Ernest Dempsey — Steve Taylor is a lecturer in psychology and the author of several best-selling books on psychology and spirituality, including his new book Back to Sanity: Healing the Madness of our Minds. His work has been described by Eckhart Tolle as “an important contribution to the global shift in consciousness happening at the present time.”
In one of his blogs published at Psychology Today, Taylor discusses honor killing, calling it “madness,” which not only causes the demise of many women in the third world but also makes some disturbing news in the developed west, like the case of a teenager Shafilea Ahmed who was allegedly killed by her parents in the United Kingdom for not obeying their choices for her life and lifestyle. Steve Taylor participated in a more detailed discussion of the topic in the following Q&A, answering questions about the social and psychological context of honor killing.
Ernest: Steve, thank you for taking time for this Q&A session! Speaking of honor killings, please share with us what you understand by the term “honor” in the context of psychology.
Steve: It’s closely linked to status. The need for status is fundamental to most people. As human beings, we hate to ‘lose face’, to be slighted, to be disrespected. In many people, the need to maintain status and respect is almost pathological and takes precedence over anything else. If they feel disrespected, people often respond with violence. Most murders are committed by people who feel they’ve been disrespected in some way – people responding to slights or insults, especially under the influence of alcohol (which makes people feel more important and powerful, and so more vulnerable to slights). And that’s also the case with honor killings – murders committed to avenge a perceived disrespect.
I’ve just written a book called Back to Sanity which suggests that most human beings suffer from a psychological disorder, and many types of human behavior are a kind of madness. And I think honor killing is one of the most insane types of human behavior. Why would seemingly sane people be willing to kill their own offspring – daughters they have conceived, given birth to and spent many years bringing up, investing their care and energy in – for the sake of their reputation?
Ernest: How come we, meaning some human societies, associate honor with the sexuality or sexual behavior of people, particularly of women?
Steve: In many male-dominated societies, women have such low status that they are treated almost as a commodity, as property. And their value as a commodity is dependent on their virginity. If they aren’t virgins when they get married, they lose their value. This leads to an obsessive concern with women remaining virgins, and keeping them away from men who might seduce them. This contrasts with other societies, which have a much more permissive attitude to female sexuality. In some indigenous cultures, there is no term for ‘virginity’ because it has no meaning as a concept. Sex is seen as such a natural and healthy part of life that the idea of being a virgin as an adult is inconceivable.
Ernest: Please tell us a little about status anxiety and how come it gets so high as to allow, even drive oneself to, killing one’s own kin?
Steve: In the societies where honor killing occurs, there is a pathological insecurity, a constant pressure to adhere to strict social conventions for fear of losing face, and of being ostracized 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.
From a psychological point of view, it 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. It’s due to what I call ‘ego-separateness’, our sense of being separate entities, detached from the world. That’s what creates the sense of incompleteness.
Ernest: So how does this demon of anxiety vary with one’s social class in societies like Pakistan or India?
Steve: It’s difficult for me to say, as I don’t live in those countries. But India has always been a very hierarchical society. The Indo-European invaders who conquered India 4000 years ago had already separated themselves into different castes, and it’s amazing that that caste system has perpetuated itself for so long. That could only have happened due to an obsessive concern with status.
But it’s also important to remember that honor killings are about more than just status. They’re also related to male domination. 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 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 honor 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 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 healthy 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.
Ernest: Shafilea Ahmed’s murder, as we read it in your article, seems to suggest that status anxiety is a lasting element of one’s identity that persists even when you are no more in the society where this value was interiorized. Would you agree?
Steve: There is often a greater concern with honor in immigrant Pakistani or Indian communities in the UK than in India or Pakistan itself. That’s because these communities are more threatened – they’re trying to stop themselves being absorbed into normal British culture. To them ‘dishonor’ often means being too open to Western influences – wearing Western clothes, exposing too much skin, talking to British boys. So maintaining ‘honor’ is so important not just to keep the respect of the rest of the community, but also to hold the values of the community in place, and ultimately to maintain the community’s existence. Shafiliea Ahmed was murdered partly because she refused to go through with an arranged marriage, and her parents thought that dishonored them in the eyes of their community. But it was also because she was rejecting traditional Pakistani culture, and being influenced by mainstream British values. There was an incident when she was in the car with her mother, wearing a T-shirt which showed her shoulders. They stopped at the traffic lights and there was a car with another Pakistani family in next to them. The family in the other car looked into theirs and saw Shafilea in the T-shirt, and for her mother that was very shameful.
Ernest: It seems that religion too is a main factor in encouraging such killings in some societies. Is it so?
Steve: Religions don’t condone honor killings. Islam forbids them. On the other hand, both Islam and Hinduism help to perpetuate the low female status which is partly responsible for honor killings. It’s quite a complex issue; I don’t think that these religions are directly responsible for low female status. Low female status existed before Islam, and in some ways the advent of Islam actually enhanced women’s rights. However, those rights have hardly increased in all the centuries since then. Islam needs to open itself up to wider influences. The increase in women’s rights and in female status has been one of the most important cultural changes over in the Western world over the last hundred years or so, but women’s status in Islam and Hinduism has hardly changed.
Ernest: Far as I have learnt about honor killings, it is scarce – at least in may part of the world – in case of homosexual relations. Guardians would not kill those involved in gay or lesbian relationships, only admonish them. How does honor not apply to what we might call “unusual” sexual behavior?
Steve: There are some cases of honor killings against gay people, but as I mentioned earlier, the practice is strongly linked to the oppression of women, and to sexual repression, particularly to an obsession with female virginity, based on a view of girls as a commodity whose value depends on their virginity.
Ernest: Because it’s a social problem, do you see defending honor against elopement and the freedom of mating by one’s choice a social battle between individualism and authoritarianism?
Steve: Yes. It’s about the individual asserting their own rights against unfair social traditions. It’s about people defending themselves against oppression. Oppressing people is about taking away their choices. Being allowed to choose your own partner is a fundamental human right. It’s also much healthier than arranged marriage. When two people don’t feel any attraction to each other, when they’re not brought together by love but by force, the marriage is much more likely to be full of conflict and unhappiness. That will affect the children of the marriage. They’re more likely to suffer psychological problems, less likely to develop healthy personalities. I like what the German philosopher Schopenhauer said about love. He said the force of love which brings people together is actually the child which the two of them will create. That’s why people are often attracted to qualities which they don’t possess, or to opposites – so that their children will a combination of both their personalities and their qualities, and so be more complete or rounded. So a union based on love is good for human evolution.
Speaking of evolution, one of the other interesting things about honor killings is that they don’t make any sense from an evolutionary point of view. If the modern Neo-Darwinian view of evolution is correct, human beings should be least likely to kill those who share most of their 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. So like the puzzle of why human beings can be altruistic towards people – and other living creatures – with whom they have little genetic connection, honor killing highlights shortcomings within Neo-Darwinian theory.
Ernest: I think you will be aware that many honor killing cases actually are not exactly that – honor killing – but have other motives guised as the determination of defending honor.
Steve: I don’t know a great deal about this issue, but I have heard of cases of widows who own property and refuse to get married, and who have been falsely accused of illicit relations by male members of a family, and then killed so that they can take her property. That highlights the very vulnerable position of widows – and any single women – in some societies. In 17th century Europe, single women – especially older women – were often accused of witchcraft and killed. Some cultures have practiced what anthropologists call “ritual widow murder” (or ritual widow suicide), when women are killed (or are forced to kill themselves) shortly after the deaths of their husbands. This was common throughout India and China until the twentieth century, and there are still occasional cases of suttee – as it’s called in India – nowadays.
Ernest: So what are some of the factors that may help relieve the status anxiety and decrease the risk of life involved in honor-related incidents?
Steve: As I mentioned earlier, honor killing is only possible in male-dominated societies which place low value on female life. So it would make a big difference if women were much more highly valued, and their rights were respected more. A more open attitude to sex would help too – so that sexual attraction and having sex with someone you’re attracted to is no longer seen as a crime punishable by death when it happens outside marriage. It seems to me that the low value of human life and a repressive attitude to sex are a sign of a sickness of the human mind, a kind of perversion or extreme neurosis. Again, that’s the kind of madness which I talk about in my book Back to Sanity.
As I’ve suggested, honor killings are also strongly linked to a desire for belonging and a fear of losing status. Since that’s rooted in a sense of incompleteness and separateness, the best way to reduce or eliminate honor killings is to transcend this sense of incompleteness. If we can do this, we would no longer fear losing status. It no longer matters what other people think of us. If you feel complete and authentic inside, what does it matter if other people shake their heads at you, and talk about you behind your back? You feel sorry for them for caring about such trivial things. So it’s question of how we can transcend that sense of separateness. That’s quite a complex question, but there are various forms of personal and spiritual development which can help you. Again, this is something I go into in great detail in Back to Sanity. It’s a matter of healing the discord of our minds, and gaining a sense of inner fullness and authenticity.
Ernest: I think this concludes our session here. Thank you Steve for your time and sharing your thoughts!
~ ~ ~
To learn more about Steve Taylor’s work, visit his website www.stevenmtaylor.co.uk