In late August, in what has been described by sources close to the victim as a brutal “honour killing,” Israa Gharib, a 21- year old Bethlehem makeup artist, was allegedly murdered by her father and brother to redress the shame Gharib’s family suffered when the woman posted a video of an outing with a suitor on her Instagram page.
Responding to the tragedy, congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) tweeted a denunciation of honour killings: “Israa’s death illustrates an ever-present toxic masculinity and control over women’s bodies.” But she also attached a link to an article that blames Israeli occupation, in part, for the phenomenon: “Israeli military occupation and a corrupt Palestinian Authority both hinder any legal, economic, and social progress,” says the author of the article (name written in Arabic) on the site BabyFist. It may be that the Palestinian Authority’s corruption hinders progress, but to claim that Israeli occupation is a factor in such a long-established cultural practice is risible.
To be fair, the article does grapple with the essential characteristics of honour killings in societies that are culturally dominated by the honour/shame paradigm. The author writes, “Women are the vessels of honour for their families, which means what she says, how she behaves, what she wears, etc. all impact the family honour. As a result, she has very little control over her body and her life. And because honour is a tool used by men to reinforce their power over women, men take it upon themselves to protect the family honour by controlling their mothers, sisters, wives, daughters, etc. This also means that in extreme cases, they will also murder to protect their honour.”
It is true that in honour/shame societies, women and their sexual behaviour is pivotal to a family’s standing in the community. Even a rumour of a girl’s or woman’s immodesty can bring about terrible punishment. This past July in Pakistan, a man killed his wife and five female relatives because he happened to see a photograph of his wife talking to another man and assumed she was having an affair.
Pakistan may be said to be ground zero for honour killings because that is where the highest incidence of them occur – by far. But honour killings are widespread throughout the Arab world, in spite of the Babyfist article’s disclaimer that “honour killings are not Muslim and they are not Arab.” Honour killings are not constrained to the Islamic world, but the statistics skew very heavily to Islamic societies in terms of frequency at home, and in terms of their portability to the West.
The article also errs in ascribing honour-motivated deaths of girls and women only to “an ever-present toxic masculinity and control over women’s bodies and lives.” Women in honour societies are very often complicit in these crimes. Even though it is standard practice for a father or brother to execute the murders, the mothers and/or sisters are often fully engaged in the decision. In 2015, for example, in the city of Dessau, Germany, the body of a 20-year old Syrian woman, identified as “Rokstan M.” was discovered in a shallow grave. Rokstan M. was educated, with a job as a translator for the German government. But after she was gang-raped by three men, she knew what was in store for her. On a social media profile, she wrote, “I am awaiting death. But I am too young to die.” She was indeed stabbed to death, on her mother’s command, by her father and brothers. The premeditated killing was necessary, her mother told the police, because the gang rape had shamed the family; only Rokstan’s death could restore their honour.
In the case of the Kingston, Ontario Shafia murders in 2011, where a father and brother of Afghanistan provenance (with the collusion of the mother) killed three young daughters/sisters as well as a first wife for having “betrayed” the family by adopting some western ways (very modest by our standards), the father, Muhammad Shafia, was completely unrepentant. As he put it, “Even if they hoist me up onto the gallows, nothing is more dear to me than my honour,” and “There is no value of life without honour.” (The Shafias later appealed their life sentence on the grounds of “cultural stereotyping,” a mordantly ironic commentary on how instinctively such villains have been trained to play the multiculturalism card, even under horrifically culpatory circumstances.)
In 2003, Palestinian mother Amira Abu Hanhan Qaoud murdered her daughter Rofayda Qaoud after the young woman was raped and impregnated in her West Bank home by her two brothers. The mother wrapped a plastic bag around her daughter’s head and sliced the girl’s wrists. The 43-year-old mother of nine said, “This is the only way I could protect my family’s honour.” The most repressive occupation in the world—and Israel’s is benign compared to most other occupations—could not engender such twisted logic capable of producing such a heinous crime in any human being. Honour killing is culturally motivated and has nothing whatsoever to do with politics.
But Rashida Tlaib can’t help herself. Even the tragic death of an innocent Palestinian woman must become fodder for Israel-bashing. If only Tlaib had ended her tweet with a denunciation of honour killings, period, and just this bloody once left Israel out of it. Then she would have earned points for courage in facing up to an unpleasant reality in her region of origin, which predates Israel’s occupation, and in fact, predates the modern Zionist movement.
Instead, she couldn’t resist the impulse to dog-whistle anti-Zionists, and now she is yet again a figure of mockery and derision by all rational observers.