A question of honour

Understanding domestic violence can be a tricky business for
researchers. Although the number of studies on violence against
women has increased in recent years, basic questions on definition
remain. The Home Office defines domestic violence as encompassing a
wide range of abuse, the most serious resulting in murder. It
includes physical, sexual, emotional and financial

However, this definition can be problematic within other
communities and cultures, who may view violence between couples and
members of a household differently. For example, forced marriages
involve the lack of free and full consent of at least one, if not
both, parties to a marriage, and could be regarded as part of the
sphere of violence against women which also includes domestic
violence and “honour killings”.

Understanding how and why these incidents occur in these
communities requires an understanding of the larger belief systems
within which they take place. My own research, based on interviews
with south Asian women from east London, reveals that contrary to
the conventional idea of domestic violence abusive acts are not
limited purely to physical abuse. Nor are they limited to a
particular relationship, such as between husband and wife. South
Asian women encounter violence not only from their partners but
also from members of their extended family.

Recurrent themes emerge from the narratives of the women, revealing
the differences between their own definitions of domestic violence
and showing how some continue to play down the levels of violence
they experience. Many women spoke of a chronic failure of the
family and the south Asian community – as well as external agencies
– to provide support and assistance.

The study revealed that issues around “shame” and “honour” were
crucial. Here it is necessary to examine the izzat (Urdu
word for honour) of a family – particularly males’ honour – which
translates into social power and ensures them a dominant place in
the social hierarchy of the community.

In the concept of izzat, it is mainly incumbent upon women
to maintain and increase the male or family honour. Any digression
from this code, whether real or alleged, bears grave consequences
for the woman. Amnesty International reports that these could vary
from unpleasant gossip to her chances of marriage being ruined, or
being beaten or even killed by her immediate male kin.2

Women are also at risk from non-family-members who feel their
honour has been undermined. Early this year in Birmingham, Sahda
Bibi was murdered in the name of preserving the “honour” of a man
who, according to news reports, was incensed by her family’s
decision to reject a proposed union with a member of his own
immediate family.3

Maintaining honour requires constant effort by individuals and
groups to avoid the state of shame (sharam) at all costs.
It is important to note that what is honourable and worthy of
izzat relates to the whole group and its social and
economic standing. The phenomenon is dynamic because izzat
is constantly fluid and ever-changing, reaffirmed in practice and
reinforced in action.

As repositories of a family’s honour, women are at particular risk
of “honour killings”. Rukhsana Naz, 19, of Derby was murdered by
her mother and brother in 1998 after her mother discovered she was
pregnant outside marriage. A woman who is suspected of meeting or
talking to a man to whom she is not married or engaged is assumed
to be having illicit relations and may be killed by members of her

The murder of Anita Gindha, 22, of Manor Park, east London, has
reportedly prompted the Metropolitan Police to treat honour
killings as a legitimate line of enquiry.4 Other
examples of honour killings include cases where disputes between
men have led to violence against women as a way of taking revenge
against each other.

The issue of honour killing is not limited to south Asian society
and occurs in many cultures and countries. However, the
perpetrators of honour killings are often seen as victims who were
simply doing what they could to protect their honour. The research
by Amnesty International already mentioned suggests that
perpetrators of honour killings in Pakistan, for example, are often
treated leniently by the judicial system where a threat to a man’s
honour is considered a sudden and grave provocation. Such
“provocation” almost always reduces the crime from murder to
manslaughter, allowing the perpetrators lenient

The practice of associating women and their behaviour with men’s
honour and power reinforces men’s right to control women through
any means necessary. Thus, if the loss of control over one’s own
wife, sister or daughter is seen as shameful, then the very act of
maintaining control may be interpreted by the perpetrator as an act
of honour itself.

The concept of honour is complex and constantly evolving. It seems
to have broadened out from “improper behaviour” for women and girls
to include other acts of self-determination – acts which may be
perceived as challenges to traditional norms. This has resulted in
increased violence against south Asian women, both inside and
outside the home.

The government has responded by developing best practice guidelines
for legal services, including identification by the police of key
issues which they face in dealing with victims or potential victims
of forced marriages and domestic violence in the south Asian
community. The community liaison unit at the Foreign Office is
working on guidelines for social workers on forced marriages, and
the Metropolitan Diversity Directorate is investigating the growing
phenomenon of honour killings in the UK. Such interest in the needs
of ethnic minority families suggests a commitment to social
inclusion. As the Department of Trade and Industry says in a
report: “We want to see a Britain where there is increasing
empowerment; where attitudes and biases that hinder the progress of
individuals and groups are tackled; where cultural, racial, and
social diversity are respected and celebrated.”6

But will this go far enough towards providing much-needed resources
for south Asian women and in addressing violations of their
fundamental human rights? Statutory agencies such as social
services – despite a growing appreciation of the importance and
relevance of cultural context in understanding violence against
these women – need to consider these contextual factors when
examining how Asian women make decisions to stay or leave abusive
relationships. In the case of forced marriage such agencies need to
consider the complex nature of this phenomenon.

Just as there are multiple causes of violence, there are multiple
factors which affect a woman’s response to such abuse. In any
recommendations made by the government steering group on forced
marriages, social services must be sensitive to the multiple
realities, including psychological and social factors (honour and
shame), which contribute to the responses of south Asian women to

Aisha Gill is lecturer in criminology at the Centre for
Social Justice, Coventry University. This article is based on a
doctoral research project. Questions or comments can be directed to
the author at:



1 C Mirlees-Black,
Domestic Violence: Findings from a New British Crime
, Home Office research study 191, 1999

2 Amnesty International,
Pakistan: Honour Killings of Girls and Women, Amnesty
International, 1999

3 M Cahal, “Bride killed on
wedding day ‘for choosing first love'”, The Independent,
13 January 2003

4 A Arifa, “Death of woman
may have been an ‘honour killing'”, The Independent, 25
February 2003

5 Human Rights Watch,
Crime or Custom? Violence Against Women in Pakistan, Human
Rights Watch, 1999

6 Department of Trade and
Industry, Equality and Diversity: The Way Ahead, DTI,

Further information Newham Asian Women’s Project advice
line is on 020 8472 0528.

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