Caged, but Not in a Cage


By: Alina Butt


This past week, I attended a talk hosted by the Centre for Diaspora & Transnational Studies on how the United Kingdom handles forced marriage and honour killings through cultural relativism. The speaker was Dr. Lalaie Ameeriar, a Scarborough native who currently holds a professorship in Asian American Studies at UC Santa Barbara.

The talk was a good, general introduction to the subject of honour-based violence. Ameeriar deftly broke down the complex issue from how “honour” is a concept heavily associated with culture to how culture itself is used as a marker of difference from what is considered “normal.” Her current research focuses on the most relevant place in which these concepts come alive: the United Kingdom, which boasts a large Muslim community.

Ameeriar spent little time talking about forced marriages, and she did not explicitly link it to the occurrence of honour killings. However, she did clarify that forced marriage is unlike arranged marriage because the former happens against a person’s will. One woman in the audience questioned this definition, finding it difficult to discern where the line between consent and lack thereof should be drawn.

In a sense, that’s how many of us felt about the whole talk—as if there was much left to be desired. The audience asked questions that demanded nuance, but there wasn’t a lot to work with in terms of answers. Understandably, the best Ameeriar could say was that the issue is complicated, though she did offer one example of this complexity by recognizing that many of the Muslim women affected by honour-based violence are not necessarily that Muslim—their relationships with religion are far more ambiguous and ambivalent.

When that gray area was touched upon, I felt heard. The extremes offered up for study in research and in legal and popular media narratives are important to know about so that they can be combatted, yes. However, with all of your attention elsewhere, the deeply systemic problems of girls elsewhere get elided. The issue needs to open up to look beyond the menacing and towards the mundane.

I think Ameeriar still gestures towards something similar to this idea despite focusing most of her attention on the issue of honour killings. Instead of blaming just the violent, patriarchal father, she holds everyone complicit for the victimization of the female Muslim—her family, community, teachers and social workers, and the police and courts.

She asked us to consider cultural relativism and how, in an effort not to appear racist, law enforcement and the justice system still commit racist acts. A police officer will respond to the call of a woman trying to report an instance of honour-based violence and silence her by saying, “It’s your culture.”

Culture becomes a defense, especially since the wounds these women bear are not as often physical as they are psychological. Ameeriar looked to the case of Amina Al-Jeffrey, a Welsh girl who was taken back to Saudi Arabia and kept in a barred room by her father after she kissed a boy. A Welsh judge was asked to consider options to help her, and he ultimately decided that she is “caged, but not in a cage,” meaning that her situation is problematic, but does not constitute enough of a problem by Western standards to warrant legal intervention.

This is where Ameeriar points out the existence of a double standard. She offered a list of historical cases of violence perpetrated by European men against their wives. The legal defense of provocation or loss of control in these cases had judges sympathizing with the men to downgrade charges and reduce sentences.

Ameeriar quoted former Prime Minister David Cameron’s idea of a solution being to engage the issue less with passive tolerance and more with “muscular liberalism.” The audience seemed determined to try to figure out exactly what Cameron meant by this term, and Ameeriar suggested it might mean a more overt assertion of patriarchy, perhaps as a challenge to the patriarchy of the violent father against the victimized Muslim daughter in the narrative. However, I think Cameron was suggesting something broader—being less politically correct, and therefore less culturally relativistic, since doing so contravenes the safety of these women.

Ameeriar didn’t quite get to this, but she did touch upon how there is a greater preoccupation with protecting the human rights of groups (i.e., the religious and cultural freedom of the Muslim community) over those of individuals. That’s ironic to me, as honour is all about the community, and of all places, I would expect Western society to afford me the individualism I want … but even here, I’m still less important than the whole.

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