Francesca Jackson | Shortlisted | Nazir Afzal Essay Competition 2023

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

‘Honour’ abuse is the term used to describe crimes perpetrated against victims – predominantly women - because they are believed to have done something to bring shame upon their family or community, usually for reasons involving their sexual behaviour (Mazher Idriss, 2017). There is a long-standing and ongoing debate about whether honour abuse should be seen as different from other forms of domestic abuse. Whilst some commentators argue that ‘honour crimes are domestic abuse, plain and simple’ (Quereshi, 2012), others suggest that the two ‘differ significantly’ (Chesler, 2009). This essay argues that, despite overlaps, honour abuse possesses distinctive features which differ from other forms of domestic abuse and that acknowledging these features is key to understanding and evaluating risk and, therefore, to protecting victims.

It has been suggested that honour abuse is no different from other forms of domestic abuse (Aujla and Gill, 2014). Certainly, there are strong overlaps between the two. Notably, women are the primary victims of both types of abuse. For example, 1.3 million women in the UK experience domestic abuse, compared with just over 700,000 men (ONS, 2016). Likewise, the levels of female victimisation of honour abuse – whether it be ‘honour killings’, forced marriage or other cases reported to the police – are similarly substantially higher when compared with males (Idriss, 2017). Evidence also indicates that the psychological effects of both honour abuse and domestic abuse are experienced more profoundly by women (Ansara and Hindin, 2011).

Furthermore, both honour abuse and other forms of domestic abuse also exhibit similar behaviours and often involve controlling men with savage tempers and wounded egos (Xavier et al, 2017). For example, honour abuse seeks to punish women for exercising independent choice, with a spouse, usually a husband, dictating the lives of their partner and/or children (Xavier et al, 2017). Contrary to popular opinion, these kinds of patriarchal value systems resulting in control and violence are not limited to one particular culture. Rather, they are common to disparate social, cultural and ethnic groups and underpin other forms of domestic abuse. For example, the shocking and sickening acid attack that was perpetrated against white British woman Katie Piper was never described as ‘honour’ abuse, even though her dangerous, jealous and violent boyfriend was punishing her for having dared to try to leave him (The Guardian, 2014). However, media and policy responses have consistently viewed honour abuse as something part and parcel of, and unique to, South Asian and Middle-Eastern Muslim culture (Gill, 2014). As well as covering honour crimes in particularly graphic detail, media coverage will invariably explicitly describe their perpetrators and victims as Muslims in the headlines. TV coverage of veiled women is also showed to accompany these headlines, further ethnicizing and exoticizing honour abuse as something foreign and altogether different from domestic abuse (Ibid). This fails to acknowledge that violence against women and girls is a universal affliction and creates racial tensions by positioning gender-based violence as the unique preserve of the ‘other’ and contributing to the ‘us/them’ divide. (Churchill, 2018). This is particularly the case in a multicultural society like the UK, where singling out such violence as the unique preserve of South Asian communities draws acute attention to race, culture and religion and puts the ‘political spotlight’ on an already-ostracised immigrant population in the UK living within a pre-existing atmosphere of xenophobia (Eshareturi et al, 2014).

As a result, commentators have suggested that honour abuse should no longer be seen as different from other forms of domestic abuse, since both disproportionately affect women and involve similar behaviours (Xavier et al, 2017). It has also been suggested that ceasing to recognise honour abuse as an outlier would circumvent cultural explanations of honour abuse which locate the phenomenon within the ‘otherness’ of ethnic minority communities (Aujla and Gill, 2014). However, whilst there are clear overlaps, honour abuse does possess significant distinguishing features from other forms of domestic abuse which need to be acknowledged and understood, since they are key to identifying, assessing and managing those at risk (Payton, 2011).

The first main way in which honour abuse differs from domestic abuse is the motivation and justification behind the attack. As the name suggests, honour abuse draws on the concepts of honour and shame. Although there is no statutory definition of honour abuse (Gill, 2009), in the definition provided by the Crown Prosecution Service it is the element of honour which differentiates this form of abuse from other forms of domestic abuse: ‘an incident or crime which has or may have been committed to protect or defend the honour of the family and/or community’ (Crown Prosecution Service, 2019). In contrast, other forms of domestic abuse, such as Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) and rape, seem motivated not by honour and shame but by insecurity and lack of respect for the victim (Churchill, 2018: 15).

Secondly, the nature of the victim/perpetrator relationships further differentiates honour abuse from other forms of domestic abuse. The restoration of honour is often enacted for a ‘double audience’: as well as ‘terrorising’ women in the community against committing any similar transgression, members of the community are reassured of the worthiness of the family (Payton, 2011). In contrast, in other forms of domestic abuse a single perpetrator carries out a personal attack and attempts to hide – rather than publicise - their abuse (Idriss, 2017). Other forms of domestic abuse are also not carried out as a warning to others within the family or community like honour abuse is (Payton, 2011). This is a further illustration that honour abuse is not merely just another form of domestic abuse but is ‘a distinct phenomenon existing within its own parameters’ (Ibid: 73).

The third salient way in which honour abuse differs from other forms of domestic abuse is in the number of perpetrators involved. Domestic abuse currently has a very narrow definition which is limited to ‘domestic’ relationships (Siddiqui, 2005). As such, whilst domestic abuse can have ramifications on others, such as children who witness the abuse, it typically centres on one perpetrator and one victim (Idriss, 2017). By contrast, the CPS definition of honour abuse highlights that honour abuse can involve extended family and communities (Hester et al, 2015). Indeed, one of the ‘defining aspects’ of honour abuse is the involvement of a network of perpetrators (Eshareturi et al, 2014), as victims of honour crimes are 7x more at risk of experiencing abuse from multiple perpetrators than victims of other forms of domestic abuse (Imran, 2022). This feature of collective perpetration can be seen in numerous cases of honour abuse, such as Ghazala Khan, who was murdered by 9 members of her family in 2005, Banaz Mahmod, who was strangled to death by her father, brother and 3 other men in 2006, and Rukhsana Naz, who was strangled to death by her mother and brother in 1999 (The Guardian, 2019).

This leads onto the final key difference between honour abuse and other forms of domestic abuse: the participation of the extended family/ community. The involvement of multiple perpetrators results in a reduced support network for victims of honour abuse compared to other forms of domestic abuse. Whereas 65% of female victims of sexual abuse are likely to tell friends, relatives or neighbours about their experience, victims of HBV may not have this option, as many fear that all these individuals could be potentially complicit in the abuse (Khanum, 2009). For example, it was the unique breadth and sophistication of the networks involved in perpetrating honour abuse that enabled a local taxi driver who had been sent photographs by the family of a woman fleeing forced marriage to track her down and bring her back to her family (The Guardian, 2010). This demonstrates clearly that, in contrast to other forms of domestic abuse, honour abuse ‘cannot exist without reinforcement’ from the community in which it occurs (Churchill, 2018).

If they are to have any chance of success, responses to gender-based violence must be specifically tailored to address the local and cultural practices in which they are embedded (Churchill, 2018). Therefore, recognising that honour abuse is different to other forms of domestic abuse is needed in order to embed its unique characteristics into risk assessment models. For example, the collective power of a group of individuals determined to trace a fugitive in cases of honour abuse makes it very difficult to find a safe location for the potential victim (Ibid). Existing domestic abuse services are likely to lack the necessary training, resources or provisions to defend a victim from an entire network of individuals, since they are currently only equipped to protect a woman from a single abuser (Payton, 2011). Recognising that honour abuse is different from other forms of domestic abuse must of course be done without perpetuating the harmful racialised stereotypes outlined above (Idriss, 2017). However, it is possible to view honour abuse as different from other forms of abuse whilst simultaneously rejecting the argument that only particular communities perpetrate honour abuse, since ‘to be specific is not to be racist’ (Terman, 2010).

In conclusion, despite overlaps, honour abuse possesses distinctive characteristics which differ from other forms of domestic abuse. Understanding this in a culturally-sensitive manner is needed in order to help to identify unique risks and strategies needed to support victims.