Image: The Rape of Dinah
Painter: Giuliano Bugiardini (1531)
On Sunday, May 4, 2014, The New York Times published a chilling story about honor killing. Honor killing is the murder of a member of a family (generally a woman) by another member of the family because of the perception that the woman has brought shame to the family.
Honor killing is based on an unwritten code of morality that prevails in some cultures. This code of morality states that when a woman refuses to marry a man selected for her by her father, the refusal dishonors her father and brings shame to her family.
Shame to the family can also occur when a woman has sex outside marriage, is raped, dresses immodestly, or does something that the family disapproves of or considers to be immoral.
The story published in The New York Times provides an example of the main reason for honor killing:
KABUL, Afghanistan – An 18-year-old runaway named Amina agreed two weeks ago to leave the women’s shelter in which she had taken refuge in northern Afghanistan and go home with her brother and her uncle.
Amina had run away to avoid marrying a man her family had forcibly betrothed her to, and agreed to return only after her family had signed guarantees that she would not be harmed. For good measure, her father and brother repeated their vows on video camera at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in Baghlan Province, and she left with them.
She never reached home. Hours after she got into her family’s car, a gang of gunmen dragged her out of the vehicle and shot her to death, her brother and uncle later claimed. Everyone else was unharmed.
Whoever was responsible – the police blame the jilted fiancé’s family, but women’s activists accuse Amina’s family of staging her killing – Amina became yet another victim of an “honor killing” to absolve some sort of family shame.
Amina did [not do] anything against the law — or, more specifically, against two of the legal systems in effect in Afghanistan: the body of civil law enacted over the past decade with Western assistance, or the classic Islamic code of Shariah that is also enshrined in law. Both protect the rights of women not to be forced into marriage against their will.
But in Afghanistan, an unwritten, unofficial third legal system has remained pervasive: customary law, the tribal codes that have stubbornly persisted despite efforts at reform. “In Afghanistan judges stick to customary law, forget Shariah law, let alone civil law,” said Shala Fareed, a professor of law at Kabul University.
Under customary practices widely prevalent here, fathers have absolute power over their daughters until they marry, when such power passes to their husbands. They can marry girls off at birth, or at any age, with or without their permission, often making them bartered goods to solve family debts.
One case of honor killing in the Old Testament occurs because Dinah, the daughter of Jacob with his wife Leah was raped by Shechem, the son of Hamor (Genesis 34:1-31). When Dinah left the security of her family’s encampment to visit the women who lived in the city of Shechem, she met a man named Shechem, who was the son of the ruler of the city.
Shechem used force to subdue Dinah and raped her. Shechem was attracted to Dinah and wanted to marry her because he believed he was in love with her.
Dinah’s brothers, Simeon and Levi, were outraged for what Shechem had done to their sister because he had defiled her: “When they heard of it, the men were indignant and very angry, because he had committed an outrage in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter, for such a thing ought not to be done” (Genesis 34:7).
When Shechem came to Jacob to ask permission to marry Dinah, Jacob was speechless. His sons spoke for him and agreed with the proposal: “The sons of Jacob answered Shechem and his father Hamor deceitfully, because he had defiled their sister Dinah” (Genesis 34:13). The condition for the marriage was that the men of Shechem had to be circumcised.
The men of Shechem agreed. Three days after they were circumcised, the sons of Jacob went to the city and killed all the men with the sword. In order to avenge the shame Shechem had brought to their family, “the other sons of Jacob came upon the slain, and plundered the city, because their sister had been defiled. They took their flocks and their herds, their donkeys, and whatever was in the city and in the field. All their wealth, all their little ones and their wives, all that was in the houses, they captured and made their prey” (Genesis 34:27-29).
Neither Jacob nor his sons questioned the killing of the men of Shechem nor the plunder of the city nor the violation of the Shechemite women as a proper compensation for the violation of Dinah.
But, how about Dinah? How about her feelings? Did her brothers ask her if she loved Shechem or whether she wanted to marry him? The brother just went to Shechem’s house where she was staying “and took Dinah out of Shechem’s house, and went away” (Genesis 34:26).
In his book Reclaiming Her Story: The Witness of Women in the Old Testament, Jon Berquist writes about Dinah as a victim of rape. He wrote:
As a rape victim, she became damaged property. She could have married her rapist, Shechem, but now her only possible mate was dead at the hands of her ever-loving brothers (cf. Deuteronomy 22:25-29). They consigned her to a life of solitude. Throughout all of the brothers’ actions, they never asked her about what she wanted, and they never thought about how to help her. Instead, they only considered what would help their finances and their reputation.
Violence begat violence, and many people died, but Dinah’s own problems as a victim were ignored. Because she was property to be bought and sold, she never spoke and never acted throughout the story, even though the tale began when she journeyed to speak with other women. She began an innocent person with vivacious curiosity and hopes for a magnificent future, but she ended the story thoroughly crushed with no hopes at all, even though her brothers had made themselves rich through the situation (1992: 64).
That is the tragedy of honor killing: the women remain silent throughout the process. Their fate is not the concern of the men in their life. They protect their honor by condemning the women into oblivion.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Jon Berquist, Reclaiming Her Story: The Witness of Women in the Old Testament. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1992.