Defining “honour”crimes and “honour” killings

Laws should acknowledge “honour” crimes and “honour” killings are a form of violence against women and girls. Drafters are encouraged to use an expansive definition for “honour” crimes and killings. A definition must be broad enough to encompass “honour”-based violence in all its forms, such as murder, attempted murder, driving to suicide, rape, gang rape, torture, assault, virginity testing, kidnapping, forced marriage, forced eviction, harassment, threats, stove burnings, acid attacks and maiming. Legislation should clarify that the detailed list should not serve to exclude from sanctions some behavior that is not included.  (For more information on legislation addressing sexual violence against women and forced marriage, see: Sections on Sexual Assault and Forced and Child Marriage.)

Defining “Honour”

Drafters should use the phrase “so-called honour” or use quotation marks around “honour” to imply the absence of “honour” in these crimes. Drafters should be aware of the complexities in defining “honour”-related violence. Laws that use the term “honour” risk reinforcing discriminatory misperceptions that women and girls embody the “honour” of the male and community and that there is “honour” in acts of violence against women. Additionally, using this term masks political, social and economic motivations that may contribute to “honour”-related violence. Nevertheless, drafters are urged to use the term “honour” when describing these crimes against women and girls. Using the term “honour,” as opposed to a more ambiguous or restrictive term such as “custom” or “tradition,” will properly identify “honour” crimes as such and prevent loopholes that allow perpetrators to escape accountability. Further, although some argue that designation of “honour” crimes as a distinct form of violence masks the universal nature of violence against women and risks demonizing cultures in which such crimes are more prevalent, the recognition of “honour” crimes as a particular, contextually-informed type of violence against women rightly acknowledges the unique characteristics of such crimes (such as their premeditated and collective nature). Acknowledging these features in turn facilitates the adoption of effective, targeted laws and policies to combat “honour” crimes. (See: Korteweg, Anna C. and Yurdakul, Gokce, Religion, Culture and the Politicization of Honour-Related Violence, United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, Gender and Development Programme Paper No. 12, October 2010; Fournier, Pascale, Introduction: Honour Crimes and the Law—Public Policy in the Age of Globalization, Canadian Criminal Law Review, Vol. 16, May 2012, p.103; CCMW Position on Femicide [not honour killing], Canadian Council of Muslim Women, January 2012) In addition, l aws should clearly state there is no “honour” in or justification for “honour”-based violence.  Such a statement serves to combat cultural relativist excuses for “honour” crimes.  Nonetheless, it is also important that drafters of “honour” crimes legislation refrain from framing such crimes in a way that equates them with any particular culture or religion.


CASE STUDY: Turkey’s Penal Code prohibits aggravated homicide, which includes killings in the name of “custom” (Article 82(k)). Labeling aggravated homicides as a crime of custom, however, has created a loophole for “honour” killings. Offenders may argue that crimes of custom or tradition are restricted to certain areas or perpetrated only by certain groups, or only to a specific type of honour killing, such as "family assembly verdicts", thus excluding other honour killings from this definition. The Turkish First Criminal Supreme Court has so interpreted this provision, by ruling that the applicable article applied only to custom killings, whereas the case at hand was an “honour” killing because it did not involve a formal family decision. Furthermore, the term “custom” fails to acknowledge the prevalent discrimination against women that motivates killing in the name of “honour.” (See Leylâ Pervizat, Tackling Honour in the Aftermath with a Good Practice, May 11, 2009, U.N. Doc. EGM/GPLHP/2009/EP.02, p. 8; Executive Committee for NGO Forum on CEDAW – Turkey, Shadow NGO Report on Turkey’s Sixth Periodic Report to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against WomenJuly 2010).  Since January 2009, however, the Turkish First Criminal Supreme Court has found that a formal family decision is no longer required for the offense to constitute a custom killing. Nevertheless, the term “custom” fails to acknowledge the prevalent discrimination against women that motivates killings in the name of “honour,” and is ambiguous. Since January 2009, however, the Turkish First Criminal Supreme Court has found that a formal family decision is no longer required for the offense to constitute a custom killing. (See: Communication from Asuman Aytekin Inceoglu, Bilgi University, to Rosalyn Park (May 17, 2010) (on file with The Advocates for Human Rights))


A definition of “honour”-based violence should reflect three basic elements: 1) control, or desire to exert control, over a woman’s behaviour; 2) a male’s feeling of shame over his loss of control, or perceived loss of control, over her behavior, and; 3) community or familial involvement in augmenting and addressing this shame. (See: Family Killing Fields: Honor Rationales in the Murder of Women Baker et al. VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN.1999; 5: 164-184). Laws should describe “honour” crimes and killings as violence stemming from a perceived desire to safeguard family “honour”, which in turn is embodied in female behavior that challenges men’s control women, including control exerted through sexual, familial and social roles and expectations assigned to women by traditional ideology. Such female behaviour may include: adultery, extramarital sex, premarital relationships that may or may not include sexual relations, rape, dating someone unacceptable to the family and violations of restrictions imposed on women and girls’ dress, employment or educational opportunities, social lifestyle, or freedom of movement. Drafters should be cautious about explicitly listing types of behaviors in the definition of honour crimes, as listing specific forms may result in excluding from sanctions some behavior that is not on the list. Where such lists are included, drafters should expressly state that the list is non-exclusive.

(See: Report on Violence against Women in the Family, Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, 1999, ¶ 18. )


EXAMPLES: Drafters may wish to look to international instruments or policies adopted by other countries for guidance in defining “honour” crimes and killings:

  • “Honour” crimes defined as a “crime that is, or has been, justified or explained (or mitigated) by the perpetrator of that crime on the grounds that it was committed as a consequence of the need to defend or protect the honour of the family.” (See: 2003 report, So-called "honour crimes," rapporteur of the Council of Europe Committee on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men, ¶ 1)        

  • “Honour” killings defined as “the murder of a woman by a close family member or partner as a result of (suspected or alleged) shame being brought on a family by the action (a suspicion or allegation will be enough) of the woman” (¶ 10). (See: 2003 report, So-Called "honour crimes" rapporteur of the Council of Europe Committee on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men, Part II Explanatory Memorandum by Mrs. Cryer, ¶ 10.
  • “Honour”-based violence defined as that any form of violence “exercised in the name of traditional codes of honour. Where the “honour” of the family is at stake, according to the family, and the woman suffers the consequences, it is proper to speak of a so-called “honour crime.”” “Honour” crimes may be described as acts of violence against women “where the publicly articulated ‘justification’ is attributed to a social order claimed to require the preservation of a concept of ‘honour’ vested in male (family and/or conjugal) control over women.”  These definitions take into account the collective and community nature that condones “honour”-based violence. (See: Explanatory Memorandum by Mr. Austin, Rapporteur, The Urgent Need to Combat So-called “Honour Crimes,” Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, 2009, ¶ C.I.1 & 2.)

Great Britain:

  • In Great Britain, in the law enforcement context, “honour related violence” has been defined as “a crime or incident, which has or may have been committed to protect or defend the honour of the family and/or community.” (See: ACPO Honour Based Violence Strategy)


CASE STUDY: Pakistan’s Criminal Code (2005), Section 299(ii) defines “honour” crime as an “’offence committed in the name or on the pretext of honour’ means an offence committed in the name or on the pretext of karo kari sivah kari or similar other customs or practices.” “Karo kari” and “sivah kari” are the same custom called by different names in different parts of the country.  “Karo kari” means literally “black man black woman,” and in Sindh, the term encompasses the practice of labeling a woman as “kari” and killing her for alleged violations of “honour”; sometimes the “karo” or “black man” is also killed.  By labeling the murder “karo kari,” the perpetrator expects to be forgiven by the victim’s relatives. In Balochistan, the same custom is known as “sivah kari,” or just “black woman.” The practice of “karo kari” has expanded in recent years across Pakistan, growing beyond its original origins as a Baloch and Pashtun tribal custom, something the law appears to acknowledge by using the term “or similar other customs or practices.”  In the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) it is called “tor tora;” in Punjab “kala kali.” “Karo kari” is generally acknowledged as the shorthand term for premeditated “honour” killings in Pakistan. Defining “honour” crimes by reference to these very specific customs could exclude other types of acts or behaviour that do not explicitly fall within that definition from prosecution.
(See Amnesty International, Pakistan: Violence Against Women in the Name of Honour (1999);  Expert Paper prepared by Shahnaz Bokhari, Good Practices in Legislation to Address Harmful Practices Against Women in Pakistan, United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women, May 2009.)
  • Drafters should be cautious about legislative vagueness that could allow an interpretation that associates crimes of “honour” with crimes of passion, thus allowing the perpetrator to benefit from a crimes of passion defense.
  • Laws should make clear that crimes committed in the name of “honour” do not constitute crimes of passion or crimes committed in a fit of fury for defense purposes. Laws should state that “honour” crimes and “honour” killings are an act of violence against women and girls, and governments are expected to exercise due diligence in preventing and punishing these acts.


Example: A failure to clearly differentiate between crimes of “honour” and crimes of passion can cause potential problems in the application and enforcement of the law. For example, in United Nations Resolution 55/68, the General Assembly expressed concern over violence against women, including “crimes committed in the name of honour” and “crimes committed in the name of passion” (¶ 1). The potential risk of conflating these two concepts was demonstrated when one representative questioned how states could be expected to exercise due diligence in preventing crimes committed in a fit of fury. Regardless, governments must exercise due diligence to prevent and punish all acts of violence against women and girls.