22 December 2011

Shari’ah Law does not justify “honor killings”

By Jessel Costa, Juris Associate Editor
Over the course of the last decade, U.S. American interest in—or perhaps more accurately, U.S. American suspicion of—the Islamic religion has been piqued. As is often the case, this hunger for information has been fed by myth and conjecture more so than by factual analysis, and has ultimately given way to numerous misconceptions regarding Muslim fellow-citizens.

Some of the most far-fetched and wide-spread misconceptions regarding Islam concern the treatment of women within the religion; specifically, the idea pervades that Shari’ah can be used as a means to legally justify the killing of “dishonorable” female family-members.

Susan C. Hascall, Assistant Professor of Law at the Duquesne University School of Law, explains that these so-called “honor killings” are “murders committed by family members against persons who fail to conform to gender-based culturally prescribed norms of behavior. The vast majority of the victims are women and girls who are murdered for acting in ways that challenge their societies’ patriarchal dominance.” Examining the origins of the practice, Professor Hascall notes that “in clan or tribally based societies [which] evince extreme patriarchy, it is not unusual for the actions of women to be closely scrutinized for any deviance from the norms of female behavior [which] could reflect negatively on the ‘honor’ of the [woman’s] family–especially stains on [the woman’s reputation] related to chastity. It is from these patriarchal traditions and cultural patterns that honor killings emerged,” argues Professor Hascall, “and not from any particular religion.”

In fact, as Professor Hascall points out, “there is no support in Islamic law for the extra-judicial killing of persons in response to the perceived impact of that person’s behavior on the killer’s ‘honor.’ [Actually, these] ‘honor killings’ are condemned by the vast majority of Muslims and by all recognized Islamic scholars, except for a radical fringe minority.”

Nevertheless, Professor Hascall continues, “[those] who commit these murders sometimes refer to the ‘un-Islamic’ behavior of the victim[s] as the reason for the killing. This does not mean that Islam or Shari’ah sanctions these murders, or even that the actions of victims were in fact un-Islamic. On the contrary, such killings are clearly crimes under [the] Law and are themselves ‘un-Islamic.’ There is no credible support in Islam or in Shari’ah for honor killing.”

Looking toward the future, Professor Hascall suggests that “governments in Muslim-majority countries where these killings occur should be more active in prosecuting the murderers and passing legislation that would remove any possible [legal] defense based on ‘honor’ or traditional or tribal practices.” She also urges “police, attorneys, religious institutions and women’s advocacy groups in the West [to] become familiar with the special cultural circumstances that might put women at risk for this [specific] type of violence.

Professor Hascall further notes that “women who fear reprisals from family members for their dress, social life, refusal to marry, or professional ambitions should have safe places to turn to for assistance and counsel. Although rare and clearly against Shari’ah and the spirit of Islam, honor killings are a real threat to women in certain cultural enclaves. These women […] have a right to protection and the recourses they need to escape dangerous situations.” As one of the most culturally and religiously diverse nations in the world, it is uniquely important that Americans take the time to learn, understand, and respect those traditions, customs, and peoples that exist outside of our own milieu; it is equally important, however, that such understanding is not founded upon the misappropriated and hyperbolic philosophy of a radical, fringe minority.

Jessel August Costa III is currently a 3L at the Duquesne University School of Law. Jessel is an Legal Intern at the Pennsylvania Securities Commission as well as a Library Assistant at the Duquesne Center for Legal Information. Jessel earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Pittsburgh with majors in Philosophy and English Literature and a minor in History. Jessel will graduate in 2012 and can be reached at jesselcosta@gmail.com.