Honor Killing

Salman Masalha


There is not a single Arab locale in Israel or abroad that has not experienced murders in the context of what is known as “family honor.” Weak-minded Arab intellectuals try to minimize the important of these deeds with various claims, including the comparison of “family honor” killing with the crime passionel, murder provoked by romantic love or jealousy, which have always been known to human society. I will return to the matter of “romance” later.

No one has tried to investigate this appalling phenomenon in Arab society among Muslims, Druze and Christians. All too often we hear about such murders and we say nothing. But the nothing in the mouths of the Arab intellectuals turns into blood. The rivers of blood will continue to flow as long as many strata of Arab society, from the clerics who are trained in “Thou shalt not kill” to the intellectuals of the various communities, do not gather their courage and speak out resoundingy in their societies.

There is no basis in religion or canon law for these murders. Neither Islam nor its Druze offshoot permits horrible murder of this sort, and neither does Christianity, certainly (nor Judaism). Nonetheless these murders have always occurred in Arab society. How is it possible that at the end of the 20th century Arab public figures and elected office-holders like mayors and municipal council members, or newspaper editors and poets, dare not full-throatedly condemn this appalling phenomenon? (“It is uncomfortable” for them to denounce it, they say.) And how is it possible that there are Arab journalists and “intellectuals” who decry “rebelliousness” when they discuss the latest incident in Daliat al Carmel and who see a woman’s freedom of choice as “social and moral rebellion?” In face of these forces of darkness, there are a few bright spots, such as Muhammad Naffa and Knesset Member Saleh Salim, both of Hadash, who have clearly condemned the murder and also the tough editorial on the issue in the newspaper Al-Ittihad.

But again: What is the source of these immoral traditions? To answer this question it is necessary to examine the vague concept known as “Arab honor” from another perspective. Ever since it came into the world, back in the period before Islam, Arab society has been a tribal society. The tribe is the only political unit the value of which supersedes any other value – such as homeland or country or any other social system. The honor of the tribe supersedes a person’s value as an individual and therefore the attitude towards the individual’s life is dubious.

Islamic ideology declared war on, among other things, the Arab tribal tradition but its success in this was limited to a brief period. Resurgent tribalism wiped out all of the cultural achievements of Islam in the Middle Ages. The Arab society of today continues to conduct itself according to purely tribal criteria and every Arab village constitutes a kind of microcosm of the Arab world as a whole.

In a tribal society the human being, the individual, is not the supreme value and this is also true in a society based on religious monotheism. In both instances there are entities that are above the human being. In the one case it is the tribe, with all its values, and in the other it is God. Between the two of them the individual loses his honor and in may cases also his life.

And this is is not only a tribal society. It is a male tribal society, with all this implies. In such a society there are weak links. The first weak link is the individual, but the woman is an even weaker link. When the ideologies – tribalism and monotheism together – deny human beings, individuals, their existence as autonomous entities who act in accordance with universal human values, the individual finds himself – or herself –deprived of human dignity.

And because Arab society is a male tribal society, it denies the Arab male his dignity and honor as an individual and leaves him only one escape route, a route by means of which he tries to seek his lost honor in the weakest link of all, which is the Arab woman. More precisely, his honor and dignity lie between the legs of his daughter, his wife and even his mother, who want to be free individuals in control of their own selves and their own bodies.

In these murders there is indeed an element of the romantic crime passionel, but no one has dared to discuss this point publicly as it really is. It works like this: The tribe – social or religious – constitutes a kind of small national unit. Its primary value is to marry within the tribe and preferably – within the most proximate link, with a cousin. When inter-clan marriages take place, this is perceived as the establishment of relations between two nations (and therefore commerce in brides exists among different clans). However, marriages to other clans take place only in the absence of an alternative.

The male is the property of the tribe, and the woman is the property of the male, and in the profoundest way: She is the property of her brother, her father, her son. When an Arab man rises up and murders his daughter – or his sister, or his mother – he is giving expression to his “romantic” jealously in this way. He is jealous – because she has freed herself from his hands, she has betrayed him. The Arab male, in the depths of his soul, wants to maintain his romantic connection with the woman who is related to him. However, since the social taboos are so strong, he directs his property – his mother, his sister, his daughter – to the male who is closest to him. Only in this context is it possible to understand the frequency of marriages between relatives in Arab society.

In order to exit this bloody social cycle it is necessary to establish the human being, the individual, as the primary concern of Arab society. It is necessary to restore to the Arab male his personal honor and dignity as an individual – it is the denial of this that has made him a potential murderer. It is necessary to re-educate Arab society in all its tribes and branches, and this is the first thing that needs to be done by Arab public figures, academics and intellectuals if they truly aim to build a modern society with universal values. Their silence or their professions of understanding for “honor killings” makes them complicit in grave crimes. My place is not with them.
Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden

Published in Haaretz Magazine, October 27, 1995

For Hebrew, press here.

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