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Publication Date: 
July, 2009
Robert Ermers

In this paper we will therefore examine the exact meaning of a number of concepts related to honour related violence, the most important being: honour, social status, face, family, honour killing, honour related violence.

There is a certain tendancy to consider honour related violence a subcategory of domestic violence or of male violence against women. However, the term itself reveals no correlation to that respect. Honour related violence is related to honour just like alcohol is related to alcohol related violence. The term honour related violence in itself therefore does not reveal anything about the relationship between the perpetrator and the victim, the victim's or perpetrator's gender or the place the violence takes place. The only thing it conveys is that in one way or another honour is involved.

Via Working Group on Violence Against Women & Girls
NGO Committee on the Status of Women - Geneva

Robert Ermers (PhD) is an Arabist and Turcologist. He is a Trainer and Consultant on culture related matters. Dr. Ermers is an external analist to the National Expertise Center in Honour Related violence of the Netherlands' police.


1) Introduction

Honour related violence is in fact a common social phenomenon, even though the details differ along cultural lines.

The sentence above is the outline of this contribution. The more common a phenomenon is, the better it can be related to general tendencies, and the easier it is to understand certain characteristics. Making clear that there are obvious links between a given phenomenon to general concepts renders it unnecessary to exotise behaviour of people from 'other' cultures. Apart from being more fair, this approach will enhance communication both with victims and perpetrators of honour related violence and, in the long run, help combatting honour related violence.

In this paper we will therefore examine the exact meaning of a number of concepts related to honour related violence, the most important being: honour, social status, face, family, honour killing, honour related violence.

There is a certain tendancy to consider honour related violence a subcategory of domestic violence or of male violence against women. However, the term itself reveals no correlation to that respect. Honour related violence is related to honour just like alcohol is related to alcohol related violence. The term honour related violence in itself therefore does not reveal anything about the relationship between the perpetrator and the victim, the victim's or perpetrator's gender or the place the violence takes place. The only thing it conveys is that in one way or another honour is involved.

1.2) Brief history of honour related violence in Europe

The presence of honour related violence in North West Europe is generally being related to the immigration of workers from the Mediterranean, especially from rural areas in Turkey and Morocco in the sixties and seventies. In the eighties the immigrant workers started getting their families to Europe. Starting from that period police forces were confronted with the first instances of blood revenge and honour related violence, even though the latter term dit not exist at the time.[1]

Later on, numerous refugees, escaping poverty in Africa and Asia, and people fleeing wars in the Middle East, came to seek a better future in Europe. This paper is based upon cases from the cultural area that stretches from Morocco to Pakistan and from Turkey to Yemen. For sake of convenience, this area is called Middle East.

In view of the number of immigrants and their offspring, the study of the culture-specific problems has become more than a mere academic excercise. Not only do governments need - where possible - to take care of prevention, and the protection and treatment of victims, but a democratic system also demands a transparant legal prosecution, and a fair trial for suspects.

The type of violence discussed here is indisputedly related to the honour of the family. The compound 'family honour' presupposes knowledge of two concepts: family and honour. At the same time it is known that cultures differ from one another in their perceptions of both honour and family. In other words: European or western concepts of honour and family are not adequate for explaining phenomenons that stem from different cultures. Often reference is made to all kinds of stereotypes that very rarely relate to the complex reality.

2) Honour

2.1) What is honour?

This question has been asked many times, but it appears to be more difficult to answer than is often thought. In general, though, most researchers acknowledge that honour is related to the position of the individual to his or her society. However, in antropological research honour is often mixed up with social status (cf. Bartels 1993, also Van Eck 2003). In one anthropological source the Egyptian tribe Awlad Ali is assigned the following characteristics of 'honour': descent, authonomy, independence, strength, self discipline, morality, authority, honesty, integrity, loyality (Abu-Lughod 1986:86). Most of these characteristics have been known as elements of social status.

Roughly there are two types of social status: attributed status, i.e. status related to the family or environment one is born in and achieved status (cf. Foladare 1968:55).

Attributed status: being a member of a certain family, being born in a certain town, having a certain accent, having a light (or a dark) coloured skin, straight or curly hair, having a tall (or a short) body, etc.

Achieved status: a high age (and the wisdom that comes with it), a certain profession or level of education, achievements in sports, craftmanship or the like, nice possessons (car, cattle, home), being known as very generous, loyal, courageous, being married into a certain family, knowing powerful people, having a beautiful spouse, beautiful children

For each characteristic it depends of the cultural context whether the characteristic is considered a positive, negative or neutral asset. For example, in some communities knowing the Koran by hart raises one's social status, in others it is more important to look young. Especially achieved status is variable per se, since some may possess more of a given characteristic than others, while people may lose the characteristic in the course of time.

2.2) Rejection and ostracising

In every community there is a number of qualities whose possession or absence have immense consequences for those involved. Those consequences may be that people are totally ostracised from and rejected by their community. We propose that honour is derived from characteristics that are more fundamental than those merely related to social status.

First let us note that people are rejected from their community for characteristics or deeds for which they bear no real responsibility, e.g. the colour of their skin, a physical defect, a certain birthmark, or because of having bewitched the crops. Rejecting people in such reasons is called discrimination and not acceptable in most societies.

Apart from that, in all human communities people are being ostracised and rejected for actions to which their community attaches fundamental moral values.

For example, it is known that European women who during the World War II fell in love and maintained a sexual relationship with a German soldier - which they often regarded as a serious engagement - on Liberation Day were dragged from their homes by their neighbours, were publicly shaven and pushed through the streets as 'jerry whores'. Sometimes relatives of those women underwent the same fate (Diederichs 2008, Ericsson and Simonson 2005). In the same way families that had collaborated with the German enemy were dealt with in the same way (Tames 2009). These groups of people were accused of having loose morals or treachery or both.

Even after decades, people have still difficulties in talking about the allegations and the things that happened to them in their youth. The subject is taboo, which means that it is still felt as a stigma, and exactly for that reason it is felt as dangerous. If other people knew that ..., they might start bullying them again. The quality or action for which people risk being expelled from their community can be summarised as 'social misbehaviour'.

In present western societies people are still stigmatised for social misbehaviour. In most communities an (unjust) accusation of abuse of children is enough to ruin someone's life. But not only perpetrators are being stigmatised. Recent research among the relatives of serious offenders has shown that even though they themselves were totally innocent, they had to cope with feelings of shame and a stigma caused by a member of their family:

"Bringing dishonour and shame upon one's family is a notion more commonly associated with the Mediterranean and the Middle East [...]. In our society, however, the ties that bind kin together are strong enough for dishonour to flow from the actions of one relative to another, and for a family to have a reputation which can be damaged by the actions of one member. When those actions comprise some of the gravest and most vilified crimes in our society, the whole family can be tainted with the resulting stigma" (Condry 2007:61-2).

2.3) Social sanctions

After having committed serious social misbehaviour an individual risks being exposed to social sanctions. Note that in this sense honour is personal, but that the sanctions - depending on the type of misbehaviour - may stretch to the extended family, consisting of dozens of individuals.[2]

An individual who is considered guilty of misbehaviour is no longer met with the normal respect. He or she is no longer tolerated in community. The most serious social sanctions consist of the following:

- no longer accepted in public social life (coffeeshops)

- no longer invited by neighbours and friends

- friends stay away,

- a shop is no longer visited,

- being fired immediately from one's job,

- being abused and spit at in the street,

- being an unwanted guest on feasts and celebrations

- none pays his last respects,

- an announced marriage or engagement is cancelled,

- existing marriages come under tension,

- being expelled from the village (Ermers 2007:71; cf. e.g. also Chatelard 2003:222).

The most serious social sanctions cover a complete social ostracisation of all members from a given family, men and women alike. When problems occur among an immigrant family, the social sanctions are likely to extend to their relatives abroad. Therefore it is impossible to think that family honour is mainly a men's business; on the contrary: women are victims of honour loss as well. In other words, judging and punishing entire families for the behaviour of one member is a common phenomenon in human society.

One example is the following:

"Jane experienced local children throwing eggs at her windows and tearfully described the reaction of her neighbours: J[ane]: They just totally ignore me. They won't speak to me. You know, 'she's not worth bothering about. It's like they're blaming me for what she's done'. [...] And sometimes I get people shouting abuse at me. Telling me to f-off or go and live somewhere else, but not in them words, with swear words in between" (Jane, daughter convicted of violent offence) (Condry 2007:79-80).

Women too will be spit at in the street when their son, daughter, cousin or niece is seriously misbehaving. Both men and women therefore have great interest in preventing and halting the sanctions. Jane's experiences bear a strong resemblance to the experiences of a Jordanian family:

"We were the most prominent family, with the best reputation," said Um Tayseer, [Basma's] mother. "Then we were disgraced. Even my brother and his family stopped talking to us. No one would even visit us.[...]" And when a woman like Basma [...] is thought to have crossed the line, her family is ostracized, with her eight sisters deemed unmarriageable by the neighbors, and her five brothers confronted with taunts in the street. [...] (Jehl 1999).

The social sanctions themselves against an individual or a family thought guilty of misbehaviour can be regarded as honour related violence.

Social sanctions such as exclusion as a reaction to misbehaviour in no way are an exotic and strange phenomenon. We already pointed at what happened to the so-called 'jerry whores'. On a smaller level it exists too: organisations and unions usually have defined in their statutes types of misbehaviour for which members can be expelled immediately. If the misbehaving member is not expelled from the organisation there is a risk that all members be associated with the one member's deviant conduct.

The fear of losing honour and being exposed to the social sanctions of ostracism and rejection can be compared to an existential fear (see e.g. Williams e.a. 2005). Every individual therefore makes great efforts for not being associated with serious misbehaviour.

The question arises which type of misbehaviour in the Middle East and Asia is considered so serious as to entail the risk of being ostracised?

2.4) Misbehaviour

Every community has its own band width: on the outer ends conservative and loose or free behaviour. Behaviour that remains between the cultural width is by definition decent, it does not lead to moral judgements and social sanctions. Nevertheless, behaviour on the conservative or liberal extremes of the range is likely to be the subject of gossip.

In the Middle East some of the most serious form of misbehaviour someone can be accused of is that of being a pimp or a pimp family. Such an accusation may come about in two ways:

1. Rape and deception. A man from the A family rapes a woman from the B family, or he succeeded in having sexual intercourse with her by making false promises and telling lies. By not acting adequately against A, the B family gives the impression of approving A's behaviour. In other words: A makes B a 'whore', while B refrains from appropriate actions. If B lets this situation be, the obvious conclusion is that it is acceptable to B, which only a family of pimps would. Another point is that B is not loyal to their own innocent daughter.

Note that A himself of course commits serious misbehaviour in the first place; his misbehaviour can be labelled as 'lack of moral decency'. By seducing or raping B, he makes misuse of the confidence families have in him as their neighbour; the womenfolk of the entire village or quarter must be able to move about safely in the community. For this reason, A is likely to lose his honour as well. But the only one who is entitle to act against him is the B family: they have to make the claim against him first. Only then B will receive help from the community, while A and his relatives risk being subjected to social sanctions as well instead. There is a second way of getting the label of 'family of pimps'.

2. Extramarital sexual intercourse. This happens when a woman or a girl from the B family takes the initiative for having extramarital sexual intercourse. She makes herself a whore and, as a consequence, her family a bunch of pimps. The same can be said when a man agrees to being penetrated by another man.

Both types of misbehaviour have an evident relationship with the moral sexual honour of a family.[3] Which indications the social environment accepts as evidence for the conclusion that there has been extramarital sexual intercourse is culturally defined. In other words: the indications vary per community. In some communities men and women sit together publicly on parties and feasts, in others the mere fact of being seen on the street talking to one an other is considered inappropriate behaviour.

2.5) A definition of honour

Based upon the above, honour can be defined as follows:

A. honour is an individual's or a family's awareness that s/he, along with his/her family, is accepted as a full member of the community (outside his family), the awareness being based upon the 'normal' behaviour s/he experiences from the community.

What is meant by 'respect', is in essence the normal behaviour the individual and his family feel entitled to, based upon their status. If the respect is not shown for no apparent reason, the individual (and their family) they feel hurt and may get angry.

But there is more to it. Because people differ in status, they feel they are entitled to be treated with a certain form of respect. If the form of respect is not in accordance with the social status, they feel hurt too. Put otherwise: when others do not behave respectful in the appropriate manner, it is felt as a type of rejection (more about this later). The same holds for false accusations or insults.

But there is another perpective to honour, namely that of those who judge:

B. honour is an individual's awareness that someone else, along with his/her family, is accepted as a full member of the community (outside his family), this awareness being based on the fact of not having committed serious misbehaviour.

This addition from the other perspective means that human beings in normal situations treat other people with the forms of respect due to their social status. But they will not do so when they know that those individuals have committed serious social misbehaviour.

When the individual realises others are aware of his social misbehaviour, s/he can only feel shame. People unconsciously apply certain techniques in order to deal with the stigma (cf. Condry 2007:81 q.v.) There is no point in trying to pretend that one is an 'accepted member of society' when people around have stopped treating like one. Moreover, many individuals find the misbehaviour despicable themselves as well and understand the reactions of the community.

Thus the norms for honour or possession of honour are in fact culturally determined criteria for misbehaviour. These criteria are usually put down in the customary law (or official law) and the normal rules of conduct of a given community. Individuals and their families that comply with the norms and values possess honour are being treated normally in accordance with their social status. The possession of honour cannot be variable in the sense that it is possible to acquire 'more honour' (contrary to Van Eck 2003).

Only when people already possess honour their status makes sense. Whenever people have committed serious misbehaviour, a high status is not enough to save their position within the community. (Even though rich people may use their power to buy their way out or pay people for keeping silent about misbehaviour.)

Loss of face of course is different from loss of honour. Loss of face is the result of an action or an incident which spoils the characteristics that are associated with a (high) social status, or an ideal picture of oneself people tend to show to outsiders (see also Goffmann 1959). That characteristic may be damaged or lost for many different reasons, e.g. an accident, illness, bankruptcy, a quarrel, a natural disaster, etc. For example, when a family's son does not have the intellectual capacities to follow his father and grandfather as a physician, this can be considered loss of face for the family. But none would say that it is loss of honour.

When coincidence is the cause of loss of face, nobody is guilty. For example when someone drops a cup of coffee from his table, this typically causes a temporary loss of face. However, if another individual (or family) causes loss of face other than by accident (he deliberately hits the other's arm, so that the coffee spills), his behaviour is considered an insult - and so is laughing at the person involved when he loses face.

2.6) The connection between honour and social status

As we have shown in the preceding secions, honour and social status are far from identical. Nevertheless there is a link between the two concepts.

Honour can be summarised as the awareness of being accepted as a full member of the community, roughly say: as a human being. People want to be 'normally' spoken to at home, greeted in the street, served in a restaurant, etc. This is what we could call respect. People who are accepted member of a community are entitled to respect, i.e. a normal treatment in which their presence is noticed. Saying 'hello' in passing means that one acknowledges the presence of the other. This is called tact or etiquette.

We pointed out above that there are different types of social status. Each type of status demands a certain form of respect in accordance with that status. When people of unequal status meet, just acknowledging the presence of the other will not be enough. An interesting illustration of this form the protocols for the contacts between common people and royal or presidential families; it is for example not appropriate to say something like 'hi, madam' when meeting the queen. Not only might this hurt the queen, everybody would consider this a lack of respect. Mutatis mutandis people from a certain age, class, descent, or who occupy a certain position expect others to behave in a specific manner, and they feel hurt when not addressed appropriately, especially when there are witnesses around. The expectations of how to behave to whom vary between cultures.

When one feels hurt because of some else's rudeness, in some cultures it is necessary to show a reaction. No reaction means: 'I agree with the insult', or 'I deserved this rude behaviour', or: what you say is true ('I am a coward'). This means that a degree of assertiveness to insulting behaviour is a characteristic - perhaps the only characteristic - of a socalled 'honour culture'. By reacting to the offence or inappropriate behaviour, one makes clear that one in fact does possess honour. The reaction does not have to be per se violent. People in some (sub)cultures feel anger creeping up and some prepare for action when they are not appropriately addressed or when they feel they are being insulted.[4]

Therefore, the characteristics of social status do not constitute honour, they rather form part of an individual's or a family's social worth, which others are not expected to ignore.

2.7) Misbehaviour needs to remain secret

Only after the serious misbehaviour has become known in the community, an individual, along with his family, is likely to be subjected to social sanctions. People and their relatives who did commit serious social misbehaviour but succeed in covering it up, will still be treated as 'normal'. For example, European women who maintained their relationships with German soldiers secret, were not humiliated after Liberation Day and after the war they were able to continue their lifes as they used to (Diederichs 2008). Of course, they told none about their secret.

In other words, not the misbehaviour itself, but the fact that it gets known in the social environment - hours, days, months or years after the incident - causes loss of honour. Misbehaviour the community is unaware about, is very likely to bring about problems and conflicts within a family, but the family will do its utmost to try and keep them secret.

For the individual as well as for a family it is a matter of survival in their community to comply - superficially - with the fundamental norms and values of the community. Because of this indirect link between misbehaviour and loss of honour, families, including immigrant families, may agree with certain deviant behaviour of their relatives on the condition that it never gets known in the community.

2.8) Recovery of honour

After the serious misbehaviour has become public, a family may end the social sanctions it is being exposed to, by carrying out a specific action. In general this action involves an action against the person that is held responsible for the misbehaviour or the insult. As pointed out above, no reaction means: 'We agree with the situation'. We have seen above that, at least in relation to the moral code, the responsible or guilty may be the one of following:

A. an individual from outside the family

B. an individual within the family.

In case of A, the responsible is almost always a male who is accused with having raped a woman from another family, or has deluded her into having sexual intercourse with her by telling her lies and making false promises. Once the incident is known, her family needs to react to this in an adequate manner. In some communities it is enough to beat up the rapist or seducer, and a large fight between the families may ensue. The victimised family, i.e. whose daughter was violated, may get help from friends. Man may be raped as well, for them families will react to the violator too. It happens that the rapist's relatives acknowledge the crime, and propose to buy off the consequences - possibly after mediation of the village council.

In other communities the only adequate solution is that the rapist or seducer, depending on the circumstances, is killed. For such cases of honour killing we have proposed the label Honour Killing type I (Ermers 2007:121 q.v.).

In Honour Killing type I the raped or deluded woman is innocent, so there is no real need to take actions against her. However, as a result of the incident, she is considered stained and impure. The stain can be cleansed if she marries, but her chances on a good marriage are not very high.

We have seen thusfar that in B. the responsible for the loss of the family's honour may be either a man or a woman, who is suspected of having willingly engaged in extramarital sexual intercourse. (Men in this respect are suspected to have agreed to be penetrated anally by another man.) Women who willingly agree to having extramarital sex are not considered chaste. Chaste means: having the intention of refraining from pre- or extramarital intercourse. Chastity is typically considered the result of a 'good' upbringing, one of the obligations of a 'decent' family.

The relatives of this woman or man will want (or rather need) to distantiate themselves from this woman or this man. He or she has tainted the entire family (Tames 2009:187). The first method of restoring honour is to marry him or her off. A women will then enter another family. When a man marries, the 'normal' sexual intercourse will also cleanse him. (Note that marrying someone off while the misbehaviour is still unknown in the community does not restore honour, simply because honour is not yet lost in that case. Finding a good spouse then is much easier.)

If marrying off is not feasible, the individual is expelled ('X is no longer our son'), but this needs to be done in such a manner that the community is aware of the expulsion. The social sanctions - and hence the loss of honour - continue as long as the deviant family member is not expelled. Regarding expulsions among Moroccan immigrants it is known that an expulsion only lasts a couple of years, after which the expelled sometimes is reconciled with his or her family. There are indications that expulsions among immigrants in the area from Egypt to Pakistan and Turkey to Yemen have a more definitive character (see also Ginat 1997). An expulsion is of course very dramatic and traumatic, but usually the effect is that the expelled is no longer chased by his or her relatives.

In 1994, a 23 year old woman was raped and killed in Putten, a small town in the Netherlands. Shortly after the crime, two men were arrested and sentenced to seven years of imprisonment, even though they claimed they were innocent. Years after the crime, a third suspect was found through an DNA-match in 2008, who at the time was only 17 years old.

The new suspect's father, mr. Jan Pieper, declared in may 2008 on Dutch television that he distantiated himself from his son, and that he would never visit him in prison. Pieper and his wife had also paid excuses to the two men who had been sentenced while innocent. After that, Pieper asked the media, neighbours and acquaintances to leave him and his family in peace (

Even though the suspects parents were totally innocent they apparently felt they were linked to the deviant behaviour of their son, and found it necessary to speak out.

In some communities expulsion from the family are not enough and, if there is no non-violent solution (such as a marriage), the deviant relative needs to be killed. Those instances we have labelled Honour Killing type II (Ermers 2007:121). Note that Honour Killing type II should not be misunderstood as a punisment for (or 'revenge' against) the guilty, but a way of definitively distantiate oneself from him or her. Honour Killings of type I and II cannot occur based upon false gossip; there needs to be evidence for some kind of serious misbehaviour (see further).

Unlike some accounts,[5] the victim of Honour Killing type II, does not need to be killed with a specific weapon, in a specific place (the market place of the town), even though that may occur. A natural death, an accident or suicide of the guilty will do too; after his or her death, the guilty individual is gone definitively, and so is the stain ('we never had a daughter by the name of Aliya'). As a result, family honour will be considered restored and social sanctions will stop:

"Before my sister was killed," Amal, the 18-year-old said, "I had to walk with my eyes to the ground" (Jehl 1999).

There is no evidence for Honour Killing II among Moroccan immigrant communities, even though of course there are incidents of murder and manslaughter.[6]

Without doubt, blood revenge is a type of honour related violence too, even though a family's moral honour is not at stake, but the suspicion of the other having killed, murdered or deliberate injured an individual. A typical case of blood revenge goes as follows: After a member of the A family has been killed by a member of B, A will react by killing a member of B. The goal and the effect of the reaction is to demonstrate that tiers cannot just inflict sorrow and damage to the A family, and that the insult will not be taken. However, families are not free to choose whether or not they will show a (violent) reaction: if A does not react in an appropriate manner, the community will consider them a bunch of (disloyal) cowards. Cowardness in this respect is considered an illustration of serious social misbehaviour and is likely to be punished with social sanctions by the community. Sometimes families succeed in reaching a non-violent solution by lengthy negotiations. Publicly offering and acceptance of excuses usually are part of such a solution.

2.9) Honour related violence

Based upon the above, there are four types of honour related violence:

a. There are no specific problems, but members of a given family, often women, are being protected, sometimes in a tense and oppressive way, against dangers that lure in the outside world. The goal of the protection is that none gets the chance to (i) commit misbehaviour against the women or (ii) that the woman is protected from committing mistakes. Violence in this context will remain within in the family.

b. There has been an incident and violence within the family serves to (i) cover up the misbehaviour, i.e. keeping it within the family or (ii) to prevent the misbehaviour from happening again.

c. Violence that serves to show that people may not harm a family's integrity. In this context the violence is directed to (someone from) another family, but it is not necessarily a public action; a family may take secret actions against a rapist or seducer, when only the two families involved are aware of the incident and obviously neither one has anything to gain by making the incident public.

d. Violence that serves to show that a family distantiates oneself from a deviant member. This type of violence is a public signal, much like honour killing type I and blood revenge. The motive only holds when the misbehaviour is known in the community and social sanctions, such as ostracism, cannot be avoided anymore (cf. Ermers 2007b:19 in Albrecht and Ermers 2007).

Misbehaviour related to honour related violence is typically related to moral sexual behaviour. This means that quarrels on chores, the family budget, showing respect to the parents, divorce plans and school results are not part of it.

A black man, an original of the Dutch Antilles (24), starts a relationship with Zeynep (16, Turkish). Zeynep's intellectual abilities are deficient, a fact which is known to her parents. Eventually Zeynep cannot bear her secret any longer and she decides to tell her mother. Her mother refrains from informing Zeynep's father and calls in the help of her nephews, who beat up the boyfriend.

Due to the police gets involved, the nephews are arrested, and the victim tells about his relationship with Zeynep. Now Zeynep's father hears of the relationship too. Zeynep is for her 'own good' taken to a shelter for battered women. After having spent three months in the safe house, she wants to go home. Her parents also miss her. She's got nothing to be afraid about.

There is no ascending line from category a to b, nor is there a connection between domestic violence and honour killing. Whenever the motive is there, the pressure or violence belonging to that category will occur. An example of an action from category b is the restoration of the hymen. More important than the operation itself is the preceding decision making process. Why is the family distrusting the girl to the extent that they want the hymen to be examined? Some gynaecologists for ethical reasons refuse to carry out such an operation. Others make up 'honest' reports about the condition of the hymen. In both ways they may endanger the safety of the girl in question. Paradoxically the restoration of the hymen may be of help in mending the relationships within the family.

As we are trying to point out in this contribution, honour related violence is based upon emotional but logical reasoning regarding guilt and responsibility for misbehaviour. When it is said: 'Malika is the result of honour killing or honour related violence', many will think that Malika was killed or mistreated, because she, i.e. Malika, was having an extramarital affair and she refused to limit the social damage, for example by means of a marriage, an abortion or another solution.

Thus, speaking about honour related violence in relation to a given victim thus may be damaging to a victim or stain his or her memory. Therefore, as long as the motive for the violent act is unclear, it is advised not to use these terms.

2.10) Family honour

We have seen above that in all societies honour loss may inflicts family as a whole. Therefore, every individual member of a family has interest in the following:

1. family members should not commit misbehaviour (a-b)

2. misbehaviour remains a secret for the community (b)

3. the family takes appropriate action (c), especially when the misbehaviour is known in the community.

If in relation to loss of honour a severe action such as murder is being undertaken does not depend on the head of family alone. The decisions are being taken in very different manners. A mother may punish her daughter when she is late from school (a). A girl may tell her parents she knows her sister is seeing boys on the school yard (b). Brothers and cousins protect their female family members - if they act too harsh they are usually corrected by their parents.

This implies that a perpetrator, even if s/he is legally a minor, not only blindly follows instructions, he or she has also his own interest in taking the (violent) action. Nevertheless, an individual cannot undertake a crime like murder (honour killing type I or II) on his or her own initiative. If the perpetrator has not acted adequately - or in a fit of anger - he will cause his family sorrow and social damage. After such an incident, his family may condone or reject a deed afterwards. Rejection of the action usually implies that the perpetrator is expelled from the family, and left alone in prison, which occurs more often than many people think.

2.11) Gossip and slander

Gossip and slander do play an important role in the whole process of losing honour and the ensuing social sanctions, but neither of them is the cause of honour loss. The real cause is, as pointed out, misbehaviour. Gossip, in brief, means that people anonymously discuss alleged misbehaviour of others. When a family that is gossiped about hears the stories, it is forced to investigate the allegations (cf. Ermers 2007:143, see also Brenninkmeijer et alii 2009:117).

If the gossip appears to be based on truth ('I saw Meryem's daughter behind the railway station with a guy yesterday afternoon') then the family needs to react to prevent social sanctions from happening. Being the subject of gossip is part of those sanctions. A family may defend itself against vague gossip by changing its behaviour. Because (false) gossip by its nature is very vague, a family may not know what it has done wrong and how exactly to change their behaviour.

If, on the other hand, the gossip is false and deliberate, the appropriate term is slander. Slander is insult and malicious damaging of a person, sometimes anonymous. In case of slander a family will take action against the source, but it may also feel itself obliged to make changes in its behaviour.

A person who spreads slander commits a form of social misbehaviour. In most legal systems, including those based on religious principles, slander is punishable by law. When in a given case gossip plays a role, the veriacity of the gossip needs to be investigated. If the gossip is obviously false, the family can be rehabilitated and the person in question needs no longer fear any violence.

3) Family ties

3.1) The family as a social unit

Family honour per se is related to 'the family'. In almost every case family relationships need to be examined carefully. Or the other way around: it is impossible to draw the conclusion that family honour is at stake, without having paid due attention to family relations.

The larger part of the world's human population may be determined as one type or other of family culture. Also the term group culture is sometimes used, but this is misleading since the group in question is always the family in one way or the other. The family usually consists of the extended family, i.e. those descending from the same grandfather (or grandmother), but often the common descent is traced further. Some people addition identify with their clan and tribe.

Having said this, it is a cliché that North West Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are purely individualistic cultures. Even though in these areas the adult individual is to a very large extent free in his movements vis-à-vis his extended family, s/he is encouraged by his environment to engage in a monogynous (or monogamous) stable, longterm relationship and obligations with a nuclear family. The individual is bound by the interests of that nuclear family and cannot take any decisions contrary to the interests of its members. Very few people want to stay alone all their lifes.

The members of an extended family in the Middle East feel strongly attached to one another by mutual, affection, respect and confidence (but everybody of course has his preferences for certain people). This ideal picture of a loving, caring family is also presented to the community. Sometimes it is contended that in a family culture the individual is less important than the family, but in fact the interests of the individual are considered to be identical with those of the entire family. Of course this cannot be always the case. Nevertheless, in most parts of the world the individual needs his family in order to survive; society is rarely fit for people who try to stay all by themselves.

3.2) Family and hierarchy

A family is a kindred group of people which is kept together by bonds of mutual affection and confidence.

In addition to the affective ties, within a large family there will be a type of hierarchy and division of tasks. Without a hierarchy and a division of tasks the family would, much like other groups of people, fall apart. This actually happens in times of war when individual members are forced left to take care of themselves.

In the Middle East the hierarchy follows the male line, and the grandfather - at least nominally - is the head of the family. This system is called patriarchate. The head is held responsible for his family in the community. The main tasks of a family are the following:

1. protection of all members against calamities from outside

2. protection of all members against mistakes and errors by a good education and correction.[7]

The tasks of men and women are in essence derived from these main tasks. Women have important tasks in keeping the family united. To the tasks of men belongs that they actively defend their family's interests in the community, i.e. the outside world. Some may adopt a macho-like pose, which may develop into a violent and short-tempered attitude. It is not always clear how the actual relationships within a family are; the stereotypical grandfather is not always the one who in reality is 'in charge', nor may 'brothers oppress their sisters'. Moreover, special attention must be paid to the role of the women within a family. When analysing a case, an elaborate family scheme is usually of great help.

The hierarchy and division of tasks regarding protection of family members may degerenerate into misuse of power and oppression of the weak members within a family, especially women, but it needs to be stressed that this is not the rule in all families.

4) Engagement, marriage and divorce

4.1) The making of a marriage

Many problems occur around engagements and marriages; a domestic fight may in fact be an honour related issue. But before drawing this conclusion, one needs insights in the way people find their partner and the customs associated with it.

In general a marriage is an agreement between two families. The families agree that the daughter of A will be accepted by B. This can only succeed when the families have endless trust in one another. The A family wants to ensure that her daughter will be decently and respectfully treated. The B family wants a sympathetic and loyal daughter-in-law who contributes to the well-being of the family.

Within this framework the prospective spouses may have found one another themselves, i.e. without interference of their families. Nevertheless, setting up visits during which the spouses are presented to one another are quite common. Finding an appropriate partner for the son or daughter is often an important task for the mothers. Naturally, the mothers regard themselves as benevolent.

Many people show genuine surprise when outsiders suppose they were 'forced' to marry. But in practice it occurs that a family excercise pressure on their son or daughter to accept a certain candidate.

After a mutual feeling out the boy's parents propose to the girl's parents. The proposal is typically 'taken into consideration' and discussed with the girl. The girl has the right to refuse the candidate, and girls very often use this right, which finds a firm basis in islam. But note that not all families are aware of the reluctance of their son or daughter during the first stages of the process.

Refusing a proposed candidate may cause disappointment with the parents and even give cause for conflicts, but in itself it is not a motive for an honour killing. The reason is simple: there is no obvious misbehaviour. Breaking up a marriage or an engagement often creates tensions which (because of the risk of losing face and of feelings of disappointment) may escalate in violence. Most conflicts originate in miscommunication between the parents and their son or daughter. The son or daughter does not know how to tell that s/he does not want to marry the proposed candidate (anymore), s/he waits too long, during which the family gradually engages in more obligations. In short, there is a large grey area between full freedom in the choice of the spouse and overt force.

After the agreement of all parties, an engagement date is agreed upon. After the engagement the families negotiate about the conditions the bride wants to include in the marriage act, the dowry. Finally a wedding date is determined.

The marriage is marked by a traditional ceremony in presence of the pastor, the dede (with alevites) or an imam. After the ceremony the families jointly celebrate the transition in a feast, which ends in the wedding night and the acception of the bride in her new family. At some point there will also be an official marriage. A marriage which has not been consummated, i.e. without sexual intercourse having taken place, does not count as a marriage.

Breaking up an engagement before the wedding party and the wedding night is theoretically possible, and in fact engagements are being broken up for all kinds of reasons, but it is easy to understand that the other party will feel hurt. However, hurt feelings still do not imply that family honour is at stake and that immediate measures need to be taken.

In the Middle East and associate areas there are reasonably many intra-family marriage; about one in five marriages is between kindred people. The high number of intra-family marriage is related to the traditional separation of the sexes, which is one of the reasons it is not easy to get to know a prospective spouse. Another argument is that an intra-family marriage enhances the bonds within the family. Outsiders often speculate about possible economical and financial motives.

4.2) Marriage impediments

Many problems we come across among immigrants are related to premarital sexual relationships a boy or a girl engages in. The premarital sexual relationship being the most important issue, one of the other problems are the marriage impediments which make a marriage between certain groups impossible. A marriage impediment causes loss of honour for the families involved, which is much more serious than loss of face. For example, even if a shi'ite sunnite marriage may be undesired by some groups, in others mixed marriages of this type are quite common. This means that there is no official impediment. On the other hand, a marriage of a muslim woman and a christian man is unlikely to be accepted by her family because of the marriage impediment. If the marriage is theoretically possible, people are often willing to find a practical solution.

4.3) Divorce: general remarks

Normally a husband who mistreats his wife or children can be corrected by his own relatives. If he nor his side of the family react appropriately to the complaints of the wife (and her relatives) the wife may initiate a divorce, usually with the help of her family.

In Islam divorce should be regarded as the last solution to matrimonial problems, but divorce is still possible and therefore also acceptable according to most traditional norms. (For Christian minorities in the Middle East though divorce is nearly always impossible, since church law, according to which they were married, prohibits divorce.) The expected outcome of a divorce is that the wife's relatives agree to take responsibility for her again. Even though many families will receive and protect their divorced daughter, the children of the couple are often expected to stay with their 'own' family, i.e. their father's.

According to both islamic and traditional rules both husbands and wifes may initiate a divorce. In practice though it is much easier for a man to do so than it is for a woman. Wives may take the initiative if their husband is neglecting his duties as a husband and head of the family. Violence that is related to miscommunication between husband and wife is hardly ever honour related. In fact, the families are unlikely to condone this type of conflicts and will try and settle the problems by mediation.

In 2005 Ali, a Turkish immigrant, was told by his neighbour that his wife Tülay received a male visitor during Ali's absence. Tülay found out that Ali knew and she ran off to her lover Hüseyin. Only a few days later, Tülay called Ali and told him she had remarried in a traditional marriage.

The police wondered whether Tülay needed protection. Was she in danger? Should the police invest in protection? An analysis of the case yielded the conclusion that even though Ali and his family were still very angry with Tülay, by marrying Hüseyin she could count now on his protection and that of his relatives. Ali's side was not willing to risk a fight with the new in-laws. Tülay had escaped, and she knew it.

Not all families in the Middle East are eager to have their divorced daughter with them again. In many areas in the world the norm is poverty, and many have difficulties in feeding everybody. Apart from that, the children, which from that respect are thought to be members of their father's family, may be the cause of conflicts with the other family and stand in way of a possible new marriage of their mother.

If (domestic) violence does relate to family honour, i.e. woman (or man) is considered guilty of misbehaviour, both families are likely to understand the motive and they may support the perpetrator. After the perpetrator has been arrested and taken into custody, other family members may take over the violence. Obviously, a victim of honour related violence is not always willing to tell the truth about the motive for the violence.

4.4) Divorce: the role of a wife's relatives

A divorce is a fact when a woman's relatives realise that the marriage cannot be mended, support the divorce and accept to take her back. The formal registration of the divorce by the authorities or court normally takes up a much longer period.

Due to migration, a benevolent family is not always in the position to physically support their daughter. (Men who emigrate in order to join their wifes and their in-laws, find themselves in a similar weak position.) The responsibility for a divorced woman is sometimes delegated to a more distant member of the family. Nevertheless, in some circumstances community holds the former in-laws morally responsible for the woman, which is often the reason the in-laws keep controlling her.

A Turkish immigrant came home to find his wife in bed with a lover. The husband and the lover got into a fight, but the lover managed to run off without being injured. In one way or another the husband wounded his wife with a knife. Instead of killing her, the husband decided to call her uncle who lived nearby. When the wife's uncle arrived, the husband told him about the lover and he wanted to discuss her fate. However, the uncle did not believe him, he suspected the husband was making up pretexts in order to account for his niece's injuries. Instead, the uncle called for a physician.

4.5) Divorce: Conflicts between families

When a woman takes the initiative for a divorce, she suggests - justified or not - that the in-laws have not succeeded in giving her a good and caring home. They have failed as well.

When this type of accusations gets public, they may cause loss of face for the family involved (not loss of honour). The husband may also feel hurt 'as a man' by what he considers an (un)just attack. In general a regular divorce does not entail honour related violence, but emotions may nevertheless peak and violence may happen.

In the opposite case, when a husband takes the initiative for the divorce, the wife and her relatives may feel deeply hurt as well. The husband and his relatives may spread allegations as to her supposedly loose morals, and that she is a bad mother. In those cases too the matter may escalate.

When a kindered couple divorces, the ensuing conflicts may tear up an entire family. Breaking up a marriage between kins, often cousins, is a sign to the community that the family is divided and weak, not capable of staying together, which causes loss of face (not loss of honour). In view of the crisis, people may feel they have to withdraw their support for their own son or daughter.

Especially when a wife takes the initiative for a divorce, some reckon that she probably has a lover, even if there is no evidence to that respect. Only in communities where this is the leading argumentation, divorce is correlated with loss of honour, and only there it is almost impossible for a wife to get the necessary support of her family in case of trouble. We want to stress however that this argumentation is not the leading one in the Middle East.

4.6) Children

Children are considered to be born into and members of their father's family. When the sons are adults they are expected to take care of their (aged) parents and other relatives. Contrary to what is often thought, it is not a matter of status to have sons, but rather a way to survive. Daughters usually marry into another family and are expected to take care of their in-laws. The duty to take care of the preceding generations is common in the greater part of the world where governmental social support for the weak and elderly is rare.

Honour related violence is typically directed against those guilty or suspected of misbehaviour. Children hardly ever are considered guilty, so they are unlikely to be victims of honour related violence. (Having said this, there are rare cases in which childeren were the victims of certain type of 'revenge', without the aim of restoring honour.)

Nevertheless, the question arises whether small children are safe when violence is directed against others. In many cases a woman who could have had a regular divorce feels threatened by her (former) husband and his family because they suspect she is 'deliberately' keeping the children away from them. In those instances the motive for the threats or the violence is not honour related (unless the former wife is suspected of moral misbehaviour too). The situation usually improves when an arrangement is made in which the father and his family have the opportunity to meet with the children.

5) Summary

In this paper we have shown that honour is a universal human feature. When people are associated with misbehaviour, they and their family risk being subjected to social sanctions. People tend to avoid such situations at all costs. The function of honour related violence is to prevent misbehaviour from happening or cover it up, or restore honour after misbehaviour has become known in the community. The second part deals with family and its structure and how it maintains itself in the community.

6) Sources

Abu-Lughod, L. (1999), Veiled sentiments: Honor and poetry in a Bedouin society, University of California Press, Berkely, CA.

Albrecht, M. & Ermers, R. (2007), 'Rotterdamse Aanpak Eergerelateerd Geweld. Basispakket voor Signaleren en Handelen', GGD Gemeente Rotterdam-Rijnmond, Rotterdam.

Bartels, E. (1993), Eén dochter is beter dan 1000 zonen: Arabische vrouwen, symbolen en machtsverhoudingen tussen de sexen, Van Arkel, Utrecht.

Bartels, E. & Storms, O. (2008), De keuze van een huwelijkspartner. Een studie naar partnerkeuze onder groepen Amsterdammers, Vrije Universiteit, Faculteit der Sociale Wetenschappen, Amsterdam.

Brenninkmeijer, N.; Geerse, M. & Roggeband, C. (2009), Eergerelateerd geweld in Nederland. Onderzoek naar de beleving en aanpak van eergerelateerd geweld, Sdu, Den Haag.

Chatelard, G. (2003), Honneur chrétien et féminité, ou le marriage à la jordanienne, in Heyberger (2003), pp. 212-225.

Condry, R. (2007), Families Shamed: The Consequences of Crime for Relatives of Serious Offenders, Willan Publishers, Cullompton.

Diederichs, M. (2006), Wie geschoren wordt moet stil zitten. De omgang van Nederlandse meisjes met Duitse militairen, Uitgeverij Boom, Amsterdam.

Van Eck, C. (2003), Purified by Blood: Honour Killings Amongst Turks in the Netherlands, Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam.

Ermers, R. (2007), Eer en eerwraak. Definitie en Analyse, Bulaaq, Amsterdam.

Ericsson, K. & Simonsen, E., (eds.) (2005), Children of World War II. The hidden enemy legacy, Berg Publishers, Oxford.

Gjeçov, S. (1989), Kanuni I Lekë Dukagjinit (The Code of Lekë Dukagjini), Gjonlekaj Publishing Company, New York.

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Heyberger, B., ed. (2003), Chrétiens du monde arabe. Un archipel en terre d' Islam, Editions Autrement, Paris.

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Kressel, G. M. (1981), 'Sororicide / filiacide: Homicide for family honour', Current Anthropology 22, 141-158.

Nauta, A. H. & Van Dijken, P. (1978), 'Bloed- en eerwraak onder Turken in Nederland', Algemeen Politieblad 10, 227-232.

Nauta, A. H. & Werdmölder, H. (2002), 'Onderzoek naar kenmerken van eerwraak', Tijdschrift voor criminologie 4, 367-373.

Tames, I. (2009), Besmette jeugd. Kinderen van collaborateurs in het naoorlogse Nederland, 1945-1960, Balans, Amsterdam.

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Robert Ermers (PhD) is an arabist and turcologist. He is a trainer and consultant on culture related matters. He is an external analist to the National Expertise Center in Honour Related violence of the Netherlands' police. (

[1] In the Netherlands the Dutch turcologist A.H. Nauta devised the word 'eerwraak' for honour killing, as a pendant to 'bloedwraak' (blood revenge), translating the Turkish concepts of namus davası and kan davası. When investigating a phenomenon like honour killing one needs to realise that one really is investigating namus davası, i.e. a Turkish phenomenon, and that the focus should be on concepts from that culture.

[2] Condry did not investigate to what degree of kinship people were being associated by their societies with the crime and which members of the family felt ashamed. However, it seems safe to assume that in societies in which kinship relations are considered more important, people are being judged even on the misbehaviour on more distant relatives.

[3] In Turkish the moral family honour is called namus.

[4] Research has shown that people from the South of the US show different physiological differences to insults as compared to Northeners (cf. Nisbett and Cohen 1996).

[5] cf. e.g. Kressel 1981.

[6] This impression was sustained by very experienced informants from the Dutch police (mr. W. Timmer), spokespeople from the Moroccan police in Rabat, and journalists during the author's visit to Morocco in 2007.

[7] An interesting first-hand example is found in e.g. Gjeçov, S. (1989:14).

Forms of Violence: