'Culture' Is Killing Girls

Naila Amin paints a picture of a village near the mountains, of cows lazily ambling through the fields that surround it, of dusty roads long-worn by horse buggies used by its inhabitants to get to market. Attock, Pakistan is the city she was born in, and the city she eventually returned to after being forced into a marriage with her cousin at the age of 13. 

“The girls there are not educated; they don’t go to school,” she says. “The men are not that educated, either.”

The next few scenes she describes are disturbing: running away from home at 15, finding her husband standing at the door with an AK-47 after being convinced to return, being brutally beaten and raped for dishonoring the family. Amin thought she was going to die.

It’s a story that’s not uncommon among women from conservative cultures where, too often, shaming the family can result in death.

Take the case of 28 year-old Samia Shahid. News broke early last week that Shahid, a British beautician, was murdered in Pakistan in the name of honor. Her family had initially claimed she had died of a heart attack, but her ex-husband, Chaudhry Muhammad Shakeel, confessed to strangling Shahid with a scarf after she refused to leave her second husband and return to him. Her father, too, is being considered an accessory to the murder. 

This is perhaps the defining characteristic of “honor” crimes, according to the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women: the victim’s family acts as a collective to harm or kill after feeling shamed due to their loss of control. And the victim is almost always a woman. Men are typically portrayed as unwitting accomplices to a woman’s unacceptable behavior.  

“If you’re a woman [in a conservative region] you have no rights,” says Amin. “We’re considered things, not human beings.”

There’s a certain kind of mentality needed to carry out an “honor” crime. The Human Rights Watch was absolutely correct when it asserted that such crimes are “based in male privilege and prerogative and women’s subordinate social status.” This privilege and prerogative is espoused by champions of centuries-old traditions in places like Asia, Africa, and South America. Where do these traditions stem from? Religion.

Customs like the Latin American machismo and the South Asian dowry enforce typical gender roles, especially emphasizing a woman’s duty to her husband. Given that she is neither intelligent nor physically strong, her primary duties are to act as a childbearing vessel and to please the man she marries. Thus arises the trend of premarital sexual purity being intricately tied to the concept of “honor”.

Zainab Khan, a women’s rights activist, lists a woman rejecting a forced marriage, wearing makeup or inappropriate clothes, or seeking divorce as some of the many possible infringements of this conservative perception of purity. “If a woman is deemed too ‘westernized,’ she is violating the predetermined and standardized role set out for her,” Khan says.

This role is explored in the award-winning documentary The Price of Honor, which chronicles the story of Sarah and Amina Said. The sisters, 17 and 18, were fatally shot in what is said to be an “honor” killing carried out by their father. It is because of this idea of male dominance that Xoel Pamos, the film’s director, calls honor-based crimes “not a women’s issue but a men’s issue.” Theoretically, the traditional perpetrators of these crimes must be the ones to end them. But this is easier said than done.

Religions, from Christianity to Islam, originated in patriarchal societies and the language of their texts reflects that. At face value, these texts promote a very particular, dichotomous culture of powerful men and passive women. Yet over the course of time, this interpretation changed as new discoveries and ideas came to light- except, it seems, in areas of Latin America, South Asia, and North Africa, where the cultures and approaches to religion have done nothing except stagnate or regress in the last fifty years.

What these regions have in common is the tumultuousness of their governments. Whether they are war-torn, authoritarian, or simply corrupt, the environments are not conducive to questioning and to debate, both of which are necessary to kick-start more modern, liberal ways of thinking. That’s why we’re seeing men and women in Venezuela attempt to embody the Catholic ideals of yore. That’s why we’re seeing men and women in India recreate the practices of centuries ago. 

The key to religious reform, and hence cultural reform, is education. Pamos believes the focus should be on teaching girls about human rights. “Women in marginalized communities must understand that it is not okay to be treated as property,” he says. This will be difficult in areas where free speech is more than just frowned-upon. But advancing educational opportunities through NGOs is a great, preventative first step.

The UN’s Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), said to be an international “Bill of Rights” for women, must be more strictly enforced. The 189 member states which have ratified it should strive to reassess its implementation in high-risk areas like South Asia, which sees about 2,000 honor killings annually. Additionally, a reassessment of municipal approaches to gender-based violence could do a world of good in communities where officials often turn their heads to these crimes.

An unfortunate reality is that the U.S., because of its lack of comprehensive laws, is abetting primitive mentalities. We join the ranks of Iran and Sudan as part of six UN member states to not ratify CEDAW. And too many U.S. citizens are sent to other parts of the world for “vacation” whilst actually being subjected to unwanted marriages or genital mutilations.

There is no room for lackadaisical approaches to these issues, not when lives are at stake. We must immediately pass the Zero Tolerance for FGM Act of 2015 and the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA). These pieces of legislation would force government agencies to reassess the status of girls in at-risk immigrant communities in the U.S., as well as increase activity to combat gender-based violence abroad. We must immediately accede to CEDAW. And we must immediately end our habit of tip-toeing around discussions about the treatment of women in foreign cultures. A culture that does not respect women does not deserve to be respected.

Naila Amin eventually left Pakistan, and her husband, for good in March of 2005. Now a student in Long Island, New York, she recently started the Naila Amin Foundation in the hopes of providing a safe haven for women and girls fleeing forced marriages. But there are approximately 13 women a day who forever lose the opportunity to escape a suffocating existence when they are murdered in the name of honor. 

To be punished for wrongdoing is one thing. To be punished for something one has no choice in is another. Honor-based crimes represent the evisceration of female independence and being, of women being punished for being women. And those of us who have had the privilege of avoiding this fate, whether by virtue of geography or gender, ultimately bear the responsibility of permanently ending it.