Understanding the concept of ‘honour’ and its place within Pakistani culture is something that western cultures do imperfectly if they perceive it at all. That lack of in-depth understanding of a core concept extends to western governments as much as it does to individuals; and into the diplomatic services of those states which interact with Pakistan.
The last week has seen a matter of honour – America’s failure (or refusal) to apologise for the Salala incident – come front and centre as a significant impediment to the restoration of the Nato convoys transiting our lands.
This brief note will attempt to capture what is meant by ‘honour’ within Pakistani culture, and whether the experience of honour at an individual or family level can credibly be extrapolated to an entire nation. Any mistakes or misperceptions are entirely the responsibility of the author.
There have been several high-profile cases in which honour killings have featured in recent years. Canada, Turkey and Italy have all seen trials in which (usually) a young woman has been killed by close family members, sometimes a parent, for besmirching the family ‘honour’. Most cases involve Muslim families but it is wrong to suppose that honour killing is a Muslim problem.
It is as prevalent in Hindu society with parts of India particularly afflicted, and there are documented instances in Sikhism, the secular cultures of Northern Europe and within several African cultures and countries. Italy and Greece both report honour killings.
Two parents are currently on trial in the UK for murdering their daughter. She had refused an arranged marriage and it is alleged she was killed in the family home in sight of her siblings, one of whom is giving evidence against the parents. So why did they allegedly kill her?
The very idea of a parent killing its offspring is counter-intuitive and counter-Darwinian in the human context. (Many animals kill and eat their newborns, but few kill their adult progeny.)
The UN reports that at least 5000 people, mostly female and mostly young daughters, are killed for ‘honour’ every year but this is generally agreed to be a gross underestimate. The prevailing wisdom used to be that these events occurred primarily in rural and backwards or ‘uneducated’ cultures but this is not so.
Honour killings occur at every level of the cultures they happen in and are as likely to be committed by the educated as the uneducated, the rich as well as the poor.
They are so much a recognised part of the culture in some states that the legal codes ‘accommodate’ such acts. In Syria the law says that if a man catches a female relative having sex with another man and kills them both and ‘owns’ the crime then he will serve a maximum of two years in prison.
The countries of the sub-continent have a very ambiguous view of honour killing. Such cases are rarely prosecuted, being seen as a ‘family matter’ and thus outside the purview of the law. Police will often refuse to register a case.
In cultures with the highest prevalence of honour killing the women of the family are seen as the repository of its honour. How that honour may be defined is rarely explicitly stated, and there is a dearth of empirical research as to what constitutes honour in cultures where it is a key part of the individual psyche.
Women are from their earliest years under intense pressure to conform to the honour codes. They are to behave ‘properly’ – and the definition of ‘properly’ in each context may be as much determined by other female members of the family as the male. They must dress modestly, not interact with men to whom they are not closely related, agree to marry a partner chosen by the family and never, but never, have sex before marriage or after it other than with their husband.
Other ‘dishonourable activities’ may be a desire to pursue higher education, political activism and interest in a religion other than that which the family espouses, or a wish for a divorce. All can trigger the death of the individual at the hands of their family. Homosexuality can also trigger the honour killing of young males.
Any deviation from the code sullies the family reputation, which can only be retrieved by the death of the person responsible. That person may be innocent of any crime – indeed they may be the victim of a crime such as rape – but despite their victimhood they are still judged guilty of dishonouring the family and pay the price.
As referenced above honour killing is counter-Darwinian in that humans should be least likely to kill those with whom they share the greatest number of genes – their offspring. Logic says the reverse – that they should give their lives protecting their progeny – and perhaps the fact that humans can display altruism towards others to whom they have no genetic connection points to a flaw in Darwinian theory, which there is not the space to explore here.
To be concluded
The writer is a British social worker settled in Pakistan. Email: manticore73@ gmail.com