Failing Women Under Islam

On Monday, June 2, 2014, the Toronto Star published a letter to the editor by Judy Haiven, a professor in the Department of Management at Saint Mary’s University, Halifax, Nova Scotia. Professor Haiven was responding to a story covered by the newspaper about a woman who was stoned to death outside a court on Mary 28th in Pakistan.  It was reported as an “honor killing.” The story noted that, since 2013, as of the time of the story being penned, 869 women in Pakistan were victims of honor killing.

The letter, which is making the rounds on progressive social media, is a classic example of how, for some Westerners, eagerness to deflect criticism of Islam diminishes the capacity to objectively determine and assess the relevant facts concerning violence against women in Muslim-dominated countries, effectively downplaying the extent of suffering of women and girls under Islam.

Professor Haiven writes, 

Your article says that, since 2013, 869 women suffered “honor killings” in Pakistan. Compare this to the United States, where three women a day are killed by their male partners or husbands. By my count, since 2013 about 1,095 women were killed by men who think they have been dishonoured by their female partners.

Maybe the women wanted to leave the marriage, or had found a new partner, but clearly the men felt betrayed and dishonoured by their partners and killed them. The media are quick to target women murders in Muslim-dominated countries, but maybe the media should also look at the facts in the U.S. (and Canada) as well.

Of course, the media should look at the facts of violence against women in the US (and Canada). But the article in question was about violence against women in Pakistan, which is significantly worse in Pakistan than it is in North America.

Pakistan, with a population of approximately 180 million people, is roughly 56 percent of the size of the United States, which has a population of approximately 320 million people. It should have been obvious to Professor Haiven that, controlling for population size, honor killings in Pakistan are proportionately higher than in the United States even if we assume all violence against women in the latter country are analogous to honor killings. Assuming women are approximately half the population of each country, not controlling for age (which presents women with different levels of risks), the death rate for female victims of domestic violence is .68 per 100,000 in the US compared to a higher rate of .96 per 100,000 for Pakistan. The difference in rates is so significant that greater precision won’t change its significance.

Professor Haiven compares honor killings in Pakistan with all cases of female deaths from domestic violence in the United States. Honor killings are a subset of female deaths from domestic violence. It is estimated that 5,000 women are killed per year in Pakistan from domestic violence.  That’s a murder rate of 5.5 per 100,000 – a rate eight times higher than the United States. Add to this figure some 800 Pakistani women who kill themselves every year to escape an abusive relationship.

Violence against women is not generally regarded as criminal in Pakistan – even violence that ends in homicide. When attempts are made to address the epidemic of violence, such as the Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act of 2015, mainstream Islamic parties, clerics, and other Islamic entities aggressively voice their opposition, declaring such laws “un-Islamic” (as are laws attempting to stop child marriages, lessen the burden of absurd evidentiary standards in cases of rape, etc.).  Even where laws are passed, they are rarely enforced as they are not seen as legitimate because they contradict Islamic law. Moreover, most victims of violence are too afraid to report crimes, and those that do are often intimidated into withdrawing complaints. 

It is widely recognized among human rights observers that there is an epidemic of violence against women in Pakistan. Women by the several thousands are burned, strangled, dismembered, and driven to suicide every year in this Muslim-dominated country. Thousands more maimed in brutal beatings, disfigured with acid, and raped with little recourse (they need four male witnesses to testify to the rape before authorities will even consider trying the case, and then the victim’s life is in mortal danger). Children are married off to adult men.  And along side these horrors, women are routinely subject to less-than-debilitating beatings by their husbands and male relatives, leaving deep emotional scars. This violence is in significant measure rooted in the misogynistic character of real world Islam. 

To suggest that Western media is “quick to target women murders in Muslim-dominated countries,” not subtly implying that taking up the matter of the crisis of violence against women in Pakistan issues from anti-Muslim bias, and, furthermore, that placing the blame where it belongs (to a significant degree on Islamic belief), is an outrageous act of denying the suffering of Pakistani women and the ideology that cause that suffering.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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