Wednesday, October 01, 2003

The BBC reports another case of honor killing--a 16 year old Kurdish girl hacked to death by her father for planning to elope with an 18 year old boy. The father was given the maximum sentence, life, and the judge made it very clear that no "cultural defense" would ever be available for honor killing.

Right that is. But how do we understand the whole affair, and win hearts and minds?

Ideally, members of all cultures should be converted to utilitarianism. But it isn't even feasible to convert all members of our own culture to utilitarianism--people still have entrenched Romantic notions about honesty, virtue and the like. "Honor" is like that: family honor depends on female modesty and defending it is a man's moral duty. Dishonor diminishes him.

I can understand that. I value having a neat, clean organized household--most women do because it is the crown of female accomplishment. If my house is a mess, I am diminished. Emotionally, most women do not, and probably never will, buy the idea that "only boring women have immaculate homes" any more than they will buy the idea that it's ok to be fat or old.

But you can sell the idea that it houses should be "clean enough to be healthy but dirty enough to be happy," the principle that utility trumps personal aesthetic preferences and egoistic concerns, that you shouldn't lock your children into their rooms to keep them from making a mess or beat them up for spilling Kool-aid. So I think you could sell the idea that female modesty, even extending to headscarves is fine, but does not trump goals like education for girls and some reasonable degree of autonomy and does not license beating or killing girls who violate the rules. I'd bet that most Muslims, even most conservative Muslims disapprove of honor killing, even if they might regard it as a crime of passion and punish it less harshly. I would even bet that all things being equal they don't want their daughters to be domestic slaves and would rather see them, modestly veiled, going to (possibly all female) medical schools and marrying nice Muslim boys who won't beat them up.

That's speculation. But I'd like to know the empirical facts of the matter. The assumptions of Romantics who assume that the most exotic, and offensive, practices represent the culture are equally speculative.

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