Based on the international evidence, honour-based violence is gender violence driven by complex intersecting factors. These factors include collectivist notions of reputation (so-called ‘honour’ as an outcome of community estimations of masculine power to enforce feminine servility), heteronormative[i] and patriarchal control of sexuality and the subordination of personal agency to family and community reference-group.[ii][iii] These intersect significantly with aspects of the immigration and integration process. The results include intergenerational violence[iv] with cross-cultural frictions, shifts in customary gender hierarchies and spousal violence (e.g backlash at women as new principal earners in hitherto male-dominated households), and the obsessive concerns of some with retaining ‘status’ within the ethnocultural community in the new setting demonstrated via violent, pathological control over households, especially junior female members.[v]
With HBV, familial and communal actions are collectively geared to establish, assert and reassert control of women and girls, specifically their agency and decision-making abilities. This control is asserted primarily in sexuality and child-bearing (enforcement of so-called straight sexuality, premarital female virginity, strictly marital sex and pregnancy). Control of intimate lives extends to mode of dress, body language, movement, friendships, education, career, and property ownership.
The maintenance of control is linked to the public reputation of the controllers. It can take as little as a whiff of gossip to trigger violence intended to restore that control and warn others of the consequences of similar ‘infractions.’ If a girl’s behavior is seen to threaten control, that is, becomes publicly known, violence is deliberately planned and exercised to reassert control and to make it known to the sufferer and in the community that the status quo ante has been restored. The triggers of violence are many, e.g. gossip, refusal to dress in a certain way, refusal of a proposal, leaving a marriage, bearing girl children. In short, this could be anything that triggers hypermasculine rage and an array of violent actions to restore the patriarchal notion of the ideal status quo, i.e., unquestioned patriarchal control over women.
One needs to keep in mind that the triggers of violence and the violent actions themselves are not to be conflated with the deeper causes of HBV. These causes are located in structures of patriarchy, which are pervasive, globally endemic, invisible and extremely obdurate to change.
It is crucial to understand that honour violence involves multiple primary and secondary perpetrators [vi] (some of whom may not even be part of the family) often living in separate regions of the same country and even separate countries. This is the key difference between couple violence, intimate partner violence, and HBV: “… the number of perpetrators and the level of support they may receive from the wider family and community. While an abusive partner in a marriage or intimate relationship commits violence as an individual, HBV is related to the collective, familial control of women’s behavior” (Jackson 2015:4).[vii] Often, the defence of the collective reputation of the family/clan is used as a justification for the exercise of violence. Thus, in a case of HBV, there may be a large number of potential perpetrators and an even higher number of persons willing to collude in violent acts; these include men and women. Women who seek to consolidate their power and maximise their own security through such collusion. Quite often, a young minor male relative is delegated to commit femicidal violence, with the rationale that age will be an extenuating factor in a court of law. The other calculation is that there is less fallout for the perpetrating family when the person brought to book is a young unmarried male rather than an elder cousin or sibling who is married with children.
The large number of culprits is a “problem for protection agencies because it multiplies potential attackers, and in the case of prosecution, may present difficulties in gathering evidence, as there are few witnesses to testify” (Jackson 2015). HBV is distinct not for cultural reasons but because of the patterns of risk associated with a type of violence in which several people are complicit in aiding, abetting, tolerating, condoning and committing the violence. The enormous question is: what additional planning is needed to prevent, intervene and to rehabilitate when there are multiple sources of threat, when violence has cross border mobility, and when there is a heightened risk of carefully orchestrated violence?
Honour-based violence has complex and varied manifestations that may be described as a spectrum or continuum of violence, with so-called ‘honour’ killings (femicides) being the most extreme and well-documented, but not the most frequent examples. Other examples, spanning the life of a woman (and its pre-natal stages): sex-selective abortion (female feticide linked to the ‘honour’ of male births and the ‘burden’ of having girl children), violence to mothers bearing girls, female infanticide, denial of schooling and nutrition to girls, imprisonment at home, forced marriage, dowry extortion[viii][ix] from brides’ natal families and related murders of brides, virginity tests (linked to bride price payments[x]). In addition, violence may involve malicious rumour, ostracism, and various “forms of emotional abuse, such as threatening disownment, or to divorce the victim’s mother, amongst other threats to family members. Parents may feign illness, suggesting that the woman’s nonconformity is causing them to suffer physical harm” (Jackson 2015:3).
It is vital to note that HBV is intimately connected to the maintenance of heteronormative mores and structures of power. The sufferers of gender violence, whether HBV or other, are not women alone. HBV is profoundly homophobic and transphobic with sexual and gender minorities (LGBTTQQPIANU+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Two-Spirit, Queer, Questioning, Pansexual, Intersex, Asexual, Non-Binary, Unlabelled, and more) LGBT+ hereafter) being reviled, assaulted, evicted from homes, forcibly married as a ‘cure’, or killed. Despite the global prevalence of heteronormative violence against LGBT+ persons, despite their simultaneous marginalization and stigmatized and lethal hypervisibilization, the literature on HBV scarcely connects notions and practices of patriarchy (including the notion of male honour) to the expression and enforcement of violent heteronormativity. Instead, the overwhelming emphasis is on femicides in specific countries in the Global South or in specific diasporic communities in the Global North, and on explaining femicides through one-note culturalist approaches, whose limitations are explored below.
The word ‘culture’ is often used as a pat explanation for gender violence. Given that this form of violence is seen in East and South Asia, in the Middle East, in Europe, and in South, Central and North America – can we really identify a cultural uniformity of causes across the sites? Honour-based violence is misogynistic and heteronormative gender violence. It is inalienable from patriarchal institutions, attitudes and practices. Those institutions, attitudes and practices are collectively expressed and enacted. They shape individual lives and group dynamics, at home and beyond. Although culture and tradition are often identified as solitary causes of honour violence (often as rationalizing defence by the perpetrators themselves), the fact is that ‘culture’ per se is an inadequate explanation for violence, which is multi-causal. The context for violence and abuse – physical, financial emotional and spiritual – cannot be reduced to or explained by a single factor. Also, cultures are not homogeneous; nor is ‘culture’ the domain of so called ‘visible minorities’. A trenchant criticism of culturalist explanations of HBV is that they orientalise such violence, while masking the reality of collective heteronormative violence in the so-called Global North.
Moving away from culturalist explanations of HBV, we urge instead a close examination of three intersecting spheres in which heteronormative gender violence and patriarchal power are made, enacted and enforced. First, we may look at structures of society (e.g., legal landscapes, economies, politics, gender and power differentials as well as cultural norms) that allow such violence to occur. Second, we urge a scrutiny of pathologies of control operating in intensely patriarchal sociocultural enclaves (as often observed in diasporic settings). Finally, we urge exploration of how macro-level social structures and meso-level mechanisms of control enter and shape relational dynamics in specific families. Male-authoritarian family dynamics become linked to obsessive concerns with reputation and public image of being in control – leading to the exercise of violence, in which a male leader is aided and abetted by family members, quite often women. Sometimes women themselves are the leaders in violence. This is for diverse reasons, e.g. deeply internalized patriarchal bias, desire to gain authoritarian control, or desire to distance themselves from the target of violence so as to avoid similar punishment.[xi]
Approaching HBV via an ecological framework, an intersectional perspective, and a structural analysis
Gender violence, including HBV, cannot be ascribed to cultural causes alone; reliance on a single factor to explain something as complex as HBV is untenable. One should consider a more robust explanatory approach in order to understand and act against the structuration, occurrence, manifestations, prevalence and tenacity of the violence. We suggest an ecological framework[xii] (encompassing the individual/micro, familial/meso and societal/macro dimensions) with an intersectional perspective (encompassing gender, race, culture, immigration stresses, and the social and legal contexts from which immigrants arrive and into which immigrants are received[xiii]).
[i] Asquith, N. (2015). Honour, Violence and Heteronormativity. International Journal of Crime, Justice and Social Democracy, 4(3).
[ii] In sociological terms, a reference group provides people with the frames with which they evaluate, order and constitute their identity, experiences, personal attributes, values, actions, and social ties.
[iii] Caffaro, F., Ferraris, F., & Schmidt, S. (2014). Gender differences in the perception of honour killing in individualist versus collectivistic cultures: Comparison between Italy and Turkey. Sex Roles, 71(9-10), 296-318. Link.
Cihangir, S. (2013). Gender specific honor codes and cultural change. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 16(3), 319-333. Link
Cross, S. E., Uskul, A. K., Gerçek-Swing, B., Sunbay, Z., Alözkan, C., Günsoy, C., … & Karakitapoğlu-Aygün, Z. (2014). Cultural prototypes and dimensions of honor. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40(2), 232-249.
[iv] Petosic, T., Guruge, S., Wilson-Mitchell, K., Tandon, R., Gunraj, A., Robertson, A., … & Bauder, H. (2015). Intergenerational Violence: The Post-Migration Context in Canada. Link (p2) The phenomenon of intergenerational violence encompasses three areas: child abuse, violence between adolescents/youth and their parents, and elder abuse. … there are connections between the stresses of immigration in the post-migration context, socio-economic conditions, and violence. Structural factors and stresses stemming from immigration offer an interesting point from which to analyze the processes and effects of ageism, racism, and sexism. The effects of gender roles feature prominently across all three areas and require further analysis in the context of other oppressions. Gendered violence can pre-exist and may remain, shift, or begin in the post-migration context.
[v] Korteweg, A. C. (2012). Understanding honour killing and honour-related violence in the immigration context: Implications for the legal profession and beyond. Canadian Criminal Law Review, 16(2), 135.
‘Dowry-related violence is a serious problem that affects the lives of women and girls. Dowry includes gifts, money, goods or property given from the bride’s family to the groom or in-laws before, during or anytime after the marriage. Dowry is a response to explicit or implicit demands or expectations of the groom or his family. The United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women defines dowry-related violence or harassment as “any act of violence or harassment associated with the giving or receiving of dowry at any time before, during or after the marriage.’
Advocates for Human Rights, Stop Violence Against Women. (2010) Dowry-Related Violence. Link
‘The violence and deaths associated with dowry demands can constitute domestic violence. Similar to acts of domestic violence, the acts used in dowry-related offenses include physical, emotional, and economic violence, as well as harassment and stalking as means to exact compliance or to punish the victim. Women often struggle with bringing successful claims of dowry-related violence, as emotional and economic violence are difficult to prove in a court of law. However, dowry-related violence is distinct from domestic violence in that the husband or current partner may not be the only perpetrator of dowry-related violence or death. In-laws, former spouses, or fiancés may also commit acts of dowry-related violence. While dowry is practiced in many different of the world, dowry-related violence is most prevalent in South Asia, in the nations of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. The most common forms of dowry-related violence are battering, marital rape, acid throwing, wife burning, and other forms of violence. Perpetrators may also use methods of starvation, deprivation of clothing, evictions, and false imprisonment as a method of extortion. They often use violence disguised as suicides or accidents, such as stove or kerosene disasters, to burn or kill women for failing to meet dowry demands. Survivors of dowry-related violence often require similar services as survivors of domestic violence. These women will require transport to shelters, emergency services, support programs, and legal assistance.’
[x] Sev’er, A. (2012). In the name of fathers: honour killings and some examples from South-eastern Turkey. Atlantis: Critical Studies in Gender, Culture & Social Justice, 30(1), 129-145.
Petosic, T., Guruge, S., Wilson-Mitchell, K., Tandon, R., Gunraj, A., Robertson, A., … & Bauder, H. (2015). Intergenerational Violence: The Post-Migration Context in Canada. Link
(p 7) Examining violence in an ecological framework and from an intersectional standpoint can reconcile “cultural” and “structural” factors that may result in violence in immigrant families. Other overarching factors include immigration policies that emphasize economic migration and the financial commitment of sponsorship and deprioritize family reunion. Language also emerges as an interesting factor. For example, language can decrease isolation, improve employment opportunities, and act as a barrier to communication between parents and children, and to accessing services. Across all three areas of violence, “immigration stress” emerges as a potential source or accelerator of violence in immigrant families.
[xiii] Sokoloff, N. J., & Dupont, I. (2005). Domestic violence at the intersections of race, class, and gender challenges and contributions to understanding violence against marginalized women in diverse communities. Violence against women, 11(1), 38-64. Link