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Satisfying Honour and Blood Retaliation

Families visiting the circus in Baghdad, September 2011 Photo HH
Families visiting the circus in Baghdad, September 2011 Photo HH

Satisfying honour and blood retaliation are social mechanisms of pre-Islamic origin (although they are largely sanctioned by the Sharia, or Islamic law). Similar mechanisms are to be found also in non-Islamic societies, as in Christian southern Europe.

People resort to satisfying honour when their family’s reputation is damaged. In many cases, these situations arise from illicit contacts between men and women. Traditional societies do not permit unsupervised contact between males and females who are not married to one another and who could have sexual relations with one another. For minor violations the punishment is a beating or confinement at home for the woman. The consequences are more serious when illicit sexual contact has taken place. In these cases the woman involved may be killed by her father or brothers, in order to cleanse the family’s honour (when a family becomes known as ‘bad’, all its members are involved). Even when the transgression involves a married woman, male members of her family take action, and the deceived husband stays out of the picture. In the case of illicit sexual contact, violence can also be used against the male partner, but only in cases in which the woman’s family, in light of their power and influence, do not fear repercussions from the man’s family. Affairs of honour cannot be satisfied by monetary payments.

The basic principle behind blood retaliation is, that where blood has been shed, it must be paid for in the same way – the Biblical eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. When someone is killed by an act of violence, there are three options for the families of the perpetrator and the victim: 1) the victim’s family can demand that the perpetrator’s family deliver the perpetrator to them, or kill him themselves; 2) the victim’s family agrees to accept blood money, the amount of which is established in negotiations; 3) the victim’s family agrees that an unmarried woman from the perpetrator’s family be forced to marry a member of the victim’s family, so that the families are reconciled with one another through marriage. These three options are mutually exclusive; only one will apply in any given case. The blood-money option is generally chosen, except in the case of a particularly gruesome or premeditated murder, when blood money is rarely accepted.

If, in the absence of a settlement, the victim’s family commits violence against a random member of the perpetrator’s family, they violate the Sharia. The Sharia, like Western law, respects the principle that the perpetrator, and only the perpetrator, is responsible for his act.

It is not only members of traditional communities, especially in rural areas, who think and act in this way: affairs of honour and blood retaliation are also found in cities and diaspora communities.

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