Why men in the West get away with killing women

They’re not called ‘honour killings’, but white Western men often get away with similar excuses. It’s no coincidence.

Women demonstrate following reports on the third femicide in the last 48 hours in the country, rising the number to 15 women killed by their husbands or boyfriends in the last 7 months, in central Athens on August 2, 2022. - Protesters demand immediate actions for protection of the women reporting an abuse and better judiciary system. (Photo by Louisa GOULIAMAKI / AFP)
Greek women demonstrate against the growing number of murders of women by their husbands or boyfriends in Athens on August 2, 2022 [Louisa GOULIAMAKI/AFP]

Feminists and human rights campaigners have long criticised the use of the term “honour killing” to describe the homicides of women perpetrated by men purportedly for bringing shame upon or dishonouring their families.

The term is mainly used in the context of traditional, patriarchal religious communities from non-white, non-Western countries. However, there are problems with both the terminology and the description of such crimes.

There is never any “honour” in murder, and many of these homicides take place in secular, white Western contexts and communities. Yet, it is clear that such killings are viewed and labelled differently depending on the perpetrators.

When white Western men kill women, they often claim they did so due to provocation or jealousy. When men in Asia or the Middle East commit such crimes, it is said to be about maintaining the “honour” of the killer’s family and community.

The United Nations estimates that about 5,000 women are killed each year in honour-related crimes. Most of the victims included in this statistic are from Asia and the Middle East.

Yet, a closer look reveals that many murders – often in the West – that are categorised as other types of homicide also fit this label. That’s partly why many feminist groups campaigning on this issue think the actual number is much higher — closer to 20,000 worldwide. Another factor is the hidden nature of some of these murders, which can be dismissed as suicides or disappearances.

As I’ve written previously, patriarchs everywhere often treat the women and girls who die this way as culpable: They were slaughtered, according to this logic, because they failed to be subservient and obedient.

Nothing speaks of this stigma more than an unmarked section of a cemetery in Sulaymaniyah in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, in which several victims of patriarchal murders are buried. I met Naza, whose daughter is buried there. She visits in secret because her daughter’s death has been shrouded in shame.

In 1990, I co-founded the UK-based feminist law reform organisation Justice for Women to campaign for fair and equal treatment of women going through the criminal justice system, either as victims or defendants in cases involving male violence.

In the UK, a woman dies every three days at the hands of a former or current male partner. European Union data show that in 2020, there were 400 femicides in Poland, 117 in Germany, 102 in Italy and 99 in Hungary. The law largely treats these men more leniently than it does the women who fight back to save their lives.

Doing this work, it soon became apparent to me that the motives men give to police and courts when they carry out deadly violence in these circumstances are similar to those we hear about in ‘honour killings’.

Very recently in Britain, for instance, men who killed their female partners often used the defence of provocation, which, if successful, reduced a murder charge to manslaughter. They would say that the victim had dishonoured them, either by humiliating them, forming new relationships or by questioning their manliness. In 2008, this defence was removed from the statute book after a persistent campaign by feminists.

I recall the case in 1991 of Joseph McGrail who kicked his common-law wife, Marion Kennedy, to death. They had been together for 10 years, and Kennedy was addicted to sleeping pills and alcohol, partly due to living with the stress of threats and abuse from McGrail. His reason for the crime was that he had come home to find her drunk again. The judge, Oliver Popplewell, said, “That woman would have tried the patience of a saint,” before sentencing McGrail to a two-year suspended jail term.

A decade later, Les Humes, a lawyer living in the north of England, was sentenced to seven years for manslaughter for killing his wife, Elizabeth Davies, when he discovered that she was having an affair and had planned to leave him. Humes stabbed Davies so ferociously that in some places the knife had passed through her body. Davies, a secretary at his law firm, was 36 when she died and had been married to Humes for 15 years. The couple had four children.

Provocation was mainly used as a defence when men could persuade the court that their honour had been besmirched: for example, if a man found his wife in bed with another man or if she nagged him to take out the rubbish. That men pleading provocation would often have the sympathy of the court suggests that “dishonouring” a man and causing him humiliation was considered worse by judges and juries than him terrorising a woman through sexual and domestic violence and murder.

This attitude is rooted in the age-old notion that married women are chattel. Indeed, the provocation defence in the UK can be traced back to at least the 17th century. Until 1981, men who killed their partners could get more lenient sentences in Italy if the woman had “dishonoured” the family with infidelity.

Yet, even with provocation no longer a legal defence in the UK, men who kill their female partners often walk free while women who kill men in self-defence are being convicted of murder, research published last year by the UK-based Centre for Women’s Justice found.

One example is the case of Dawn Rhodes, who was killed in 2016 by her estranged husband, Robert, to whom she had been married for almost 20 years. Robert had discovered Dawn was having an affair with a colleague. Dawn in turn had found out that Robert too was in another relationship.

She was killed when her throat was so deeply cut that she was partially decapitated. Robert said he acted in self-defence. Forensic experts told the jury that it was more plausible that Dawn’s injury had been inflicted from behind as opposed to a frontal attack. Still, the jury found Robert not guilty of murder.

To be sure, despite similarities between such killings across contexts and continents, there are also differences. But the focus should be on femicide, the very act of a man killing a woman or girl.

This form of deadly male violence cuts across every single country and culture on the planet. It cannot be acceptable anywhere.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.