[All posts in this series can be found at The Arab Mind archive.]
Shame and the Female Body
Child Psychoanalysts have long been familiar with the concept of the female body forming a container. When children first learn that the Mother carries a baby within her womb, a potential space within her body, they create fantasies about what such a potential space, a container, contains when it is empty. This representation of the female body as container is primordial and exists and persists within our unconscious minds. In its most positive forms, it contributes to the womb envy that creates conflicts for many men who are involved in creative pursuits. After all, the female of the species can be overtly generative and creative; the man can only create pale derivatives of an actual new life.
In the Arab Mind, woman as container takes on much greater significance. This relates to the important distinction between sharaf, non-sexual honor, and 'ird, the specific kind of honor connected to the female body. Yotam Feldner, writing in the December 2000 Middle East Quarterly, offers a succinct description:
Sharaf relates to the honor of a social unit, such as the Arab tribe or family, as well as individuals, and it can fluctuate up or down. A failure by an individual to follow what is defined as adequate moral conduct weakens the social status of the family or tribal unit. On the other hand, the family's sharaf may be increased by model behavior such as hospitality, generosity, courage in battle, etc. In sum, sharaf translates roughly as the Western concept of "dignity."
In contrast, ‘ird relates only to the honor of women and its value can only decrease. [Emphases mine-SW] It translates roughly as the Western concept of "chastity" or "purity." And as with chastity or purity, exemplary moral behavior cannot increase a woman's ‘ird but misconduct reduces it. In addition, ‘ird trumps sharaf: the honor of the Arab family or tribe, the respect accorded it, can be gravely damaged when one of its women's chastity is violated or when her reputation is tainted. Consequently, a violation of a woman's honor requires severe action, as Tarrad Fayiz, a Jordanian tribal leader, explains: "A woman is like an olive tree. When its branch catches woodworm, it has to be chopped off so that society stays clean and pure."
What behavior amounts to a violation of family honor is not precisely codified. Basically it involves an unsupervised contact of a female with a male that may be interpreted by society as intimate. Such contact can be trivial: a 15-year old Jordanian girl was stoned to death by her brother who spotted her "walking toward a house where young boys lived alone." As for rape, society perceives the violated woman not as a victim who needs protection but as someone who debased the family honor, and relatives will opt to undo the shame by taking her life. Failure to do so further dishonors the family.
The concept of 'ird involves an inherent quality with which a woman is born. It must be preserved at all costs since it can only diminish and can never be replenished (notwithstanding the popularity of hymenoplasty in some Western Muslim populations.)
As I pointed out in previous posts in this series, among the most fundamentalist, especially Salafi/Saudi and Shia/Khomeiniist, versions of Islam, the woman is considered to only have significance in relation to her attachment to the important men in her life. From birth a girl is considered a source of shame (which follows from the depiction of 'ird as a limited substance that can only decrease and never increase) and her ability to damage the honor of her family creates a situation in which her behavior must be conscientiously monitored. Patai spends considerable time attending to the connection between 'ird and sharaf:
(p. 129) What is even more remarkable is that the sharaf of the men depends almost entirely on the 'ird of the women of their family. True, a man can diminish or lose his sharaf by showing lack of bravery or courage, or by lack of hospitality or generosity. However, such occurrences are rare because the men learn in the course of their early enculturation to maintain at all costs the appearances of bravery, hospitality, and generosity. Should a man nevertheless become guilty of an open transgression of any of these, he will, of course, lose his honor, but this is not accompanied by any institutionalized and traditionally imposed physical punishment.... But as to the results of a woman's transgression of the 'ird there is complete and emphatic unanimity: it would destroy the sharaf of he menfolk. This led one student of Arab ethics to the conclusion that the core of the sharaf "is clearly the protection of one's female relatives 'ird." To which we can add that this attitude is characteristic of the Arab world as a whole, and that, moreover, a transgression of the 'ird by a woman and her paramour is the only crime (apart from homicide) which requires capital punishment according to the Arabic ethical code. Since any indiscretion on her part hurts her paternal family and not her husband's, it is her paternal family - her father himself, or her brothers, or her father's brother's son - who will punish her, by putting her to death, which is considered the only way of repairing the damage done to the family honor. [Emphasis mine-SW]
Some points of importance:
1) Nowhere in the discussion of 'ird is there any hint of concern for the life and interests of the women involved. Thus, honor killing as punishment for being raped is not controversial in the traditional Arab world, where, in any event, it requires four adult Muslim men as witnesses to prove rape .
[This, incidentally, certainly supports the concept of Arab women being victims of "Soul Murder" which I described in Part IV and also discussed in Arab Culture & Democracy. Arab culture consistently denies the individuality and uniqueness of the female; she is merely a cipher, a holder of 'ird and has no significance beyond her role in maintaining family honor and her role in producing sons.]
2) It is noteworthy that even when the woman becomes the property of another man's family, her 'ird reflects back on her family of origin. Thus, while a married woman who transgresses can be punished by the men of her family of origin, it is up to the wronged husband to redress the affront with the other man involved.
3) As noted, the close attention to 'ird is most pronounced in the most traditional Arab societies and those strata of Muslim countries that are most traditional. At the same time, as the influence Saudi Salafist or Wahhabi Islam asserts itself, honor killings among Muslim populations in the West are approaching epidemic proportions, even among second and third generation Muslims.
There is one more element of the "woman as container of 'ird" that needs to be emphasized. The Honor-Shame dynamic requires public knowledge of the transgression for it to exert its effects. Guilt is an internally experienced state that arises from the knowledge that one has fallen short of one's ideals; shame merely requires that one has lost standing among one's community. Thus, private and secret transgressions, even when they become known to the family, can and most often are dealt with in private; honor killing is not the most frequent response to a loss of 'ird; it is only when the misbehavior becomes known to the community that such drastic measures are required. Salzman, in Culture and Conflict in the Middle East, illuminates this point:
Stewart (1994: 83, ch. 5) points out that 'ird is "reflexive," by which he means that the original act - whether an insult to someone closely related, or disgraceful behavior by someone closely related - does not itself destroy one's honor irretrievably; it is only by not responding properly to the attack on one's 'ird that it will be lost. If a man compensates for a commitment unfulfilled, or cleanses the source of the disgrace - by punishing or killing the offender - 'ird is retrieved and restored. But if, in the eyes of the public, one does not react promptly, appropriately, and effectively, then one's 'ird is gone.
The public aspect is essential for shame; the loss of 'ird, is a judgment of the public. As a Bedouin judge and mediator quoted by Ginat (1997: 130) put it, "Shame is not when someone's daughter has illicit sexual relations; the shame is when it is public knowledge that she has had illicit sexual relations." Families of course do their best to keep misbehavior secret, but in face-to-face communities this is very difficult. Furthermore, as part of sharaf honor competition, each family is watching the others in order to find some advantage for themselves. An indiscretion by a woman of one family can be seen by other families as an opportunity to improve their relative positions. As Cohen (quoted in Ginat 1997: 134) puts it, "An adulterous woman, even an unmarried woman having a sexual affair with a man, must be killed by her brothers or her father's brother's sons. If she is killed the group not only reasserts its position but also rises in prestige scale. If she is not killed they suffer loss of prestige." There is thus some interplay between horizontal and vertical honor.
Salzman goes on to describe numerous examples of 'ird transgressions being used by others to enhance their positions or harm their rivals; only when these other aspects, which can include political, economic, and other considerations, are taken into account, can the full breadth of the issue be understood. However, for the purposes of a psychological study of the Arab Mind, what is most significant about 'ird is its designation and condemnation of the woman as a passive bodily container of 'ird.
Most crucially, for the Arab Mind, 'ird represents both an expression of, and a defense against, primitive male anxiety about the female body and female sexuality, and that will be the topic of the next post in this series.