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In Honor of Fadime: Murder and Shame
In Honor of Fadime: Murder and Shame
Unni Wikan
University of Chicago Press, 2008
314 pp., 27.5

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Brian Howell

"Honor Killing"

Can the practice be explained by reference to non-Western "cultural norms"?

In January 2002, Fadime Sahindal was murdered by her father. The killing might have passed with little attention, like so many crimes, except that two months earlier this 26-year-old woman of Kurdish descent had addressed the Swedish parliament. She explained how she brought dishonor to her parents simply by living as an independent Swedish woman. This dishonor, she feared, could cause her death. She explained the difficulties of living as a woman between the worlds of Swedish freedom and Kurdish expectations. She told of the reluctance of police to take seriously her fears of her father, brother, and other male relatives. She called on the Swedish government to improve services designed to integrate immigrant families into Swedish society. Two months later she was dead.

The European media called it an "honor killing." That is, the shame of Fadime's behavior so deeply violated the norms of Kurdish culture that her male relatives killed her to restore the family's honor. Invoking cultural norms, however, does not make the crime more explicable. If anything, such an explanation causes Westerners to find it even more mysterious. In the West, we can "honor" our parents with a nice gift or speech. We declare it "an honor" to be recognized for exceptional merit. Yet we do not typically recognize honor as an essential quality in our lives. Anyone who has seen five minutes of The Jerry Springer Show might say that Westerners have no honor, or we understand it very differently. We can shame ourselves, but we rarely extend that feeling to the actions of others in our family. The notion that cultural traditions or shared values—as opposed to rage or insanity—would drive a father to kill his own daughter seems to lead inexorably to the conclusion that the culture itself—in at least some of its fundamental assumptions—is evil. But this seems to simultaneously let the murderer off the hook and offend modern multicultural sensibilities. Are his actions to be ...

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