Quest for Honor. Directed by Mary Ann Smothers Bruni. San Antonio: SB Productions, 2009. 65 minutes.
Mutluluk (Bliss). Directed by Abdullah Oğuz. Istanbul: Kenda Film, 2007. 128 minutes.
In the Name of the Family. Directed by Shelley Saywell. Lorraine, Québec: Films Transit, 2010. 60 minutes.
Three films focusing on the patriarchal practice of honor killing zoom their lenses on culture, religion, nation, family, community, racism, war, displacement, and diaspora. The films tell us universal stories of violence against women as well as depicting particular forms of disciplining, punishing, and controlling women’s sexuality and their bodies.
Quest for Honor documents two cases of honor killings in Iraq and traces the collaborative efforts between the Women’s Media Center of Suleymaniyah (Rewan) and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) to tackle this violent practice. In the first case, the dead body of a young widow, Nesrin, is found by the police near the Turkish border. Runak Faraj, the media center’s leader, and her colleague Kalthum Murad Ibrahim assist in the investigation as part of their continuing quest for justice for such victims. The second case follows Jasmin (pseudonym), a survivor of an attempted honor crime, who was targeted while at the Asuda Safe House, where she had been placed by the KRG’s newly formed Agency to Prevent Violence against Women.
Of the two women, Nesrin was clearly more vulnerable due to her status as a widow coming from a tribal area, which the film elaborates by suggesting that society now sees her reduced status as a dispensable object like that of her blue jeans—the only material legacy for her two young children. Despite her husband being dead, Nesrin’s in-laws situate her punishment for perceived transgression as a justified patriarchal resolution for reinstating community honor. Jasmin, on the other hand, is a survivor, and the state offers her some protection, but the compulsion of her male family members to resolve perceived violations of their honor leaves her at high risk. The film documents the courage of the Kurdish women activists and their commitment to and investment in giving voice and protection to such vulnerable women.
In Mutluluk (Bliss), a Turkish cinematic masterpiece, three people meet under unlikely circumstances and change each other's lives. The film, therefore, offers a hopeful commentary on the possible transition from traditional ways of dealing with honor-based crimes. When Meryem, an unmarried teenage girl in a Turkish village, is indicted for suspected sexual relations, according to tradition she must atone for this shame with the sacrifice of her life. Since she is unable to end her own life, her cousin Cemal is given the duty to take her to the city and execute the punishment.
The escape motif is strong in this film and so is the lyricism in the music and cinematic treatment that reflects the beauty of life and possibilities for loving relationships. The film holds a tense and balanced focus on this triangular encounter between Meryem, Cemal and a retired university professor that they meet who is undergoing an existential crisis. The motif of life’s journey is depicted through the setting on a beautiful Aegean boat voyage.
The contrast between the codes of honor in the village from where Meryem is banished and the metropolis of a liberal Istanbul are critical dividers in cases of honor crimes. These moral codes burden women, and Cemal and his male compatriots residing in Istanbul are not convinced by such arbitrary and inequitable rules. Cemal, therefore, becomes committed to saving Meryem by taking her into hiding instead of killing her. In the process they encounter the professor who tests Cemal’s masculinist bent of suspicion and, ultimately, the tension is resolved through rationality and an appeal for trust rather than resorting to violence. Mutuluk is a full-length fiction-based film rather than a documentary and therefore follows a script that treats a central moral dilemma with a climactic peak, which is then tied up at the end with a happy conclusion. While the film may hold an interesting popular culture appeal, its pedagogical use may be more limited.
The documentary In the Name of the Family depicts the lives of four young women in Muslim immigrant families in North America. Of the four women featured in this investigative film on honor killings, only one, Fauzia Muhammad, survived. Canadian schoolgirl Aqsa Parvez and American sisters Amina and Sarah Said were suspected not of actual sexual relations but for the potential risk they posed for male honor due to their exhibition of some form of independent sexual agency. In the Name of the Family comes close to exploring this through the voices of the grieving family of the victims, and Fauzia’s father—who threatens his own daughter with violence and admits poignantly to the filmmaker that he is duty-bound to control her. The film stresses the cultural divide that characterizes the lives of young Muslim women in North America, which may resonate with students in these communities. The subject is treated with balance rather than sensationalization, and the casting of Fauzia the survivor—with her resistance to such codes—makes this case-based film an important commentary on the genuine disconnects between perceived masculinist duties and the various expressions of female freedoms that put pressures on both parties.
Discussing honor killing in a classroom requires a thoughtful contextualization and a careful historicization since it is rather easy to attribute this complex patriarchal practice solely to culture or religion. The violence against women in the documentaries and the feature film reviewed here take place under different social and historical circumstances. However, they attempt to unpack the fact that violent directives are not sanctioned by Islam and, instead, are derived from some ancient tribal notions of honor and family shame. But, they also show that this is not entirely or universally accurate. Honor killings are often premeditated and are punishments for a range of behaviors, such as disobeying parentally-sanctioned dress code or codes of conduct within the community, as depicted in In the Name of the Family, or demanding divorce and desiring a lover, as depicted in Quest for Honor and Mutuluk.
Therefore, in discussing these films, it is important to contextualize the patriarchal act of honor killing as a modern, postcolonial, post-occupation reinvention rather than some authentic tribal or religious cultural tradition.1 The practice of honor killing is also linked directly in many cases to the political economy of bride/dowry exchange, migration (rural-urban or diasporic), and endogamy. In other words, the patriarchal nature of marriage and of the structures of family and diasporic communities are key features connected to the honor code and sexual morality. Such violence is not merely the result of abstract feelings of male shame/honor. Interrupting the patriarchal linkages between abstract male-defined shame/honor, women’s sexualities, and the political economy of marital exchange requires more than a legal framework as is presented in Quest for Honor. These material connectors, and not only something called “culture,” glue male honor to women’s sexualities. In other contexts, where such connections have been legally, politically, culturally, or morally challenged, the chances to make violators accountable are more likely. In this critique our main point is that these films should help us, feminist educators, to renew the range of the debates on honor killing, which often reduces violence against women to culture, religion, psychology, or ignorance. We should explain patriarchy as a system of unequal gender relations that produces male domination and uses culture, racism, war, militarization, religion, poverty, and social space—including social media—in order to (re)produce itself.
1 Kumkum Sangari, “Patriarch/Patriarchies,” in Marxism and Feminism, ed. Shahrzad Mojab (London: Zed, 2015), 259-86.