By Dr. Amani Eid
Translated by Ivy Nasser
Photography: Omar Sha3
Characters: Jude and Mar
Creative Director: Khalid Abdel-Hadi
Complete references for shoot ‘Selma & Lamees’ – Arabic: Here
This project is a collaboration between My.Kali and Jeem.me
It pains me that we are still discussing the conflation of honor and gender, but it is clear that we still haven’t talked or written enough on it in the Middle East and North Africa. Further, we still haven’t found effective or fruitful means to resolve the conflict over a woman’s body, identity, freedom, and dignity.
I am writing this article to the open-minded who have transitioned to modern times mentally and physically, to the ages of technology and open skies. I also hope that this contribution will motivate those stuck in old myths, and misconceptions to progress past them. Perhaps of most concern is the issue of honor killings.
We must consider the concept of “honor” itself in order to understand how it is used as a mechanism of control, and its close connection to crimes in the (predominantly) patriarchal culture. We must look to the works of many awe-inspiring women, including Nawal El Saadawi, Raja Ben Slama, Olfa Youssef, Joumana Haddad in the Arab world, and Mary Wollstonecraft, Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, Kate Millett in the West.
Is honor located between one’s thighs?
Honor and “العرض” are the deadliest weapons repeatedly used by patriarchy to oppress women, and even bury them alive. The system is built upon binary oppositions (“man/woman, do-er/and done to, positive/negative, reasonable/emotional,” etc.) and often denies women their natural rights, such as that of granting nationality to their children, and other privileges enjoyed by their male counterparts. According to the patriarchy, a woman is simply a vessel of shame and/or honor, depending on the context. Her existence, body, and identity, is the property of the patriarchy and subject to the order of men who act as rulers, men of faith, and heads of family.
This hierarchy reassures men while simultaneously feeding their fear and panic that women might become active in society as equals and full citizens. To quell this fear and maintain control and dominance, men (through language of religion and state) place rigid rules on women and family. Somewhere in this process, women became prisoners of this system, falling victim to binaries so strong that no alternative exists beyond them: either be a virgin/wife, or be a whore.
In this system, only men can hold the scale of “justice,” and man often balances it to serve his own interests. He measures and determines what is permissible in public and private life, whether it be religious, social, sexual, or political. When he stole the Earth, he did so by fighting in the defense of home, honor, and nation, and exploiting the lands of others. He found himself in a higher position than those around him, and anointed himself a representative of god and a protector of those who needed protection.
This is where the conflation of a woman’s honor and the honor of the nation began. He became the origin and she the offshoot (only one of his ribs), he was her guardian. Man claimed victory in the battle of supremacy, and he created patriarchy, buttressing it with mythology and titles that insured his imposing and dominant role. Thir brutal hierarchy will continue until we reexamine the misconceptions on which it is based, especially those regarding sex, chastity, man, woman, family and society.
Honor has long been tied to women’s “sexual status” in the patriarchal system, and has almost become synonymous with their chastity or virginity. What is particularly ironic about this is that a man’s honor is determined by women’s chastity, while a woman’s honor is not determined by men’s chastity. Man placed this imposition on women alone, while also giving himself the right to polygamy and to engage in sexual relations freely. He installed religious and civil laws that serve him, and she became the puppet in this political game. His penis was exempt from religious tyranny, free from traditions and social constructs, free in the name of the law.
This double standard extends to freedoms of dress, movement and travel, independence, unwillingness of marriage, and sexual choices, and is aimed to further hindering/limiting women’s sexual activity, confining it to the institution of marriage. This is achieved through intimidation and the myth of honor, which is deeply tied to medieval patriarchal law and continues to legitimize honor killings (when one kills his sister, daughter, or wife in the name of honor), the refusal to recognize marital rape, and the permission of rapists to marry their victims.
It’s a shame that leniency toward these barbaric practices is afforded by a legal framework. It’s a shame that man can be so convinced of or blind to this myth that he can overlook the humanity within everyone. It’s a shame that a woman’s inability to bleed at the proper time could be such a real threat to man’s honor. It does not matter if her hymen tore while playing sports or using a tampon, what matters is it could no longer mark her virginity.
Could a man’s honor simply evaporate because of this? Is he as powerless as a piece of tissue. What becomes of a husband’s honor when he has sex with his wife and she loses that alleged membrane? Where is his honor, then? How can honor be found in such an intimate and private place?
Where is man’s honor when newborn babies are thrown in the trash? Where is his honor when he disowns his baby, or when he kills it? Where is his honor when a single mother faces violence, exploitation, the risk of death because she is risking her life? She is deprived of all her rights (to abortion, to lead a decent life) because she had sex before marriage, and even to her right as a single mother to ask for financial and legal assistance, for health and psychological care.
Patriarchy has reduced both men and women to their genitalia (and the predominant became the relation of penis and vagina) rather than acknowledging the relation between husband and wife, father and daughter, lover and loved one. Whatever deviates from its rules is deemed an abnormality. Emotional, sexual, psychological, and intellectual deficiencies are constructed and labeled to maintain man’s will over a woman’s body, which serves as a mere notebook in which patriarchal institutions can write their various agendas.
Man can be described as or imagine himself as a do-er, but this is only so because of a position he gained through a collection of lies that he created himself or were passed down to him. What he does not realize is that he is only a tool in his system; his honor is not manifest in his own body, but in women’s. Women’s bodies also possess the negative side of this honor: scandal, shame, and immorality often tied to sexual acts.
The patriarchy’s predominant understanding of sex is that men are sovereign and meant to rule, and women are submissive and meant to subordinate. It is as if sex were one-sided or between man and himself. This view does not allow for true partnership, and lacks the awareness, maturity, and responsibility that seem foundational to true love and sex.
Alternatives to the myth of honor
It is important to find solutions to the issue of discrimination and gender-based violence that stem from the myth of honor, for it is no longer confined to family, but has spread to a general way of life that destroys social institutions and community. As previously stated, this myth glorifies the penis and its power while pushing aside the humanity of women, making them sexual objects that serve only the pleasure of man. We must work actively to set the role of all persons outside patriarchal frameworks of dominance and double standards, wherein man can become a partner rather than have him carry the burden of the guardian and overseer of women’s activities, responsibilities he cannot manage in the pressures of this age.
The Arab present is painful and it might seem that the solutions I am going to propose seem impossibly distant, but the required journey starts with one step. We can place blame on patriarchy, but also must admit that we, as individuals, are complicit in this system’s crime through our silence and performance of traditional man-made gender roles. We supply this system with a life source.
We must call attention to educational institution, media networks, legal institutions that provide a new language that fits the spirit of the 21th century. Today, more than ever, we have to meet the needs of youth through also holding conferences,seminars, and scientific programs about the following three subjects: (1) Sex and the sexual crisis and extremism, (2) domestic and gender based violence and the myth of honor, (3) sexual education, sexual health, and gender identity.
It is the time that we pull our heads out of the sand and update civil laws and educational curriculum, establish programs for sexual education that fit all age categories, and prepare and train cadres that specialize in teaching this content. We must raise awareness among youths about the importance of using the condoms if they chose to have sex, create sexual health centers, and place maximal punishment upon those who commit honor killings rather than valorizing them.
We must develop the predominant interpretations of religion and separate religion from state rather employing the religious medieval speech and medieval chastity. True civil society will not be born in the Middle East as long as we keep repeating religious rhetoric based on demonizing or erasing women, marginalizing and concealing them with the intent of distorting her identity.
No civil society will be born as long as women suffer under the patriarchal system and its male guardianship. If we want to talk about “honor” today, we must acknowledge women as independent, and, as individuals and institutions, create laws and structures that protect the single mother and provide her financial, psychological, and medical support for her and her child, and that acknowledge the right to a safe abortion as a lawful right and solution women may seek if they don’t wish to keep the embryo. We must also admire and recognize the legitimacy of all children, by giving the single mother pass her nationality to her child.
Only then we can discuss the true, modern, humane meaning of honor, as opposed to its medieval iteration. This change will not happen overnight, but it will happen. It will happen even if by small steps like those in Lebanon and Tunisia, where former myths are being dismantled through media, health programs, and scientific and academic conferences that place pressure on political and judicial authorities to create a society that honors humans and humanity.
I hope these aforementioned suggestions and changes would spread throughout the entirety of the Middle East. Only then can we talk about a true intellectual Arab Renaissance.
We can no longer hide or isolate ourselves. The world is transforming and changing, and these changes will reach us for better or worse through social media and other online platforms. We cannot separate feminist struggles and gender studies from larger societal issues, because their purpose is that of human dignity. The emergence of electronic magazines, academic and otherwise, that are concerned with women and gender issues, homosexuality, transgender people, will have a role in changing atmosphere in the Middle East, and will hopefully birth societies that will move us past these conflicts rooted in binaries, and free us of guardianship and marginalization.