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Reputation is everything: Unearthing honour culture in America


Brendad Smialowski/NYT/Redux/eyevine

MUBEEN RAJHU pleaded with his sister, Tasleem, to end her relationship with a Christian man because it brought shame on the family. Then he put a bullet in her head. “I had to do it,” Rajhu told a reporter earlier this year. “There was no choice.” Many of his neighbours in Lahore, Pakistan, agreed: Rajhu deserved praise for doing the right thing, they insisted.

Most of us cannot fathom the kind of thinking that condones “honour” killings, when fathers and brothers murder loved ones, typically women, in the name of reputation. We tend to associate this strict code of honour with countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Somalia, and with extreme religious beliefs. But Ryan Brown thinks it is more familiar than you might think.

Brown, a social psychologist at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, studies “honour cultures” – ones characterised by a deep concern for reputation and a sense of being duty-bound to retaliate against anything perceived as a slight. His research in the US south shows that it is alive and well among millions of people there, and potentially in other Western countries too. He also argues that honour culture is an important cause of all kinds of problems, from elevated murder rates to a reluctance to address mental health issues. Can he be right?

Insult to injury

Anthropologists and social scientists distinguish between what are sometimes called dignity cultures and honour cultures. Dignity cultures value people simply by dint of being human. Here, people seldom turn violent at the first hint of a challenge to their reputation, instead ignoring …

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