جلال فونديشن


                      An Afghan Women-led, Women-focused Organization






Dr. Massouda Jalal[1][1]



Honor killing is a sinister phenomenon that has a pre-Islamic origin.  In the context of Afghanistan, female- directed honor killing is the act of murdering a woman who is perceived to have brought dishonor to the family, usually   by her own brother, husband, father, or other relatives, regardless of whether the perception is valid or not.


Acts that Incite Honor Killings of Women in Afghanistan


Acts that are deemed to bring dishonor to the family and trigger honor killings are constantly changing.  In the old times, those acts commonly consist of marital infidelity, refusal to cooperate in pre-arranged marriage, sexual or romantic relations with a man other than a husband, loss of virginity before marriage, and breaking up of an engagement. The list of moral offenses multiplied through time to include even those that are not considered to be such in many societies, such as: working as an actress or announcer in visual media, engaging in social activism, running away from abusive husbands and in-laws, exercise of rights and freedom, and pre-marital courtship.  More unfortunately, even women who are victims of crimes and unfortunate circumstances - such as rape, molestation, forced prostitution, abduction, and abandonment by fiancee – also fall prey to honor killing nowadays. Baad, the practice of giving away of a girl/woman to appease a wronged party, remains part of Afghanistan’s tradition. Any woman/girl who refuses to be subject to this tradition could also be murdered in the name of saving her family’s honor. 


 Prevalence of Honor Killing: Then and Now


Honor killings have been widely pervasive in Afghanistan before and during the regime of the Taliban. The practice somehow ebbed down during the reconstruction decade that followed the US-led invasion in 2001.  Nevertheless, incidents of women’s incarceration in family cellars, female suicides, self immolation, and so-called accidental deaths continued to be reported which looked like modified or masked versions of honor killing. 


In 2011, the government began a peace process that brings back Talibans into the mainstream of society. Since then, newspapers began to report a resurgence of honor killing nationwide. The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission raised this alarm in a statement last October 2012, stating that 60 cases of honor killings were reported in the first six months of the Afghan calendar alone. This is an average of 10 honor killings a month, excluding the many more incidents in remote areas that happened without being reported.  The return of the Taliban appears to herald a message that it is “open season” once more in terms of women’s abuse and oppression.  Consequently, incidents of violence against women continue to rise, along with brazen and heinous forms of criminalities against women such as beheadings, lacerations, hangings, torture, public executions, and assassinations.

Women who escape honor killing are sent to prisons for ‘moral crimes’.  The Human Rights Watch’s report dated March 2012 states that even if official statistics are not publicly available,  its studies and work in three prisons show that there were approximately 400 women and girls who are imprisoned for “moral crimes”. They comprise about half of all women in Afghanistan’s prisons and virtually all of the teenage girls in juvenile detention facilities.  Many of these women prefer to remain in prison because they know that once they are released, they will be killed by relatives as punishment for bringing shame to their families.  Elopement and imprisonment both carries a stigma of immorality that, by tradition, justify honor killing.  Thus, women who run away from home or have stayed in prison stand very slim chance of having a fresh start in life with their families because they are either subjected to honor killing or get repudiated by them.


Key Factors that Sustain Honor Killings in Afghanistan


The practice of honor killing in Afghanistan is sustained by the confluence of numerous cultural, social, political and economic factors.


First, Afghanistan is an “honor and shame society”. Unlike many societies whose norms are determined by standards of what is “right and wrong”, Afghanistan’s culture is largely based on what is “honorable or shameful”.  In general, people do not think or behave according to what is right or wrong, but according to what will bring honor or shame.  In this country, honor is as precious as life, and when honor is lost (through shame), death is the only thing that will bring it back. In a paradigm of right and wrong, killing is altogether wrong.  But in a paradigm of honor and shame, killing of a person who brought shame is honorable, regardless of whether it is right or wrong.   Rape is wrong but in a society of honor and shame, rape is nothing but shame and those who are perceived to bring about shame are subjected to honor killing. The paradigm of honor and shame also explains why instead of killing a rapist who did wrong to a woman it is the rape victim who is killed.  The shameful consequence is more important than the wrong act that caused it.


This is also one of the reasons why the past decade of reconstruction and reforms in Afghanistan did not radically correct the maladies in the lives of Afghan women. The Constitution guaranteed women equal rights and the EVAW law made nearly all forms of violence against women punishable. The legal framework established what is right and wrong in a society that operates in a paradigm of honor and shame.  The ‘disconnect’ between these two paradigms left the law un-implemented and traditions dominating social transactions. 


Second, apart from traditions, lack of education among an overwhelming majority of the people makes them highly receptive to the influence of religious extremists who promote the ideology of patriarchy and women’s oppression.  In a society where women do not have a voice, they are objectified as material things that could be disposed in exchange for economic, political, and social gains. Extremist influence distorts the peoples’ notion of what is right and wrong, especially for women. For example, Afghan women are assumed to consent to forced marriage. When they do otherwise, they are deemed to bring shame to the family and have to be killed. Extremism also promotes a perverse perception of what is honorable and what is shameful. Thus, running away from home is regarded as disgraceful while killing a daughter is hailed as heroic and honorable.  


A third factor that contributes to the flourishing of honor killing is the continuing inability of the State to enforce the rule of law.  The policy and legal frameworks are relatively robust but the judicial apparatuses are inadequate and inept. Justice mechanisms that exist are unable to reach remote localities where honor killings are rampant. And those that are functional are run by men who either misconstrue traditional practices as Islamic or are influenced by the gender biases they were brought up with.  In a country of continuing armed conflict like Afghanistan, justice continues to flow in a very slow grind. In such a situation, survivors get victimized many times by the system and by those who are supposed to dispense justice and protect their rights. 


Possible Ways Forward


Clearly, Afghanistan must be exorcised of pathological extremist ideologies if honor killing is to be erased totally.    This is a difficult thing to attain but is not impossible, especially in the current context where former Taliban combatants are making a comeback as to communities  through the government’s peace program.  We need national leaders to champion a campaign for massive cultural transformation that will examine distorted interpretations of religious messages, school curricula, messages in media, and existing relationship structures and norms in all aspects of life.  We need a cultural re-birth where people’s minds and behaviors are transformed toward a way of life that embraces the rule of law, democracy, respect for human rights and non-violence.


Empowering women and making them active participants in such a process of cultural revolution is an imperative.  As long as women are silenced and disempowered, society will always treat them in a dehumanizing way that contribute to all forms of female-directed violence, including honor killing. In this connection, women’s networks and coalitions need to be supported to expand their outreach and implement women’s empowerment interventions, especially in hard- to- reach areas. Movement towards women’s empowerment should also be an agenda of government, social institutions, civil society organizations, as well as the business, religious and academic sectors.  It is not just a matter of enabling women to enjoy their rights. It is also a matter of building social foundations that will repel extremism and allow democracy, rule of law and non-violence to blossom through generations. Women who are in prison because of moral crimes should be relocated to a transition village while their respective families and communities undergo counseling and preparation to accept them back and help them begin a new life.  Released women prisoners need to be organized and linked with each other for mutual support and empowerment.


The government of Afghanistan is potentially the single biggest and most powerful force that could address the issue of honor killings in the short and long term periods.  In the short term, its national and local officials should come out in the open and run an aggressive information campaign declaring that honor killing is a heinous crime that is punishable under the law.  It should also undertake a high profile announcement about prominent people who committed honor killings and the punishments that each of them meted through the courts.  Information and advocacy against honor killing should be a mandatory content of messages by government officials to the people for a continuous period of two years.  Justice personnel should go through reorientation and gender awareness training and certain NGOs should be accredited to monitor the performance of the courts in the disposition of honor killing cases.   In the communities, peoples’ mechanisms should be established to support families who face crises related to dishonor and enable them to deal with the situation without resorting to lawlessness and violence.  Informal justice mechanisms must be capacitated to act in accordance with the provisions of the law.


At the international level, States must come together to recognize that honor killing is a heinous crime that deserve the severest form of punishment to the offenders.  They could forge an international covenant to eliminate honor killing within the next two decades, setting specific deliverables that include the institutionalization of data collection and management system, capacity development of formal and informal justice personnel, introduction of alternative ways of resolving issues of dishonor within families, cultural reforms, and the empowerment of women.  


There is nothing honorable about honor killing. It is plain murder which is anti human, anti Islam and anti rule of law.  Genuine honor does not need to be defended and killing in any form could never bring back a lost honor. It is more honorable to live a life of shame than to become a murderer of your kin and profess to redeem honor with it.

[1][1] Dr. Massouda Jalal is a political activist, former Minister of Women in Afghanistan, and founding President of Jalal Foundation, an NGO that brings together 50 women’s councils and NGOs to promote women’s advancement through advocacy, service delivery, capacity building and ground breaking projects.