Muslim Sexual Ethics:

Honor Killings,
 Illicit Sex,
 & Islamic Law

Intimate violence against women is a worldwide crisis. From “crimes of passion” to “dowry deaths,” not to mention domestic violence, many types of aggression against women occur at the hands of family members. The so-called “honor killing” of women and girls in some Muslim nations is one horrifying manifestation of this global phenomenon.

These killings, which occur with shocking regularity in certain parts of the Middle East and South Asia, target women whose actions—actual or suspected—violate the honor of their families, an honor that is thought to depend on the sexual purity of its female members. Anything from speaking with an unrelated man, to rumored pre-marital loss of virginity, to an extra-marital affair can be cause for an attack, often carried out by a father or brother. In some especially tragic instances, even women and girls who have been raped are slain to remove the stain from the family honor. As with other forms of intimate violence against women, perpetrators are seldom punished.

Some have viewed honor killings as a logical extension of traditional Islamic gender practices, the natural consequence of a system that enforces sex segregation through veiling and female seclusion and harshly punishes violations of these boundaries. Others have argued that honor killings are the antithesis of Islamic morality. This latter view is essentially correct from the perspective of Qur’an, prophetic traditions (hadith), and Islamic legal thought, as a careful analysis of the relevant texts shows. (Read more.) However, certain elements of traditional sexual ethics do contribute to the climate of intense scrutiny of female conduct that finds one extreme expression in honor crimes.

In Qur’an, prophetic tradition, and law, one finds a very strong presumption of women’s chastity along with numerous safeguards to prevent any imputation of unchastity. Within such a context, honor killings are utterly criminal. Numerous prophetic traditions report that when asked about a husband finding his wife with another man, the Prophet agreed that the husband must procure three additional witnesses to her act before the public authority can judge her offense; otherwise he would be liable to lashing for publicly accusing her or to being killed if he killed. If a woman discovered in flagrante cannot be even publicly accused unless there are four witnesses to her act, then mere suspicion can never justify slaying a woman. Questioned by another man who claimed that his honor (ghira) would require him to immediately slay his wife’s lover in such a case, the Prophet reportedly declared that God’s honor was greater than any human’s. (Read more.) The implication is that God’s revealed procedures for dealing with illicit sex must take precedence over human ego and emotion. This does not mean, of course, that human honor is unimportant. The stress placed on safeguarding women’s reputations and punishing slander demonstrates an awareness that such accusations can have devastating consequences for those accused.

From the perspective of Qur’an, prophetic traditions, and law, sex outside of a legally binding tie is considered zina, and is punishable for both women and men. Though there is a double standard in that men are, under certain circumstances, permitted to have several lawful sexual partners while women must always remain monogamous, when it comes to punishment for illicit intercourse men and women are treated exactly alike. In this sense, the traditional framework for dealing with illicit sexual behavior is balanced—unlike in the case of honor killings for actual or suspected sexual misconduct, in which only women are targets. (Read more.)

Still, while honor killings find no sanction whatsoever in Qur’an, prophetic traditions, or law, these sources cannot be absolved of all responsibility for placing a greater share of the burden of maintaining societal chastity on women. Though the Qur’an commands both men (24.30) and women (24.31) to “cast down their gazes” and to “protect their chastity,” it specifically regulates only women’s dress (Q. 24.31; 33.59). Yet it is a long stretch from these commands, which have the declared intention of protecting women from harassment (Q. 33.59), to the legal rules that allow men, especially husbands, to impose seclusion on women, forbid them from leaving the home, and limit their access even to other relatives. These rules for seclusion were never strictly observed by more than an elite minority, and are not generally enforced today. But the basic perspective they embody—that the separation of men and women is to be enforced by keeping women apart from men, and that women who violate these boundaries are suspect —remains influential.

Some have suggested that the best means of combating honor killings is to insist on a strict application of traditional law, under which only the public authority is empowered to punish illicit sexual intercourse, and then only with incontrovertible proof of wrongdoing. The evidentiary requirements for conviction in cases of zina (four eyewitnesses to the actual act of penetration or confession by the offenders) ensure that punishment will virtually never be carried out. By claiming the Islamic “high ground,” such a move could be influential in shaping Muslim ideas about honor and punishment. The danger of this approach, though, is that by enshrining traditional texts as literally applicable to the contemporary world, one leaves unchallenged those elements of traditional sexual ethics that create a climate of hyper-attention to women’s bodies and behavior. So-called honor killings are indeed one extreme outgrowth of this climate. A Muslim feminist sexual ethics must help create the conditions for the Qur’anic and traditional values of modesty and chastity to be lived by Muslim women and men in ways that are faithfully chosen and equitably maintained.

Content by Kecia Ali
Senior Research Analyst, FSE
Revised June 10, 2003