Author: MRS. ANU GOEL (counselling psychologist) & Apurva Sapra (Mrs. Anu Goel is counselling psychologist with 12+ years experience. A regular writer and speaker on relevant issues. Can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. )
“Mine honor is my life; both grow in one; Take honor from me and my life is done.” – William Shakespeare
‘Honor’ crime is a pattern of conduct cutting across communities, cultures, religions and nations and manifested in a range of forms of violence directed mainly against women and committed by those who aim to protect the reputation of their family or community. These acts can include acid throwing, battering, rape, forced marriages, genital mutilation, domestic imprisonment, prescriptive dress codes, and barred access to education and the workplace.
The motivations for honor crimes vary from culture to culture, all having different purposes to commit this crime. Some major reasons are as follows:
Belongingness – A motivational drive for honor is fueled by a desire to obey moral societal codes and thus construct an upstanding character in society. The feeling of loyalty is intrinsic, and so one will act in ways that meet with the approval, behavioral expectations, or values of the group to which one wishes to belong, and will thus be viewed positively by individuals or groups that are given importance. This is in accordance with Maslow’s belongingness need. There is also a connection to social identity. Disobeying social convention brings the risk of losing one’s identity as a member of a particular social group.
Patriarchal society – In a society dominated by men, masculinity is strengthened by the concept of honor. A man’s ability to protect his honor is judged by his family and neighbors. If defiled, the only way men can restore it is to remove the stain that brought shame on him. The changing cultural and economic status of women has also been used to explain the occurrences of honor killings. Women who have gained economic independence go against the patriarchal culture, and undermine the authority of male members in the family. This shift towards greater responsibility for women and less for their fathers may cause the male members in the family to act in oppressive and sometimes violent manners in order to regain this authority.
Objectification of women – The view of women as property enables the family to easily commit murder, because her life is not deemed important, and can easily be ended. Thus, honor killings occur because society in general places a very low value of female life to begin with.
Cohesiveness of the family – Due to the excessive cohesiveness of the family as a group, the actions of one member affect all the others. Women are seen as the repositories of the man’s or family’s honor, and they must guard their virginity and chastity. In the case of married women, fidelity and monogamy are the determining forces of both her and her husband’s honor. An unchaste woman affects not just one victim, but her entire family and her tribe.
Status anxiety – It has been argued that family honor is tied to social standing and mobility, and economic opportunities. ‘Ghairat’ (what is sacred and inviolable) is Izzat (honor, dignity) and this comes with money and property. And if this honor is violated, then it is justified to kill and die for honor. To a large extent, honor killings are linked to an extreme form of ‘status anxiety’ which is the fear of losing status, and involves the desire to protect it.
Social customs – In the societies where it occurs, there is a pathological insecurity in the people, marked by a constant pressure to abide by strict social conventions for fear of losing face, and of being ostracized by the rest of the community. In some cultures, the women of the family are seen as embodiment of its honor, so there is an immense pressure on them to behave ‘properly’. These social conventions include, never attracting attention to themselves, dressing modestly, never talking to men outside the family, and most importantly, avoiding sex before marriage (or outside marriage, once they are wed) and consenting to marry a partner chosen by their family. There have also been many cases of homosexual boys being killed to preserve the family ‘honor.’
Sexual repression – Honor killings are often seen as punishment for the ‘crime’ of feeling sexual attraction, and following this through to sex itself. Thus, honor killings occur in societies which, in addition to being highly male-dominated, are extremely sexually repressed and are neurotically hostile towards sex and the human body. These cultures do not see sex as a natural and healthy impulse or sex before marriage as acceptable.
The ‘crime’ of falling in love – Most honor killings are a punishment for the completely natural and healthy human instinct of falling in love. Family members in these cases strongly disapprove of any affiliation with a member of a different caste, or with a stranger not hand-picked by their parents.
Fear of public shame – Another motive for honor killings is covering up shameful incidents, such as extramarital relationships, rape, incest or other sexual abuse. This corresponds to the excessive fear of public shame that many people face.
Cultures of honor – Without institutionalized laws and government implementation of such laws, it was up to men to protect their property themselves. Therefore, they had to develop a reputation for toughness as violent retribution for wrongdoing was beneficial. This emphasis on strength and power shows that the ability to impose one’s will on others is a valuable trait in some cultures of the world. In such cultures, an honorable man is one who keeps others, especially women, in their rightful place.
Tainted moral code – While many cultures view sexual impurity as incorrect, some individuals elevate this wrong to the breach of a sacred moral code, similar to killing an innocent person. Sexual deviances like infidelity, immodesty, or homosexual acts are considered breaches of this sacred code. Those who perform such acts defile themselves and in some cultures, their impurity may taint not only themselves, but their families too, and they would have to be punished or killed to cleanse this stain.
Existential vulnerability and incompleteness – Honor killing stems from a sense of existential vulnerability, or doubts about one’s place in the world. It is this sense of lack in completeness which creates the need for belonging and status, and the subsequent paranoid fear of losing them.
Sincerity of other women – crimes against women are often condoned, and even perpetrated, by other women. A theory is that some women may feel obliged to endorse the culture of honor in public in order to maintain their safety and status, while privately opposing it. Women may feel pressure not only to prove their worth by adhering to the moral codes of the culture, but also to condemn those who do not, to further reinforce their apparent sincerity.
After committing the murder of their child, the families of the victims, who are often the perpetrators of the crime, face an internal conflict. They either feel deeply disgusted with themselves and regret their actions, or feel deep satisfaction at having removed the source of dishonor for the family. This causes a sort of internal debate, with the love for the child conflicting with fear of public shame. While many women and girls in the society seem to condone honor killings, it leaves a deep psychological effect on them. On the face of it, they seem to think such crimes are needed as a method of punishment, but it is mainly to save their own self and status. Watching young girls die ensures that they do not follow their path, and instead, conform to the demands of the society. It leads to ultimate fear and anxiety, along with pressure to conform.