What is the psychology behind honor killings?

Honor killings are killings in which a family kills one of their own for bringing ‘shame’ and ‘dishonor’ to the family.


Mostly, it’s the young women (with 23 being the worldwide average age1) who’re the victims of honor killings and this practice, though more common in some cultures compared to others, is universally reported.

An evolutionary puzzle

Why would a family that invests so much in the nurturing and raising of its own female young resort to killing her for the seemingly abstract concept of ‘honor’?

Families evolved to better the chances of survival and reproduction of the family members so it makes no sense to kill someone that’s closely related to you genetically. 

Like infanticide, many people have found it hard to wrap their heads around the phenomenon of honor killings and have ended up blaming culture or a lack of education. But since honor killings are not culture-specific, the issue seems to run deeper.

psychology of honor killings
Qandeel Baloch (age 26) was killed by her own brother in 2016. According to her mother, the killer brother was being taunted by his friends over Qandeel bringing dishonor to their family.


Suppression of female sexuality gone too far

Let’s first look at how exactly do women who’re victims of honor killings bring ‘shame’ and ‘dishonour’ to their families?

The reasons why women are killed for ‘honor’ are many, ranging from falling in love with a person whom their families didn’t approve of to being victims of rape. All the reasons, however, can be broadly grouped under one head- sexual impropriety.

When women are perceived to behave in sexually improper ways they’re accused of destroying the family’s honor, which then leads to honor killings.

Honor killing, therefore, is a way that families use to restore their honor. They send a clear message to their community that they do not approve of such behavior.

Honor killings are basically suppression of female sexuality gone too far. In my article Why female sexuality tends to be suppressed, I explained how the suppression of female sexuality is mostly an attempt by women to increase the exchange value of female sexuality.


Long story short, it’s in the reproductive interests of women to suppress female sexuality because it’s more valued than male sexuality. If women offer sex more freely, then the value the average women gets out of it will be low. Hence the need to suppress or restrict it to increases its value.

Though it’s usually men who commit the actual gruesome act of killing, honor killings are essentially a family conspiracy with an active involvement of women.2

In the words of Phyllis Chesler, who has studied the topic of honor killings comprehensively, “Women play a very active role in honour-based femicide, both by spreading the gossip underlying such murders and by acting as conspirator accomplices in the honor killings of female relatives.”


Family before the family member

The important question that needs answering at this point is, “Why do ‘dishonoured’ families feel the need to ‘restore their honor’?”

The short answer is: To ensure their survival and reproductive success.

Our ancestors relied heavily on their communities for their survival and reproductive success. That’s why we have psychological mechanisms that make us seek the approval of our peers and stay in their good books, especially in the good books of those who have a lot to offer us (think of a subordinate flattering a superior in a corporate setting).

So, when a family loses its ‘honor’, it loses more than just honor. The family member who dishonors the family threatens the survival and reproductive success of the entire family by her sexually improper behavior.

The dishonored family risks being ostracized by their community. Parents, especially in the collectivist third world cultures, don’t prefer marrying their sons and daughters into dishonorable families. So if a woman brings dishonor to her family, she threatens the reproductive success of her siblings and cousins. So she becomes a sort of a threat to the entire family.

Therefore, the family decides it’s better to do away with one family member who has the potential to ruin the chances of reproduction of the entire family.

This is why you’ll almost never hear of an honor killing happening in the family of only one child.  If the only child in the family is honor-killed, there will be no one to carry forward the parent’s genes to the succeeding generations. 

So, while the grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins may approve of killing the only child, the direct parents will be strongly opposed to it. The reproductive costs for them would be too high in such a case.

But when the parents have more than one child, offing one who dishonors the family ensures that the others can successfully pass on the family’s genes. So they have no trouble killing someone they spent so much time and resources on because the reproductive benefits committing the act are higher overall.

References:

1. Chesler, P. (2010). Worldwide trends in honor killings. Middle East Quarterly.

2. Chesler, P. (2009). Woman’s inhumanity to woman. Chicago Review Press.
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