Italy: Slow Changes in the Ways to Tackel 'Honour' Killings

Publication Date: 
January 20, 2011
Dr. Valentina Colombo

By Valentina Colombo 

In Sweden between January 20th and January 22nd, in occasion of the 9th anniversary of the tragic death of the young girl of Kurdish origins, the association “Never forget Pela and Fadime” in the person of the president Sara Mohammad, herself a survivor of a forced marriage, organized many public events to stress that Sweden will not forget Fadime and the other victims of honor related violence.

In Italy there is no such celebration, but we could, better, we should envisage a day in which we say that we will not forget Hina, Sanaa and Begum, that is the Italian victims of honor killings. As other European countries Italy is facing the sad truth of honor-related violence inside its borders. As other European countries Italy is starting to look in a different way to multiculturalism and to ask itself “what went wrong” with it.

As a matter of fact in 2009 resolution 1681  of the European Parliamentary Assembly on the urgent need to combat so-called “honor crimes” immediately pointed out the “emergency” in Europe. It read: “Drawing attention to its Resolution 1327 (2003) on so-called “honor crimes”, the Parliamentary Assembly notes that the problem, far from diminishing, has worsened, including in Europe. It mainly affects women, who are its most frequent victims, both in Europe and the rest of the world, especially in patriarchal and fundamentalist communities and societies”. For this reason it asked the Council of Europe Council of Europe member states to “draw up and put into effect national action plans to combat violence against women, including violence committed in the name of so-called “honor”, if they have not already done so”. Unfortunately honor-related violence can be now be described as a European phenomenon. On January 20th at the Swedish Parliament was held an international conference on the topic where the alert sounded very clear. Sara Mohammad pointed out the need for an intelligent integration policy, her concern for cultural relativism in Europe and the spread of political islam In Europe, Jasvinder Sanghera, president of Karma Nirvana Association in the UK and herself a survivor of a honor killing showed how honor-related violence has to be tackled with education and denounced the lack of knowledge and deep insight of British institutions.

As far as Italy is concerned the history of honor killings and the way they have been tackled by justice and government shows that something has been done, either directly or indirectly, in this direction. In 2005 Purna Sen, Head of Human Rights at Commonwealth Secretariat, suggested six key features of honor killings:

1.       Gender relations that problematise and control women’s behavior, shaping and controlling women’s sexuality in particular;

2.       The role of women in policing and monitoring women’s behavior

3.       Collective decisions regarding punishment, or in upholding the actions considered appropriate, for transgressions of these boundaries

4.       The potential for women’s participation in killings

5.       The ability to reclaim honor through enforced compliance or killings

6.       State sanction of such killings through recognition of honor as motivation and mitigation.

The above mentioned characteristics perfectly describe the first case of honor killing in Italy. On August 11th 2006 Hina Saleem, a 21 year old girl of Pakistani origin living in Brescia, in Northern Italy, was slain by her father apparently “only” because she wanted to live like a Westerner and had decided to go and live with a non-Muslim man. The crime was committed after he developed the so-called 'family council' during which she was convicted of her free behavior. HIna’s mother repeatedly said during interviews that if her daughter had behaved properly she would not have been killed. At the time neither Italy was prepared nor Italian judges and politicians did. Hina's boyfriend immediately announced his intention to stand as a plaintiff. At least three buses arrived in Brescia from Milan, Rome and Turin with a board of women belonging to Acmid, that is the Association of Moroccan Women in Italy, led by the now MP Souad Sbai. Acmid declared their intention to stand as plaintiff together with Hina's boyfriend, but they were refused by the judge because “they had nothing to do with it”. At the same time the boyfriend was represented by the brave lawyer Loredana Gemelli who during the trial found out that the honor crime against Hina was more a vengeance than a honor killing. She found out that her father had raped her many times and that the girl, when she was 14, she had denounced him to the police, but nothing had been done to protect her. Hina’s case showed many shortcomings at any level, from the judiciary to the social, and we can say that all six features Sen outlined were present.

The second case of honor killing in Italy dates back to September 15th 2009. In Pordenone, Northeastern Italy, Sanaa Dafani, an 18 year old girl of Moroccan origin, was killed by her father because she had a relationship with  a 31 years old Italian. The father was immediately arrested while the mother, like in Hina’s case, tried to find a reason for his act: “My husband loved Sanaa. Maybe she was wrong. I could forgive my husband. Yes, I could. He is my husband, my sons’ father. Sanaa dressed and ate in a proper way, but he did not want her to go out in the evening with bad boys or friends. My husband loved Sanaa. Maybe she was wrong. He always sent her messages: come back home. He wanted her beside him.” However, as a result of more awareness of the seriousness of the issue, this time the court accepted Acmid to stand as plaintiff together with Sanaa’s boyfriend and Region Friuli-Venezia Giulia. For the first time we also had the Minister of Equal Opportunities to institute a civil action against the father. Besides this the lawyer Loredana Gemelli, representing this time Acmid and all the other plaintiffs, asked for a summary judgement of the father which usually implies a shortening of the punishment. As another step forward towards awareness of the emergency honor-related crimes the court did not only accept the request but also punished the father with the maximum punishment, that is life sentence. So if we want to go back to Sen’s features here we find that at least point 6 no more applies to this case.

The last honor killing in Italy is very recent dating back to October 2010 and it shows another change compared to Sen’s characteristic.  Another feature missing in this case is the mother’s complicity towards the father. In a village near Modena, in Northern Italy, the Pakistani Begum Shahnaz was killed by her husband Ahmad Khan Butt because she defended her daughter Nosheen who refused an arranged marriage. The daughter, 20-year-old, was admitted to hospital with a cranial traumatism and a broken arm after her 19-year-old brother beat  her with a stick in the courtyard of their building. The reaction was immediate and again Minister of Equal Opportunities said she would stand as co-plaintiff in the case, declaring that "Standing as plaintiff is a way of showing my support for young immigrant women, to underscore that our country is with them every time their freedom and dignity are attacked". The Pakistani community in the person of Ahmed Ejaz, a journalist and liberal Muslim, condemned the crime, admitting that there is a problem inside the community itself and that has to be solved through education and a liberal religious interpretation.  

In the meantime in 2008 Souad Sbai, Italian of Moroccan origin and President of Acmid, has been elected an MP.  In February 2010 she made a proposal in the Parliament to abolish the cultural extenuating circumstance in trials regarding honor-related crimes. She proposed a reformation of articles 133 and 62bis of Italian penal code which provide a reduction of punishment for crimes committed in the shadow of suspected cultural traditions. On Sbai’s opinion a honor-related crime has to be handled as other ones. Sbai who has been working with immigrant women in Italy for many years denounces the failure of multiculturalism and the danger of cultural relativism in Europe. Her experience shows that a look from the inside of immigrant communities is needed to avoid naïve behaviors and decisions. I am deeply convinced that the steps forwards made in Italy in the way to fight honor-related crimes owe a lot to people like her and like the many victims she has been rescuing and helping and that now are working with her, to people like lawyer Loredana Gemelli.  After the Swedish conference, MP Sbai has agreed to have a day in Italy to remember that Italy will not forget its victims of honor killings.

It is very clear that Europe is at a crossroad. As Angela Merkel recently admitted multiculturalism failed, as Rasmussen pointed out Europe needs new immigration policies. Lately a Swedish newspaper wrote that in 2011 almost 70.000 young girls and boys in Swedish will not be able to choose their partner. The questions are: how to change the situation? How to deal with? I believe that Europe should start to stick together and fight this sad and dangerous situation. There are many people at the activist level who could be of great help to policy makers. We just need to let them speak and transfer their experience on the ground, which is not based on ideology. Sara Mohammad in Sweden, Jasvinder Sanghera in the UK, Ahmad Mansour in Germany, Karima in Belgium and many other associations all over Europe are there waiting for somebody to listen to them.

There is still a lot to be done to avoid other HIna, Sanaa and Begum, but we will not forget them. As we will not forget Fadime.

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Dr. Prof. Valentina Colombo, Academic Researcher on Arab Women's Role in Democratization Processes in the Middle East - European University of Rome.