Preliminary Examination of so-called "Honour Killings" in Canada

7. The Psyche of the Honour Killer

Male empowerment has existed for ages as it is rooted deeply in most societies of the world. Men from traditional cultural backgrounds followed the principle of "male dominance," viewing women in their traditional domestic roles. With advancements, women are obtaining equal rights and are assuming important roles in societies of developed countries and in a number of developing nations. With world-wide migration, there is growing concern among men, originating from traditional cultural backgrounds, that in alien lands "their" women may get "tainted" by the surrounding dominant culture. In order to avoid this, they may become exceedingly strict about religion, assume aggressive attitudes, and at times resort to violence. Perpetual anxiety and hyper-vigilance becomes predominant in the psyche of these men. Men who are socially deprived and economically constrained may tend to develop "narcissistic enjoyment" by exercising power over women who are either their daughters or their wives.

Evolutionary theories may help to explain why honour killings occur. Paternal certainty has always been of great importance to males willing to make investments in offspring thought to be their own. Therefore, while females are certain of their parentage, males may have to resort to aggression to overcome threats to safeguard their paternal certainty. Many cultures have acknowledged this importance through social norms protective of male exclusivity in sexual relations and patriarchal laws against adultery.Footnote 61

It is likely that socio-cultural attitudes play a major role in the psyche of honour killing perpetrators as well. Socio-cultural influences may affect the disturbed psyche of a section of people who could perpetrate a reign of power with utmost cruelty and mindlessness. However, many individuals faced with similar socio-cultural influences do not endorse such acts. It is for this reason that one must also consider the role played by psychopathology in honour killings.

Although there have been no studies to indicate the presence or absence of psychopathology in honour killers, observations of various honour killing cases indicate the possibility of a psychopathological process. Many media case reports of honour killings have portrayed certain psychopathic traits in perpetrators. Personality traits, especially psychopathic traits, may manifest in the form of reckless disregard for the safety of women, failure to conform to lawful behaviours and the lack of remorse. In a number of legal situations, violent acts of premeditated homicides carried an indication of some sort of psychopathology. For example, the perpetrator could be suffering from "acute stress disorder." Those with acute stress disorder will experience dissociative symptoms such as emotional numbing, amnesia, derealisation and depersonalization upon being confronted with a perceived serious threat. There may be a number of psychiatric disorders that can result in a homicide of this nature. For example, paranoid schizophrenia or an unspecified psychosis that is influenced by a perceptual disorder may result in such crimes.

The psychopathology may range from borderline personality disorder through to frank psychosis. The development of psyche among individuals is shaped by cultural archetypes, traditional mind sets, belief systems and hyper-religious ambience.

Cultural mind set augmented by delusions can lead to dangerous perspectives when we talk about "honour killing." Cultural mind-set, if compounded with psychopathology, especially a schizophrenic illness, may lead to diminished responsibility in terms of crimes. At the same time, pure personality issues cannot and should not be considered sufficient for diminished responsibility where honour crimes are premeditated and carefully planned and executed.

This analysis also adds to the evidence that careful psychiatric evaluation of homicide offenders is necessary in these cases. When clinicians make a diagnosis of psychopathology in cases of honour killings, they must do so with great caution. Having an understanding of the motives and socio-cultural attitudes is crucial in making an accurate and unbiased assessment. The majority of offenders probably do not have a psychopathology that might indicate diminished responsibility.

It is important to remember that honour killings are often erroneously equated with "crimes of passion," which are abrupt, impulsive and unpremeditated acts of violence committed by persons who have come face to face with an incident unacceptable to them and who are rendered incapable of self-control for the duration of the act.

As per Ratner'sFootnote 62 work, emotions are best understood as cognitive appraisals of situations that are made on the basis of cultural beliefs and norms that implicate "self" more deeply. In this context, while crimes of passion may be seen as somewhat premeditated to a certain extent, honour killings are usually deliberate, well planned and premeditated acts when a person kills a female relative ostensibly to uphold his honour. Hence, on the surface, honour killing is just like any premeditated murder and, in the absence of a diagnosed psychopathology, should meet the same punishment by a court of law.

The role of mental health professionals is of vital importance in any murder case, including an honour killing. When it comes to specific trials in honour-killing cases, a well-trained psychiatrist with a good background of cultural education can help the legal system. Upon referral by the criminal justice system, a psychiatrist (expert) can take a number of steps to assess a person who has been accused of an honour killing. The most important part of the evaluation should be a thorough history focusing on the psychodynamic aspects of the accused's development, including personal history with cultural beliefs and background and past history with emphasis on forensic issues.

A thorough mental-state examination may reveal the presence of any psychopathology, indicating serious, clearly identifiable mental-health issues. Some psychological tests such as a personality assessment may help in the evaluation. Cognitive testing, where appropriate, can become a part of this process. In some selected cases, even MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), EEG (electroencephalogram) and PET (positron emission tomography) studies may become valuable addendums while preparing a thorough report.

8. Profiles in Honour Killings

Information on the incidence of honour killings is not widely collected. There are some agencies in Pakistan, however, that have attempted to quantify the incidence rate of honour killings. While these rates are descriptively useful, it is difficult to make generalizations since these numbers are likely an underestimation of the actual figures. Many cases of honour killing go unreported for a variety of reasons, such as police refusal to register these cases, and many of these deaths may be incorrectly reported as suicides or accidents. Indeed, a special envoy for the United Nations sent to Turkey to investigate suspicious suicides amongst Kurdish girls, was quoted as saying that some suicides appeared in Kurdish-inhabited regions of Turkey to be "honour killings disguised as a suicide or an accident."Footnote 63

The inaccurate nature of these incidence rates is reflected by the discrepancies in the incidence rates reported by various agencies. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reports 1,464 honour killings occurred in Pakistan between 1998 and 2002.Footnote 64 The Pakistan government reported that 4,101 honour killings were registered between 1998 and 2003. The Madadgaar helpline database reported 3,339 honour killings between 2000 and 2004. And finally, a police report indicated that a total of 4,383 honour killings were reported in Pakistan between 2001 and 2004, with 2,228 of these occurring in Sindh.Footnote 65

Epidemiological data assists in characterizing victim, perpetrator and accomplice profiles. The following profiles were developed based on data from Pakistan. These profiles may assist in understanding honour killings that occur in Canada.

8.1 Victim Profile

The victims of honour killings are most often adult females who are married.Footnote 66 Nevertheless, those who are single or male may also be affected, and at any age.

Women who are unemployed, illiterate and living in impoverished conditions have an even higher risk of being a victim. The combination of economic vulnerability, limited social supports and lack of awareness of their legal rights often prevents women from changing their subordinate status in society.

The psychological burden on females in a patriarchal society is evident by the high prevalence of mental illness among women in Pakistan. Hence, it is possible that many victims of this patriarchal act may have suffered from mental illness. Nevertheless, it is inevitable that as soon as a woman is accused, she will endure significant psychological distress, which may even lead her to commit suicide prior to what she sees as the inevitable homicide.Footnote 67

8.2 Perpetrator Profile

Almost all the perpetrators are male family members, most commonly husbands or fathers followed by brothers. Where possible, the family will decide to choose perpetrators who are under the age of eighteen, as this is akin to "young male syndrome" in which competition for honour, status and marriage prospects is most intense. This allows the perpetrator to serve the shortest possible imprisonment as a juvenile offender. Factors associated with such crimes are economic disadvantage, class or position and pressure to fulfill gender norms. These factors result in violence against women as an expression of masculinity and as an outlet for frustrations at the inability to meet societal or community expectations.

Interestingly, the data also indicate that the perpetrator's weapon of choice for most honour killings is a firearm. Other methods have included stabbing, strangulation, hanging, electrocution or poisoning.Footnote 68 Regardless of the weapon chosen, most deaths are quite violent in nature.

There have been no studies to date to indicate the presence or absence of a psychopathological process leading perpetrators to commit honour killings. However, many of the case reports that were reviewed indicated the presence of certain psychopathic traits in perpetrators. Such traits included the reckless disregard for the safety of women, failure to conform to lawful behaviours and the lack of remorse. The fact that some have used the honour killing tradition to conceal other motives for their homicidal actions lends weight to the argument of a psychopathic process.

Finally, the process of covering up their actions leads one to believe that most perpetrators have preserved insight into the criminal nature of their actions, but they. believe that restoring their family honour is more important than avoiding criminal sanctions.

8.3 Accomplice Profile

Family members of the victim, community members, and legal and government authorities in some countries may become explicit or implicit accomplices in the deaths. Families and communities contribute to covering up the perpetrator's homicide by maintaining their silence because of their support for honour killing as a culturally acceptable and heroic act. Others keep their silence due to a fear of retribution. For example, tribal courts have been known to implement death sentences on those who report honour killings to the police.Footnote 69

Legal and government authorities in some countries contribute to covering up the perpetrator's crime by avoiding involvement in such cases. Even when they do become involved, gender discrimination often continues to create support for the perpetrator. Sometimes these authorities can also be corrupt, resulting in further disadvantage to females. The lack of legal intervention is evident by the fact that few of the accused perpetrators are arrested.