Patriarchy and the Problem of Honor Killing

In a previous post, Honor Killing: The Rape of Dinah, I wrote about the tragic story of a woman who had run away to avoid marrying a man to whom her family had forcibly betrothed her. The woman agreed to return to her family after her father had signed a document guaranteeing that she would not be harmed. The family did not honor their agreement and the woman was killed.

Recently, The Washington Post published the story of a woman in Pakistan who was brutally killed in the name of honor killing. Ishaan Tharoor, a writer about foreign affairs for The Washington Post, wrote about the story of this woman who was killed because she refused to be forced into an arranged marriage.

Because this story is so compelling, I will quote at length from Tharoor’s article and then say a few words about patriarchy and honor killing. Tharoor wrote:

This is how a terrible story gets worse. On Tuesday, Farzana Iqbal, a 25-year-old pregnant woman, was confronted by a mob of 20 or so of her family members near the steps of the top court in Lahore, Pakistan’s second-biggest city. They proceeded to beat her to death with sticks and bricks, while police nearby looked on and did little.

The reason for the attack? She had chosen to marry a 45-year-old man named Muhammad Iqbal. That was a union deemed unacceptable by her family, which had filed an abduction case against the husband. She was about to deliver a statement in his defense. Photos taken after the attack show her lifeless body shrouded in colored fabrics, crumpled on the pavement. They also show the haunted stare of her husband.

Now, the media furor after the incident has turned up a new, stomach-turning wrinkle in the case: Police say the husband killed his first wife before marrying Farzana. After police sources in Lahore leaked unseemly details about his past to local media, Muhammad Iqbal himself confirmed to Agence France-Presse over the phone that he had strangled his first wife. “I was in love with Farzana and killed my first wife because of this love,” he said before hanging up. The forgiveness of his son and Pakistan’s controversial blood-money laws apparently allowed him to escape a jail sentence.

Last year alone, Pakistan’s Human Rights Commission reported 869 “honor killings” – a misnomer of the highest order, describing incidents in which family members take it upon themselves to punish daughters who refuse arranged marriages or choose to follow their heart rather than family diktat. The real number, though, is probably much higher.

“I do not even wish to use the phrase ‘honor killing,'” said U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay in Geneva. “There is not the faintest vestige of honor in killing a woman in this way.” (Another news report now suggests that a sister of Farzana was poisoned to death four years ago in a similar episode.)

Beyond the awfulness of the crime, what’s equally disturbing is the inaction of police and bystanders. An editorial in the Lahore-based daily Dawn summed it up:

Those who shake their heads over the grotesque attacks on women in the name of some antediluvian notion of `honour’, tend to raise the point that these are dark crimes usually committed behind closed doors – that the victims are quietly erased from the public memory and the perpetrators, mostly close relatives, remain unprosecuted and unpunished. The most shocking aspect of this killing, however, is that all the people witnessing the crime, even the law enforcers, were silent spectators as a woman was bludgeoned to her death. They turned their backs as she screamed for help. How are we to understand this?

You can read the story in its entirety by visiting The Washington Post online.

You can also watch a video showing the body of the dead woman. However, a word of caution: the video shows some graphic details about the dead woman. To watch the video, click here.

Honor killings such as the one reported in this article still occurs in societies where patriarchy is still prevalent. Gerda Lerner, in her book The Creation of Patriarchy, has a classical definition of patriarchy: “The manifestation and institutionalization of male dominance over women and children in the family and the extension of male dominance over women in society in general. It implies that men hold power in all important institutions of society and that women are deprived of access to power.”

There are many reasons given for this dominance of men over women. One traditional reason found in many societies is that women are subordinate to men because this is the divine order in creation. Others say women are subordinate to men because a woman brought sin into the world.

Another reason given for male dominance is due to sexual inequality, since woman at creation was assigned the biological function to be a mother and a nurturer and man was assigned the role to be a provider and a defender.

In patriarchal societies a man has legal and social power over his wife and children and he has the power to forcibly remove a woman from her home through negotiated marriage, a marriage in which the daughter marries a man designated by the father. Such a negotiated marriage may bring financial or social benefits to the family of the bride.

The church in the twenty-first century must challenge the concept of patriarchy and female subordination. The message of the gospel of Jesus Christ is a call to freedom and equality. As the apostle Paul wrote: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

What Paul is saying is that in Christ there is no longer any distinction in spiritual privilege or status between male and female. Men and women were created in the image of God and as God’s representatives, they were given authority over God’s creation. Thus, in Christ, social and biological differences cannot be used as the basis of men’s authority over women nor as a reason to deprive women of their dignity as human beings.

There is much the church can proclaim about the creational authority given to both men and women by God. The church can also proclaim the spiritual rights and privileges every believer has in Christ. Patriarchy had a beginning and patriarchy can have a end. The end of patriarchy is the liberating message of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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Lerner, Gerda. The Creation of Patriarchy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

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2 Responses to Patriarchy and the Problem of Honor Killing

  1. Stephanie says:

    Hi Dr. Mariottini,
    Thank you for being so sensitive to women. This is a great post. I only wish I had read this when I was writing my paper on God the defender of the oppressed. I have a dilemma. In my church, the patriarchal view is standard and 1 Tim 2:12 sets the boundary for women in ministry. As I am beginning to break free from that mindset, I am not sure how to explain the Bibllical view to my pastor and the all male leadership team. It seems nearly impossible to change a standard of living that has been held since the fall. Do you have any suggestions?


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