“Honor” based violence: how are victims protected in Europe?

Concerns with “honor” based violence have risen in recent years across Europe. However, these crimes are still largely misunderstood and underreported in many countries.

The most famous case in Europe which ignited concerns about “honor” based violence was the murder of Fadime Sahindal in Sweden in January 2002, a young Kurdish girl who was killed by her father. In general, “honor” based violence has been equated with first and second-generation migrant communities in Europe and, although “honor” based violence is a feature of many different cultures and religions, it has been associated with Muslim communities.

However, it’s important to note that “honor” based violence actually has a long history in Europe. In the legislation of countries such as Portugal and Italy, murdering an unfaithful wife or a supposedly “promiscuous” daughter was also viewed as acceptable just a few decades ago and although those were still crimes, the sentences were lenient to the extreme. Even today, Southern European countries sometimes witness baffling judicial decisions which see perpetrators of violence against women and girls almost walk free due to patriarchal cultural bias.

“Honor” based violence according to the laws in Europe

In most countries, “honor” based violence is seen as an extension of domestic violence and it is not a specific crime, although honor killings can be seen as aggravating circumstances.

A large number of European countries have signed and ratified the Istanbul Convention, the most advanced international treaty on combating violence against women and girls.  “Honor” based violence is considered to be another form of gender-based violence and the Convention specifically states on Article 42 that  “family or community members who kill, maim or injure a woman for her real or perceived transgression from cultural, religious or traditional norms can not invoke any of the above grounds in criminal proceedings”. The Convention lists a series of State obligations towards victims of gender-based violence, which include providing support services, effective systems to alert authorities, issuing protection and restraining orders, and recognizing the threat of “honor” based violence as grounds for asylum.

For the Member States of the European Union, there is also a Directive establishing minimum standards on the rights, support, and protection of victims of crime, which firmly recognizes “honor” based violence as a harmful practice.

However, despite this growing legal framework, there is still much to be done.

An underreported and under-investigated crime

In some countries such as Sweden or Belgium, there seems to be a more organized response for the protection of “honor” crime victims. But approaches are varied and victims cannot be guaranteed the same level of protection across Western and Northern Europe.

There are also few statistics available and it’s hard to estimate how many people are affected by “honor” based violence.

Because “honor” based crimes became associated with migrant communities, that can also explain the reason why they are underreported and under-investigated by the police. People from those communities who feel excluded from mainstream society might not seek help from outside or might even perceive law enforcement as a threat.

Some human rights defenders seem conflicted about whether or not to focus on “honor” based violence, as they believe it might contribute to further stigmatization and discrimination against migrants. However, there are many activists – with and without a migrant background – who believe it is possible to be critical of “honor” based violence and the cultural norms that fuel it, and at the same time be appreciative of other social or cultural aspects.

According to the Kurdish-Swedish journalist Dilsa Demirbag-Sten, in the case of “honor-based crime happening in Sweden:

“Media, politicians, and activists were afraid to give the racist parties and organization, as we say in Sweden, fuel to the fire. But what becomes more and more obvious for me was the attitude toward the minority culture. The attitude seemed to be if you call honor killing part of a certain minority culture, then you have to accept the culture to be static and horrible. It seemed as if the Swedish society failed to see other cultures as alive and diverse and just like the Swedish culture in change. Yes, honor killing is a very extreme part of the Jordanian, Turkish Kurdish, and Iranian culture, but our cultures consist of so much more. All culture is in many ways wonderful, rich, but you do have this horrible part as well and we are working on it to change the structure.”

There are now more human rights defenders, anti-racism, and feminist activists devoting their attention to combating “honor” based violence and spreading awareness and educational resources. One example is the Honor-Based Violence Awareness Network, an international resource center, which is very useful for practitioners and scholars who want to learn more about these kinds of crimes and how to stop them.

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