A question of honor
Despite efforts in education and the workplace, Middle Eastern women fall victim to extreme definitions of honor
Early last week, a woman in Eastern Turkey severed the head of her rapist before hanging it in the village square to show to the community. The woman, already a mother, stated that she had to kill the “one toying with [her] honor” to reclaim her respect and so that her children could go to school without being ridiculed.
What is unique about this case is that the victim’s retribution was far more than an act of vengeance. The woman in question was as much a victim of rape as she was a victim of “honor”: a cornerstone principle in Islamic societies.
And as evidenced in this case, the notion of “honor” can coexist with the principle of civil law in even the most modern Islamic nations. Though its true definition varies from one scholar to another, most Islamic societies use “honor” as a benchmark in cases of rape, virginity loss and extramarital affairs. Whatever “honor” actually means, one thing is for certain: This particular brand favors men over women.
So, according to her statement, the woman beheaded her rapist not out of anger, but out of a quest to restore her honor. By brutally asserting her victory in a public setting, she preemptively struck a society that may have cast dishonor upon her for her own rape. To report to the police — however civic — would have maintained the “stain” on her honor, and to keep quiet would have been to do nothing. In other words, her reporting would have caused her at least as much discredit as his crime, and possibly even more.
Even though the woman now faces a murder trial, several in Turkey and elsewhere have cited her brutality as something that had to happen in order for cases like this to be recognized. As Americans, we are careful about touching on these topics, for fear of offending a culture or making crude generalizations. While it is true that the majority of Turkey’s population, along with those of most other Middle Eastern countries, does not operate under strictly Islamic notions of gender roles, the U.S. is still uneasy as to how it should address the behavior.
Here in the United States, we have a skewed notion of what true freedom is for Islamic women. Philanthropic efforts like those of Greg Mortenson give us the idea that everything will be “fixed” once Muslim woman have equal opportunities in work and education. Once these are achieved, we tell ourselves that the culture will reflect it.
But as we see here, the discrimination goes much deeper than that. No amount of schooling could have restored this woman’s honor in her community. Nor would have any line of work.
Contrary to the Western belief, education and custom aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, women living under Islamist governments in Iran and Saudi Arabia are encouraged to pursue careers, participate in government and have some of the same rights as men have on paper. But although they may seem completely liberated, stories like this have shown us that many Middle Eastern women remain socially, culturally and sexually restricted. The truth is that many Islamic women face no real progression, just a carefully formed neopatriarchy.
And in the case of the Turkish woman, the neopatriarchy persists. Though her crime was clear in the eyes of the state, by killing her rapist she attempted to gain back the honor she had lost: a cause, which, for her, was well worth the time in prison. In order to fully understand the East, the Western perception of Eastern society must take into account that the status of women will not improve with justice, education or intervention. Rather, a permanent change in the culture is needed. For Middle Eastern women, only a freedom from “honor” will be a freedom from the system.
Denise Taylor’s column appears Tuesdays in The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at email@example.com