Role of the community

Community involvement in perpetrating the abuse is a further unique characteristic of HBA. Shared understandings of collectivist honour place the responsibility of upholding it with members of the community. Consequently, in many cases of HBA, perpetrators are extended family members and/or members of the wider community, who feel duty-bound to act as judge, jury and in some cases executioner in the punishment of the victim. Perpetrator plurality is also more common in HBA, where multiple individuals conspire to enact violence against the victim [11]. This is unlike other forms of DA where the perpetrator is often a single individual - most commonly an intimate partner [16] - who does not exhibit the same collective approach seen in HBA.

Perpetrator and victim characteristics

The perpetrator and victim characteristics in instances of HBA further separates it from other forms of DA. DA is a form of gender-based violence, with a higher prevalence of female victims and male perpetrators [16]. HBA is similar in this regard, however, in HBA there is a higher proportion of female perpetrators than in other forms of DA, with women constituting 14% of defendants in HBA trials compared to 8% of defendants in DA trials [11, 17]. This may be due to the role placed on women in honour-based cultures to enforce the same patriarchal standards that were placed onto them.

Additionally, some evidence suggests that victims of HBA tend to be young adults when the abuse begins. For instance, some offences associated with HBA such as female genital mutilation and forced marriage have a significant proportion of victims who were under the age of 18 years old when the abuse took place (98% and 35% respectively) [18] Although HBA undoubtedly affects women of all ages, it is likely that in many cases HBA start at a young age as a result of a conservative familial environment, and continue into adulthood [11].

Limited data suggests that HBA is most prevalent among South Asian and Arab women [19]. This may be because South Asian and Arab communities tend to be more collectivist cultures and have widely known social concepts around family honour. However, victims of all ethnic backgrounds can and do experience HBA [20], and some scholars argue that it is most captured in these cultures due to a longer running conceptualisation and feminist activism around HBA [11].

Barriers to help seeking

HBA is chronically underreported, making it difficult to understand the true scale of the problem. This underreporting stems from the many unique barriers that victims of HBA face in accessing help and support.

The acceptance of HBA at a familial and community level can inhibit victims from recognising their abuse, identifying safe contacts of support and disclosing their abuse to others [21]. Women experiencing DA are less likely to seek help if they are from communities with stronger patriarchal beliefs and where familial abuse if normalised [6]. One study found that a high proportion of HBA victims felt their abuse “wasn’t that serious” and therefore they did not feel it was appropriate to reach out for support [21]. In communities where HBA is normalised, victims may also perceive service providers, the police or other agencies as outsiders who may not understand their situation or their culture [22]. Additionally, victims may be fearful of dishonouring their families or being further ostracised from the community by disclosing their abuse to others [21-23] - values that are often instilled into them from a young age.

The public perception that HBA is specific to certain ethnic backgrounds also has consequences for victims of HBA. Support services designed to help victims of abuse may feel ill-placed to intervene if they are worried about appearing culturally or racially insensitive [24, 25]. HBA survivors have also reported feeling that certain agencies such as the police did not understand the family and community dynamics involved in HBA, leaving them ill-equipped to effectively support them [8].


HBA is distinct from other forms of DA in numerous aspects, including the role of honour and shame in the motives of the perpetrators, the role of patriarchal cultural norms in normalising the abuse and restricting women’s freedoms, and the role of the community in facilitating and enacting HBA. Much of the importance in recognising HBA as distinct from other forms of DA lies within the need to recognise the unique lived experience of HBA victims and the different barriers they face in seeking support. It is only once these nuances are better understood that support services can better identify and improve the response to victims of HBA.