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What I'm Reading: "Honor Killings" - Then and Now, Part I

Many people in Europe and North America today wrongly believe that murders of daughters or wives by their fathers, husbands, or brothers - labeled as "honor killings" - are products of Moslem traditions carried by immigrants into modern, western societies.

As evidence to the contrary, I recommend Karen Tintori's shocking but grippingly readable book, Unto the Daughters: The Legacy of an Honor Killing in a Sicilian-American Family (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2007). In Detroit, Michigan, in 1919, Tintori's great aunt - who had arrived from Sicily with the rest of her family - fell in love with a young barber in her neighborhood. When she eloped and married him, defying her father's orders to instead marry an older man with ties to the "mob," her brothers killed her. Tintori's grandmother and grandfather then destroyed all pictures of the dead girl, scratching even her name from family records. No one in the family or in the community went to the police. The community accepted the murder in silence; community and family, not American laws or police, defined justice in immigrant, Sicilian Detroit.

No one in Tintori's family ever mentioned the dead girl's name again. Until, that is, the patient, resourceful and fiercely determined Tintori overcame resistance to piece together an account of the horrific crime.

Tintori's book forces readers to think hard about very difficult issues. Violence against women within families knows no religious or cultural boundaries. But is the murder of a woman whose lapsed morality is understood to shame an entire family fundamentally different from other violent domestic crimes? And if it is different, what can and should a society do to guarantee that daughters and wives are safe in their own homes?

We'll never know if Tintori's family story was unique in immigrant Italian America. It probably was not, since honor crimes continue even today in modern, Catholic Italy. Yet Tintori's book shocks readers precisely because they cannot imagine Italian Americans committing or tolerating such violence. Did honor crimes disappear with immigrants' Americanization? Were they relegated to the arcane world of mobsters and mafia? Tintori strongly suggests instead that it was the empowerment of subsequent generations of Italian-American women along with waning distrust of governmental authority that rendered honor killings unacceptable among these earlier immigrants. Tintori's insights should provide at least some guidance as Americans and Europeans think about the honor killings that continue to shock them today.