Safia Sangster | Winner | Nazir Afzal Essay Competition 2023

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


In order to understand the nuances and distinctions that define ‘honour’ abuse it is important to contextualise it in a broader understanding of the contemporary UK domestic abuse policy and practice landscape. Whilst recognising the overarching challenges campaigners, practitioners and policymakers still face, there have been recent developments in the UK social and political sphere regarding how domestic abuse is perceived. In particular, the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 introduced key changes to UK legislation including diversifying domestic abuse offences to include post-separation coercive control and revenge porn, and introducing a ban on the use of the ‘rough sex’ defence. There is increased momentum to move away from a solely criminal justice focus on domestic abuse and recognise it as a public health issue (World Health Organisation, 2021) that is underpinned by unequal gender norms and patriarchal power structures that disproportionately impacts women (Hester, 2013; Myhill, 2017). A key difference between ‘honour’ abuse and other forms of domestic abuse is how it is perceived by public authorities and in mainstream discourse. Academic discourse and frontline specialist practitioners advocate the importance of aligning ‘honour’ abuse in the sphere of domestic abuse, as a nuanced issue with specific dynamics, but not separate from domestic abuse (Thiara & Gill, 2010). This paper will explore both the particular challenges and distinctions regarding ‘honour’ abuse as a form of domestic abuse and the differences in how it is approached by mainstream service providers, statutory authorities and policymakers.

Positioning ‘honour’ abuse in the broader framework of domestic abuse

Cases of ‘honour’ abuse in UK society are typically viewed and addressed through a cultural lens, rooted in stereotypes and assumptions about religious, cultural, and racial dynamics of particular communities, particularly Black and ethnic minority communities (Thiara & Gill, 2010). While there are specific manifestations that can occur, explored in further detail in this essay, ‘honour’ abuse is shaped by patriarchal community and family structures with strong gender and power dynamics (Altınbaş, 2013; Gill, 2014). Akin to other forms of domestic abuse, it can occur as deeply embedded coercive and controlling behaviour, isolation, physical violence, threats of suicide, and in extreme cases, ‘honour’ killings (Karma Nirvana). This context is integral to effectively tailor a systems-wide response that would uproot and tackle ‘honour’ abuse. The importance of taking intersectionality as a framework to understand the aspects in which ‘honour’ abuse differ is paramount as it underpins how ‘honour’ abuse fits into the wider picture of domestic abuse perpetration.

It is important to recognise that cultural and religious paradigms in which ‘honour’ abuse occurs play a key role compared to other forms of domestic abuse. However, these dynamics are often used by statutory services, particularly police and social services, to normalise ‘honour’ abuse and subject these victims to a form of ostracization or ‘othering’, by relegating their experiences discrete from mainstream British practices and views (Thiara & Gill, 2010). An investigation into the police response to sexual abuse victims from an ethnic minority background who were at risk of ‘honour’ abuse revealed that support workers, researchers and victims found police officers lacked cultural sensitivity or did not act on victims’ concerns for fear of negative community impact (HMICFRS, 2022). The findings suggest a lack of mainstream professional clarity that ‘honour’ abuse is unacceptable in any form. While there are nuances to ‘honour’ abuse, the issue deserves the same level of education, intervention, and victim support as other forms of abuse.

Understanding the nuanced challenges that distinguish ‘honour’ abuse

While there is systemic evidence and research gaps across all forms of domestic abuse, this challenge is particularly heightened in the case of ‘honour’ abuse. Due to a lack of evidence and reporting it is difficult to ascertain its true prevalence across the UK, with frontline specialist domestic abuse support services, academics and statutory authorities advocating the need for better data reporting (HMIC, 2015; Bates, 2021; Karma Nirvana, 2022). There is a particular stigma for victims of ‘honour’ abuse that prevents them from reporting abuse to the police, including a lack of trust and confidence in the police that their allegations will be investigated and not be dismissed as a cultural difference (Harrison & Gill, 2017). This is compounded by a deep-rooted history of racism in UK statutory services that sees the over-policing of black and ethnic minority communities and contributes to a resistance against interacting with these authorities (Phillips & Bowling, 2017; Home Affairs Select Committee, Parliament, 2021). Providing effective support for victims of ‘honour’ based abuse requires funding for evidence gathering and research into the prevalence of ‘honour’ abuse. In order to better support victims of ‘honour’ abuse, training for police and other statutory authorities that is led by specialist support services is needed to build trust and reassure victims that their claim will be investigated appropriately.

There are specific practices and nuances of ‘honour’ abuse that are distinct from other forms of domestic abuse. The complex, interrelated concepts of honour and shame function in the perpetration of ‘honour’ abuse as a response to a perceived shameful behaviour that has broken a familial or community norm, or to enforce conformity to an accepted community code of practice (Gill, 2014; Ridley et al, 2022). As well as practices typical of other forms of domestic abuse such as as coercive and controlling behaviour or physical violence, ‘honour’ abuse also encompasses, but is not limited to, practices of child and/or forced marriage, female genital mutilation, virginity testing or ‘honour’ killings. While all these forms of ‘honour’ abuse must be recognised and addressed as distinct forms of ‘honour’ abuse, it is important to position them within a wider spectrum of violence against women. There is a danger that by focusing solely on the types of ‘honour’ abuse that exemplify more stereotypically the racial or cultural aspects of the violence, such as a practice of forced marriage, it undermines ‘honour’ abuse victims that experience other forms of violence. For example, the mainstream media tend to highlight cases where an ‘honour’ killing has occurred, creating a dynamic in which only the high-harm instances are considered ‘honour’ abuse (Bates, 2021).

Furthermore, within both the mainstream public discourse and statutory responses regarding domestic abuse, there is an overwhelming focus on intimate partner violence. However, in cases of ‘honour’ abuse that are committed in complex patriarchal dynamics of honour and shame, it is common for perpetration to occur outside of this relationship binary. Often committed by multiple perpetrators, ‘honour’ abuse perpetrators can include immediate and extended family members, including mothers (Aplin, 2017). The implication of maternal figures in particular, is an image that jars with both modern and traditional perceptions of motherhood in the UK as caregiving, non-violent figures and therefore these perpetrators are not always investigated or recorded by police despite their direct implication in practices of ‘honour’ abuse (Aplin, 2017). Recognising the nuanced victim- perpetrator dynamics that occur in ‘honour’ abuse is key to effectively recognising and challenging of this type of abuse and supporting victims.


The patriarchal framework in which ‘honour’ abuse is perpetrated cannot be, and should not be, separated from the overarching gendered dynamic which encompasses all forms of domestic abuse. Understanding that ‘honour’ abuse reinforces unequal gender norms is key to ensuring that cases of ‘honour’ abuse are taken seriously and intervened in by statutory services and in wider public discourse. It is at the intersection of patriarchal dynamics with concepts of race and culture, which perpetuate harmful notions of shame and ‘honour’, that the differences in ‘honour’ abuse occur to other forms of domestic abuse. Through this lens it is then possible to authentically recognise and respond to the differences of ‘honour’ abuse and reduce the barriers that ‘honour’ abuse victims face to seeking support. While there is literature and research studies into the nuances of ‘honour’ abuse, including the perpetrator-victim relationships and types of abuse, the research and evidence is underdeveloped to form a complete picture of the contexts and conditions that ‘honour’ abuse occurs in. Stronger data and evidence would help to both provide support tailored to the needs of ‘honour’ abuse victims, and to reconcile the aspects in which perceived cultural differences prevent effective intervention by statutory authorities.