How do anthropologists view honor killing? Is it a patriarchal mechanism to control female sexuality? Or is it the result of jealousy of men to control reproductive capability of women? Or is it historical-cultural practice to punish violators of social norms? Or is this practice rooted in biology to control and keep genes of a group within the group?

What do you people have to say about this?

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Ethnologically speaking, "honor killing" is a cultural practice in which the killing of a person, usually a woman, is justified in the name of family honor, and not only justified but in many cases actually demanded by powers that be within a given culture. 


I'm curious. In what respect was the execution of Anne Boleyn not "the killing of a person, usually a woman...justified in the name of family honor....and actually demanded by the powers that be"? A person was killed, a woman. The killing was justified by accusing her of adultery and incest, both affronts to family honor, and her killing was demanded by the principal power that was, the king himself.

The Wikipedia article to which you pointed us notes that the concept of honor killing was developed in 1978 to address a specific issue, how to differentiate killings that were not the result of feud. My reading of what is said there is that the decision tree that the theory requires has two main forks. The first is the decision whether a killing is justified or not. The second is whether the individual killed is kin or someone else's kin. The Sindh data cited by Wikipedia indicate that the individual killed may be either a man or a woman. The greater likelihood that the individual killed is a woman is a straightforward extrapolation of the role of women in patriarchal societies with virilocal marriage (the pattern in which a woman leaves the family into which she was born to join the family of her husband), a minor at the mercy of the men in her life and of less long-term value to the family or clan than the men who remain with the families into which they are born.

These remarks are only an hypothesis, however. A critical question is whether "honor killing" is restricted to the societies in which the phenomenon was first identified. It is one of the commonest failings of the methodology you embrace to fail to ask if the "phenomenon" it sets out to explain is, in fact, restricted to the areas in which it has been "discovered," or if the distribution in question reflects a bias in scholarly/popular interest among those whose work is concentrated in the geographical region in question. In this case, I might, for example, raise the question of China, where the structural features of society noted above were at least, if not more, traditional than they remain among some populations in South and Southwest Asia? Does honor killing not exist there? Or have people who study China been interested in other things?

This brings me to the notion that anthropologists are not historians. I submit that anyone who uses ethnographic data, which have now been collected in various times and places, to make large generalizations,must bring an historian's critical sense of the the times and places in which that data was collected and the questions that aroused the interest of those who collected it. 

In this case, the Wikipedia article to which you point us says that,

It has been noted how in ancient Babylonian, Egypt, Chinese, North American Native American tribes and Persian cultures, women convicted of adultery were subjected to extreme punishments. In Babylonian societies, women suspected of adultery were forced to throw themselves into a river to prove they were innocent. In Egyptian culture, imprisonment, flogging, or mutilation were common punishments for women who had been convicted of adultery. Chinese culture suggested that husbands cut off the hair of adulterous women and then lead them to their death by an elephant trained to kill. Some Native American tribes punished adulterous women by cutting off their limbs and mutilating their bodies. In Persia, adulterous women were left to die after being placed into a well. 

On this account alone, the presence in the examples of China and Native American tribes is not consistent with a focus on south and southwest Asia alone. But how much to rely on these statements is also questionable. Anyone who asserts that Chinese customarily have adulterous wives trampled to death by elephants has not bothered to considered the rarity of elephants in China.

What then of prehistory? Some reconstructions are possible, where physical evidence exists and human biology or other natural conditions limit the range of possibilities. But how, pray tell, is one to distinguish from skeletal remains and associated artifacts alone whether a killing was an honor killing or the result of feud, war or accident?

The fact of the matter is that all the relevant evidence related to honor killing is textual evidence, mostly from literate societies. The Native American examples are ethnographic hearsay and have to be examined with the same critical eye as any other texts—since people like most of us here have neither the access to informants nor the linguistic skills to put questions directly. 

In light of considerations like these, the evidence on which a plausible infer-point-of-origin from geographical distribution style argument must rest is, in this case, very thin, indeed.


John McCreery said:

I'm curious. In what respect was the execution of Anne Boleyn not "the killing of a person, usually a woman...justified in the name of family honor....and actually demanded by the powers that be"? A person was killed, a woman. The killing was justified by accusing her of adultery and incest, both affronts to family honor, and her killing was demanded by the principal power that was, the king himself.

Well, first of all I defined it as a "cultural practice," which the execution of Anne Boleyn was not. Secondly, it is usually understood as the murder of a female by a member or members of her own family. Henry was the husband, not a family member. Thirdly, it was "demanded by the powers that be" only in the most narrow literal sense. In fact it seems to me you are being entirely too literal minded in your understanding of this term. Any killing can in one way or the other be "justified" on the basis of the murderer's honor, but that doesn't make it an "honor killing" in any but the most literal, least meaningful sense of the term. And yes, you are being overly literal if you insist that Henry was a "family member" since he was her husband, because "honor killing" as usually understood does not include the killing of a wife by a jealous husband but the killing of a daughter or sister by a father or brother in the name of family honor. In any case I doubt very much you'll find any references anywhere in the literature, either historical or anthropological, where the beheading of Anne Boleyn is characterized as an "honor killing."

The Wikipedia article to which you pointed us notes that the concept of honor killing was developed in 1978 to address a specific issue, how to differentiate killings that were not the result of feud.

You've taken this out of context. It was allegedly coined by a Dutch scholar studying Turkish society, and in that context, clearly, the intent was to differentiate honor killings from blood feuds in Turkish society.

My reading of what is said there is that the decision tree that the theory requires has two main forks. The first is the decision whether a killing is justified or not. The second is whether the individual killed is kin or someone else's kin. The Sindh data cited by Wikipedia indicate that the individual killed may be either a man or a woman. The greater likelihood that the individual killed is a woman is a straightforward extrapolation of the role of women in patriarchal societies with virilocal marriage (the pattern in which a woman leaves the family into which she was born to join the family of her husband), a minor at the mercy of the men in her life and of less long-term value to the family or clan than the men who remain with the families into which they are born.

Yes. And the tradition is closely tied to many other traditions which constrain women to certain very limited roles and limit their freedoms. In such cases, by the way, it is often the mother-in-law, not necessarily the husband, who exerts most of the control.

These remarks are only an hypothesis, however. A critical question is whether "honor killing" is restricted to the societies in which the phenomenon was first identified.

That's a reasonable question, certainly.

It is one of the commonest failings of the methodology you embrace to fail to ask if the "phenomenon" it sets out to explain is, in fact, restricted to the areas in which it has been "discovered," or if the distribution in question reflects a bias in scholarly/popular interest among those whose work is concentrated in the geographical region in question.

That's an excellent point. All I can say in response is that, as far as I know (and I am certainly not an expert) the vast majority of cases described specifically as "honor killings" have been found in the Middle Eastern and South Asian societies I identified in my earlier post: Islamic, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, and their offshoots in Europe, the Americas, etc. Whether studies exist that would contradict such an assumption, I have no idea.

In this case, I might, for example, raise the question of China, where the structural features of society noted above were at least, if not more, traditional than they remain among some populations in South and Southwest Asia? Does honor killing not exist there? Or have people who study China been interested in other things?

The Wikipedia article doesn't mention China (or Japan) but I see no reason to assume that something very similar might have been at work in the traditions of these societies as well and if you can find evidence of that I wouldn't dispute it. My guess is that honor killing may have had its origin in Southern Asia and spread from there, and if we include China and Japan (and other East Asian societies) then it looks as though it would have spread in both directions, West and East. But it would have originated and spread as part of a much more general cultural pattern associated with the strict control of females.

This brings me to the notion that anthropologists are not historians. I submit that anyone who uses ethnographic data, which have now been collected in various times and places, to make large generalizations,must bring an historian's critical sense of the the times and places in which that data was collected and the questions that aroused the interest of those who collected it. 

Agreed. All I meant was that anthropologists have a responsibility to go beyond recorded history to examine the historical and cultural implications of oral traditions, something professional historians rarely consider.

In this case, the Wikipedia article to which you point us says that,

It has been noted how in ancient Babylonian, Egypt, Chinese, North American Native American tribes and Persian cultures, women convicted of adultery were subjected to extreme punishments. In Babylonian societies, women suspected of adultery were forced to throw themselves into a river to prove they were innocent. In Egyptian culture, imprisonment, flogging, or mutilation were common punishments for women who had been convicted of adultery. Chinese culture suggested that husbands cut off the hair of adulterous women and then lead them to their death by an elephant trained to kill. Some Native American tribes punished adulterous women by cutting off their limbs and mutilating their bodies. In Persia, adulterous women were left to die after being placed into a well. 

But we're not talking about adultery, we're talking about "honor killing." Unquestionably, there were and still are a great many societies all over the world where women are tightly controlled and severely punished when they "misbehave." But this is not necessarily the same as honor killing. (There are also a great many societies where women have relative equality and freedom, by the way.) As I see it, "honor killing" is a tradition where there is strong social pressure on the family of the "out of control" woman to do away with her in the name of family honor. And what's most meaningful for me in this syndrome is that it is a tradition that has persisted over many thousands of years. Whether it can be found mostly in this place or that is of less importance, but the relative prevalence of such a practice can give us useful clues as to its place and time of origin, which in turn might help us understand its original meaning/motivation.

What then of prehistory? Some reconstructions are possible, where physical evidence exists and human biology or other natural conditions limit the range of possibilities. But how, pray tell, is one to distinguish from skeletal remains and associated artifacts alone whether a killing was an honor killing or the result of feud, war or accident?

Agreed. And imo it is one of the great weaknesses of archaeology, this tendency to make assumptions based on highly tenuous and ambiguous relic evidence.

The fact of the matter is that all the relevant evidence related to honor killing is textual evidence, mostly from literate societies.

Well, there is also a considerable amount of ethnographic evidence, gathered by anthropologists through field work. It's all written down, of course, but it's based on field studies, not historical literature.

The Native American examples are ethnographic hearsay and have to be examined with the same critical eye as any other texts—since people like most of us here have neither the access to informants nor the linguistic skills to put questions directly. 

In light of considerations like these, the evidence on which a plausible infer-point-of-origin from geographical distribution style argument must rest is, in this case, very thin, indeed.

As I see it, the origin of any tradition cannot be meaningfully established or even inferred without first establishing a baseline. This was the great weakness of the Kulturkreis school -- they floundered because they lacked a baseline from which to orient the various pieces of evidence they gathered. They were forced to fall back on recorded history and archaeological ruins and thus tended to assume that many of the traditions they considered must have had their origin in some ancient civilization, such as China or India or Greece.

What got my attention several years ago was the research being done by population geneticists, who, for the very first time, were actually able to establish a baseline for the earliest migrations of modern humans, based on the now well known "Out of Africa" model. As I see it, this research has changed everything and finally given us the clues we need to properly investigate the origins and evolution of culture.

Victor, first, allow me to compliment you. The way in which you have kept your cool and sustained this dialogue in the face of severe and, yes, I'll admit it, deliberately provocative criticism is entirely admirable. Second, I am not imposed in principle to adopting theory or method from other disciplines to address anthropological problems. I engage in this sort of enterprise myself, using theory, actually mostly methods, from social network analysis to drive ethnographic exploration of the world of Tokyo advertising creatives. 

I do, however, see your approach to the topic of honor killing as having two serious weakness. First, you insist that the execution of Anne Boleyn is not an example of honor killing because honor killing is a "cultural practice." But what is a cultural practice? 

In a rough and ready way, my generation of anthropologists had a practical answer. Culture was what the people whose lives we shared and studied seemed to take for granted. It was universal agreement that created the cultural fact. This left open the question, what do you do with practices on which there is less than universal agreement? In the case of honor killing, the Wikipedia data show that victims of honor killings account for an infinitesimal fraction of the population of Sindh, a few hundred vs 30 million or so. The survey cited suggests, moreover, that 90% of the members of the relevant populations do not see the practice as legitimate. Given these data, the question of what it means to claim that honor killing is a cultural practice is not as straightforward as you seem to think it is. You defined honor killing. I demonstrated that the execution of Anne Boleyn satisfied all your criteria. You now invoke "cultural practice" as though it were some sort of magical mantra to defend a collapsing position. You sound to me like someone who, lacking knowledge of the chemistry of oxidation, invokes phlogiston as an explanation of fire.

That brings me to your admiration for the work of population geneticists. That work is very interesting, indeed. It rests, however, on solid work in fields like genetics and molecular biology whose results provide a good grasp of the mechanisms involved and the limits they impose on plausible reconstruction of evolutionary events. Your argument is more along the lines of the Dao of Physics. More Dao than physics. 

Got to run now. But this is where I stand.

John, it seems clear that we have very different notions, not only of "honor killing" but culture generally. And as a result, have been arguing at cross purposes.

John McCreery said:

But what is a cultural practice? 

In a rough and ready way, my generation of anthropologists had a practical answer. Culture was what the people whose lives we shared and studied seemed to take for granted. It was universal agreement that created the cultural fact.

That's very clear. And perfectly accurate and reasonable, up to a point (though for me culture is not so much based on "agreement" as on the immersion of all parties within what I call a "cultural field"). The problem, as I see it, is that such a definition no longer holds in the modern world, where cultures that were formerly "of a piece" and that all participants were engulfed in, and thus in agreement on, are and have for some time been under tremendous pressure to change. And this pressure is continually producing rifts, especially in societies that have until recently been extremely traditional -- many of those rifts are generational, and many of the older generation feel that their children are being seduced away from their traditional values.

Are you with me so far? Or do you see a problem with any of the above?

In this light, it's occurred to me that much of what is seen as "honor killing" in Middle Eastern and South Indian societies could in fact be due as much to change as to the persistence of ancient traditions, since many honor killings are directed against children who are perceived as being seduced by Western values.

In the case of honor killing, the Wikipedia data show that victims of honor killings account for an infinitesimal fraction of the population of Sindh, a few hundred vs 30 million or so. The survey cited suggests, moreover, that 90% of the members of the relevant populations do not see the practice as legitimate. Given these data, the question of what it means to claim that honor killing is a cultural practice is not as straightforward as you seem to think it is.

I'm sorry but the above stumps me. If honor killing is not a cultural practice then what is it? Simply a means by which men justify the killing of women (as in the case of Anne Boleyn)? And if so, then why are we discussing it on an anthropology forum instead of a criminological forum?  As I mentioned earlier, I don't see culture as something that can be decided by vote -- especially in the modern world where so many societies have come under such strong pressure to accept Western values. The majority in many of these societies do seem to want to be accepted in the Western mainstream. Others, often a minority, admittedly, adhere to the old ways. It's hard for me to understand why such an interpretation is a problem for you.

That brings me to your admiration for the work of population geneticists. That work is very interesting, indeed. It rests, however, on solid work in fields like genetics and molecular biology whose results provide a good grasp of the mechanisms involved and the limits they impose on plausible reconstruction of evolutionary events. Your argument is more along the lines of the Dao of Physics. More Dao than physics. 


I'm not sure what part of my argument offends you so much. And why? I'll admit that my interpretation of cultural continuity flies in the face of the widely held assumption among Anthropologists that change is some sort of universal and that the old notion of traditions as "age-old" and unchanging can never be revived. If that bothers you I fully understand. But as I see it, my book makes a case for the persistence of certain "age-old" traditions that would, in fact, be very difficult to refute. That's where I stand.

Thanks for your time, care and civility, gentlemen. As the Rev Sydney Smith, an early 19th century London wit, once observed when witnessing a heated verbal exchange between two women leaning out of windows on opposite sides of the street: "I am afraid that those ladies will never reach agreement, since they are arguing from different premises." (For non-native speakers, premises = assumptions and where you live).

So what's your premise, Keith? Or do you prefer to remain above the fray?

Not above the fray at all, Victor. I had my say early on in this thread and it didn't take. In any case, I wouldn't want to enter an argument about culture between American anthropologists. I have learned a lot from your exchange and your parting shot reminded me of the Rev Smith's bon mot which I thought I would share, since it appeals to me.

Victor Grauer said:

So what's your premise, Keith? Or do you prefer to remain above the fray?

That's very clear. And perfectly accurate and reasonable, up to a point (though for me culture is not so much based on "agreement" as on the immersion of all parties within what I call a "cultural field"). The problem, as I see it, is that such a definition no longer holds in the modern world, where cultures that were formerly "of a piece" and that all participants were engulfed in, and thus in agreement on, are and have for some time been under tremendous pressure to change. And this pressure is continually producing rifts, especially in societies that have until recently been extremely traditional -- many of those rifts are generational, and many of the older generation feel that their children are being seduced away from their traditional values.

Are you with me so far? Or do you see a problem with any of the above?

No, not at all. 

In this light, it's occurred to me that much of what is seen as "honor killing" in Middle Eastern and South Indian societies could in fact be due as much to change as to the persistence of ancient traditions, since many honor killings are directed against children who are perceived as being seduced by Western values.

In fact, if you've come around to this point, I think we are ready to make further progress. Let us return to the problem you pose when you write,

If honor killing is not a cultural practice then what is it? Simply a means by which men justify the killing of women (as in the case of Anne Boleyn)? And if so, then why are we discussing it on an anthropology forum instead of a criminological forum?  


The critical question is what counts as a cultural practice. Let me offer as a starting point the following definition: A cultural practice is behavior whose meaning is taken for granted by two or more human beings. The meaning in question is part of the culture of the two or more human beings who take it for granted. 

This definition is a pared-down version of the model developed by Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann in their 1967 book, The Social Construction of Reality,to explain how Durkheim's social facts become facts. The Berger-Luckmann model envisions a process with one premise and four steps. The premise is that there is group of people. Step 1 is when a member of the group has a new idea. Step 2 is when that person externalizes the idea, i.e., articulates it to other members of the group. Step 3 is when the other members of the group accept it. At this point something very important has happened. So long as other members of the group have accepted the idea, it lives on even if the one who had the idea in the first place dies or has second thoughts and rejects it. Step 4 assumes that sufficient consensus has been reached among the members of the group that newcomers to the group are taught the idea as this is the way things are because this is who we are. The idea has become a social fact. It has, thus, I would add, become a meaning available for the definition of cultural practices, i.e., practices whose meaning is seen as determined by that idea.

Consider this model in relation to another model, that of the small, closed, traditional community beloved by anthropological theorists thinking in structural-functionalist or other functionalist modes. Because the group is small and closed, most of what people think about things, the social facts that define cultural practices, is taken for granted. New members of the group are largely, if not exclusively, children who are brought up (socialized, enculturated) to take these same things for granted. Using consensus as a measure of facticity, we can predict with some confidence that social facts are maximally factual, so totally taken for granted that they are virtually unquestionable. 

What happens, however, when groups become larger and more complex and begin to interact with other groups around them, when, moreover, members of different groups begin to mingle and live together? The consensus that sustains facticity and makes cultural practices cultural also becomes more complex. On the smallest scale, an old married couple or a pair of close friends take a lot for granted about each other. On a larger scale, organizations like schools, companies, or regiments develop cultures, taken for granted assumptions, that define what they are and what being a member of them entails. At the highest level, political institutions appear that define the boundaries of the state and the rights and obligations of its citizens. These constitute the culture of the state. But another critical thing has happened. With all these overlapping groups and cultures, meanings bleed from one to another. In the hyperfluid situation that Zygmunt Bauman calls Liquid Modernity everything gets called into question. As Grant McCracken so brilliantly puts it "meaning flows."

Let us return now to honor killing. Let me offer the proposition that it is precisely how men justify killing, of women certainly but also, as the data from Sindh indicate, other men as well, that is the primary question. "Honor" refers to a specific form of justification, that the individual killed has done something disgraceful, so appalling that they must die. This is, however, more than an individual crime, it brings disgrace on a group of which the victim was a member. 

In the cases to which the phrase "honor killing" is most often applied, the group in question is the woman's family, primarily her father and brothers. Already, though, this anthropologist's ears are pricking up. What is a family? How big is it? Besides the father and brothers, does it also include mothers, sisters, cross or parallel cousins, to what degree?

I recall a discussion in my early teens of a topic of great interest to boys who grew up in the American South. Could a man be convicted of murdering his wife if he found her in bed with another man and shot her caught in the act? The anthropologist now recalls that American marriage is predicated on the notion that through marriage a man and woman create a new family. Would violation of the marriage vows be sufficiently disgraceful to justify one killing the other? 

I note, too, that killing someone for disgraceful behavior is common in political and military history. The execution of those who betray the other members of the group by behaving like cowards or traitors has a long history, indeed. 

The execution of Anne Boleyn is a case in point. She was accused of adultery and incest, which, given that she was married to the king, constituted high treason. Apart from whether she was guilty of these charges, she had failed to give Henry the male heir he needed to secure the Tudors on the throne of England. That, too, was disgraceful. Her execution was justified by asserting social facts, cultural meanings that condemned her to death. Yes, that execution was, indeed, a cultural practice.

The point to note here is the justification and whether the justification is based on cultural meanings taken for granted. The question is not the behavioral one, is everyone doing it? It is, instead, does everyone agree on the meaning of what is being done and the implications of that meaning? Does the consensus support the "fact"?

All this, however, is only prologue to what must be done to conduct a serious study of the distribution of "honor killing" around the world. For every case asserted as evidence, we need to be asking what counted as evidence that the victim deserved killing? Did she or he have to be caught in flagrant delicto? Was a stolen kiss or mere flirting enough? Would the crime have been deemed as serious if the other involved in the relationship were seen as an acceptable marriage partner or is it only a crime if the other in question is a member of an enemy group ruled out by group endogamy? How are the disgraceful acts in question related to gender? What does a man have to do to justify being killed for being "dishonorable"?  What is the relationship between honor killings and dueling? The questions multiply.

At the root of them all, however, is the basic sociological question, says who? Who are the group that says this killing is justified? Then, why do we find these groups where we do? Is this result of tradition? A relic of a time past when the justification was universally accepted? Was it ever universally accepted? Or a type of behavior always seen as extreme and characteristic of a crazy fringe? Could it be, instead, a predictable outcome of social or material conditions that lead to its appearance in multiple locations with no common origin? Lots and lots of questions, here.

Hope this has been helpful.

John, everything you've written in that last post is interesting and meaningful. Give me some time to mull it over . . .

Actually the title of that book, The Social Construction of Reality is already a pretty good definition of "culture," or at least one very useful way of thinking about it. But I myself would place the greatest emphasis not on new ideas, or even ideas, but on ancestral traditions, the perpetuation of these traditions, and the conditions under which such traditions may be altered or eliminated. For someone like myself, who is now focusing on "deep history" and the possible survival of archaic traditions among contemporary indigenous peoples, the emphasis has to be on continuity rather than change. And in fact, most if not all indigenous societies are extremely resistant to new ideas of any kind, because their orientation is so strongly toward the past and the world of their ancestors.

For you on the other hand, the focus seems to be on the more recent history of more specialized societies, ancient to modern, where there certainly has been a considerable amount of change, based on both external forces and innovative ideas. What interests me most even in this more recent history is the way certain traditions (or if you prefer "cultural practices") persist, despite all the many pressures for change, especially in the modern world. If we focus on the Muslim world, and India, then "honor killing" seems to be one of those traditions. If we take a broader view, to include any situation where someone claims to have killed someone else to preserve his, or his family's, honor (as in the case of Anne Boleyn), then admittedly it's no longer so easy to account for. But even in such cases, as I see it, this notion of "honor" must also be seen as a tradition, which may well have it's origin (or origins) in deep history. The book referred to above by Abou looks like it might offer some real insights into this issue.

What happens, however, when groups become larger and more complex and begin to interact with other groups around them, when, moreover, members of different groups begin to mingle and live together? The consensus that sustains facticity and makes cultural practices cultural also becomes more complex.

I agree completely. But such a relatively innocent sounding "mingling" strikes me as a very recent development, limited to only the most benign encounters. In most cases, especially in the past, we see not so much mingling as conquest, intimidation, coercion, exploitation and control. One society simply imposes its culture on another. The question then is whether any elements of the culture of the weaker group are likely to survive.

The execution of Anne Boleyn is a case in point. She was accused of adultery and incest, which, given that she was married to the king, constituted high treason. Apart from whether she was guilty of these charges, she had failed to give Henry the male heir he needed to secure the Tudors on the throne of England. That, too, was disgraceful. Her execution was justified by asserting social facts, cultural meanings that condemned her to death. Yes, that execution was, indeed, a cultural practice.

I don't completely agree but I do see your point.

The point to note here is the justification and whether the justification is based on cultural meanings taken for granted.

I agree but I also see a problem. This is why I place such emphasis on that old-fashioned term, rarely used anymore by anthropologists: tradition. While one could argue that Henry's actions were grounded in cultural meanings, that does not necessarily make them part of the particular tradition usually understood as "honor killing." If we see "honor killing" as a type of murder justified by cultural considerations, then I'd agree, that's a very broad construal and Henry's actions could be included. If we see it as part of a particular tradition, associated with certain populations and not others, then we need to define it more narrowly.

All this, however, is only prologue to what must be done to conduct a serious study of the distribution of "honor killing" around the world.

It seems to me that the many conditions you impose on such research are designed to defeat it beforehand. For me the question is far more simple, because much of the distribution of "honor killing" in the narrower sense I defined above, is, as I see it, already determined. What one would need to do would be to look for the exceptions, those societies where one might expect to find it but don't. As is the case, it would seem, for South India, where apparently it is rare or absent.

Hello everyone! Introduction: I’m a PhD student researching honour killings in Kurdish settings (also an activist with a Kurdish women’s rights organisation) and although not, technically, an anthropologist, I have found anthropological insights hugely valuable in my theory. I’ve found the discussion up to this point very interesting and I’ve joined this group solely to weigh in.

Firstly, to develop the definition – HK are distinguished from other forms of violence against women due to having a collective basis. The killings are carried out by a family collective, which in the case of a woman being killed is her own family, but where a man is killed, it’s more likely to be by males of a family who believe their daughter/sister has been ‘dishonoured’ by him. That men are killed with rather less infrequently is not just an indicator of women’s low status (although it is that as well), but because HK so often co-occurs with blood vendetta – killing your own can pass without ramifications, but killing a man from another group runs the risk of starting a feud and escalating deaths. Couple killings – where both parties to an indiscretion are killed – appear to be more common in South Asia than the Middle East.

In certain forms, there is a family council meeting arranged to discuss the offence and the manner of the death, where alibis and method are developed, an executioner is selected…. It’s not been common in the West to identify collectivity in killings defined as domestic violence. However, this is changing as prosecutions in the cases of the murders of Banaz Mahmod (5 found guilty) and (9 found guilty) indicate. Second – the killing restores status which is presumed to have been lost through the ‘dishonouring’ behaviour. Murderers escape the dark cloud of public opprobrium which settles upon them from the point where the ‘dishonouring act’ is public knowledge until they redeem their status through murder, at which point they are considered reintegrated into the community.

Neither of these apply to Anne Boleyn AFAIK – there was no collectivity, besides that which could be purchased by the monarch, and there was no indication that the execution restored the Boleyn family status.

Mohammed is right, I think, to point to a broad, but not universal pattern of prevalence. HK have been recorded in the Mediterranean within living memory, and I’d suggest that Chinese enforced suicides are an unrecognised form of HK. I’d also suggest that the existence of convents in Catholic regions provided a method for families to dispose of ‘dishonoured’ females without resorting to murder, something which was impossible in societies which do not allow women non-reproductive roles. The most important factor which leads to HK, IMO, is the level of exterior knowledge of the ‘offence’ – if it can be retained within the family, the ‘offender’ may survive – and if it’s public knowledge it’s more likely to end in lethal violence. This in fact extends so far that many victims of HK have not technically offended normative sexual practise – where it is practise to perform ‘virginity exams’ in post-mortem such as in Jordan, a majority of victims are found to be virgo intacta. Becoming the subject of community gossip, is a far more dangerous situation than any actual transgression. This is important because it puts all the ideas about inviolable social norms out of the window – it’s about conformity, not affect, nor rules.

Just to make a brief point to John – the Asian survey by the BBC related to British Asians, and as such is more relevant to diasporic communities, and in any case is not a methodologically sound way of gathering actual attitudes of South Asians. British Asians know very well that British society does not condone HK and are not likely to express support when interviewed by the BBC. I would suggest Kardam or Taysi’s surveys of attitudes to HK in Turkey and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq are more appropriate sources for discerning attitudes towards ‘honour’ and HK. Also, to answer another question - HK may very well be committed by any member of the patriline - sisters, mothers, cousins, uncles – but IMO, there’s a tendency for patrilateral relatives to kill and for patrilinear identities to be paramount. It’s interesting that one of the exceptions raised in this thread has been Kerala, with its (diminishing) matrilineal heritage.

My perspective is that HK relates to the structure of kinship, marriage and gender roles – it is agnates who kill, and it is agnates who arrange marriage; it is women who are transmitted, transacted and exchanged, who carry the family reputation into the affinal (almost always virilocal) household. And the demographics of victims are that they are predominantly in their late teens and their twenties – ie, either newlyweds, or women about to enter marriage. Offences against ‘honour’ come under three broad heads, each one relating to normative marriage – a) refusing an arranged marriage b) becoming ‘unmarriageable’ due to gossip, and c) failing to peform normative wifehood.

To make a blunt analogy, a dishonoured woman is faulty merchandise, and an HK is a kind of product recall, a PR move to reinstate the family status as a producer of marriageable females.

Oops! missing words above - 9 were found guilty of the murder of Ghazala Khan in Denmark.

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