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Honor and Femicide

Alberto Ares Mateos, SJandLorena Rojas Ávalos - La Civiltà Cattolica - Thu, Jul 20th 2023

Honor has played a very important role in Mediterranean cultures. As a traditional social element based on verbally established pacts, it has guaranteed respect for and fulfillment of contracted obligations.Although it is an individual who makes a pact, honor transcends the individual dimension to extend to the collective, to the family.

Every person receives from birth a share of power that is closely intertwined with the honor of a family, to an extent that depends on the family hierarchy. For example, the first-born male and other men or women do not have the same share of honor. Similarly, the acts of an elder or patriarch of the family are not comparable in importance to those of a young man.

While it has traditionally been the adult male who has made pacts and agreements, honor belongs to the family as a whole, and everyone must care for it and pass it on to the next generation as a treasure. Thus each member of the family has his or her share of responsibility in ensuring that the honor of the family is preserved rather than tarnished.

Honor, family roles, name and blood

On the subject of honor, sexual distinction plays a fundamental role in the attribution of family roles. Within Mediterranean cultures, men and women have defined roles. Broadly speaking, the woman has the responsibility to safeguard the purity of the family through her virginity. As for the man, he is responsible for protecting the family’s reputation. In the family context, the sphere of honor includes two spheres: internal and passive, traditionally assigned to women; and external and active, which is  the responsibility of men. Therefore, men earn honor actively, by performing deeds. On the other hand, women’s honor is not earned, but inherited, and lost only if shameful deeds are done.

Some authors associate these differentiated roles with two concepts: that of name and that of blood. The first refers to fame, the “good name,” social status or reputation, for which, within the family, the man is responsible. The woman, instead, is entrusted with the task of preserving the “blood,” that is, the purity of the lineage. On the basis of this distinction, it is observed that the most serious insults that can be addressed to a man in many languages of  Mediterranean culture do not concern his conduct, but that of the women of his family.

The code of honor and family history are passed down from generation to generation. Each family writes its history in the context of a process that goes back to the family past, whose  achievements and successes it passes down  and tries to pass over any moments of shame. In short, in this type of culture, honor has been perceived as a criterion  for evaluating each person and each family from a moral and social point of view. The preservation of honor constitutes a social obligation that subjects people to continuous public judgment and generates very strong ethnic, familial and social pressure on those who seek to protect and maintain it.

Femicide: an honor that writes names in blood

When we talk about patriarchy, we refer to a reality that characterizes societies on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean: sexist violence perpetrated against women.[1] In this section we consider,  the “femicides” or “feminicides” committed in Latin America, which present in  the most striking  way the extreme violence against women and the carelessness and laziness of the authorities regarding subsequent investigations.[2] Consequently, the inertia of the representatives of  justice would support the thesis that those murders were regarded as being  in the private dimension, as if they were mere family matters.

On the other hand, in some countries, including Brazil, as reported by the anthropologist Rita Segado, “the legitimate defense of honor remains an argument invoked by lawyers defending aggressive husbands.”[3] For Mediterranean cultures in particular, and Western cultures in general, within the structure of the patriarchal system, cases of feminicide fall within the context of patriarchal coercion, in which gendered violence against women “operates as a mechanism of control, subjugation, oppression, retribution, and heinous aggression, which generates power for men and their formal and informal institutions. The persistence of the patriarchal regime cannot sustain itself without violence against women that we now often refer to as ‘gendered’ violence, without the violence of men, the state, the media, civil and political organizations, churches and repressive forces.”[4]

What is meant by femicide or feminicide?

The term “femicide” first appeared toward the end of the 20th century. It was coined by the South African criminologist Diana Russell (1939-2020), who lived in the United States and dedicated herself to analyzing and denouncing the situation of women who were used in pornography and murdered in various types of snuff movies[5] or at the hands of their husbands or partners. In other words, if we consider femicide all situations in which women die on that “gendered” frontier “where there are no times of peace,” femicide designates “the misogynistic murder of women committed by men [and which has for its motive] hatred, contempt, pleasure or a sense of possession over women.”[6]

According to the most radical feminists, feminicide also has a significant political profile, because it constitutes a form of capital punishment that affects women as victims, and also their families and friendships, and is used as a means of controlling women in their sexual status, and as such is a central element in maintaining the patriarchal status quo. Thus the murder of women is closely linked to the roles they are assigned within that system. Ultimately, femicide is the bearer of a twofold message: if you are a woman, not being in your place can cost you your life; if you are a man, you can murder a woman and continue as if nothing happened.

Women and the private domain

We must remember that, unfortunately, the practice of killing women is an ancient one. It takes us all the way back to Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, when, for example, thousands of women were burnt at the stake because they were considered witches, and therefore evil. Things did not change with the advent of modernity. The sexual sphere was privatized, and any aggression against a woman carried out in private contexts, such as domestic violence, began to be included in the sexual dimension, so that such aggressions were considered only on a moral level and remained outside the legal  sphere.

On the other hand, throughout history, for some religions women’s bodies have been “marked” as if they were a territory. In Islam, for example, it is established what kind of clothes women should wear and, as we know, some fundamentalists set and apply very harsh punishments for those who transgress these rules. This is nothing more than a mark stamped on the female body by means of certain symbols.

To this must be added the conviction  that women must not perform certain acts and must be subject to  regulation. All these aspects do not necessarily denote a theological, doctrinal or moral requirement, but a kind of territorial right: women belong to their husbands. Consequently, they are not autonomous subjects of law and are treated as minors.

Feminicide in Latin America

In Latin America the problem has a different basis. It is a fact that femicides are committed and that domestic violence exists, as well as other types of aggression. However, the colonial character of Latin American countries, associated with the existence of indigenous societies before colonization, means that the relationship between men and women is in turn characterized by race, social class and migratory status. A specific example is what happens in Ciudad Juárez, where hundreds of poor, working-class women and internal migrants are murdered every year. The murder of women in this case is a way of “marking territory,” using the woman’s body to tell the local population, the police, and the state that there is a strict and absolute domination over a specific location. In effect, the woman is brutally reified, subjected to such violence that not only does it mark her body, but it seeks to destroy her. In Guatemala feminicides are acquiring characteristics very similar to those which occur   in Mexico, and unfortunately this phenomenon seems to extend to other countries in the south of the Latin American region.[7]

Violence and social stigma

Is violence against women a constitutive part of the cultures of Latin American countries? Our answer is affirmative. If we retrace their history, we will see that in the process of domination by European conquerors, violations committed by señores blancos against indigenous and black women were the order of the day. According to the Mexican scholar Araceli Barbosa, “at the time of the Conquest, few of the violated women were able to conceive children, because most of them died, killed by the conquistadors in the course of brutal individual or collective violence, aimed at showing the conquered – women and men – that they no longer possessed either national individuality or rights.”[8]

Therefore, feminicide in Latin America is rooted in sexism and racism. The woman’s body is used not only as a weapon of war, but also as a territory that can be exploited and violated: a territory that is either the private property of a master, or it is conquerable. So the whole legal system in turn helps to minimize the murder of certain women because they are prostitutes, lesbians or adulteresses, granting, in many cases, parole to their murderers. No matter how hard social organizations are working to put an end to this situation, the task of reaching all the levels that characterize it is truly arduous.

Honor and shame in postmodern societies

In postmodern societies the honor-shame scheme seems to have broken down, as a result of migration, the sexual revolution, cultural homogenization through the mass media, neoliberal individualism and the strong impact of globalization, which removes us from the local dimension and introduces us into a public and global arena. We will now examine some of these aspects.

– Migration and Honor. Migration from the countryside to the city has blurred issues like origins and family history. From personal experience, we know of such cases involving young people in India, in big cities like Bangalore, where marriages and couples are formed across social classes and castes, a situation unimaginable until a few decades ago. In this regard, many Bollywood films portray and thematize the tragedy of marriages between families of different social classes. This same tendency is found in emigrant men and women who, when they arrive in the host country, often perceive a lower level of social and family pressure than in their place of origin. On the other hand, the role of women in society is changing rapidly in various parts of the world, so that in many cases it is they who take decisions on a personal level, rather than being subjected to family and social pressure.

– Enduring Codes of Honor. And yet, we continue to come across episodes indicating the opposite case, as in certain Mediterranean areas where the code of honor is still in force, in one way or another. For example, the “vendetta” in the South of Italy, the “kanun”[9] in Albania and the legal repudiation of the woman in Algeria if she does not arrive at marriage as a virgin. One of the peoples among whom this code of honor is preserved in the strictest  way is undoubtedly that of the Gypsies. The Kalé ethnic group has no real written law, but preserves a series of cultural codes that are transmitted from generation to generation. According to Gypsy customs, men are expected to protect the honor of the family, and women are responsible for preserving purity. In gypsy weddings, virginity is an essential factor, and the so-called “handkerchief test” becomes a central event that legitimizes the goodwill of the two families with respect to the couple’s common future.

– Modernity, the Individual and Power. Those constitutive mechanisms of political and social power that in the pre-modern West were the prerogative of lineage have been profoundly altered with the transition to modernity. The social and political rise of the bourgeoisie, and with it the liberalism that was its ideology, can be read as a relentless process of social and cultural change that originated from the radical questioning of the legitimacy of power based on lineage and, consequently, of the “honor” attributed to the corporation or collectivity that exercised it.

Let us remember that monarchies saw their power legitimated by the honor of the nobility, that is, by that of a family lineage. In other words, the triumph of the individual in liberalism – be it English or French – over “bodies, collectivities and corporations” in the middle of the 18th century transformed the way of understanding the legitimation of both political and social power, and thus the hierarchical-vertical organization of power within social institutions, including the family, was broken. From then  on, the bearer of rights, obligations and values was an individual endowed with freedom.

– Honor and Freedom. This freedom, however, is not a “freedom to,” like that of the ancients. The freedom of the Modernists, in fact, came with a change of preposition: it is now a matter of “freedom from,” that is, a freedom with a negative sense, a restrictive freedom, one that seeks to free itself from the state, the nation, the oppressive society, the opinion of others, the family, the lineage, and even the “powerful.” Undoubtedly, we are facing an authentic revolution, since power will find its legitimating mechanism no longer in procedures or customary structures, but in a dynamic of free association. In the modern world, the authority of a pater or of family is  transfigured into the association of wills. The advent of this “freedom from” stands for the new primacy of the will beyond the imposition of customary norms.

– Social, political, cultural and sexual emancipation. Having said this, it is not surprising that in those peoples where such cultural modernity triumphed at the end of the 18th century, throughout the 19th and into the beginning of the 20th, the organization of power and values within families underwent a profound process of democratization, which radically challenged the vertical mode of relations between their members.

In this sense, the second half of the 20th century witnessed the emergence of strong social movements that rejected the legacies of the pre-modern culture that was based on the honor of a lineage and was linked to a hierarchical organization of power within those institutions that form the social fabric. The struggles for political, social, cultural or sexual emancipation that took place in those years constitute a vivid testimony to the social and cultural changes, without which it would not be possible to understand those matters connected to what we now call “postmodernity.”

– Honor and Power Structures. But history is never linear. As such, it shows us that modernity has not come about homogeneously, neither in all latitudes nor even where it has come about. The survival of strong interfamilial, social or political contrasts in areas where progress is seemingly unstoppable, within a framework of planetary globalization, has had a significant impact within societies that have not been transformed by the changes inherent in modernity. Similarly, the persistence of power structures based on family honor, and not on agreements or associations between free individuals, is a sign of social relations and cultural factors that reject the horizontality inherent in the mechanisms of social consensus and political democracy. In this context, the freedom of women to make decisions without taking into account the social precepts that shape the honor of the lineage provokes a real head-on collision, generated by a society that places the legitimacy of individual and social decisions in the mechanisms of the will. This is the case, however, not of any will, but of the will introduced by classical liberalism, which in its theoretical affirmation considers itself a “free will.”

Thus we come to the ongoing debate between pre-modernity, modernity and post-modernity about how to legitimize power – be it familial, social or political – on the basis of two questions inescapable for a social and historical analysis: how freedom is to be understood, and to whom is this attribute  to be granted. In societies untouched by modernity, the primacy of lineage honor is understood as a freedom that rests on nothing but a body (family, guild, corporation). For modernity, on the other hand, freedom is rooted in the individual. It is there that the long and unfinished struggle for the emancipation of women develops. In order for the attribute of an unconditioned freedom to rest with  her, she has to cross the barrier of the “honor of the lineage.” This was undoubtedly a fracture of momentous dimensions, because it takes us back to the beginning of time (anthropological time) of Mediterranean culture and, substantially, of human culture.

Social role and honor

According to a social and anthropological perspective, so far we have argued that male honor is ultimately active, because it is obtained through the performance of valiant actions; on the other hand, female honor is passive, because it is simply inherited. Therefore, any action performed by a woman can be considered shameful and, consequently, can lead to the loss of honor. This distinction that the public space is reserved for men and the private or domestic space for women has also been addressed from a cultural perspective.

According to the philosopher Alicia Puleo, by “gender” we mean the cultural construction that each society elaborates starting from  anatomical sex and that goes to determine, at least to some extent and depending on the epoch and culture, the destiny of the person, prevailing roles, their status and even identity, as a sexed individual. Thus, in different cultures the sexual identity or the psychological construction of the individual will vary depending on whether the person is a man or a woman. With regard to this aspect, we can ask how this identity is constructed.

Firstly, in Mediterranean culture, women were assigned the role of transmitting cultural values, so that, from generation to generation, they were given the responsibility of communicating values such as, for example, honor and the purity of the lineage. This role entrusted to women by patriarchal society was reinforced through rules, sanctions and stereotypes, to such an extent that anyone who contravened those rules would be punished more or less severely depending on the social group and era to which they belonged.

In this respect, today we have clear examples of situations that go as far as family punishment for dishonor, including even the murder of a woman. Moreover, since the rise of the bourgeoisie, the principle of freedom shaping liberalism has been one of restrictive freedom in which public space has been reserved for men and private space for women. This exclusion of women from the political sphere was supported, in the opinion of some feminist authors, by philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for whom the ideal citizen should have an intense and direct political participation. In order for him to implement it, a woman was needed who would remain confined within the domestic space and take care of all the chores he himself need not concern himself with. Therefore, Rousseau’s educational treatise, the Emile, presents an educational model diversified according to sex.

Second, women were not only transmitters of values but also holders of power. Some gender studies shed a different light on the private space in which women were confined. This was by no means an oasis of peace, as liberalism had portrayed it. Rather, it was a space of power not untethered from public structures of authority.

But are women really completely responsible for everything that happens in the home, including the transmission of values? Some scholars have wondered whether these values are really transmitted to the child through the mother, or whether it is rather a later process of socialization. Thus, from a psychological perspective, culture is nothing more than a reflection of the psyche, so that in order to succeed in changing culture, one must also challenge it. From this point of view, globalization becomes a factor of change.

This brings us to the third aspect. The change of mentality could play a fundamental role in breaking down those cultural patterns that are perpetuated from generation to generation. This would also explain, in part, why some women decide to break models that have been imposed on them since ancient times, but which are belied by current standards. But what is it that encourages such a change in societies that in some ways, as we said at the beginning, have not seen a revolution as in Britain and France, and that in any case now seek a different role or status? Has it been globalization that, by contributing to the change, has induced the overcoming of what anthropologists call “the male supremacy complex” (complex in the sense of a set of different elements forming a unity)? Or are we simply faced with a patriarchal model perpetuating itself, but this time with a more affable face?

Two types of patriarchy

When we speak of cultural models, we must refer – albeit succinctly – to an important fact: the type of norms and sanctions that the patriarchal system imposes on various societies. We present here a schematic diagram:[10]

We observe how precisely in coercive systems, in which with greater force honor would act as a moral and social means of control, the primacy of lineage is understood as a freedom that is based above all on the family, of which the visible subject is the woman before the individual.


Our history is written on the basis of the experience that shapes us, feeds us and constructs us. This history is re-created on the basis of narratives marked  by cultural processes, social advances, power plays and transformations in the transmission of values. It is  a non-linear path, in which at times a status quo and a strong social power structure continue to perpetuate themselves.

There is no doubt that postmodern societies have dealt a serious blow to the honor-shame scheme through processes such as the sexual revolution, migratory movements and the strong impact of globalization. But this path must continue, also being characterized by encounter, discernment and the search for truth.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 6, no.12 art. 12, 1222: 10.32009/22072446.1222.12

[1].      In 2019, 1,421 women were killed in Western Europe, an average of four per day, one every six hours: 285 in France, 276 in Germany, 126 in Spain and 111 in Italy. But the perspective changes if you take into account the number of inhabitants: women victims of voluntary homicide are 4.06 per 100,000 inhabitants in Latvia, 2.23 in Cyprus, 1.59 in Montenegro, 1.47 in Lithuania, 1.24 in Malta, 1.07 in Finland, 0.93 in Denmark, 0.91 in Albania, 0.89 in Bulgaria and Austria. The latest official data contained in the Eurostat database ( confirm a trend that has emerged in recent years.  The highest homicide rates among women are recorded in Eastern and Southern European countries. In the tragic ranking, from eleventh place onward we find Estonia (0.86 women killed per 100.000 inhabitants), France (0.82), Serbia (0.81), the Czech Republic (0.71), Romania (0.72), Croatia (0.67), Germany (0.66), Slovakia (0.65), Hungary (0.61), Norway (0.61), Switzerland (0.60), Spain (0.53), Sweden (0.49), the Netherlands (0.48), Poland (0.41) and Slovenia (0.38). Italy, again in 2019, falls to 0.36 women killed per 100,000 inhabitants (from 0.45 the previous year), followed only by Greece (0.34) and Ireland (0.32).The absolute numbers are disturbing. In 2019 – France, Germany, Spain and Italy aside – 80 women killed were in Poland, 71 in Romania, 42 in Latvia, 42 in the Netherlands, 40 in Austria, 39 in the Czech Republic, 32 in Bulgaria, 31 in Hungary, 30 in Finland, 29 in Serbia, 27 in Denmark, 26 in Switzerland, 25 in Sweden, 22 in Lithuania, 19 in Greece, 18 in Slovakia, 16 in Norway, 14 in Croatia, 13 in Albania, 10 in Cyprus, 10 in Bosnia-Herzegovina, 8 in Ireland, 6 in Estonia, 5 in Montenegro, 4 in Slovenia, 3 in Malta and 3 in Kosovo. But in a trend of decreasing voluntary homicides, it is striking that female victims represent more than half of the total victims in Malta (80%, three out of five), Cyprus (66.6%), Latvia (62.7%), Norway (57.1%), Switzerland (56.5%) and Austria (51.9%). This was followed by Hungary (48.4%), Germany (44.3%), Croatia (42.4%), Denmark (40.9%), Bulgaria (40%), the Netherlands (38.5%), Spain (37.8%), Italy (35.3%), Finland (34%), France (33.1%), Serbia (32.2%), Poland (31.6%) and Romania (29%).

[2].      In a recent report on femicides preceded by details of  enforced disappearance in the State of Mexico (see Justice on trial, Amnesty International has  denounced the lack of judicial action and the negligence of the authorities, with the result that evidence is lost, not all lines of inquiry are followed up and the gender perspective is not properly applied. These factors increase the likelihood of such crimes going unpunished. This failure of justice is similar to that found in other cases, such as over 20 years ago in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua State. In 2020 there were femicides  in all 32 Mexican states. In total, 3,723 women were murdered, and 940 of these deaths were investigated as feminicides. In its report, Amnesty International describes four cases of feminicide preceded by disappearance, explaining how investigations were inadequate: Nadia Muciño Márquez, who was killed in 2004; Daniela Sánchez Curiel, who disappeared in 2015 and whose family claims she was a victim of feminicide; Diana Velázquez Florencio, who disappeared and was later killed in 2017; and Julia Sosa Conde, who disappeared and was killed in 2018. In each of these cases, the crime scene was not properly examined, evidence was not preserved or secured, forensic analysis was not conducted, and data, objects, substances and testimony were lost.

[3].      Cfr R. L. Segato, Las estructuras elementales de la violencia: contrato y status en la etiología de la violencia”, Brasilia, Universidade de Brasilia, 2003, 1-19.

[4].      Id., Las estructuras elementales de la violencia. Ensayos sobre género entre la antropologia, el psicoanálisis y los derechos humanos, Buenos Aires, Universidad Nacional de Quilmes, 2003, 15.

[5].      The snuff movie is a type of video in which a person or a group of people are actually tortured or murdered. It is footage that circulates amongst  wealthy individuals  who pay large sums of money for such footage.

[6].      J. Radford – D. E. Russell (eds), Feminicidio. La política del asesinato de las mujeres, México, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 2006, 33. Cf. I. Solyszko Gomes, “Femicidio y feminicidio: Avances para nombrar la expresión letal de la violencia de género contra las mujeres ”, in GénEros 13 (2013) 23-41.

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