Last month the Lebanese judiciary repealed an article of the penal code commonly referred to as “the honor crime” law. Years of pressure from activist groups and national and international human rights non-governmental organizations led to the repeal of article 562. Its text stated that a man who “finds his wife or his sister or one of his female agnates in the act of (witnessed) illegitimate sexual relations and kills or harms one of the actors” can receive a lesser sentence from the presiding judge. This law is explicitly gendered because the victims it constructs are females who occupy different kinship relations to the imagined male perpetrator. Furthermore, article 562 expands the common understanding of an honor crime by including the category of the wife as a possible victim, a kinship not defined by blood.
The repeal of article 562 was a legal event that was covered widely in national and international media, which lauded the Lebanese government and judiciary for their progressive “reform.” However, we should not be too quick to assume that the repeal of article 562 marks the end of legal protection for crimes that are framed within a discourse of honor. Now more than ever, we should be attendant to the complex ways that “honor” is referred to and regulated throughout the Lebanese penal code. Only then can we begin to understand how “honor” is a pervasive socio-legal category in Lebanese law, and one that has a deep and diasporic genealogy. The repeal of one article does not end the practice of providing reduced sentences for those who commit “honor crimes.” Perhaps counterintuitively, the repeal of what was most commonly understood as “the honor crime law” in Lebanon could further obscure the different ways that a socio-legal construction of honor affects male and female citizens.
In the arena of human rights, “honor crimes” have been discursively framed as a question of “women`s rights” and of the dangers of conservative (and lethal) patriarchal cultures. This is the story: Female bodies, long constituted as the repositories and expressions of a society`s social norms and ethics, are killed for honor. Men, long constituted as those who protect and regulate a society`s social norms and ethics, kill female bodies (and increasingly, feminized male bodies) that transgress codes of “honor.” Thus men and women snugly fit into categories of “victim” and “perpetrator” when it comes to honor crimes: Honor crimes occur when a male perpetrator kills a female (or feminized male) transgressor due to a concern over a social group`s “honor.” But even a cursory look at Lebanese penal code complicates this narrative, because several legal articles allow for concerns over “honor” to be a mitigating factor in sentencing. These include article 252, a Lebanese translation of the French “crime of passion,” which states that “he who commits a capital crime in a state of anger caused by an unlawful act” benefits from a lesser sentence.
While article 252 is often recognized as a law that should be removed from the Lebanese penal code, other laws have been the subject of less scrutiny by academics and activists. For example, two articles in the Lebanese penal code clearly position the female citizen as a perpetrator of violence who could receive a lesser prison sentence if her crimes are committed due to "honor” concerns. Thus, under Lebanese law, women who abort fetuses (abortion is illegal in Lebanon) and women who abandon or kill their children in order to protect their honor and/or their place in society can benefit from lesser prison sentences. These penal code articles invite us to expand our gendered imaginations of who can be the victim or the perpetrator of an “honor crime.” They challenge a political, academic and activist discourse that is myopically fixated on a definition of the “honor crime” that requires a male perpetrator and a (most often sexually) transgressing female victim in order to be legible.
The majority of “honor crime” victims are female bodied. This is an undeniable fact. It is also an undeniable fact that the discursive category of the “honor crime” is legally and socially produced. In Lebanon, activists have long argued (correctly) that the penal article regulating “honor crimes” should be deleted regardless of if and how often it is used in the adjudication of capital crimes. But article 562 is not the only law complicit in the legal expression of the concept of “honor.” Given that men who kill female relatives and women who kill their children and/or abort fetuses because of considerations of “honor” receive lesser penalties, why can we not think beyond a female victim-male perpetrator binary when it comes to this issue? Why is article 562 solely implicated in the construction of the legal category of the “honor crime,” if when one man dies while dueling with another man (Yes, dueling...as in sword dueling) over a question of honor, the “winner” of the duel receives a lesser sentence? What other discourses, interests, and narratives about gender, sex, patriarchy, violence, and culture facilitate the tunnel vision with which we approach the topic of the “honor crime?” When we fixate on one article in a (very long) penal code and then celebrate its (rightful) deletion, are we transforming the legal category of “honor” or are we reproducing the female body as the (only) repository of “honor” in patriarchal societies? Can we transform a legal ideology that protects and extends patriarchal power relations by cherry picking penal articles that reproduce the false assumption that women, and women only, are always already, and can only be, victims in such a neo-patriarchal order?
Legal systems do not function through singular articles. Legal systems express and reproduce social norms and practices through a variety of interconnected legal articles, logics and institutions. Unless we understand the different and shifting ways that male and female citizens are positioned within a legal logic of honor, we cannot hope to do anything more than end “honor crimes” at the expense of strengthening (though our self congratulatory myopia) the specter of “honor” in Lebanese law.
*I thank Nizar Saghiyyeh for encouraging me to write about this topic.