When I was 21, an acquaintance of mine sexually assaulted me. A few years later, I married a man who physically assaulted and verbally abused me. Like many survivors, I was so ashamed and numb, I didn’t report or seek counseling for either of these crimes. But unlike many victims, I launched myself on a spiritual quest to try to understand why gender-based violence happens – the deep why – and what I discovered helped heal me -- and just may hold a secret to female empowerment.
About 20 years ago, during that abusive relationship, I was traveling as a journalist in the Middle East when I learned about the practice of ‘honor killing’. I didn’t know what that term meant at first, but I felt a chill from head to toe.
Honor killing is the murder of a female by a male relative for immoral behavior that brings public shame on the family. This may include anything from looking at a boy, to adultery or being raped. Killing the woman restores the family’s so-called honor. 20,000 such murders occur annually in the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, north Africa and immigrant communities worldwide, including in Europe and North America, and most killers go free or receive light sentences.
I felt a profound empathy for the women who live in the Honor Killing Zone. And I suddenly realized, as an American woman, however embarrassing and inconvenient it was, I could leave the violent relationship I was in. But for most women living under threat of honor killing, escaping it is rarely an option -- it’s the air they breathe. These women gave me the courage to leave my abuser and save my own life.
So I moved far away and started my life over. I began researching honor killing like my life depended on it. Without realizing it, I was trying to heal my own trauma. And I wanted all women to have the choice I had – to get to safety and live with dignity and self-determination again.
I focused on the origins of honor killing because I thought something must have gone very wrong in a culture for honor killing to start and become normalized. Instinctively, I felt if that was understood, maybe it would open a doorway to ending the practice.
The published research said the origins were either Islamic, pre-Islamic or unknown. I couldn’t find evidence for it being Islamic, and if it were pre-Islamic, why did they stop there? There’s a heck of a lot of history before the 7th century! Wasn’t anybody else as curious as me?
After I exhausted the literature, I started calling non-governmental organizations, scholars and social workers in the Honor Killing Zone and asking -- which I quickly discovered was taboo when most people cut off communication with me. And that’s when it dawned on me: Honor killing has managed to go on unabated for so long because of this conspiracy of silence. And I realized it would continue on because of this -- until and unless somebody really spoke up.
It occurred to me that honor killing doesn’t just affect the 20,000 women and girls who are murdered annually. What about all the others living curtailed lives in fear to avoid being killed? Who may be subject to other forms of honor violence like stalking, harassment, physical/sexual/emotional/verbal abuse, false imprisonment, forced marriage and female genital mutilation? How many of them are there?
To my shock, I couldn’t even locate that statistic. So I looked at the populations where honor killing predominantly occurs and calculated how many females live there: It could be as high as 800 million. At least that’s about how many women live under oppressive patriarchal cultures where most of their choices aren’t their own and many could be hurt or killed by their families if they fail to toe the line.
It took me a decade, but I built a theory of the ancient, lost origins of honor killing. A more sensible person would’ve written a dissertation and gotten a PhD out of it, but I wove my findings into a novel, The Seven Perfumes of Sacrifice.
What I didn’t expect to discover is that honor killing – and perhaps all violence against women -- appears to be one of the lingering legacies of a pivotal time of transformation in human history that has largely been swept under the rug. In roughly 200,000 years of homo sapiens, only the last 5,000-7,000 years have been dominated by patriarchal religions and power. Archaeology reveals that during the previous 193,000 years, worship of the Divine Feminine was the primary and first religion almost everywhere, including in the Honor Killing Zone.
This matters because a number of scholars believe that where mainly a goddess was traditionally worshipped, people valued nurturing, cooperation, reverence for nature, partnership and compassion. In these cultures, women usually enjoyed higher status than many women have today. This was evident in their art, surviving poetry and in clues left by their bones that show equivalent nutrition in both genders as in Catalhoyuk in Turkey, which is not always the case later. Indeed, as mythologist Joseph Campbell said, the deity you worship is the one you are capable of becoming.
So, when the patriarchal religions began to take over about 5000 BC, it took more than 5,000 years of violent aggression and the rewriting of sacred stories to discredit and oust the Goddess and was so thorough, the past was almost erased from history. I believe that it was in this time of transition from Goddess worship to God worship, when women first became property of men, that honor killing was born. It was so effective at intimidating women to maintain the new system of male privilege, it stuck.
Now, you don’t have to change your religion to appreciate the implications in this. In the scope of human existence, men dominating is the outlier. For about 97% of the time, it’s mostly been harmony and a partnership between the genders. It hasn’t always been a man’s world; in fact, it’s barely been one. The truth has been lost or suppressed, the story rewritten, disempowering so many of us, men included. Very few schools teach this material; I had to dig for almost a decade to uncover it.
But my discovery was profoundly healing for me and has given me great hope for the future of gender relations. If knowing this is at all empowering to you, imagine what it might mean to the women in the Honor Killing Zone. Several recent studies indicate that large percentages of women there believe they deserve to be beaten by their husbands for things like arguing with him, burning dinner, refusing sex or leaving the house without permission. And more women than men believe this.
Another survey revealed that a majority of women reject honor killing in only three out of eleven Honor Killing Zone countries surveyed. Many of these women reject “women’s rights”, but they weren’t asked if they want respect, dignity, health, safety, education, employment, bodily integrity, justice or love – most of which I suspect they do, yet there is an association with the West that turns many off to claiming their rights. Ironically, these rights were alive and well in the Honor Killing Zone for millennia – long before Western women claimed them. I just don’t think they remember. And if they don’t know, how would these women feel to know their ancestors were queens who governed nations, High Priestesses who presided over the holiest ceremonies of the Great Goddess, inventors, scribes, healers, lawmakers, entrepreneurs and mothers – who were exalted for being mothers? And whose name and property descended through the female line for many millennia.
For women to be empowered globally, many things need to happen, but no initiatives can work if the women don’t feel worthy of them. That’s why I feel our knowing the truth of the past could be an important key to unlocking our own future empowerment.
Berivan Elif Kilic, a Kurd from southern Turkey, wed her cousin in an arranged marriage when she was just 15. She had two children with him, one disabled; he beat her daily for years. She didn’t believe she could leave him because no one had ever done that where she’s from for fear of honor killing. Finally one day, after 14 years of abuse, she reached the end of her rope. She told her parents they had to permit her to divorce him or she might kill herself. To her surprise, her father did the brave and rare compassionate thing and went against tradition risking public ostracism to protect her. Berivan divorced her abuser with her parents’ support and to their surprise, their lives in the village didn’t fall apart. As she healed, her confidence grew, other women in the village started looking to her as a role model to improve their own lives, and this year, she was elected mayor of her village. She is working towards her high school diploma now at age 33. I went to visit her this past summer, made a new friend and am championing her continued success.
Unfortunately, Berivan’s story is the exception – thousands of young women in these places are killed for honor when they attempt to assert their own choices. My hope is that one day young women like her – and like me 20 years ago – will all know that it hasn’t always been a man’s world -- and won’t wait for years to claim our humanity.
The silver lining about the violence I experienced is that it broke open my heart without killing me. I discovered that I am both stronger and softer than I ever knew. Most of all, I know I’m worthy – like a Goddess. As I believe we all are.Transforming the World from the Inside Out