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Don't Separate 'Honour Crimes' From Other Violence Against Women

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Most would agree that with a women murdered every six days in Canada, we need to address gendered violence in all its forms. This cannot be done, tempting and reassuring as it might be, by simplistically attributing the problem to one religious group to the exclusion of others.

In the Clarion Project's latest documentary titled Honour Diaries, now making its way around North America, the producers seem bent on doing just that. The documentary claims to expose the paralyzing political correctness that prevents us from addressing the human rights disaster that is honour-based violence. There is no doubt that violence against women motivated by the preservation of family honour continues to be a problem in many parts of the world, including here in Canada. Labeling it as an exclusively Muslim problem, however, is not only inaccurate but also threatens to overlook the systemic problems at the root of all gendered violence. Doing so further risks promoting bigotry that will alienate those best placed to address the problem.

In fact, organizations like the Canadian Council of Muslim Women refuse to even use the term "honour killing" preferring the term "femicide" instead. It is after all murder in all cases. In their view, the term honour needlessly separates women and girls into groups based on race, culture and religion. The term has ballooned to include a large swathe of activities -- everything from murder of women with foreign sounding names, forced marriage, female genital mutilation/cutting, to selective abortion. It is hard to find anything in common except that these activities are somehow associated with people from "non-Western" traditions.

Essentially, honour crimes describe crimes that are not all that different from other violence against women. They are crimes with power and control at their core. They are a violent denial of the right of women to choose for themselves how to live their lives.

Labelling these crimes with the term "honour" provides Western societies with an escape clause. They can appear to be addressing the "foreign" issue, without examining the roots of violence against all women. Case in-in-point: last fiscal year, Status of Women Canada, a federal government agency charged with promoting gender equality and women's rights, spent almost five times more money to specifically address "honour crimes" or "harmful cultural practices" than it did addressing violence against Aboriginal women. This is not to minimize any person's death but the figures are astounding given that the number of murdered and missing First Nations women exceeds the number of honour killings by several orders of magnitude.

There are thoughtful and effective ways to look at all the facets of violence against women and it can certainly be done without promoting bigotry. For example, in March, the Ottawa Police, the Ottawa Rape Crisis, and Algonquin College partnered to put on a full day event on violence in the name of honour. The event brought together a broad section of Ottawa professionals as well as religious leaders and community activists focused on developing effective community-based strategies in Ottawa for preventing violence in the name of honour.

With thoughtful discussion about definitions, causes, strategies, and yes, choosing the words we use, all participants felt welcome and were able to come up with first steps that can be taken to address these problems. Their concrete proposals included prevention strategies, early intervention and accurate data collection.

Contrast this with Honour Diaries that presents some of the most egregious examples of gendered violence and then almost entirely attributes the problem to Islam. Instead of offering real solutions based on facts, the documentary will very likely result in promulgating fear of the 'other' and promote hatred against Muslims who are falsely portrayed as holding the exclusive franchise on this scourge.

It is true that some forms of honour-based violence are more prevalent in certain Muslim majority countries, however, it is widely accepted that these practices have no basis in religion. For example, according to a 2010 report commissioned by the Canadian Department of Justice, "honour killings are not associated with particular religions or religious practice: they have been recorded across Christian, Jewish, Sikh, Hindu and Muslim communities." Islam, the religion to which much of these heinous acts are attributed in the Honour Diaries, strongly condemns all these practices.

It is no surprise that the Clarion Project (formerly, the Clarion Fund), whose stated purpose is to educate people about the inherent dangers of Islamic extremism, would be more interested in demonizing Muslims for political ends than seriously addressing the underlying issues. After all, millions of copies of the organization's previous documentary, Obsession, which compares Islam to Nazism, were mysteriously distributed in swing states across America during the 2008 presidential election.

In his recent book Call to Action former U.S. President Jimmy Carter has called violence against women the most serious human rights problem facing the world today. We owe it to women around the word and here in Canada to attack the problem with facts and to put the bigotry aside. This simply cannot be done by exaggerating the aspects of the problem that we perceive as foreign and downplaying the underlying themes of domination, patriarchy, ignorance, and pure evil. Combating these is a universal challenge.

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