PRINCETON, NJ-Michael Curtis
There are some very active women’s organizations and international units attempting to curb abuse of and violence against women. They work to bring awareness to the cultural, and sometimes religious, norms, laws, and practices that have created and preserve these conditions. But those efforts are too small-scale. This violence still occurs in many countries in the world, and it is most prevalent, especially in its most acute forms, in countries with a predominantly Muslim population. What is needed is a large-scale attack by national governments and international organizations.
At the base of this violence is the concept of honor, which women supposedly embody. Because of their lack of education and empowerment, women affected by this concept have rarely been able to challenge the nature and consequences of it.
Women are said to dishonor the community; family; and, for Muslim women, perhaps the Islamic religion if their actual or perceived behavior is regarded as violating ingrained cultural or religious norms. They may do this by obvious acts of sexual indiscretions, but also by not abiding by instructions and demands of men, family, or community, such as refusal to enter into an arranged marriage, seeking a divorce, or even wearing Western-type clothes.
Sometimes “honor” has been even more misused to refer to disagreements over inheritance or to prevent women from marrying someone they have freely chosen.
Violence against women takes many forms: verbal abuse and physical beatings; being stoned or burned; disfigurement by acid; threats; false imprisonment; sexual abuse; forced marriages, in which the female is threatened to enter a marriage against her own will; female genital mutilation; and at the most extreme, murder, or “honor-killing.”
The custom of honor killings of women in Arab Muslim societies is well-known. Among many others, Phyllis Chesler, in an important article, “Are Honor Killings Simply Domestic Violence?” (Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2009), pointed out that this kind of murder of women differed significantly from common domestic violence and that this is part of Islamic culture.
The United Nations Population Fund estimates — certainly an underestimate — that 5,000 women are killed each year for “dishonoring” their families. UNICEF calculates that about two-thirds of all killings in Palestinian territories are honor-killings. In those territories, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, 54 women were killed between 2007 and 2010, and 25 have been murdered in 2013.
Law in the patriarchal Arab countries, as in the Ottoman Empire, has sustained the cultural tradition that women have an inferior status. Men are only mildly punished or not punished at all for murdering a female relative whose behavior is judged as bringing dishonor to the family.
The leniency toward honor-killings is in practice in Arab countries. In the territories ruled by Palestinians, it is based on a clause in the 1960 Jordanian penal code that is still used. In one section of the clause, Article 340, men are completely exempt from liability for honor-killing; in another section, a “lesser penalty” is imposed. In Jordan and Iraq, the penalty for honor-killings is much lighter than for other crimes. Even more, according to the Iran Penal Code, Article 630, a husband is allowed to murder his wife without penalty if he suspects her of adultery.
The violence against women is discussed in a powerful film, Honor Diaries, a documentary written by Alex Traiman, with Ayaan Hirsi Ali as one of it producers. It consists of a roundtable discussion by nine courageous and highly articulate women of different ages, all from Muslim majority countries, who are advocates of women’s rights.
In the film they discuss key issues already mentioned affecting women: lack of freedom of movement, right to education, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, lack of participation in society and politics, and honor-killings. They speak eloquently, with reasoned passion, about their personal experiences and of threats against them, and talk of their efforts to change the situation of women in their country of origin and in the wider world. They don’t propose any particular scheme of action, but rather are concerned primarily with raising awareness of the plight of women and calling for reform.
For the most part, the nine women chose not to be identified with any particular party, nor do they focus on religion. Their main concerns are the cultural practices that are the basis for the abuse of women. They are critical of Western political correctness and cultural relativism. They go farther and decry the reluctance of many in the West to condemn cultural norms in other societies that justify the abuse of women.
The nine women criticize the lack of action in censuring specific practices. Why has no one been charged with conducting female genital mutilation, a fate they say suffered by 140 million women? Nor has there been any real punishment for the murder each year of at least 5,000 women in honor-killings. Little attention has been given to the more than 3,000 forced marriages having occurred during the last two years in the U.S., or the thousands of girls at risk of being forced to undergo female genital mutilation.
These nine women call for understanding and change and for help in fostering a movement that will create awareness of the present fate of women. Too often, national and international groups have spent endless energy and resources on boycotts of Israel. That energy and resources could be more profitably devoted to creating a movement to end violence against women and honor-killings in the Arab Muslim countries. It should be a high priority and is the honorable way to go.