We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

The great cruelties of "honor" killings & a tired frightened courageous heroine · 15 February 09

Dear Friends

One of our members on WomenWriters through the Ages at Yahoo contributed this posting two days ago:

“One of the leading articles here today is the sentencing of an Afghani to life imprisonment for the exceptionally brutal, so-called ‘honour’ killing of his sixteen-year-old sister. Here is an earlier description of the crime and its circumstances. This man stabbed his sister 23 times and still seems to have expected the court to believe that he never meant to kill her.

This sentence in the real world comes just a few days after a fictional portrayal of an initially supposed “honor” killing in a Turkish milieu in a prime time crime series that is something of an institution here in Germany. I found it both disturbing and disappointing to watch, especially as it was co-authored by two women you might have expected more of: Seyran Ates, a lawyer of Turkish origin and well-known campaigner for (Islamic) women’s rights, and Thea Dorn, who writes feminist detective stories.

After descending into broad cliché to show how even an apparently assimilated, well-educated and well-to-do Turkish family could still be full of ultra-conservative machos and a coldly complicit mother forcing a younger sister into the same arranged marriage to a drunken country bumpkin her elder sister had rejected some years earlier for a western lifestyle, the writer team seemed to want to run counter to said cliché by having it turn out that it was this younger sister, and not the father or brothers, who had in fact killed the elder because she had refused the hypocrisy of performing a hymenoplasty to cover up the bride’s illicit affair. To top it all, she also killed the young Turkish lesbian lawyer who had helped her sister make her initial escape and who was in the know.

If you’re asking yourself why lesbian, and thinking the plot was unnecessarily overloaded in general you’d be right. Seen charitably, you might think the writers were trying to show how the pressure of such an upbringing could warp and deform female character as well, but ultimately the programme sent out such a batch of mixed signals, the spectator was left out of sympathy with just about everybody, especially the writers.

I think Ates chose a failed platform here to continue to spread her ideas after sadly having to give up her civil rights practice in response to further violence to herself and threats to her family. Here are a couple of essays which explain her perspective: “Turkish women in Germany lose an advocate, “Tolerance for the Tolerant, plus a German site with a still of the confrontation between the striking Turkish mother and woman detective.”

I answered as follows:

I am very much moved. There are no words adequate to capture this horrifically cruel behavior to women. Its equivalent is female genital mutilation (see “Mutilating Women for Life”.

Apparently the use of lesbian tendencies or orientation for a character is an automatic slur in popular media. In Clarissa 1991 (the abbreviation I’ve come to use for the 1991 BBC mini-series Clarissa I’m writing about) there are gestures which suggest that the madam of the brothel, Mrs Sinclair, has sexual relations with her prostitutes and they with her. This is probably intended to damn her further.

It’s hard to know where to respond or what to say. Among other
things, the accusation of feminists as man-haters has I think been
very effective in killing the movement once again (2nd and 3rd phase feminism both, even if 3rd phrase went right back to glorifying motherhood). Women are afraid of this lest they lose out in the quest for a (kind and good even if they might not recognize this) man who will provide for them monetarily and socially. And since the movement in the middle ages in Europe which first began to give women minimal rights to respect, and then probably a partial result of capitalism and the Enlightenment both gradually gave them real rights to bodily integrity, free movement, property, their children, life hasn’t been as bad as it can be for women in traditional and muslim cultures.

Which gets me to what I want to say: I’m struck by the paragraph which feels sorry for men as brought up to be twisted and murderers. To me the tone gets it wrong. Coming out of my knowledge of the 18th century I often feel that the aristocratic males in particular, then were brought up to be gross egoists when it came to their relationships with others: to be violent, utterly selfish, and domineer over everyone else. This to protect the private property and rights system for the advantage of the few. The “libertine” is just an exaggerated version of this kind of male deliberately fostered in the system and someone De Stael shows us is just unredeemable, not changeable back ever. Well now in Muslim countries this is what happens to young men; they are all brought up to be harsh egoists, macho, competitive, aggressive.

Here is this family weeping for this thug who murdered his sister. Throughout they supported him and now they wail that he is being put away, and I suspect he’s being put away as much for all his
other crimes as this final flagrant murder of his sister. It reminds me of Hyde in RLStevenson’s Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde trampling people to death, beating a man to death by a club.

And one of the articles shows that beating women is encouraged as a way to get them to “obey their husbands.”

Here in the US women suffer because a macho male image is continually overtly encouraged. We saw it during the Bush years. I am so relieved it has disappeared from the public media of Obama’s government or at least been marginalized. In little or softer I see this around me in people’s bringing up of their children. Next door to us for a while we had a neighbor who had adopted two children. The boy was never discouraged from doing aggressive asocial acts to other neighbors. It was “boys will be boys.” Not so. As Simon Raven (in a remarkable article on militarism in British culture) says boys are made into boys. I saw the father in particular never put anything he did down; he could tease his sister and take the bike and that was fine. We had to forgive him, didn’t want to hurt his spirit.

This is what is sometimes meant when people lament that a boy
became homosexual and fear “they” are to blame: they didnt bring him up “manly” enough. And forcing boys who are not this way naturally shaming them goes on too. In my cousins I saw some ridicule of one cousin who would become a scapegoat when among groups of boys.

It’s in these little daily nuanced customs and habits that one sees
the origins of this and most of us can only see this in family and few friends.

The ultimate result is such a movie on TV as Fran has shown
us. To refer to my other email today, I’ve just had the irritating
experience on a listserv to see a woman deliberately erase, diss, and dismiss a good feminist book, probably lest she be connected to anything that connects to such a book.

Poor unfortunate young woman who was murdered in such a heinous way. Yes one must see Seyran Ates in context. Reading Iran Awakening was salutary experience. It made me respect Nafisi (Reading Lolita in Teheran more not less. One of Ebani’s chapters was a defense of herself for not educating her daughters outside Iran and not protecting them that way. In fact I think at least one if not both now no longer live in Iran; in order to lead modern fulfilled lives and be safe they had to leave.

Our friend responded by first quoting my paragraph:

“Here is this family weeping for this thug who murdered his
sister. Throughout they supported him and now they wail that he is being put away, and I suspect he’s being put away as much for all his other crimes as this final flagrant murder of his sister.’

And then writing:

“Yes, I tend to agree, and those pictures of weeping and wailing – not for the murdered daughter, but her murderer – were what all the German TV news stations were showing throughout the day yesterday, together with the family’s attempts to attack court personnel and media after the sentence.

What that Irish newspaper story didn’t mention and which came out in the trial is that Morsal had also been the victim of repeated violence at the hands of her father and mother, so, as Ates suggested, in this case it was indeed the family home which helped create the mindset in the son and the conditions that led to this horrible crime. The parents have evidently remained incorrigible to the end.

Another disturbing aspect to me was that, although the prosecutor managed to show evidence of premeditation in the death threats prior to the deed and the way the brother lured his sister away for the attack, media comments after sentencing suggested manslaughter, not murder, would have been the fairer result. Again as Ates suggests, and I’ve mentioned before, it really does seem as if German society sometimes seems to want to fall over backwards in being tolerant of the ultimately intolerable. However, this is perhaps not so surprising psychologically and politically, given the fatal results of massive intolerance in the past.”

And then one of another of our members added a note to the effect “if this can be even slightly cheering…

“When she was less than twenty, Sherazad, a young Pakistani girl was promised and engaged by her family to a Pakistani man more than ten years his elder. When she declared she would not marry him, she received menaces from him (the family was not mentioned) but she did not believe he would act them.

Unfortunately, one day she was in front of her home, the man threw oil (gas, petrol? what’s the word in American English?) upon her and set fire. She was blazing in a few seconds but could be saved. She is alive but very badly burnt. She got enough pluck to go to Courts and the trial occurred this week in the suburbs of Paris. She won and her aggressor was condemned to twenty or thirty years of detention. He should be out when he is around 60.

This was widely reviewed in newspapers, on the radio and TV news broadcasts.

One little step, but hope for some.”

Posted by Ellen

Posted by: Ellen

* * *


  1. Today we carried on the conversation.

    “Yesterday’s big winner at the Berlin Film Festival, the Peruvian film, _The Milk of Sorrow” (‘la teta asustada’), directed by Claudia Llosa, ties into our recent thread on violence towards women. Here’s a link:


    Elinor    Feb 15, 6:29pm    #
  2. I replied:

    “Mostly melancholy movies, no? All the different stories put me in mind of Germaine de Stael’s treatise on the novel and the passions where she says the most affecting deepest stories for the novel to develop from are the tragic or sad and passionate.

    Alas, it seems (as the writer hints) that although such movies are admired and win prizes, they are not the ones the crowds go to. Kelly Reichard's Wendy and Lucy appeared last week and as I had watched Paradise Road (at home, on DVD), and Yvette wanted to stay home and watch ice-skating, I thought we’d take a chance and wait until this weekend.

    It’s gone, vanished from the mid-atlantic area except for one theatre in far away Baltimore. The story was a true to life one about a young woman in her twenties who can’t get a job and travels with her dog and meets others like herself. Who wants to see that in this jobless world of the US (white collar jobs especially being wiped out)? Apparently the director did lay it on a bit thick as the the girl’s one companion, her beloved dog is at risk of dying and she has no money to pay vets (even more expensive than regular doctors in the US or at least equally).

    I regret not getting to see it as in our area now there is nothing else worth seeing which we’ve not seen already. Last Chance Harvey also disappeared. It did last slightly over 2 weeks. The Wrestler though is everywhere :)


    PS. Republicans in the are shameless liars and have many of the news outlets on their side: working journalists on TV and big name newspapers sometimes make big salaries too. Not one in the House voted for the stimulus bill; 3 in the senate, one woman (Snowe) and two men up for election. And it’s being utterly misrepresented in the press. Obama really doesn’t have the stomach to call a spade a spade
    directly; that’s part of the problem. And we hear nothing of cutting military spending which would provide enough money for decent health care for all (including dogs). He’s going around the US backing his bill though.
    Elinor    Feb 15, 6:31pm    #
  3. On the badly burnt (and terrorized) Pakistani girl in France, from another friend on WWTTA:

    “Good that the man should have been given a long sentence, but tragic that his victim will still be scarred for life, and not only physically, I expect.

    Oddly, your post arrived just a day after Deepa Mehta's film Fire had come up in class, where a women is also the subject of a fire attack. There seems to be quite a history of inflicting fire on women on the Indian sub-continent, when you think of such practices as sati and agni pariksha as well (though the latter trial by fire is something men may also be subjected to). All horrible to think of.”
    Elinor    Feb 16, 8:22am    #
  4. I asked on Wompo for poems on honor killing yesterday. I have four to share.

    It strikes me now that it’s such an unspeakable subject, when you try to realize what are the ugly feelings and brutal behavior that underlies such acts (for as I wrote this is only what surfaces in the newspaper when it goes as far as hideous murder), that maybe poetry is in inappropriate, at least modern poetry. Modern poetry is so often confessional, autobiographical, and I’ve learned on Wompo there are many people who write poems not quite out of the heart, but actually thinking about providing uplift for their audience, thinking about pleasing the audience somehow. Older savage satire, public poems is what is wanted. Elizabeth Alexander’s poem had the problem of being written at a time when public poetry seems unnatural.

    In Her Honor

    by Malaika King Albrecht

    for Doaa Khalil Aswad, murdered for marrying outside of her religion

    what use
    are you

    not a home
    of her own
    not a road
    away from here
    not even a wall

    than a child

    at the lone woman
    by brothers,
    uncles, killed by
    her father

    It was published online and the author wrote it “after reading one of the many horrific stories online. This honor killing was broadcast throughout the internet because it was filmed by bystanders on cell phones.” She “worked many years as a rape crisis counselor at the YWCA in New Orleans.”


    This is by Dianalee Velie:


    Cherry-chocolate colored bricks circle
    a storm drain, then ascend into steps,
    creating an amphitheater for the sunshine
    spiraling around my students. Warming
    their chilled musings into tornadoes of thought,
    they devastate the landscape of innocent pages
    with images of exams, chaos, cold beer,
    sex and mothers; a birth of turbulent poems
    in this twisting labyrinth, this corkscrew

    called education. I stare at loosened
    cement surrounding a few hot bricks,
    so easy to pick up and throw,
    like the brilliant poems
    my students hurl at me in this arena,
    where I teach outdoors, today.
    Today, when the news has weighed
    my heart with sorrowful stones,
    the weight of ancient artifacts.

    A napkin stained with lifeless red
    berry juice cavorts in the wind
    and I feel her blood spilling down
    the conduit through my veins,
    in a stadium in Mazer-e-Sharif,
    northern Afghanistan. A nameless woman,
    mother of seven, stoned to death
    for committing adultery, while several
    thousand spectators watched.

    In under one hundred words,
    the New York Times
    unceremoniously reported,
    Afghan Death by Stoning,
    a nondescript column,
    barely two by two and a half inches,
    journalistically perfect,
    objective and brief.


    These two were put on wompo:

    This is by Joan Mazza. She said it’s unfinished:

    Because you believe in honor*

    you hold on to sacred beliefs about women,
    their sanctity and need for protection by elders.
    From Baba Kat, in Balochistan, Pakistan,
    you have known this all your life. Always,
    fathers have chosen marriage partners
    for daughters. The taxi driver was wise
    to tell you your daughter was planning to marry
    outside the tribe, not the one you chose.
    You, her brothers and cousins,
    and a district official took her and the other
    two girls. You beat them and shot them
    and threw them into a ditch, saw her skull
    bashed in. When one mother and aunt protested,
    they too were shot and thrown into the trench.
    Not yet dead, you helped to bury them alive.
    In the last six years, more than four thousand
    have been killed. You say all girls must learn
    the importance of tradition, how seriously
    male elders believe in honor. Now we know
    the deep sincerity of your pride.

    *details taken from a news story on July 14, 2008


    This by Wendy Carlisle:

    I wrote this about the Amina Lowal case in Nigeria.


    They say about goats,
    they’ll eat anything.
    But that’s not entirely true
    since there are
    whole food groups
    they avoid: hubcaps,
    Molly Hatchet 8 Tracks.

    You can listen
    for a goat hymn
    in the clatter of rocks,
    in the sighs of a woman,
    buried to her neck
    in Nigerian sand.

    And sighing in the long vowels
    of her name,
    a goat chorus that urges us
    to a dusty field, tells us
    we can lie down
    and the song
    will enter us like a stone.

    tragos: goat song


    LIke us all these seem taken from newspapers or on the Net. We are so lucky not to know this kind of thing close up. I can’t understand the third. There is entering into the rationales for human vileness.

    I once saw a picture in the Washington Post, one morning, of a woman with both eyes gouged out. She was Indian. She was sitting with a child on her lap, the child of the man who had done this to her. The excuse: he was jealous. He had not been even taken into custody at the time of the photo. It seemed she was left within his reach. The one tiny piece of hope was that the reporter taking the photo had put it in the paper to try to publicize this.

    Elinor    Feb 18, 8:12am    #
  5. From Margo on Wompo:

    “It is a horrific subject, Ellen – but here’s a thought I have to add to the subject – the classic theatre – all those Spanish and French classics, Lope de Vega, Racine, Corneille – on and on to Shakespeare – where the son murders to defend his father’s honor – there’s a very, very long line in our literary humanity, and hence, I suspect, in our tolerance, as humanity,—accepting that such ideas are tragic but an elevated sense of life and passion and even love…. I suppose it existed a priori, and literature imitated life – medieval, renaissance and onward – no, let’s add Ancient classic Greece & Rome – but only to say that literature has sometimes played its part in perpetuating the myth of grand human villainous drama as acceptable, entertaining, an yes, poetic.

    And then, there are our current/recent wars which (some) believe are honorable murders. And is that poetry?

    Elinor    Feb 18, 9:58am    #
  6. From another friend:

    “One of the poems mentions Baba Kot, which is a highly publicized and shocking story I had bookmarked:


    To add insult to fatal injury, some Pakistani politicians defended the
    murders in parliament, despite national and international outcry – not surprising, I suppose, when you read how well-connected one of those murderers is.

    It sounds similar to that story an Indian women told me of how local officials are often either complicit or actively involved in the recent, marked resurgence of sati in some regions, even though it’s illegal, and so the perpetrators are seldom brought to justice.

    I can’t imagine things improving much with the news yesterday that sharia law has been officially reintroduced to Taliban-dominated North Pakistan.

    I agree how difficult it must be to address such a theme in poetic form and do justice to both subject and medium, but here’s another one I have marked, probably by a man, I think:

    Honour killings in Babakot by Kashkin

    In Babakot,

    And in all those places
    We don’t hear, we don’t see
    The old tradition lives,
    Underneath our skin
    Inside our heads
    Tarnished and convoluted
    In the name of honor
    Hangs the fate of women
    In ditches, proof of our humanity
    Shot, thrown and burnt
    In the name of honor
    In the name of humanity

    Inside there, still unnoticed
    Remains of our acts and virtues
    We say we are in the 21st century
    Far behind we are in time
    And the wisdom and logic
    Too long a walk, too hard to rectify
    These old ways, upon us
    Where we kill in the name of honor
    Yet still alive those men
    As they breathe the empty honor
    For you and me, only the bitterness

    Those beautiful faces, our daughters
    Gone forever, heads sunk in grief
    As words betray us, to describe
    Heinous crimes and we call ourselves
    The followers of prophet and Islam
    In us, the old tradition lives
    This indifference, not to protest
    Not to challenge, not to hear those pleas
    The moment their lives came into existence
    To the moments thrown and burnt, in hell
    The hell we have created, in the name of honor
    If this is the honor, then shame a better option
    I won’t have to kill, my daughters and mothers
    As we betray humanity in the name of honor!”
    Elinor    Feb 19, 6:58am    #
  7. On this story the terrible thing that sticks out particularly is the men perpetrating this are high in office in the state. People in power are seen as exemplary. When Californians voted for Schwarzeneger (I can never spell his name) all the while knowing he is violent to women, they then say it’s okay to be violent to women.

    As you say, if no one protests again, there is also the fear of < powerful people. Another level of complicity.

    I am very bothered by poems or texts which produce the rationale of honor at all. To do so is in some measure to condon, to acknowledge the rationale has some (however minimal) justice or understandability. That’s what bothered me about the poem called unfinished which I sent along. On Wompo someone mentioned a "tradition" of literature where we see murders of family members: mostly sons and brothers of fathers. Corneille for example. The language of the posting was obscure and abstract so the person was not able to put into words this minimal acknowledgement (too embarrassed?) but was doing this. For my part (I said in reply) I’ve always disliked Corneille as well as Marlowe (he celebrates brutal cruelty in Tamburlane).

    Maybe one of the problems with poetry over this is somehow implicitly a poem is a celebration for the language is supposed to be beautifully appropriate.

    I think that Shakespeare is a humane playwright and that in his plays we find a real exposure of human cruelty again and again and that he does not justify this drive or demand for social conformity and safety against even worse people. What is this obeying of male honor, say in duels and challenges but coming down the lowest level of thug mob apprehension of what is right or wrong. Those of his characters who often preside over the compromised endings are sleazes and horrors and we are to see this. Fortinbras takes over from Hamlet. The sneaky duke of the old corners takes over in Measure for Measure.

    Shakespeare’s most notorious bloody play, Titus Andronicus has a heroine whose tongue and hands are cut off. Gruesome. I bring it up because he has her walking about continually as if to thrust such horrors in our faces and put before us there is no rationale that can ever excuse this.

    The last poem by a man takes this honor seriously. We can get nowhere as long as this is done. De Stael showed this in her stories about a man bullied into duelling in Delphine. Honor is the cover up word which enables vicious bullies to define the standards of social life.

    Elinor    Feb 19, 7:00am    #
  8. “Reading your exchanges with Ellen this morning Sophocles’ play Antigone came immediately to mind. It was written in 442 BC. That about covers “our civilization.” I highly recommend the play for those who teach plays. It is about the best commentary I’ve found on how an individual may stand up to the state and be sacrificed as a result of this defiance.

    Elinor    Feb 19, 9:32am    #
  9. Connections: Early in Richardson’s Clarissa Clary says she’d rather be bricked up than marry the horror Solmes. Her brother while violently wrenching her arm replies, “Not yet.”

    Well it did take 1500 pages. About 1400 pages later she is indeed dead and her coffin is returned to Harlowe Place where she is bricked up. Everyone cries but Richardson shows us none of the Harlowes nor Lovelaces have learned anything from this. Had Clary lived, they would have been after her to marry Lovelace (who rapes her in a particularly hideous manner) or litigate (on behalf of honor). Her great cousin, Morden, murders Lovelace out of a sense of “honor.” So a form of honor killing ends this novel.

    In the film adaptation, Clarissa by Nokes and Barron, some of this is softened: Anna, her friend has learned something, been understanding all along, and the killer of Lovelace is the genuinely reformed (transformed) Belford who does not kill on behalf of any sense of honor, but from personal rage at Lovelace for denigrating him, needling him, not learning anything, for being a mirror of himself which Belford (in the film) has learned to hate. And Nokes and Barron include the dialogue about Antigone. They chose to include that one—remember they had a lot to select from (a million words at least).

    Richardson did read the classics in English translations. And read about them.

    Elinor    Feb 19, 9:42am    #
  10. The situation is so tragic that I think many people refuse to even think about it. Their intentions are true but the horror of it all makes the mind say STOP, don’t go there.

    Elinor    Feb 20, 9:44am    #
  11. I agree people don’t want to talk of it, even in private. I’ve evidence to suggest it’s also fear. For trafficking the reluctance to discuss it is less excusable as only women in those countries and cultures where this kind of chattel slavery goes on are in direct danger.

    Elinor    Feb 20, 9:48am    #
  12. Another member of WWTTA:

    “I agree, but I think the media should stop using the term “honour killing”. Where’s the honour in the killing of a young often defenceless young woman by the bullying males of her clan. ‘Murder’is the word.”
    Elinor    Feb 21, 12:09am    #
  13. A terrifying terrible story: a Muslim businessman in NY state beheaded his wife. She had been about to ask for protection against him out of fear of beating or her life. Too late:


    What gets me about the story that relates to our thread is this: this newspaper says in law this this act is a “crime.” One member of WWTTA rightly wrote honor killing is murder. The correct term is 1st degree murder. How is this they come up with such a weak term? A much-respected sociological-psychological book I have on self-injury argues that beheading is a form of particularly gruesome terror.

    The horrifying cruelty of such an act. Imagine being that woman as it was done to her. Ellen
    Elinor    Feb 26, 7:43am    #

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