Out of the Darkness

The science of post-traumatic growth.

The Madness of Honor Killing

What makes people murder their own children for the sake of reputation?

In the UK, one of the main news items at the moment is the trial of the parents of a teenage girl called Shafilea Ahmed. They have been charged with murdering their daughter after she refused to go through with an arranged marriage. As British Asians, they expected her to marry a partner of their choice, as well as to dress modestly and avoid contact with men outside her family. But Shafilea wanted to live a more westernised lifestyle, to wear fashionable clothes and become a lawyer. After a trip to Pakistan to meet her prospective husband, she attempted suicide by drinking bleach. A few weeks later, after an argument with her mother about wearing a sleeveless t-shirt, she disappeared. Her decomposed body was found in a river months afterwards. The prosection’s main witness is Shafilea’s sister, who claims to have seen her parents suffocate her, and dispose of the body.

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Shafilea Ahmed
Shafilea Ahmed
Whether Shafilea’s parents are found guilty or not, this is a tragic reminder of how common the practice of ‘honor killing’ is. It’s surely one of the most barbaric practices any human culture has ever developed: the killing of relatives (the vast majority of them female, and in most cases young daughters) for the crime of ‘dishonoring’ the family.

The United Nations has estimated that around 5,000 honor killings take place each year, but since many occur in isolated rural areas and aren’t reported to authorities, it’s likely that the real figure is much higher. In many countries, the practice is so socially accepted that murderers are treated leniently, or not punished at all. In countries like Pakistan and Yemen, for example, the killings are often ignored by police and prosecutors. In Syria, the legal code states that if a man catches a female relative having illicit sex with another man, and kills them (either just the woman or the partner as well), he is entitled to a reduced penalty of just two years in prison.

In these cultures, the women of the family are seen as representing its honor, so there is massive pressure on them to behave ‘properly’. This means dressing modestly, never talking to men outside the family, never attracting attention to themselves, and most importantly of all, avoiding sex before marriage (or outside marriage, once they are wed) and agreeing to marry a partner chosen by their family. Other types of behaviour seen as ‘dishonorable’ for women - and therefore as punishable by death – include political activism, investigating other religions, and requesting a divorce. There have also been many cases of homosexual boys being killed to preserve the family ‘honor.’

If a family member deviates from this code of behaviour, the family’s reputation is sullied. The only way they can redeem themselves is by murdering the relative – again, usually the daughter – who has dishonored them. It doesn’t matter if the relative is completely innocent. It could simply be that she’s attractive, and so been shown attention by men outside the family; it could be that she lost her virginity by being raped. The fact that she has sullied the family’s reputation is enough to justify murdering her. For example, Amnesty International reported a case in Turkey of a 16 year old girl who was murdered after her family heard a love song being dedicated to her on the radio. In Pakistan, a girl with learning difficulties was killed after being raped, even though the relative who raped her was found and prosecuted.

Honor killing is as incomprehensible as it is tragic. Why would seemingly sane people be willing to kill their own offspring – daughters they have conceived, given birth to and spent many years nurturing – for the sake of their reputation? It doesn't make any sense from an evolutionary point of view. If the Neo-Darwinian view of evolution is correct, human beings should be least likely to kill the people with whom they share most genes (i.e. their children). They should be willing to die for their children – or at least to nurture and protect them – not kill them. Like the puzzle of why human beings can be altruistic towards people – and other living creatures – with whom they have little genetic connection, honour killing seems to highlight shortcomings within Neo-Darwinian theory.

However, from a psychological and cultural point of view, there are some possible explanations. To a large extent, honor killings are linked to an extreme form of ‘status anxiety’ – the fear of losing status, and the desire to protect it. In the societies where it occurs, there is a pathological insecurity, a constant pressure to adhere to strict social conventions for fear of losing face, and of being ostracised by the rest of the community. There’s a connection to social identity and the need for belonging. Disobeying social convention brings the risk of losing one’s identity as a member of a particular social group.  

Honor killings are clearly related to male domination too, and low female status. It’s only possible for fathers to kill their own daughters – or brothers their own sisters – because they place a very low value of female life to begin with. If women were revered and respected, then no one would consider killing – or even abusing – them. It’s no coincidence that many of the cultures which practice honor killing – for example, India and Pakistan – also practice female infanticide. In these cultures, female life has negligible value, and so to destroy it is only a minor crime.

There’s certainly a strong link to sexual repression too. In addition to the insanity of parents killing their own children, it also seems insane that most honor killings are a punishment for completely natural and healthy human instincts: the ‘crime’ of falling in love with a member of a different caste (which is often the cause of honour killings in India), or with a stranger not hand-picked by your parents, or the ‘crime’ of feeling sexual attraction and following this through to sex itself. Again, it’s no coincidence that honor killings occur in societies which, in addition to being strongly patriarchal, have a high degree of sexual repression, and a neurotically hostile attitude to sex and the human body. It’s difficult to imagine honor killings taking place if these cultures saw sex as a natural and health impulse, where sex before marriage was acceptable and there was no pressure for girls to remain virgins till marriage – just as it’s impossible to imagine them taking place if females were valued as highly as males.

Like so many other ‘insane’ types of human behaviour – such as warfare, racism and materialism – honour killing ultimately stems from a sense of existential vulnerability and incompleteness. It’s this sense of lack which creates the need for belonging and status, and the paranoid fear of losing them. As I suggest in my new book Back to Sanity, the only sure way of correcting this pathological behaviour is for human beings to develop a more secure and stable sense of self, and to begin to develop an inner harmony and wholeness.

Steve Taylor is a psychology lecturer and the author of several best-selling books on psychology and spirituality. This article is an edited excerpt from his new book Back to Sanity: Healing the Madness of Our Minds. His website is www.stevenmtaylor.com.

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Steve Taylor Ph.D., is a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Metropolitan University and a researcher in transpersonal psychology at Liverpool John Moores University.

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