Entry from July 29, 2002

Mona Eltahawy writes in the Washington Post that “A Pakistan tribal council”s horrific “punishment” by gang rape of a young woman last month was just the tip of a very ugly iceberg called honor.” I myself think that icebergs — of which I have only seen photographs — are rather beautiful, and even an ugly one, if such a thing can be imagined, can hardly be so disgusting as the crime of rape. But we know what she means, I guess. “In the name of that most elusive of concepts,” she goes on, meaning honor, “women are shot, beheaded, burned, stoned and beaten. And, in the case of Saleema, raped.”

By the way, Saleema is not the woman’s name, as Ms Eltahawy acknowledges, even though every other news source which reported about this terrible incident also reported the real name. Could it be that her following feminist orthodoxy about keeping concealed the names of rape victims might itself have something to do with that same ugly iceberg called honor? Could it be a tip of the hat to the disgraceful honorable precept by which rape victims are shamed and dishonored even though they are not in the least at fault? Why else would she keep the woman’s name a secret unless there were something shameful to the woman herself in her rape?

She also writes that the purpose of the rape was “to ruin her honor,” but that we can take to be ironic, I suppose. And the sarcasm continues: “What irony that a woman as powerless as Saleema carries the whole family”s honor on her shoulders — a heavy burden indeed.” Actually, it is hard to see what the irony in this is meant to be. In such honor-cultures as the fictional Saleema inhabits, everybody in the family always carries the whole family’s honor on her — or indeed on his — shoulders all the time. That’s how honor is: so fragile that anyone can break it with a single indiscretion, and therefore something that has to be taken great care of all the time, by everybody.

This is not a religious matter. As Ms Eltahawy rightly acknowledges, noting that although the honor culture prevails “in countless Muslim countries” it is yet the case that “there is not a single word in the Koran that calls for death in the name of honor” and that such killings are “an ancient practice that is rooted in culture rather than religion.” This is certainly true. The honor culture that makes such a fetish of “virginity before marriage and chastity afterward” long antedates the Muslim faith as it does all the other major religions of the world which have been superimposed on it. So called “honor killings” frequently happen in non-Muslim countries, especially India, for this reason. It is only in the Christian West that such things have gone quite out of fashion.

Could that, do you suppose, have anything to do with Christianity? To the Muslim clerics who claim that opposition to honor killings (and rapes) is an attempt to impose “Western values” on their societies, Ms. Eltahawy protests: “What is so Western about wanting to end a barbaric cultural practice that leaves a woman damned if she does and damned if she doesn”t?” Well, I can tell her. It was only in the Christian West that the official religion opposed, however sporadically and ineffectually, the native honor culture that was common to all pagan societies before any of the world’s major religions developed among them. The demands of honor were never seen as being at odds with those of religion — as they were, for example, in the Christian commandment to forgive our enemies or the principle that all are to be treated as equal in the eyes of God — in Muslim or Hindu societies.

Yet even in the West we have been reluctant to do away with the idea of honor altogether, at least until relatively recent times. The result has been a curious hybrid, a system of honor which, while it thrived among us, was quite unlike that in any other part of the world, above all in its ideas about men’s chivalry towards women. It is perhaps to this uniquely Western idea of honor that Ms Eltahawy appeals at the end of her op ed piece when she calls on the world to shame the Pakistanis and other Muslim authorities into doing the right thing. “Let”s embarrass that government into prosecuting more of those who kill in the name of honor,” she writes. “Let”s shame it into doing the honorable thing.” With this, of course, all must agree. But you’d think that she’d give a bit more credit to the Western-ness of the idea of the “honorable thing” to which she is appealing.

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