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

9. Socio-Cultural Influences and Honour Killings

Traditional misinterpretations of religion have played a role in developing a patriarchal culture that places an emphasis on female chastity and male superiority. The power dynamics of patriarchy reduce women to their reproductive potential, and in the process deny them agency as human beings.

Women are considered to have monetary value and to be the property of male family members. Therefore, men control much of the lives of women, including social relationships. The preservation of a woman's chastity and fidelity, through segregation and control, becomes the responsibility of the men to whom she "belongs." A female's illicit relationship goes against the socio-cultural framework in Pakistan, causing family honour to be tarnished. A man's ability to protect his family's honour is judged by society. As a result, he must demonstrate his power to safeguard his family's honour by killing those who damaged it.

The concept of women as property and honour remains deeply entrenched in the socio-cultural fabric of many countries. As a result, many individuals, including women, support this ritual. This may also be the reason why in some regions of countries where the concept of honour is predominant, legal authorities often ignore the daily occurrences of women being killed by their families.

Despite being legally proscribed, socio-cultural patterns and feudal attitudes remain unchanged. Many people in such cultures continue to feel that honour killings are justifiable, and therefore, perpetrators are rarely brought to justice. The few cases that go to court usually result in lenient sentences or pardons for males. As honour killing is a "retaliation crime," judges may have the option of allowing victim's families to accept a simple apology, money, land or another female from the perpetrator as compensation for their crime.

In recent years, it appears that the practice of honour killing is being used for reasons other than restoring family honour. Such cases are referred to as "false honour killings." Footnote 70 An example would be a man who kills another man in revenge for a personal feud or financial gain, then claims the killing was done to cleanse the family honour because the deceased had allegedly done something inappropriate with a female relative who will also have to be killed. By sacrificing a woman in the household to be accused of some act that damages the family honour, a man will obtain the customary endorsement of any subsequent actions.

Another example of a false honour killing can occur within poorer communities in Sindh (Pakistan), when a woman is considered to be a financial burden on the household. In these communities, individuals sometimes use accusations of "karo-kari"Footnote 71 as a way of acquiring wealth or land. Declaring a woman of their household to be a kari allows a family to obtain the victim's share of an inheritance as well as any appropriate compensation from the co-accused karo.

Questions arise as to why women are targets of violence in one form or other, including from the ancient Arab custom of burying daughters alive, honour killings in different parts of the world, the ritual of "sati"Footnote 72 and subjecting women to forced prostitution and bonded labour.

It is important to look at this problem from a psychiatric angle. The theory of aggression against their own kind has something to say, but there are many other possible explanations. By virtue of human nature, in many instances it is the still dominant "id", based on the pleasure principle), that has lead to the perpetration of crimes like karo-kari. This can be furthered by low levels of literacy and limited insight about ethical and religious values. The disturbed psychodynamics of perpetrators, who may develop revenge and sadism, is also a possible factor in the commission of violent crimes such as honour killings.Footnote 73

A new studyFootnote 74 found biological brain differences between criminal psychopaths and other people, when they process facial emotion. The growing scientific and popular focus on genes has also contributed to a resurgence of behavioural genetic determinism. Personality traits have been found to be risk factors for engaging in criminal behavior.Footnote 75 The dopaminergic and adrenergic pathways are also known to be associated with impulsivity and hostility.Footnote 76 Evans et alFootnote 77 identified an association between a serotonin receptor gene (HTR2C) and impulsivity in males. Finally, the theory of XYY chromosome patternFootnote 78 has not gained much momentum, but still holds place in the literature when it comes to an explanation of violent behaviour.

Mental illnesses are also known to be associated with criminal behaviour. A studyFootnote 79 reveals that among homicide offenders, 20 per cent had psychotic illness and 54 per cent had personality disorder as a principal or secondary diagnosis. Psychopathy has been discussed widely in the context of criminality, especially in terms of its characteristically callous and unemotional personality profile. According to Kiehl,Footnote 80 organic findings on MRIs of criminal psychopaths indicated their failure to show the appropriate neural differentiation between abstract and concrete stimuli in the right anterior temporal gyrus and surrounding cortex. There is support for the theory that psychopaths are associated with right hemisphere abnormalities for processing conceptually abstract material.

There are many possible explanations in terms of mental mechanisms for those who resort to honour killings. However, there are also questions that may arise. Are the perpetrators real psychopaths (in which case they would demonstrate the salient feature of "lack of remorse or guilt")? Are they insane? If so, then why are they at liberty in the community? Are they mentally ill? If yes, then why have they not come to the attention of mental health services? It is quite understandable, given the cultural context where mental illness is still a stigma and most people would not give due importance to psychiatric disorders.

Is it easy to rule out the possibility of "mass psyche" disturbance? Can it be a social norm? The answer to this cannot be in the affirmative, as karo-kari is only endemic in Pakistan, and is present in different forms at a global level. It will not be surprising if, one day, what may be named the "Karo-Kari Syndrome" emerges as a new culture-bound syndromes specific to Pakistan. This syndrome may be explained in clinical terms as "sudden feelings of loss of honour, feeling as if power and control are gone, extreme anger, irritability and the wild impulse of killing the identified targets." Such features are somewhat similar to "Latah",Footnote 81 which is a recognized culture-bound syndrome. The syndrome may also reflect that the pleasure principle of "id" has remained immature and has not attained full evolution and transformation.

10. Mental Health and Honour Killings

Patriarchal biases contribute to the occurrence of honour killings. However, there are many individuals with similar socio-cultural influences who don't endorse such acts. It is for this reason that one must also consider the role of psychopathy, as alluded to in the previous section.

With respect to the victims, there is global consensus that suppression and violence not only violate a woman's basic rights but also threaten her health and the very state of her being. Patriarchal biases also have an impact on the mental health of the victims. The frequency of honour killings and the unexpectedness with which women are targeted contributes to an atmosphere of fear among Pakistani women. The experience of being controlled and the lack of equal opportunities have the potential to erode a woman's self-esteem, and thereby put her at a high risk for developing a variety of psychiatric disorders such as depression and anxiety.

The threat of honour killings may sometimes lead to voluntary or involuntary suicide. Women who are accused may conduct "honour suicides" because of the shame they experience from committing a dishonourable act or because they fear being brutally attacked.Footnote 82 This may help to explain why studies depict high rates of suicides among women in some cultures.Footnote 83

Another important consideration is the psychological impact endured by children who witness domestic conflicts and honour based violence. These children face increased risk of behavioural problems, substance abuse, anxiety and depression. Furthermore, these children will be at a higher risk of modeling acts such as honour killings later in their own lives.

11. Conclusion

The twin notions of "honour" and of "shame" and their use as justifications for violence and homicide can be found in many cultures. Honour killings have historical roots in many regions of the world including Latin America, Europe, the Middle East and South Asia. In some Arab and South Asian states, where modern-day incidences of honour killings are more predominant, the practice of honour killings likely originates from ancient Arab culture, with its roots from Pakistan.

However, honour killings are not associated with particular religions or religious practice: they have been recorded across Christian, Jewish, Sikh, Hindu and Muslim communities. Often, honour killings are not a religiously motivated crime, but are based on personal agendas, personal ego and personal mindset. In some cases, there are psychological connotations, as studies have shown that some perpetrators have undiagnosed mental illness and psychopathic traits or disorders.

While honour as a cultural justification for killing is in keeping with the mindset of certain groups, this motive cannot be attributed to entire populations, as many of the people from same country would not share that belief system. The existence of cultural norms and practices does not reduce individual responsibility except in those rare occasions where there is significant individual psychopathology.

Gaining a better understanding of the individual, familial, community and cultural factors at play in honour killings is important for Canadian professionals who come into contact with potential victims, accomplices or offenders. From the literature review and media reports, it is evident that honour killings do occasionally occur in Canada. So far, over the past decade in Canada there have been at least a dozen reported homicides which appear to have been honour killings. Hopefully this paper will contribute to raising awareness of the complex dynamics at play in cases of honour killings with a view to preventing future tragedies.