Dr Talal Alrubaie
2008 / 12 / 11
In a recent interview with the Arabic daily Asharq-Al-Awsat of 9th December 2008, Suzan Shihab, a member of the parliament in Iraqi Kurdistan, speaks of the alarming increase in the level of violence against women in Iraqi Kurdistan and the laudable laws passed by the Parliament to limit or curb this violence. She speaks of a very sombre reality; of 100 deaths a month due to violence, a half of which were due to “honour” killing and the rest was due to fatal burning, some of which were self-inflicted.
Unfortunately, “honour” killings are not all that uncommon all over the world. The UN Commission on Human Rights published a report in January 2002 on “Integration of the Human Rights of Women and the Gender Perspective” in which they dealt with so-called “honour” killings.
The Commission stated that “honour” killings had occurred primarily in Pakistan, Turkey, Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Iran, Yemen, Morocco, and other Mediterranean and Gulf countries. But such killings are not limited to these nations. There had been such murders in other countries such as Germany, France, and the United Kingdom amongst their immigrant populations.
No one knows for sure how many “honour” killings occur per year because they are covered up as private family matters and attributed to natural causes. Every year more than 1000 women are killed in the name of honour in Pakistan alone. In 1997, the Attorney-General in Palestine said that he believed 70% of the murders in Gaza and the West Bank were actually "honour" killings.
As the perception of what constitutes honour and what damages it widens, the number of killings in the name of honour increases. Not only do men seek to control the sexuality of their female relatives but their behaviour and their language as well. Some common reasons for performing an “honor” murder include “illicit” relationships, marrying or expressing a desire to marry a man of her own choice, divorcing an abusive spouse, or being a rape victim. Yes, for the misfortune of being raped, the girl or woman can then be murdered by her family.
Still other reasons for “honor” murders include bringing food late, answering back, or undertaking forbidden family visits. One well known case in Turkey involved a teenage girl who had dishonored her family because a love ballad had been dedicated to her over the radio. They slit her throat in the town square. Sometimes men will even fake “honor” murders to cover for their crimes. A man who has killed another man may kill a woman of his family, charging her with impropriety with the man he had murdered. In such a manner, many a man has gotten off scot-free.
Typically, the victim in an “honor” killing is female and the murderer a close male relative such as a brother or husband or father. To reduce punishment, the family will depend on an under-aged male to kill the female. Punishment is usually minimal for such murderers. The act is regarded as a rite of passage into manhood. If the male does go to jail, fellow inmates will hail him as a “complete” man and will wash his feet.
Honor in such patriarchal societies is paramount. Unfortunately, honor usually comes down to a desire to control the freedom and sexuality of female relatives. Or as a crude Arabic expression states: “a man’s honour lies between the legs of a woman”. Clearly, women are seen as the property of men and they have to be obedient and passive, and the maintenance of the family’s honor is considered the woman’s responsibility.
Women are also heavily pressured to commit suicide for reasons of “honor”. Most of the time, they will obey. The fear of a life of dishonor is strong. There was even a case of a Muslim family in New Jersey (USA) some years ago in which a girl had been raped by her brother so the mother bought her razor blades so she could kill herself and encouraged her to do so.
Women who escape “honour” killings are often in a terrible situation, living in constant fear of their lives. Women are sometimes kept in jail for their own protection. They can live there for years. The situation in prison may not be any safer for women, either.
“Honor” murders remain a serious issue around the world. It appears little has changed since the U.N. Commission on Human Rights reported on this matter. Women in predominantly Muslim lands have sunk to the level of chattel.
In a ground-breaking essay, Leti Volpp talks about the notion of the cultural defense. One of the moments that this plays out is through the justification of violence against women as a cultural norm (usually based on racist ideas of culture). What do we do then if we want to help an individual woman? Do we want to say that her horrific barbaric culture that condones these practices from which she has absolutely no escape, led to these evil acts or led to her being trapped, or led to her not fleeing? Are we using racism to get rid of sexism? Is there a way in which we are relying on certain kinds of problematic descriptions that buy into already existing preconceptions about our communities to help individual women?
In her recent book ‘Crimes of Femicide before the Lebanese Judiciary (2008), Dr Azza Baydoun has analysed every “honour” killing in Lebanon that has gone before the courts since 1999 and found that behind the plea of offended honour lies the crime of femicide. She describes the patriarchal concept of’ ‘deficient men in her research as such:
The manhood of the defendant is deficient because he fails to live up to the prescription of the masculine stereotype: to be the provider of his family and the controller of his woman s sexual behavior if he is a blood relative, or to satisfy her sexual needs if he is her partner.
Her following excerpt from the a trial proceeding is revealing:
“Ilyas rushed to kill his ex-wife and her lover in church because rumours circulated about his sexual impotence in spite of the fact that he was known to be a ferocious militia fighter (during the Lebanese civil wars)”.
On a sexual level, “honor killing” is committed by men who usually base their definition of manhood on social stereotypes that equate manhood with exercising an absolute control over women, particularly their sexuality. It is a compensatory psychological reaction to the absolute lack of a man’s ability to control his erection; since no man can ‘will’ his erection (erection is mediated physiologically via the autonomic nervous system, which is not under voluntary control). Such a man lives in a perpetual fear of impotence and the unpredictability of it. The fact that ‘the penis has its own brain’ generates a huge amount of anxiety and self-doubts in a man; he is resentful of having to be (such) a man, to be burdened by having to initiate erection and sustain it for a reasonable period of time for the sake at least of penetration and prolongation of his pleasure, if not for the sake of giving her pleasure. Also, he envies women for not having this fear and for not having to carry the burden of having to ‘produce’ an erection (Repeat: for him erection=manhood). For him such manhood is a curse. Ruled by wrath, envy and a tormenting anxiety, he sees himself compelled to punish her when he sees her enjoying her sexuality and living it our freely, because her freedom and joy make it even more evident to him how fragile his sense of manhood is. He denies his fears, intellectualise them away, and act them out through “honor” killings. But again he forgets or intentionally refuses to say to himself that he does not have to equate his manhood with “performing” erection.
Ultimately, to relieve himself of the burden of sexual “performance” and the entailing anxiety, he ought to redefine his manhood and acknowledge that it bears no relationship to erection. A new definition will affirm life, beauty, freedom, respect, love and tenderness. A new definition of sexuality will turn it from a burdensome performance into an enjoyable ‘letting go’. It is a hard work to adopt this new definition and there is a huge need of adjustment and cognitive processing on the part of the man and his society. But it is the only path that rids him of his agonizing self-doubts which could lead into self-destruction and the destruction of others. His new definition of manhood and sexuality needs to embrace the life instinct (Eros) and oust the death instinct (thantos). Such a new definition is the only one that secures happiness and (sexual) fulfilment to a man and a woman alike.