Sex, Not Politics, the Root of Human Culture

You fall into my arms.  You are the good gift of destruction's path, when life sickens more than disease
and boldness is the root of beauty - which draws us together.

- Boris Pasternak

Sex lies at the root of life, and we can never learn to reverence life until we know how to understand sex.

- Henry Havelock Ellis

If you thought politics was about intelligent debate, principles and justice, Geoffrey Miller will happily put you straight.  It is about sex.  In fact, much of what we revere in cultured ociety, such as art, music, even comedy, is about sex.  At the root of human culture, many would argue, lies the well-developed organ called the human brain.  Which, Dr Miller counters, grew to its impressive size because it was a tool as much for wooing as for survival.

But back to politics.  "When somebody is spouting a particular ideology, I tend to step back and ask why that person should have a view on it," says Dr Miller, 35, an evolutionary psychologist at London's University College.  "Why are they talking about it publicly?  What aspects are they trying to play up to make them look more attractive?  Once you start doing that, you get quite sceptical about human discourse."  He points out that the issues that, in his opinion, are most important to human welfare - the environment, the arms trade, contraception, disillusionment among inner-city youth - are not the kind of topics that dominate political agendas.

"Political issues tend to be superficial and very prone to fashion cycles.  Take drug legalisation.  Smoking marijuana is seen as a low-status activity of alienated youth.  It's not seen as sexually attractive, so, adults don't want to be seen supporting it."  Dr Miller is sceptical about the hard line argument against legalisation - that soft drugs lead to hard ones.  Politicians may find Dr Miller's proposition absurd but they are "kidding themselves", he says.  The people who know politicians best - senior civil servants - testify to an "astonishing number of affairs, liaisons and mistresses in the corridors of power."

United States President Bill Clinton is, perhaps, a good example of how politics can be allied to sexual charisma.  This vignette illustrates the intense debate about the origins of human nature which Dr Miller has waded into with his first book, The Mating Mind.  He is keen to put the reins on the idea, perpetuated by many psychologists, that every aspect of our behaviour and personality is directed toward survival.  To survive was not enough, he insists.  Our ancestors also had to reproduce.  Dr Miller argues that the "most distinctive aspects of our minds evolved largely through the sexual choices our ancestors made.  Our minds are entertaining, intelligent, creative and articulate far beyond the demands of surviving on the plains of Pleistocene Africa."

He cleverly taps into an enigma that rankles in science.  Put simply, nobody has provided a satisfactory explanation for why all cultures, independently, seem to come up with creative practices such as art and music.  Even though they seem superfluous to survival, creativity is seen as important, and the most advanced practitioners are seen as high-status individuals.  The attractive muses who flock to Salman Rushdie and Mick Jagger, among others, suggest this status equates to sexual desirability.  The 19th-century bohemian arts scene was routinely depleted by bouts of syphilis.

Some indignant psychologists might retort that art can be thought of in terms of survival.  Good representational painting, for example, suggests a keen eye for one's surroundings and environment, which might have given our forebears the edge in surviving in unknown territory.  Dr Miller thinks this too laboured an explanation.  "Why bother to display a representation of your surroundings?" he asks.  "What information does it carry?  The physical habitat doesn't care.  So the benefits must be social or sexual.  Great artists get high status, and primatologists will tell you that status is a measure of reproductive success."

In fact, art is a perfect example of a sexual fitness indicator, he concludes.  It is hard to accomplish but easy to judge.  "Even painting stripes of red ochre on the body is something that not everybody can do to the same ability - that's what makes it worth paying attention to."

This ancestral desire to flaunt abilities to a prospective mate does seem to illuminate certain human truths.  If you ask people about their true ambitions, they tend to say things like "travel the world," "be a famous writer," or "be the next Noel Gallagher."  Some people may even pursue creative ideas in their spare time for little or no money, such as playing in a pub band or painting watercolours.  They do it because it gives them something to talk about at a party.

It is rare, Dr Miller says, to find someone who longs to be a tax lawyer or an accountant, and who mugs up on fiscal law at the weekend.  He is quick to add, though, that the "unsexy" professions acquire some sort of status in the salaries they command.  However, the extremely widespread innate desire to be accomplished in at least one creative realm suggests, Dr Miller says, that these traits are "real adaptations."  In other words, the longing to be creative is so universal that it must have evolved in our ancestors for a good reason - sexual selection.

The idea that much of human endeavour is sexual display finds fascinating support in the truth that artists, musicians, novelists - even scientists - tend to do their best work in their sexual prime, and mostly before they marry.

What about something as obtuse as humour, a uniquely human trait?  Why does a good sense of humour top the list of desired attributes in men?  It isn't because the ability to crack funny jokes once contributed to survival chances, Dr Miller argues.  It is because humour is a pretty efficient display of sexual credentials, too: "You make a joke.  So that's going to affect the weather, or stop a predator?  It's a non-starter.  The fact that good comedy is dependent on culture and language suggests that a sense of humour is about the ability to learn the nuances of that culture."

In The Prehistory of the Mind, archaeologist Steve Mithen argues that creativity and culture are the accidental results of cross-wiring in our ancestors' large brains.  Dr Miller is scathing: "People who write about culture as a by-product of big brains don't seem aware that other species, like dolphins and whales, have big brains but not the capacity for humour.  The brain of a sperm whale weighs eight kilograms.  Ours is the size of a grapefruit."

Ultimately, Dr Miller is arguing for a commonsense view of the evolution of human nature.  He feels any theory should be able to explain the mundane truths of everyday life, such as why public life is full of men (they are more eager to display their sexual wares); why people at dinner parties talk about dangerous places they have been on holiday (it impresses potential sexual suitors).  And he has comforting words for those unnerved by the idea that men and women are merely sexual predators: "Some critics may have a set of moral instincts about sexuality.  They might condemn this theory as cold-hearted sexual strategising.  But this is inappropriate because we all do this stuff without knowing about it.  It's a human universal." - The Times

Source: The Dominion Tuesday 6 June 2000

Death before Dishonour

by Geraldine Bedell

What is it about the power of shame that drives a father, brother, even a mother to slaughter a close family member?  In the UK alone, 117 murders are being investigated as "honour killings."  But over-sensitivity to cultural differences means that many victims are denied the justice that they deserve.

The girl's white shirt was clogged with blood.  Her attacker had broken down the bathroom door to get to her - the floor was slippery with her blood.  He'd set about her with such ferocity that the tip of the kitchen knife had broken off, stabbing her 11 times and then slitting her throat.  She was 16, and he was her father.

Abdulla Yones killed his daughter Heshu in their flat on the third floor of Charles Hocking House, a dismal council block in Acton, west London.  Two days earlier, he had received an anonymous letter at the south London offices of the Kurdish PUK, where he worked as a volunteer, disclosing that it was known in the community that she had a boyfriend, and claiming that she was behaving like a prostitute.  After Abdulla Yones was sentenced to life imprisonment, he said he'd been forced to kill Heshu because he'd been placed in an untenable position.  In Yones's mind, there was a stain on his family.  It is difficult to understand what exactly about Heshu's fairly typical teenage behaviour was at fault here - liking make-up?  Having a boyfriend?  The boyfriend not being entirely welcome to the family?  But perhaps the offence was less specific: Heshu wanted to assert her independence and, evidently, she was succeeding.  Her father could not control her, and this was so shaming that it could only be overcome by her complete subjugation, by her death.

Honour killings often provoke smug responses from Westerners.  The judge in Yones's murder trial concluded the case was "in any view a tragic story of irreconcilable cultural differences between traditional Kurdish values and the values of Western society."  There is more than a whiff of cultural superiority here - but this is the same Western society that sees two women in Britain murdered by their partners every week.

In the past, the flip side of seeing honour killings as a problem of "their" values - obviously benighted - is that the police and the judiciary have tended to tread softly where cultural practices are concerned, for fear of being thought insufficiently sensitive to minority communities.  But immigrant communities are not homogeneous and the men who presume to speak for them may not even carry majority support.  The most effective campaigners against honour killings have been South Asian, Middle Eastern and Kurdish women.  Murder is murder and, as Mike O'Brien pointed out when he was Home Office minister, in the matter of honour killings, multiculturalism has too often become an excuse for "moral blindness."  Honour killings are, clearly, specific to certain communities.  But not so long ago, British women could be locked in mental asylums for getting pregnant out of wedlock; in living memory in the UK, it was preferable to have a daughter who was mad than one who was bad.

Professor Haleh Afshar of York University sees honour killings as a particular cultural manifestation of values that underpin most societies.  'There is a deeply embedded notion in our culture that men experience passion, while women excite it - which meant that, until recently in Britain, men who killed their wives could claim provocation.  There is also a common idea that it is possible to own another human being.  That is why women were expected to change their surnames on marriage, why we assume we own our children, especially girls.  From here it is an easy step to envisage 'a good woman' as an emblem of a man's honour."

Honour killings, then, have quite a lot in common with other forms of domestic violence.  But as Commander Andy Baker, head of homicide at the Metropolitan Police, points out, "domestic violence is abhorred by everyone except the perpetrator.  Honour killing is acquiesced in by other people."  Purna Sen of the London School of Economics notes that, in particular, women have a role in policing and monitoring women's honour, and may be perpetrators and accomplices.

In 1998, Rukhsana Naz's mother held her down at their house in the Midlands while her brother wrapped a plastic flex around her neck and strangled her.  Rukhsana was 7 months pregnant.  She had been married in Pakistan at the age of 15 and already had two children; just before her mother and 22-year-old brother murdered her, they made her sign a will naming themselves as her guardians.  Rukhsana's husband had remained in Pakistan, but she had returned to Britain and become pregnant by the boyfriend she had met at school.  Her mother, Shakeela, wept as she killed her.  When Rukhsana's other brother, 18-year-old Iftikhar, heard the commotion and ran downstairs, she told him: "Be strong, son."  The family put Rukhsana's body in the car and drove 100 miles to dump it.

Central to the notion of honour killing is the idea that death can expunge a stain, especially if accomplished quickly.  As Purna Sen points out, honour killing is often the result of a collective decision by the community, and may be openly or tacitly sanctioned by the state.  The Turkish penal code has no specific clause relating to honour killing, but the judiciary commonly hands down lesser sentences or even acquittals where there is "assault on a family member's manhood."  The Jordanian penal code specifically accepts that the "purifying" of wrong to a tribe is necessary: when honour killings come to court (which they do infrequently) the sentence averages about 6 months.  Historically, protecting women's honour, or ird, was seen as a last bastion against colonial influence; today, it is seen as a way of resisting globalisation and the unwanted values of the West.

One of the stories that formed the background to my childhood featured my mother's cousin, who wanted to marry a Jewish girl.  One night, several men, at least two of whom he recognised as her brothers, beat him up very badly and told him to leave her alone.  (In the end, in fact, he married her and became close to her family.)  This happened in the East End of London in the 1930s, when the Jewish community had reason to feel under threat.  And it may be, as Nazand Begikhani of Kurdish Women Action Against Honour Killings says, that "communities where there is an identity shift, especially an identity crisis," are particularly at risk of honour-related violence.  "For refugees and immigrants, there are questions about the boundaries between themselves and the host society."  If a community looks to its women as emblems of its purity and distinctiveness, their freedom will be curtailed in an attempt to protect identity.

Shaheen Ali is a former Pakistan cabinet minister, a human rights and Islamic lawyer and, currently, Professor of Law at Warwick University.  She goes back and forth to Pakistan a great deal and says she is "shocked by the way a lot of Pakistani communities operate here.  I can't relate to them.  It's as if time stopped for them when they got off the plane."  The immigration clampdown of the 1970s, she believes, had an unintended effect: "Many men who were working here in the 1950s and 1960s thought they had better bring their families while they could.  So families left their villages, got on the plane and got off again, having seen nothing in between.  You had women in their 40s and 50s who were suddenly incompetent.  They couldn't even buy groceries.  So they stuck together.  Clannishness became the norm.  A few households became very important.  Many of these people were hard working and, with the strong pound, they made money; they wanted to keep it inside the clan."

In such circumstances, the religious beliefs that help to bind the community are co-opted as justification for honour-related violence.  There is a popular conflation of Islam with honour killings, although at least one of the recent British cases involved a Sikh family.  The Muslim Council of Great Britain has, meanwhile, issued a statement that "honour killings are in no way, shape or form condoned by Islam," and emphasises that they are a "pre-Islamic custom."  The Council's statement adds that honour killing is not in reality inspired by questions of female virtue, but by the desire for "domination, power and hatred of women'. The Council does acknowledge, though, that the reluctance of some Muslims to address honour killings, 'in a forthright and unapologetic manner, is born out of an inherent distrust of perceived 'Western' attempts to taint the image of Islam."

Honour killings, in other words, risk being caught up in the polarisation of Islam and "the West" that suits many in the wake of 9/11, and in the resulting myth of a homogeneous Muslim world, which allows for the stigmatising of entire communities.  Shaheen Ali points out, however, that nowhere in sharia law are honour killings condoned.  Where there appears to be sanction for honour killing, the laws date back to inherited colonial legislation - either the Code Napoleon or the Colonial British Penal Code (which refers to "grave and sudden provocation").  Further, she says, whereas the Christian notion of marriage is of an ultimate spiritual union, marriage in Islam is a secular and civil contract between two individuals, each of whom is guardian of his or her own honour.  "Honour is a very individualistic notion in Islam," says Ali.  Honour killings have nothing to do with Islam, other than that - in common with Christianity and other world religions - Islam survives not least because it is open to varied readings, can be almost endlessly plundered for meanings, and is capable of being interpreted in support of all manner of actions.

One night in January 1993, Zena Chaudhuri tore up the sheets from her bed and tied them together.  Using them as a rope, she lowered bags from her bedroom window at the top of her house to the street below.  Then she crept down the stairs and out of the front door.  Zena had met Jack Briggs the previous summer, in the Yorkshire town where they both lived.  They took to accompanying the neighbourhood children, including their various nephews and nieces, to the park.  Their friendship developed into a relationship, although Zena always knew that she was intended for Bilal, a relative in Pakistan.  She had been taken to meet him when she was 13 and had found him uncouth, domineering and spiteful.  Her sister Miriam was already married to his brother, who beat her and taunted Zena that once she was married, too, he and Bilal would "sort her out."  Recently, Zena's passport had gone missing from her bedroom.  She believed it was only a matter of time before she was somehow got to the airport and on to a plane.  Perhaps she would be told she had to visit a sick relative.  (Her mother was in Pakistan already, caring for her grandmother.)  Once in Kashmir, she would be forced to marry Bilal.  "They came from a remote region," Jack says.  "She would have had to walk the equivalent of London to Birmingham to get to a phone."

Faced with what she anticipated would be "a life of lovelessness and rows and drudgery stretching out for ever," Zena ran away.  She had almost no idea of what she was letting herself in for: she took 20 pairs of shoes and a French manicure set with 30 nail varnishes.  She would ditch all of it, except for two pairs of shoes, within a couple of days.  Zena phoned her family immediately to let them know she was safe.  Her brother Karim, who'd played football with Jack and counted himself a friend, told the couple the family had already hired a bounty hunter.  Karim was selling his precious cars to pay the costs of tracing and killing them.  "I'm going to make it my life's mission to find you," he said.  "You're both going to end up in bin liners."

Miriam claimed Zena's disappearance had given her father a heart attack.  He was in hospital and might die; she had to come back.  Jack and Zena rang the hospitals; it wasn't true.  Meanwhile, three men smashed the windows of Jack's mother's house, broke down the door, pushed his mother (who had cancer) up against the wall and said: "We want to introduce you to the man who's going to murder your son."  Someone telephoned Jack's sister and told her they were going to "chop up" her children.  Jack and Zena ended up in Grimsby, where someone at the DSS leaked their whereabouts; three men turned up at the office claiming to be Zena's brothers and demanding to know her address.  Luckily, someone alerted the couple before they could be found.  They went to the police, who told them a £9,000 theft charge had been laid by her family against Zena; she would have to return to Yorkshire to answer questions.  She was driven back and spent the night in a police cell before being released.

Zena and Jack were put on the national sensitive register for social security and stayed on the move: Huddersfield, Cleethorpes, Grimsby, Lincoln, Sandown (where they married), Bournemouth, Torquay ... they didn't linger anywhere.  They stayed in B&Bs, buying a 4-pound bag of oven chips for £1.29 at the beginning of the week and building meals around it - a tin of spaghetti one night, a tin of stewed steak the next.  Today, the man who calls himself Jack Briggs (which is not the name he uses in his private life, obviously) meets me at a London hotel.  "Do you mind," he asks as I sit down,"'if I sit there?  I can see the door then."  Jack and Zena Briggs are still on the run.  They have moved 30 times since 1992 and have no idea if they are still in danger (bounty hunters are usually paid on completion) or, if so, in what form it might come.  "At first, if an Asian guy looked at me twice I was anxious, but now I know that's not how it works.  It could easily be a white Christian with the knife or the gun.  We are dealing with intelligent, resourceful people, who fully believe what they are doing is justified."

Zena and Jack were eventually given new identities: new passports, national insurance numbers and medical cards.  But these came without educational histories, work backgrounds or character references and, if they'd used their own, they could have been traced.  In practice, this meant it was virtually impossible for Jack to get work.  (Zena does now have a part-time job.)  "I am able to work and I want to," Jack says.  "I think it's everyone's legal and civil right to work.  We should have been a third of the way through a mortgage by now, instead of which we have rent arrears.  Zena doesn't even have a winter coat."  Neither is in particularly good health.  Jack says his "mind divides everything into two: threat and non-threat.  Unfortunately, the non-threat part is like a sieve."  It's hard not to feel that the violence, psychological as much as physical, has won.  But Jack says he has never doubted that he and Zena did the right thing.  "I love her.  She's a really courageous woman.  People are blown away by her.  It's worth living because we are together."  Lately, Jack has given seminars for the police.  In the summer, he spoke at an international conference on honour-related violence in Sweden.  "When we first went to the police we were met with disbelief.  How could a loving family like Zena's be a threat to their child?  I'd like to think that someone in our situation would have more help now, not just from the police but from social services and housing departments; and also that it would be easier to rejoin society."

Following Abdulla Yones's conviction, Commander Baker launched an initiative inside the Met to take honour killings much more seriously.  "If someone comes forward now saying they've dishonoured their family, we will wrap them up and offer inter-agency support," he says.  "We have made mistakes in the past.  I really do feel for the Briggs; that's why we're doing this work.  If someone turned up today in their position, we would afford everything appropriate."  He adds that he will happily advise Jack and Zena, but only the police force that originally dealt with them can alter their situation.  In addition to the 13 known UK honour killings, the Met is now reviewing 117 murders in the past decade, 56 of them in London, to see whether there might have been an honour component.  Since the Met's initiative began, frontline staff have seen an average of two cases a week where there has been reason to be concerned about the possibility.  "I can't say every one would have been [an honour] murder ..." Commander Baker says, but he clearly thinks some might have been.

The international scale of honour killings is virtually impossible to measure, although the UN Population Fund has estimated that there are 5,000 a year.  Many cases go unreported, the deaths unregistered.  When Shaheen Ali was a Pakistan cabinet minister and chair of the National Commission on Women, she fought to have the body exhumed of a young woman she strongly believed had been shot for having an affair with a family servant.  "The family said she had committed suicide.  She was buried in an unmarked grave, and everyone in the village was too frightened to point out where it was.  The father took out an injunction; I had to twist the arm of the judge to get it overturned.  I kept getting phone calls from powerful people - this man had been a politician - telling me to back off.  In the end we proved she had been murdered and brought charges, but the parents disappeared."

In another Pakistani case, 29-year-old Samia Sarwar was shot at point-blank range in front of one of the country's leading human rights lawyers.  Samia, the daughter of the head of the chamber of commerce in Peshawar, had endured 10 years of violent marriage before running home to her parents.  She wanted a divorce because she had fallen in love with an army captain, but her parents were opposed to her choice of husband.  She ran away to a women's refuge in Lahore.  Samia's parents demanded to see her, but she resisted.  Eventually, she agreed to meet her mother only, at the offices of her lawyer, Hina Jilani.  Her mother Sultana arrived accompanied by a family driver, and walking with a stick.  She said she had sprained an ankle and needed his help.  Once the four of them were inside Jilani's office, the driver, Habib-ur-Rhemna, grabbed Samia, produced a gun and shot her.  The first bullet entered near her eye, and she fell to the floor.  Her mother immediately left the room, her limp gone.  "I'd expect a mother whose daughter has been shot to scream, or at least to bend down and see what had happened.  That didn't happen," Jilani says.  That same day Jilani filed a report with the police naming Habib-ur-Rhemna and Samia's mother, plus her uncle, who had been waiting outside the room, and her father, who had been seen at a nearby hotel.  Samia's father filed counter-charges, blaming Jilani for his daughter's death.  No one has ever been charged.

These two cases both concerned women from affluent, prominent families, which may be why we know about them at all.  In remote rural areas, in unnoticed families, it is even easier to dispose of a daughter.  Recently, though, the Pakistani government has taken honour killings very much more seriously.  A bill to categorise them as murder has been presented to parliament.  The issue is debated in newspapers and Shaheen Ali says the judiciary, especially the superior judiciary, is inclined to take a harsh view.  But they can only do that if cases come to court.  She acknowledges that "the institutions of the state remain weaker at the grass roots," and in the countryside it is not known how many deaths go unregistered, not least because the decision to kill is made by the jirga, or tribal council, who will then nominate the killer, often a young male relative - a son, brother or nephew.

Stories abound of men involved in land disputes who murder their neighbours and a female from their own families and leave the bodies side by side in a compromising place.  The crime then becomes not murder, but honour killing; not merely not reprehensible, but a positive service to the community.  Any plan to deal with honour killing consequently has to acknowledge the impunity with which such crimes are carried out in other places.  Diana Nammi of the International Campaign Against Honour Killings, an organisation she set up after Heshu Yones was murdered, told me that her interpreter when she first came to this country 7 years ago was a woman called Sobhia Nader.  Sobhia subsequently accompanied her husband to Turkey, and was shot in the street and left for dead; rescued by passers-by, she was taken to hospital.  As she was recovering, "her husband and his brother came and took her out.  She was killed.  Her husband has never returned to Britain.  They were British citizens; they had been here 11 years."

The British police work closely with the Community Liaison Unit at the Foreign Office, which intervenes to prevent British citizens, mainly young women, being taken abroad for forced (as distinct from arranged) marriages.  They deal with 200 cases a year and often go to considerable lengths to trace women who have been spirited out of the country and get them back to Britain.  Women's action group Southall Black Sisters estimates that there are 1,000 forced marriages of British women a year; they categorise forced marriage as a kind of honour crime.  As in Zena's case, where young women resist, the consequences can be serious.  Reaching women at risk and reassuring them that support exists can be hard.  South Asian women are often resistant to the idea of "outsiders" interfering in family matters.  Aisha Gill of the University of Surrey, who has worked with young south Asian women, points out that female loyalty to honour-related violence is deemed to be a sign of warmth and goodness.  Women in particular are brought up to believe that the welfare of the group should take precedence over that of the individual.

For Andy Baker, honour is "an aggravating, not a mitigating factor" in murder.  In addition to this sort of zero tolerance, activists want to see greater sensitivity in handling those who come forward, and better-co-ordinated ways of helping them.  (The Met's guidance to officers, issued in October 2003, urges that, "Police should be culturally refined when dealing with victims, but racially and ethnically blind when dealing with perpetrators.")  Jack Briggs would like to see a freephone number in bus and railway stations; the women's rights charity Womankind is producing material on forced marriages and honour crime for use in schools.  "Honour killing is not about one woman, or about 10, it is about an entire gender," Diana Nammi says.  "What honour killing does is to make women's lives conditional - on wearing the right clothes, on not speaking too loudly, on not being seen with the wrong person, not even being the subject of rumour, for rumour is enough to stain the family's honour."

Activists insist that honour killing is a matter of human rights - and framing it as a human rights issue makes sense: it doesn't stigmatise whole communities and does make clear that women's lives are not expendable under any circumstances.  But honour killings remain a matter of culture nevertheless, for the reason that some fundamentalist forces and states that have failed to establish alternative, potent national identities have focused their assertion of identity, their politicisation, on women - particularly on women's dress, their chastity, and the operation of family law.  In the end, honour killings will only be eradicated when power over women is not seen as central to a man's self-respect, and domination of women and girls is not seen as a reassuring social glue.

International Campaign Against Honour Killings (020 7490 0303) and Southall Black Sisters (020 8571 9595)

Source: The Observer Sunday 21 November 2004

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