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 write 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.
First, one must consider the concept of “honor” to understand how it is used as a mechanism of control, and its close connection to crimes in the (predominantly) patriarchal culture. This follows in the steps of many awe-inspiring women, including Nawal Al Sadawi, 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. To them, she’s only a vessel to both shame and honor. The system built on binary oppositions (“man/woman, do-er/and done to, positive/negative, reasonable/emotional,” etc.) denies women their natural rights, such as that of granting nationality to their children, and other privileges enjoyed by their male counterparts. Not only that, but a woman’s existence, body, and identity, have become property of this system and the rule of men who act as rulers, men of faith, and heads of family.
This hierarchy assures men while simultaneously feeding their fear and panic of women becoming active in society as a partner and a citizen. This assurance and fear, then, has placed rigid rules on women and family to maintain his own control and dominance through religion and the state. The woman became a prisoner of the deadly binaries of this system, and no alternative exists beyond it: either be a virgin/wife or be a whore. In any patriarchal system, man holds the scale of “justice” and balances it to serve his interests. He measures and determines what is permissible in public and private life, whether it be religious, social, sexual, or political. For when he stole the earth, he turned to fighting in defense of home, honor, and the nation, and to exploiting the lands of others. He found himself in a higher position then those around him, and assigned 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), and he took guardianship over her. Man claimed victory in the battle of supremacy, and he created patriarchy buttressed by mythology and titles that strengthened his imposing and dominant role. We are still pushed beneath the fire of its thrones and killed in its name, and this will continue until we reexamine the misconceptions on which it is based, including sex, chastity, man, woman, family and society.
Honor has long been tied to woman’s “sexual status” in the patriarchal system, and has almost become synonymous with her 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 made 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 just 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 is additional disconcerting that man can be so convinced of this myth that he can overlook the humanity within us all, or that a woman’s potential misstep that might cause her hymen to tear, even if through playing sports or using a tampon, or that she might not bleed at all could become such an threat to man’s honor in this worn-out, misogynistic system.
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’s man’s honor when newborn babies are thrown in the trash? Where is his alleged 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 thus reduced both men and women to their genitalia (and the predominant became the relation of penis and vagina) rather than the relation between husband and wife, father and daughter, lover and their loved one. Whatever deviates from the rules it set forth becomes an abnormality. Deficiencies of the emotional, sexual, psychological, and intellectual deficiency are intentionally constructed as ways to maintain the dominance of man over woman’s body, which serves as a mere notebook in which patriarchal institutions can write their various agendas.
Man can be described as a the do-er, or so he might imagine himself, but only gained this position because of a collection of lies that he created or were passed down to him. That collection of lies made him a tool of the system whose honor was not manifested in his own body, but in women’s. Women came to possess the negative side of sexual acts long tied to men (especially in terms of conquest), including s the scandal, shame, and immorality of these 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, which 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 woman’s activities, responsibilities he cannot withstand in the pressures of this age.
The Arab present is painful and it might seem that the solutions I am going to propose seem so 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 21st 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 we can talk about a true intellectual Arab Renaissance.
We can no longer hide or isolate ourselves, because the world is transforming and changing, and this change is reaching up more rapidly because of the preeminence of internet and social media. We can not 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.