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Back | Programme Area: Gender and Development (2000 - 2009)

Religion, Culture and the Politicization of Honour-Related Violence: A Critical Analysis of Media and Policy Debates in Western Europe and North America

Over the past decade, the issue of honour-related violence (including honour killing and forced marriage) has entered media and policy debates in immigrant-receiving countries like the Netherlands, Germany, Britain and Canada. In some of these countries, media debate has instigated policy debate.

This paper analyses how media, parliaments and other state institutions, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) conceptualize honour killing and honour-related violence in order to uncover how such conceptualizations inform policy responses. The analysis reveals three main trends:

i. discussions that link honour killing to Islam and/or the backwardness of immigrant communities in ways that lead to the stigmatization of entire immigrant communities;
ii. culture-blind portrayals of honour-related violence as domestic violence or violence against women that do not pay attention to cultural specificities; and
iii. debates that are contextually specific, framing honour-related violence as a contextually informed form of violence against women that occurs within particular immigrant communities but where this violence does not essentialize the culture and practices of those communities as a whole.

The paper shows that these discursive conceptualizations inform different policy approaches to the issue. Korteweg and Yurdakul contend that discussions of honour-related violence that stigmatize are more likely to lead to general anti-immigrant policies or policies that impede settlement. Debates that frame honour-related violence as a variant of the generally widespread problem of domestic violence and violence against women are more likely to lead to policies that directly target these forms of violence.

The country-specific findings show that the stigmatization of Muslim communities is present in media and political debates in each country, albeit in varying degrees. In the Netherlands, the authors found contextually specific policy making, which was embedded in the country’s multiculturalist tradition. Although there is a recent debate on the decline of multiculturalism in the Netherlands, institutional structures still permit immigrant-oriented and inclusive political decision-making processes. The policies against gendered violence in the Netherlands are largely contextually specific, integrating different actors (such as NGOs, shelters and police) and aiming for prevention and protection as well as prosecution. By contrast, the German media and political debates are particularly stigmatizing without informing or offering alternative ways of policy making. This has led to policies that generally restrict immigration rather than those that directly target gendered violence in immigrant communities. In Britain, perhaps the most paradoxical case of all four countries, stigmatization and contextually specific approaches were both present. The recent shift from British multiculturalism to social cohesion policies brings a new approach to dealing with immigrant-related issues in the country in general, and policy approaches to gendered violence in immigrant communities has partially reflected this shift in immigrant integration policies. Culture-blind portrayals of honour-related violence are especially prevalent in Canadian media and political debates. In Canada, violence against women in immigrant communities is discussed only within the domestic violence framework, ignoring the immigration context that may affect this kind of violence. Therefore, no policies in Canada specifically acknowledge, define or target honour-related violence.

The authors suggest that policy responses will be effective only insofar as gendered violence is understood within its social, cultural and political context and if that context is not seen as foreign but rather as part of the new social relations in the immigrant-receiving society. Hence, they argue that honour-related violence needs to be understood not as a “cultural” or “religious” problem that afflicts particular immigrant communities (in this case, often those perceived and represented as Muslim) but as a specific manifestation of the larger problem of violence against women (which concerns all communities, whether immigrant or not) that in the case of immigrant communities is shaped and informed by the immigration experience. Only a contextually specific approach allows for this understanding.

Anna C. Korteweg is Assistant Professor of Sociology and Associate Member of the Centre for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Toronto, Canada. Gökce Yurdakul is Professor of Diversity and Social Conflict, Humboldt Universität zu Berlin, Institute for Social Sciences, Berlin Graduate School of Social Sciences, Germany.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 12 Nov 2010
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1994-8026
    From: UNRISD/UN Publications