[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.)