Honour versus Love
Pranavi Hiremath investigates Honour cultures and how they differ from cultures of law, deriving an evolutionary perspective on the origin of Honour killing.
TW: sexual violence
Image description: This artwork has many interpretations, but it generally talks about how we are seen by others and how we really are. Linked to the article, the artwork may reflect how the non-confirming and unaccepted identity and choices of an individual along with their very existence is shattered to pieces in honour killings and its deeply entrenched patriarchal power relations and notions.
Honour vs. Love
“I screamed, I wept
With all my lungs I called for help
But was silenced by hands
Pressed against my mouth
By the same hands that once held me
As I let out my first cry
Arms that kept me safe
And I felt loved
Now they are covered with
The first person I saw
As I opened my eyes for the first time
Is the same person I see
As I close my eyes for the last
The only difference
There was once love
Now there is honour”
This poem is about the horrifying experience of a victim to honour killing; the agony they might experience during the last moments of their life is unimaginable.
Honour killing is the murder of a family member with the intent to protect family honour. The offender believes that the victim has brought dishonour by not adhering to principles often set by the community or religion. Such a person is believed to bring dishonour if they are a victim of sexual assault, engage in premarital or extramarital sex, choose to get a divorce, engage in non-heterosexual relations or denies having children or forced marriage, for example.
Although the rationale behind murder can vary, questions that come to mind are: Why did the happiness of the person you love become the intent behind taking their life? What makes love lose over honour? What is the point?
To answer these questions might require an in-depth understanding of the cultural influences behind cultures of ‘honour’; how we see ourselves in a community and the feeling of needing to ‘belong’ to it can shape how we think and act. Notably though, despite cultural influences, these practices by some cannot be used to stereotype a whole community.
It is vital to begin with establishing how cultures of honour differ from cultures of law. In cultures of law, the citizens are expected to obey the laws set by the government. If anyone fails to adhere to them, they are subjected to punishment. Here the punishment is dependent on the extremity of the crime committed. This is in fact in contrast with cultures of honour where the community or individual enforces social norms. These cultures are dominated by ‘reputation’. In these circumstances, it is important to maintain an honourable reputation since it establishes trust and ensures your goodwill in the community. Dishonour can expose an individual or family to rejection by the community they belong to as punishment for their ‘undesirable behaviour’, providing an incentive to others to not commit the same mistakes.
Another aspect of some of these cultures is that they are often patriarchal. A woman is considered a commodity and is seen for her reproductive potential. She is seen to be an individual who needs to be protected or owned and controlled by the male members of the family. She must obey the male member responsible for welfare. It is a form of dishonour to the male member if he fails to control the women of the family. This concept of women as property and honour is so deeply ingrained that many women in these cultures support these rituals. Any women who fail to follow these rituals are subject to violence or even honour killing. It has also been seen over the years that honour killing is disproportionately violent against women.
An evolutionary perspective to honour cultures is that violence acts as a ‘theft deterrent’. Violence is believed to be a ‘reputation maintenance mechanism’ and a way to protect one’s resources in lawless environments. These beliefs are transferred to the next generation as psychological dispositions in the form of cultural norms. Honour cultures have been argued as illustrations of how “socio-ecological conditions shape human psychology via cultural transmission”. However, they are not always culturally determined as suggested by the meme theory. According to this, behaviours or skills are transferred from one person to another through the process of imitation. Despite the presence of centralised authority, honour killings persist.
In these honour cultures, kin is seen as important than honour. Kin selection is an evolutionary strategy that favours the reproductive succession of an organism’s relatives; an organism engages in altruistic behaviour to protect one’s kin. Honour killings seem to contradict this hypothesis. As discussed, this may be because of social and cultural influences: how survival of the fittest can be seen as an honour, how women are seen socially and portrayed culturally. Believing that protecting one’s property can ensure survival; assuming that conformity to cultural norms ensures acceptance and prevents rejection from the community.
Honour killings are a serious concern, even today. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that the number of honour killings (worldwide) is 5,000 per year. Although some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) estimate as many as 20,000 honour killings annually worldwide. There are very limited statistics available; these are estimates only for the number of girls and women that are killed. These killings occur everywhere regardless of social class, age, wealth, education or location. It is therefore imperative to understand what systems are in place that enables honour killing to then establish stricter laws that mean we can put an end to them. Spreading awareness about this crime is our responsibility and what we can do as individuals to help end honour killings.
Further material on honour killing:
A short film: Banaz - A Love Story
Netflix anthology series on honour killings:
Prevention and what has been done in the UK:
This article was written by Pranavi Hiremath and edited by Tamara El-Halawani.