Abstract

In this explorative study, 16 prison clients convicted in Sweden of a crime related to honour-based violence (HBV) were interviewed. The participants gave their own versions of the crimes, their relationships with the victim, and their background and association with honour culture. The participants explained the crimes as driven by emotions and impulses. Almost all refused what may be termed the cultural narrative and label and did not want to be associated with honour culture. Several characteristics of the perpetrators of relevance for the violent crimes were found, such as a history of normalisation of violence, past antisocial behaviour and a lack of prosocial coping and problem-solving skills. The study contributes to an in-depth and partly nuanced picture of people who have committed HBV in Sweden, which can inform crime prevention in this area.

Keywords

  1. HBV
  2. honour violence
  3. interviews
  4. offenders
  5. prison
  6. Sweden

Introduction

The relationship between honour and violence is long, intimate and complex (Strange et al., 2014). Gilligan (1996) has even argued that attempts to avoid or eliminate shame – and replace such feelings with pride or honour – is a general motivation in all violent crimes. Yet, over the past decades, what constitutes ‘honour-based violence and oppression’ (HBV) has emerged as a specific concept to allow for the design of targeted preventive measures. Acts of HBV are acts committed by one or more perpetrators to avoid losing honour or to restore honour to their family in response to the victim’s perceived violation of familial honour codes or misbehaviours that are believed to shame the family. HBV targets girls and women disproportionately, but both men and women can be victims as well as perpetrators (Bates, 2017; Baianstovu et al., 2019; Idriss, 2022).
HBV has received international recognition as a form of human rights violation (Wikström & Ghazinou, 2010). Several countries in Northern and Western Europe have developed institutional responses to HBV as a specific form of gender-based violence affecting some families with a migration background. The Nordic discourse has previously concentrated on honour killings and forced marriages (Keskinen, 2009), but in recent years more attention has been given to non-violent controlling behaviours (Björktomta, 2019; Baianstovu et al., 2019). Thousands of Swedish youths are believed to be restricted by honour-related cultural norms, and the number of unrecorded cases of HBV in Sweden is expected to be high (Strid et al., 2021). Recent legislative changes in Sweden have made the honour motive an aggravating circumstance in sentencing, and honour-based oppression is now also a criminal classification. There is a need to develop both general and individual crime prevention to reduce victimisation.
Current knowledge and understanding of HBV in Sweden is derived largely from victim testimonies and professionals who, in their professional capacity, have met affected families (Björktomta, 2019; Strid et al., 2021; Carbin, 2014). Yet, studying offenders is important in understanding HBV as a distinct form of violence, and by extension, contributes to crime prevention (Roberts, 2014; Aplin, 2017; Cinthio et al., 2022). Previous research and policy debates show that HBV is a contested field. While there is strong support for intersectional frameworks, understandings of HBV diverge on the extent to which cultural norms, patriarchal structures and collectivism drive violence. There has been a common tendency to focus on macro- (patriarchy, honour culture) and meso-level (family, clan) factors and explanations, even in studies based on individual interviews. Micro foundations (trauma, cognition, aggressiveness, coping mechanisms) have been less explored.
To contribute to the field, we set out to study HBV through an offender perspective to learn more about what interventions they might need. The study is based on interviews with 16 offenders sentenced to prison for HBV crimes in Sweden. An exploratory approach was used to capture participants’ own stories about the circumstances of their crimes, and how these circumstances relate to honour. The overall aim of the study was to explore the participants’ expressed motives and driving forces for violent crimes in the context of honour. The research questions were:
What attitudes and values around honour do the participants express?
What ability for problem solving and emotional regulation do the participants describe?
Which underlying factors can, from the participants’ perspective, describe the emergence and perpetuation of HBV?
The goal was to contribute to increased knowledge about HBV offenders, which in turn could contribute to the development of preventive measures for both convicted and non-convicted offenders. While perpetrators’ narratives will not capture an objective ‘truth’ about their values and motives, the way perpetrators tell their stories informs us about the image of themselves they want to convey and their responsiveness to treatment. Thus, for the purpose of recidivism prevention and treatment planning, an increased understanding of the perpetrators’ own narratives becomes paramount.

Situating Perpetrators in HBV Discourse

The leading discourse sets HBV apart from other family-based violence, partly because the characteristics and motives of offenders presumably differ from persons who have committed other forms of violence (Bredal, 2014; Gill, 2014; Grewal, 2013; Strange, 2014). For example, perpetrators of HBV are seen as being more driven by culture and influenced by patriarchal and close-knit extended family structures (Bates, 2017; Rosquist, 2020; van Eck, 2003). Much of what has been ‘known’ about HBV offenders has been harvested from media reporting (Aplin, 2017). The typical crime is well planned out among a network of family members and executed by several offenders. The victim is a female family member. There is a clear, single motive of the crime – to maintain or restore honour. The offender does not shy away from public display, as he believes he has not done anything wrong (Lund Liebmann, 2019; Strange, 2014). Recent studies have started to unpack HBV and burst prevailing ‘truths’ about offenders. Several studies have for example captured the role of female offenders, the victimisation of men and the multitude of vulnerabilities in families affected by the violence (Aplin, 2017; Baianstovu et al., 2019; Cinthio et al., 2022; Idriss, 2022). Others have underlined a need to take into account individual agency, conflicting ideals and emotions in studies of offenders (Kaufman, 2011; Lund Liebmann, 2019). Yet others have related HBV to broader power conflicts across gender and age linked to migration contexts and integration processes (see e.g. Darvishpour, 2004).
While older discourses have framed honour violence as either cultural or gender driven, more recent research uses intersectionality to explain drivers of HBV (Abji & Korteweg, 2021; Strid et al., 2021). In particular, the importance of socioeconomic factors and the context of migration have been highlighted in the Swedish context (Baianstovu et al., 2019; Cinthio et al., 2022). A survey study of Swedish youth found that girls with low-educated and foreign-born parents were especially affected by honour norms. Youths living with honour norms were also more affected by violence from family members or other relatives compared to youths living without honour norms. Strid et al. (2021) theorise how processes of migration and integration affect the risks of HBV victimisation. By using the concepts of isolation (individual containment, socioeconomic exclusion and segregation) and the opposite – mobility within social, economic and legal spheres – they point to drivers of HBV at the individual, group and societal levels.
Across Western countries, critique has been raised of the simplified and racialised notion of culture: “Rather than being understood as one of the myriad forms that familial and domestic violence can take, HBV becomes a sign of immigrant backwardness” (Abji & Korteweg, 2021, p. 76). Specifically, the Nordic discourse has been criticised for how gender and ethnicity are constructed in relation to HBV (Bredal, 2014; Keskinen, 2009; Lund Liebmann, 2019; Strid et al., 2021), as well as for portraying honour culture as a “delineated, historically static, and referable monolith” while downplaying HBV’s relation to their Scandinavian settings (Lund Liebmann, 2019, p. 8). Recent studies in the Swedish context, for example, have found religious stereotyping in relation to honour crimes (Cinthio et al., 2022; Rosqvist, 2020).

Previous Studies on HBV Perpetrators

Early studies on HBV offenders primarily focused on persons convicted of murder. Two separate interview studies with homicide offenders, in Turkey (Doğan, 2014a/b) and Iraq (Hussein, 2017), found that recurring motives were feelings of social pressure to act and restore honour following an unacceptable behaviour of the victim(s). Many acts of violence were planned, while others were described as impulsive reactions. The selection of participants was based on the perpetrator’s own stated motive of the crime. In Doğan’s (2014a/b) interviews with 61 inmates, their motive was often to restore personal honour. In only 16 cases was the motive to restore family honour. Hussein (2017) interviewed nine perpetrators and found that the majority of homicides occurred after a family conflict under which the perpetrator had tried to find alternatives to murder, such as divorce or isolation. A comparative study from the United States found that the perpetrators of partner violence and honour killings were very similar, and that homicides in both categories often followed from a separation (Hayes et al., 2018). An earlier investigation of honour killings in the Netherlands found that the victims had been unfaithful, requested a divorce or refused to enter into an arranged marriage. Financial motives and jealousy also appeared. Low socio-economic status, previous violence of the perpetrator and a close relationship with the victim were other factors associated with the honour killings (van Eck, 2003).
In a British context, police documentation has been used to explore case and offender typologies. Bates (2017) found that the majority of the perpetrators were previously known to the police and that separation was a common trigger for the violence. A categorisation of the relationship between the victim and the perpetrator(s) revealed that, in 40% of the cases, an intimate partner was the only perpetrator. In 29%, the abuse came from one or more family members, and in 31%, both an intimate partner and the family were involved (Bates, 2017). Aplin (2017) found that women, especially mothers, were involved as perpetrators in a majority of the cases, sometimes being the sole offender. Victim loyalty and reluctance to prosecute mothers contributed to a blurring of boundaries between mothers as perpetrators and secondary victims. The female offenders had contradictory attitudes towards their crimes, which may have reflected an inner conflict between adhering to and resisting patriarchal values vis-à-vis their daughters. Idriss’ (2022) study of 22 cases of HBV with male victims in the United Kingdom similarly found women to have had various roles in the violence. While most of the women were ‘secondary agents’ supporting the violence committed by men, others were principal instigators. Idriss (2022) uses the concept of patriarchy to understand HBV. While sex and gender are principal categories of power in patriarchy, age and sexuality are also prominent. A mother oppressing her gay son, for example, may be interpreted as an example of patriarchal violence (Hunnicutt, 2009; Idriss, 2022).
In the Scandinavian context, one offender study stands out. A Swedish study of 12 court verdicts and 13 offender interviews explored the influence by collectivism, norms and tradition on HBV offenders (Cinthio et al., 2022). The study found an importance of marginalisation and a complexity of honour:
The word honour, in the Swedish context, has come to be associated with chastity norms and killings of female family members ... [whereas perpetrators] prefer to talk about “vengeance” or “protection of family” instead of focusing on sexual transgressions. … perpetrators themselves make distinctions between concepts such as respect, revenge, honour, and chastity. (Cinthio et al., 2022, p. 26)
Cinthio et al. (2022) also captured the recurrence of male victims belonging to a different family than the perpetrators. From that, they unpacked the assumed gender and family relations between victims and perpetrators of HBV in a Swedish context.
A handful of studies have previously researched HBV from the perspective of convicted offenders. Past research on offenders has shed light on contextual, relational and, to some extent, situational factors. The research has commendably unpacked gender roles and family dynamics in HBV. Individual level factors, such as a history of delinquency, have largely been overlooked. Such knowledge, however, is paramount in designing treatment interventions for offenders. As a result, research on HBV has been hard to translate to specific interventions aimed at preventing recidivism into HBV among convicted offenders.
There is a need for furthering the knowledge on individual crime prevention in HBV. The current study is explorative, with the purpose of developing interventions in a prison and probation context. As such, it is not confirmatory research where findings are measured against pre-set hypothesises in order to develop theory. The aim is to offer new ways of seeing and perceiving HBV offenders’ backgrounds and treatment needs, from the perspective of convicted persons. The research participants give their descriptions of their upbringing, honour culture, and their crimes.

Methods

The selection of participants was based on two main criteria. First, they had to have been sentenced for a crime in Sweden and be in prison, on probation, or on conditional release at the time of the study. Second, information needed to be available about HBV in the current court decision or in the Swedish Prison and Probation Service’s (SPPS’s) documentation, meaning that the Swedish judiciary had found the crime(s) to be related to honour. Potential participants were first identified through manual screening of legal and case-management documentation, or through contacts with prison or probation staff with HBV knowledge. The screening process had a national scope but was limited in time to roughly three months (for practical reasons). Three members of the research group then made a collaborative assessment in each identified case based on the documentation available. In 18 of the 54 cases, the research group found that the honour motive was not substantiated based on the available documentation, warranting exclusion. In the majority of the cases under consideration, the perpetrators’ version contradicted the victims’ and witnesses’ descriptions of events and the motives behind the acts committed. The offender’s self-reported motive was not a decisive criterion for inclusion.
Table 1. Selection process
Step
Description
Inclusion
Exclusion
Identification
• Prior known cases from an earlier screening (Yourstone et al., 2018).
• Contacts with key staff within the SPPS with knowledge about potential clients.
54 clients
Assessment
• Screening of the available documentation and court decision in each case.
• Joint assessment within the research group of whether honour context or motive is clearly substantiated or not.
35 clients
18 clients
Information
• If possible, the clients were informed about the study by local staff.
33 clients
(informed)
2 clients
(not informed)
Participation
• The clients were asked for written consent to participate in an interview.
16 clients
(accepted)
17 clients
(declined)
The 16 prison and probation clients who consented to be interviewed had a sentence ranging from two years to life in prison, with ten of the participants serving ten years or longer. They had been convicted of violent crimes such as unlawful threat, assault, rape, attempted murder and murder. Victims included former or current partners, children, relatives and other relationships. All had an immigration background and all but one originated from a limited number of countries in the Middle East (Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey). The majority were in their thirties to fifties at the time of their crime(s). All but one were men.
The interviews took place between May and October 2019 in visitation rooms either at a prison or in a probation office. The semi-structured interviews followed an interview guide that included questions related to attitudes and values, upbringing, family structure and honour, as well as the crime(s). The questions were open, with a focus on the interviewee’s narrative. Each interview lasted about two hours and was conducted in person by two interviewers, in Swedish. An interpreter was used via telephone in nine interviews. Thirteen of the interviews were recorded and transcribed verbatim with the consent of the interviewee. In the remaining three interviews detailed notes were taken.
All interview transcripts and notes were first coded in vivo. By using the participants’ own words and expressions as codes, the aim was to base the analysis in their perspective. In vivo coding is particularly applicable in studies that value participants’ perspectives, especially when participants are marginalised. A disadvantage is that it can be difficult to make more analytical abstractions based on in vivo codes (Saldaña, 2015; Stringer, 2014). The coding could, for example, result in a focus on the more apparent themes in the material, thus failing to see any latent themes. An inductive thematic analysis was conducted based on Braun and Clarke (2006). An inductive approach usually means a richer description of data, as the goal is to provide a detailed, nuanced and complex presentation of the material (Patton, 2002).
The research project has received an ethical approval by the Regional Ethics Review Board in Stockholm (2016/482-31), with an amendment approved by the Swedish Ethics Review Authority (2019-02497).

Results

Exploring the interview participants’ (ip’s) descriptions of their backgrounds and attitudes, the analysis constructed seven themes of interest when designing interventions for the group. The themes covered the participants’ upbringing and early experiences of violence and trauma, their experiences of migration and past crimes, and their views on the crime in question, honour norms and violence. Quotes are used to illustrate the participants’ statements and are directly translated from Swedish.1 Their narratives are then situated in, and reflected on, with regards to broader literature, for robustness of the findings.

Childhood Marginalisation

While some participants were more fortunate, the majority described marginalisation and extreme vulnerability growing up. They lived under difficult circumstances such as poverty, political oppression and armed conflict: “There were large [political] oppositions between right and left and no respect for human rights. And therefore I could not educate myself further” (ip 2). Several participants described having to leave school to work to sustain their families: “It was very tough during that period. I remember, being small and working” (ip 3). Typically, the participants had not finished high school, and about one third dropped out already in middle school.
Some of the participants said their limited education prevented them from finding non-violent solutions to the crisis they found themselves in: “Look, a knowledgeable person usually works better in society. For example, if a doctor is married and his wife is unfaithful, I do not think the doctor will kill her, but he will divorce her. But an ignorant person who misinterprets traditions will misinterpret it and may go even further than divorcing. I regret stabbing my wife. I acted as an ignorant person” (ip 4).
A majority of the participants were, from some point in their childhood, raised by a single mother after a divorce or their father passing: “it was she who decided for us” (ip 2). Some participants described their mother as “strict” (ip 6) or “authoritarian” (ip 2). In two cases, the participants said that the responsibility for the family fell on one son. Perhaps the absent father caused a void in the patriarchal family structure, which mothers and sons tried to fill. Despite the hardships, the participants often idealised their childhood, which could conceal strong loyalty towards the family. Most also claimed that their family did not have an honour culture while growing up: “My family is quite democratic, so you can decide for yourself what you want and the others agree to it” (ip 2). If there was an honour influence, participants highlighted positive aspects, such as that the family was respected by the community, or downplayed the meaning of its presence: “Honour existed in the family, but we were not extreme in it” (ip 6). Hence, in the narratives of the participants, marginalisation in their upbringing was due to structural conditions rather than internal family values related to honour.
Situating the findings in relation to previous studies shows both overlap and divergences. A low level of education among perpetrators of HBV was noted by Hussein (2017), Kizilhan (2011) and Sedem (2012), but has not been assumed to hold explanatory power. The connection between absent fathers and violence among young men has been previously established (see, for example, Popenoe, 1996). Yet, such associations have not been found in studies of HBV before. On the contrary, HBV is conceptualised as thriving in – and even depending on – patriarchal family structures, where the father is the head of the family (Rosquist, 2020). Previous theories on patriarchal systems have shown the importance of women – not least mothers – in reproducing such systems of power and control (Hunnicutt, 2009; Idriss, 2022). The prominent role held by mothers is also noted in British and Swedish studies on honour culture (Bates, 2017; Sedem, 2012).

Violence as Discipline and Trauma

Thirteen of the participants described how they had been subjected to often varied and repeated violence, oppression, control and trauma, often during childhood. Participants described being subjected to ‘disciplinary’ violence that sought to correct their behaviour. The abusers were often men on whom the participants were dependent, such as a teacher or father. Violence was also perpetrated by mothers, a brother, an uncle, a partner or an in-law, or by police or other state officials. Participants often downplayed the violence, especially when the violence was perpetrated by a parent: “I personally was beaten a lot by my mother. … You still love her” (ip 10).
In the interviews, the violence was described as normalised. One participant said that the men who abused him as a child did not harm him intentionally, but acted within the cultural framework and existing knowledge: “So when I think about the results of this... both teachers and my father when they beat me, they really think of my best... I have to say that there are better methods. Their judgment is that this is a good method, but I think they could find better methods, educational methods” (ip 4). Several participants described experiencing the physical assault of their mother. One explained intimate partner violence as part of a broader social framework: “He oppressed my mother, honestly. … For the older generation, it is normal for the husband to beat his wife” (ip 4). Other participants said that their father, sister or children were victims of violence. Five participants had previously experienced the murder of a relative, and two participants stated that the murders were honour-related. Some participants also described how a partner lived under oppression in his or her original family.
Many participants said that they were not allowed to marry the person they wanted, and later married a partner chosen by parents or siblings. Two of the participants married when they were minors. Other expressions of control and oppression concerned clothing or mobility, such as not being allowed to wear short sleeves or go out in the evening for boys, or having been denied a divorce from a violent partner as a woman. Participants who described their own upbringing as having been at times violent, authoritarian or strictly religious did not use the terms “honour” or “honour culture”. One participant emphasised, however, that discipline aimed to prevent shame: “Physical violence did not occur, but in the upbringing there was a certain limit, for example to ensure that mother did not have to be ashamed of us” (ip 2).
Victim loyalty has been found in other studies on victims of family violence, including HBV (Aplin, 2017). Witnessing and experiencing parental verbal and physical aggression are associated with later aggressive behaviours in intimate relationships (Kalmuss, 1984; Cui et al., 2010).
Baianstovu et al. (2019) and Idriss (2022) have demonstrated that male HBV victims often are targeted for their non-conformist sexuality and face similar threats and coercion as female HBV victims. The participants’ stories suggest that offenders themselves could be former victims of HBV. In previous studies, victimisation has primarily been seen as an experience of female HBV offenders (Aplin, 2017). While participants identified past experiences as harmful, none reflected on whether their exposure to violence or specific expressions of control and oppression could be related to their own violence. The relationship between childhood abuse and subsequent aggressive and criminal behaviour is well documented in research (e.g. Widom & Maxfield, 2001). Studies have found that family violence can be transmitted across generations by social learning through behaviour that models acceptability of family aggression in general, and through specific modelling, in which particular types of family aggression are repeated in the next generation (Kalmuss, 1984; Cui et al., 2010). HBV appears to be influenced both by a process of normalisation and acceptability of violence, and the transmittance of particular expressions of oppression and violence. The offenders’ behaviour may have been influenced by social norms (what they consider to be morally right), or descriptive norms, that is, what they have learned about how others would have acted in the same situation (Cialdini, 2007).

Criminal History and Other Antisocial Behaviour

The majority of the participants had a criminal history and several described recurring issues with impulse and emotion control. Many of their past crimes had been directed against women, and several had been committed abroad. The most common past crimes were forced marriage and assault. At least four of the participants had married a minor. Two of the participants described marrying off a daughter. Another had the role of “approving” his sister’s marriage when she was probably a minor. In at least two of the assault cases, the victim was a close relative. Another four participants described very controlling behaviour towards a partner, sister or daughter. One participant was convicted of rape, but argued that it was really not rape (ip 11).
The participants described behavioural problems during their teens and as young adults. Many had problems adhering to the norms and laws in the country they lived.
Several participants also described repeated manifestations of impulsivity, lack of inhibition and aggression: “When I get angry, it doesn’t last long. I am a person that can get angry quickly but I calm down quickly too … but some situations kind of do not leave room for that” (ip 4). They expressed that they could “explode” (ip 5), in some cases to the point that they became unstoppable and “completely shocked” over their subsequent violence (ip 3). One used the term “blackout”: When I ever get angry, it just gets black and then I remember nothing. But then there are strong reasons for it (ip 1).
In their narratives, crimes other than HBV also emerged. Two of the participants said that they had previously had a criminal lifestyle, including serious and organised crime. Two other participants described previous arrests for human trafficking and terrorism. Three participants mentioned having committed bribery or perjury, or having hidden to avoid imprisonment. Five of the participants had committed the current crime together with others, which indicates a pro-criminal network. In six other cases, participants described crimes previously committed by a close relative, excluding those crimes the participants were victims of.
The participants described universal risk factors for engaging in violence. A meta-study on antisocial risk factors in low- and middle-income countries found global similarities in risk factors for antisocial behaviour, especially regarding behavioural problems, previous violence and psychological characteristics such as low self-control, hyperactivity and sensation seeking (Murray et al., 2018). Theories on HBV typically assume that it is an instrumental form of violence, which aims at achieving a tangible good (honour). Impulsive or uncontrolled acts of violence have however previously been described by HBV perpetrators in interview studies (Doğan, 2014a/b; Hussein, 2017; Sedem, 2012). The prevalence of a criminal history is supported by previous studies on perpetrators of HBV (Bates, 2017; Hayes et al., 2018; van Eck, 2003; Yourstone et al., 2018). A criminal lifestyle has also been described as triggering victimisation (Idriss, 2022). In conclusion, past delinquency, which is considered a strong risk factor for individuals’ engaging in crime in general, appears to be of relevance also for HBV.

Migration Challenges and Togetherness

All interview participants were born in a country other than Sweden, with experience of migration. The participants had lived in Sweden between two years and several decades prior to the crime. Four of the participants came to Sweden as children. Most participants were integrated into the labour market, having jobs, in, for example, transport and restaurant sectors. Almost all had been married with children in Sweden. The participants had had frequent interactions with public services. Several of them highlighted that they saw themselves as Swedes who adopted to a Swedish lifestyle: “So far, I have lived as an ordinary Swedish citizen, who has a job and a house, and I paid taxes. I have never done anything illegal. I have a profession” (ip 16).
The motivation for migration was often the safety and wellbeing of the immediate nuclear family. Typically, parts of the nuclear family migrated at different times. It was a challenge to restore the nuclear family again in the new country and the roles of the family changed in connection to migration and integration processes. The process was described as having been conflict-filled and aroused strong feelings during the interviews. Some participants linked the separation from a partner, and the underlying infidelity, to the integration process in Sweden – and the new opportunities for contact between men and women outside the family. One said his wife lacked “capacity” to “handle freedom” (ip 15). Another described that his wife distanced herself after the residence permit was granted. Her behaviour “destroyed everything I had built up” (ip 16). Others also described that changed family roles meant a shift of responsibility from husband to wife and children, which meant less influence and status for the man in the family. Various participants expressed that their ability to solve problems in everyday life became challenging in Sweden and that situations that were previously manageable suddenly became difficult. One recurring issue was the extent of their teenage children’s decision-making power and how to set boundaries:
I mean, from what I see in Sweden, at 13 you are almost, in many cases, in charge of yourself, in many things. And this is not good, for me, at least you have to be 18 years old to be of age to decide things. But on the other hand, it is not good that the family decides until you die, in other countries, which is not good either. I mean, if you put these two different ways together, it is Sweden that has problems with early decision-making over, for, the individual. On the other hand, those who decide until death is another error, mistake. What I think is right is that you can decide after you become of age, at 18. (ip 2)
The participants’ families were typically fragmented. Most participants were divorced, and the separation had often taken place shortly before the crime. Several participants had no-one from their original family in Sweden and their contact was often sporadic. The stories speak against the participants’ family as a unified collective and the idea that the participants acted on behalf of their family. On the contrary, many of the participants had limited contact outside their immediate family after the migration and several had no other relatives in Sweden.
The integration of the offenders in the labour market and social life is partially different from the findings of Strid et al. (2021), who suggest that socioeconomic isolation is in part driving HBV. The lack of a family network could be a way in which HBV in a migration context differs from HBV perpetrated by people living close to their relatives. The isolation could mean limited informal social control over family members, or less access to social support in times of personal crisis. Here, the result reinforces the findings on various forms of isolation as drivers of HBV. Whereas Strid et al. (2021) found isolation to be associated with victimisation, our findings, somewhat counterintuitively, suggest that the absence of a collective also could be a risk factor for the perpetrator.

Ambiguous Values and Norms

Most participants expressed both conservative values (that emphasised tradition and hierarchy), in some cases related to honour beliefs, as well as liberal norms and values (that emphasised development and individualism). They described having faith but not practicing religion: “I believe in God, but it is not strong” (ip 3). Some expressed secularised values: “I am now reading about these religious schools, and I do not understand why they exist” (ip 6). The values that most participants expressed were overall less rigid than what could be assumed in the light of known honour values. For example, only five participants thought that it is important to stay a virgin until marriage. For two of them, chastity applies to both men and women: “In my opinion and my religion, it is forbidden to have sexual intercourse before marriage” (ip 16). Three others said that chastity applies primarily to girls: if I am honest, it is freer for boys (ip 11). However, the participants also expressed other, conflicting values, concerning for example the individual’s right to self-determination. Several participants broke traditional values in their life choices: “she [my wife] was not a virgin and I do not care” (ip 7). Instead of honour or religion, the participants underlined the shared value of the nuclear family of “mother, father and children” (ip 2). It was important that the nuclear family remained intact: “I have the biggest responsibility and I see it as I must try to keep the family together. Even if one of them might be bad or messy or whatever, I have to be able to see the big picture. Keeping the family together” (ip 15). Several participants described opinions as something personal and that “you try to think for yourself. You observe and learn about how people live where you are and then you make your own decision. You’re like ‘do I think this is good or not?’ If I think so, then I would start living like that” (ip 10).
While in line with mainstream Swedish values, participants’ expressed nuclear family values appear far from those of clans and close-knit extended families. No value statements were made with regard to the extended family. Another Swedish study found similar ambiguity between liberal individualistic values and collective cultural values (Sedem, 2012).
Baker et al. (1999) propose that individualistic societies affect honour standards by encouraging individual definitions of what constitutes shameful behaviour. Consequently, these diverging approaches may themselves constitute areas of conflict in families (Baker et al., 1999; Sedem, 2012). Men and women acting within a structural framework like patriarchy (of which the nuclear family is a key institution), may not purposefully act to uphold strict norms, or maintain relative power or privilege. They may simply act in ways that are expected of them, or which they have been taught or observed in others. The ideology underpinning HBV is partially separated from structural conditions resulting in a web of power dynamics where individuals to various degrees have internalised the dominant norms and have different scope for action (Hunnicutt, 2009; Idriss, 2022).

Guilt, Responsibility and Criminal Motives

Participants’ attitudes to the crime(s) for which they had been convicted varied across the interviews. Some of the participants said that they were innocent, while others admitted guilt. In most cases, the participants’ attitudes were somewhere in between, admitting that they had committed a crime while downplaying personal responsibility. The crimes were described as unplanned, impulsive or an unfortunate outcome of a conflict that got out of hand. The five participants who were convicted together with others all placed the responsibility for the crime on one of the co-offenders, although they did not admit that anyone planned the actual course of events. Five of the participants said that they had experienced mental illness before the crimes, though they had not sought treatment for their conditions. In the time before the crime, self-reported mental disorders that recurred were anxiety, depression, extreme stress, nightmares and attempted suicides. Other participants also expressed that they experienced a life stress, including integration challenges, financial difficulties, conflict with the children or pressure from the in-laws. One participant recalls their growing desperation before the crime:
I contacted Socialen. The social service did nothing. Social workers didn’t want to listen to me. I contacted the Municipality, same thing there. I contacted my case manager ... My case manager there did nothing either. I want to study, I want to get an education, I want to live. All authorities, [they] are not willing to help me. I have no money. So I ended up on the street, I walked around all night, so, on the streets. I tried her, I messaged her. It didn’t help... I start to cry. Difficult. Very difficult, very difficult... I don’t have a passport to travel back, what to do? I human, I human. (ip 4)
Most of the participants had undergone a separation before the crime in question, often following infidelity. Some participants mentioned infidelity as a trigger of the violence. Several participants described circumstances that point to intensely controlling and fixating behaviour: “I can list who she has been with, where they have been and how they socialise” (ip 15). Many participants showed a continued need for control after the separation. The importance of maintaining the nuclear family was described as a strong driving force in the participants’ behaviour.
Only one of the participants clearly described his own motive for the crime as restoration of honour: “you cannot help it if it is about someone’s honour… Had I not done so, I would have been ashamed. I might as well have died” (ip 10). In some other cases though, the participants reasoned that honour was the motive for one or more accomplices, but explained their own participation as driven by loyalty or deception. In one case, the participant claimed his innocence, but states that the victim had violated his honour before the crime. Another participant, who did not admit committing the crime, described the conflict prior to the crime as having an honour dimension: “her actions not only dishonoured me but herself and her own family” (ip 12). In most interviews, however, the participants explicitly distanced themselves from honour as a motive or circumstance of the crime: “My problem has nothing to do with the culture of honour. I abused my wife and children. So that’s what I have been convicted of” (ip 8).
None of the participants’ stories provided support for the notion that their own families had encouraged, instigated or subsequently reinforced the crime. Quite the opposite, they state that the crime and subsequent imprisonment had caused shame for themselves and their families. Three participants, however, described that their in-laws exercised threats, control and oppression linked to honour, against the participant or his partner. Some participants also described the spreading of rumours as part of the circumstances leading up to the crime. Only one participant said that he did not regret the crime and that he would repeat the same behaviour.
The participants lean into the leading discourse that identifies HBV as distinct from “violence in … a traditional Swedish family” (Olsson & Bergman, 2021, p. 6). Most narratives are in contrast to the prevailing notion of HBV offenders, which suggests that offenders have no regrets about the crime as they are serving a higher purpose (Doğan, 2014a). However, Cinthio et al.’s (2022) interviewees expressed regret for their actions and disappointment for their families’ failure to provide support after their sentencing. Mental illness among HBV perpetrators has previously been seen in studies by Yourstone et al. (2018) and Doğan (2014a/b).
Explanations for specific events, betrayals and crises within the family are in line with what Rosquist (2020) describes as “the endogenous cultural discourse”. Accordingly, power relations within the family are destabilised by, for example, a separation, or the spread of rumours. The destabilisation leads to a power negotiation between the partners involved. Destabilising events and shifts of responsibility within the family have previously been reported as circumstances in other studies on HBV (Doğan, 2014b; Hayes et al., 2018; Hussein, 2017; Sedem, 2012). Throughout history, destabilising events – such as women entering labour markets – have caused change in the institution of marriage by altering the balance between rights, duties, power and dependencies (Therborn, 2004).
The current study’s result challenges previous studies in which participants more commonly refer to honour as a motive for the crime (Doğan, 2014a/b). There are several possible explanations for this result. One interpretation is reluctance to accept full responsibility for the violence – it is difficult to assert honour motives for a crime without also acknowledging guilt (Rosquist, 2020). Reducing intent in various ways is a classic neutralisation technique to minimise the conflict between one’s behaviour, laws and norms. Claiming honour motives for crimes can be an effective neutralisation technique in some legal contexts, which, especially historically, have resulted in significantly reduced penalties (Hussein, 2017; Sedem, 2012). In Sweden, an honour motive is an aggravating circumstance and it would therefore be irrational in a legal process to claim that the crime was motivated by honour (Hussein, 2017). Alternatively, participants may have internalised “an exogenous cultural discourse” based on the Swedish majority culture as the norm while Othering the culture of honour (Rosquist, 2020). The stigma involved with an HBV crime conviction in Sweden probably contributed to the participants’ verbal distancing from honour motives and honour culture in general (Cinthio et al., 2022).

The Emergence and Perpetuation of Honour Violence

All participants reflected on the emergence and perpetuation of HBV in general, without identifying their own crime as constituting such violence. Most of the participants emphasised societal structures and the degree of societal development as explanations for honour violence. The majority of participants described honour culture as belonging in the past: “they say ‘this is honour’, but that honour they talk about, I do not accept that honour. It is not the honour of the 70s and 60s – that was much stronger. But it’s now 2019, and there’s no use for it today … like Sweden was a hundred years ago, not like now” (ip 3). Several participants described the concepts of honour culture and honour violence as “outdated”, with no place in a modern society, that “he who has this view nowadays is regarded as backward” (ip 7) or that HBV has “to do with traditions and the mentality. This clan mentality” (ip 4).
According to several participants, HBV depends on a sanctioning context, such as authoritarian structures and lack of individual rights. Several participants specifically mentioned the oppression of women as a factor supporting honour culture. Reflecting on his father’s violence against his mother, one participant said: “This problem was not specific to him, the problem was for the whole society, it is a backward-looking method, that the man should dominate the woman” (ip 4). Cultural isolation was also emphasised as contributing to honour culture, whereas exposure to other cultures through globalisation has outmanoeuvred honour cultures: My parents, for example, come from a village; they did not see how other countries live (ip 11).
Individual factors, such as low education and limited contact outside the family, may also contribute to honour violence: “he has not been to school and he had no social contact but the family and nothing else, and I think he was an uneducated and naive person, who thought honour” (ip 2). Several participants described honour culture as a problem that exists within specific families. These families adhere to very traditional values which determine, control, or prevent individuals from making their own choices, or living a modern life. In contrast, the participants described their own families as very “democratic” and “civilised”.
Nonetheless, many participants described a culture of honour in their social circle in Sweden. One described how their in-laws “had views on everything”, which included controlling how to dress, restricting women’s freedom of movement, raising children authoritatively, and demanding that married women have sex with their husbands. Another participant described withholding his wife’s infidelity from his in-laws for fear that the father-in-law would punish her.
According to the participants, the Swedish Migration Board, schools and the social services have particularly important roles in preventing HBV. For example, one participant thinks the subject should be discussed in school: “because then you get a different side of the honour culture, the other side than the one you get at home… I think it would have helped then” (ip 6). Others suggest that information provided to new Swedes should include information on social relations, legislation and rights in Sweden, so that new immigrants can understand that one is expected to, for example, “go to school, hug girls, and live and dance and stuff like that” (ip 3).
The emphasis on other peoples’ honour norms may work as a means of displaying one’s own cultural proficiency, or to create distance from the old culture and embrace a new identity (Lund Liebmann, 2019). Hence, to turn “the honour ideal into the alien Other” is to demonstrate the superiority of modern values (Kaufman, 2011, p. 558).

Conclusions

The main results of this explorative study contribute to an in-depth and partly nuanced picture of people who have committed HBV crimes in Sweden. By exploring the narratives of convicted persons, a fuller picture of the offenders and their circumstances emerged. Several characteristics of the perpetrators of relevance for the violent crimes were found, such as a history of normalising violence, past antisocial behaviour and a lack of prosocial coping and problem-solving skills. Such individual factors are well researched to understand the perpetration of other crimes, but have largely been overlooked in research on HBV. If we see structural and relational factors as one-directionally impacting individuals in honour contexts, without unpacking the influence of individual factors on, for example, violent family dynamics, we may miss important aspects. Recent studies have emphasised socioeconomic factors, including low education, in understanding HBV victimisation. While registry data was not collected in the current study, the majority of the participants described limited schooling and jobs in lower income categories. The participants’ narratives support an intersectional approach to understanding HBV.
A noteworthy result is the participants’ uniform way of describing honour culture and positioning themselves against it. The way perpetrators of HBV portray themselves against honour culture is important knowledge for identification and recidivism prevention. For example, this finding is a complicating factor for Swedish authorities and others who base the distinction of honour crimes solely on the overtly declared motive of the perpetrator. The behaviour could be interpreted as an attempt to resist an external image of belonging to an inferior or ‘racially marked’ group (Abji & Korteweg, 2021).
Another insight is the common experience of family fragmentation by death, divorce and migration. The family structure the participants describe, both during their upbringing and later in their own families, suggests that the description of patriarchal family structures underpinning HBV needs to be broadened. Fathers were often absent and the control and socialisation of the children – and thereby the reproduction of values – often fell on the mothers.
Furthermore, the absence of strong family ties contradicts the idea that HBV only occurs in close-knit families, kinships or clans. Interestingly, based on the participants’ narratives, a lack of social support network may instead have contributed to the crime. Many described a destabilising life event and a powerlessness of not knowing where to turn for help. In this way, the participants’ stories are contributing to the understanding of HBV in a migration context and support the theory of Strid et al. (2021), suggesting isolation as a risk factor. There is also variation among the participants in areas that are relevant for recidivism prevention, including criminal history, emotion regulation and education. These individual disparities have not fully been captured in previous studies, which often describe HBV perpetrators in a more uniform way, especially in relation to their beliefs, family structure and motivations. The narratives of Cinthio et al.’s (2022) interviewees captured collective aspects of honour violence in Sweden to a greater extent than this study has been able to.
The participants’ stance on honour culture is more fragmented and complex than perhaps assumed. They appear to have been subjected to honour oppression and to have been victims of violence themselves. Their accounts deepen the knowledge about HBV offenders as former victims. Following the participants’ descriptions of violence and control they were subjected to and witnessed growing up, HBV can be seen as a learned behaviour, transmitted across generations. But there are also important individual factors and particular circumstances that surface. Being part of an honour culture is in their view considered stigmatising and an inconceivable part of being Swedish. Here, role expansion appears important for preventive measures and treatment to acknowledge that you can be both Swedish and live in an honour culture.
The results contribute new insight for crime prevention. Challenging norms – both targeting specific norms and addressing how norms are reproduced – remains important. Recidivism prevention also needs to take into account other risk factors for violence. The participants’ stories demonstrate common needs to address violent tendencies and better manage interpersonal relations, including the development of parenting strategies founded on the rights of children. Education is another area of need as most participants had not completed compulsory school.
The participants stated that specific events escalated into violence, and that strong cultural beliefs about shameful behaviour did not guide their actions. Preventing recidivism through the treatment of convicted offenders requires us to take these narratives seriously. Individuals may be more likely to explain their own behaviour as driven by psychological factors, immediate events, or intimate relationships rather than more intangible factors like culture or norms. A lack of awareness of social structures like patriarchy does not mean that they are not important, but it does shift the focus in individual treatment. To increase responsiveness, treatment could benefit from covering issues that perpetrators feel are important for the course of events, rather than impose an external narrative on HBV. This task is delicate, since evidence from other sources, such as victim testimonies, may suggest an honour motive.
This explorative study does not aim to make causal inferences. When interpreting these findings, one must keep in mind that the offender’s perspective of their motive is one viewpoint that in parts or as a whole can differ from the view of others (e.g. victims, witnesses or the court). The statements may be influenced by the circumstances in which they are being expressed – that is, in interviews with representatives of the prison and probation service during a prison sentence. However, from an offender therapy perspective, one could compare an open and non-confrontational interview with the starting point of any motivational or therapeutic intervention. In that respect, an expressed ambiguity around the motive is an important factor to consider when pursuing preventive measures of HBV, despite opposing information from other sources.
The results of the study derive from a qualitative method in a Swedish correctional context and their transferability may be limited. Yet the nuances that the study has captured should be of interest for knowledge building in other countries similar to Sweden that face challenges with honour-based violence.

Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank the research team for their collaboration in the project, as well as the anonymous reviewers.

Footnote

1.
In the text, we make a distinction between the recorded interviews and the cases where only notes were taken, although in many instances they capture the participants’ responses word for word. As we were unable to verify direct quotes for the interviews with only notes, we have chosen not to use quotation marks in these instances.

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Information & Authors

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Go to Nordic Journal of Criminology
Volume 25Number 120 December 2023
Pages: 117

History

Issue date: 20 December 2023
Published online: 24 January 2024

Authors

Affiliations

Research Analyst, Swedish Prison and Probation Service
Dr. Lina Grip is a Research Analyst at the Research and Evaluation Unit at the Swedish Prison and Probation Service. She has a PhD in Political Science from Helsinki University.
Marcus Dynevall [email protected]
Research Analyst, Swedish Prison and Probation Service
Marcus Dynevall is a Research Analyst at the Research and Evaluation Unit at the Swedish Prison and Probation Service. He has an MA in Sociology from Uppsala University.

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