Understanding Patriarchy and Honor
My article in Us magazine (10th June 2011 issue), an attempt to expose young readers to feminist themes. In the process I may have over-simplified and over-looked matters, and therefore more seasoned feminists are welcome to offer constructive criticism.
Understanding Patriarchy and Honor
Ideas of honor are so common to our society that we hardly ever notice them as being something odd. In the March 2011 issue of Us magazine, Guru in Trust Us replied to a confidential letter by G.Z. From the reply it can be surmised that she was in a relationship with a guy X, who got physically involved with her and then dumped her. Guru chastises her that she should not have believed him in the first place and should not have succumbed to his wishes. “At least you would have saved your honour that way”. Later in the reply she writes “Your parents have already suffered a lot because of you. Don’t be a source of embarrassment to them.”
What exactly is this “honor” and how does one lose it? Especially, how do we explain the asymmetry that the same act leaves a woman with her honor lost while apparently does nothing to the man’s honor? Furthermore, how is it that something that an individual does becomes a cause of shame for others?
The concept of sexual honor can only make sense in the background of the feminist idea of a patriarchal society. Patriarchy is a social system in which men hold the power, and therefore dominate and/or oppress women. An egalitarian society, in contrast, is one which favors equality between the sexes. As we’ll come to see, the tradition of honor is one of the ways in which a patriarchal society controls and regulates the behavior of women. The West has largely moved away from patriarchy towards egalitarianism, and therefore the concept of honor has considerably declined. Indeed, the statement “At least you would have saved your honor that way” would be meaningless to a Western girl, if not offensive. The West has replaced social concepts of honor with individual conscience and a social morality that depends on individual well-being and rights, a development that I feel our own society is in dire need of.
Generally speaking, honor is a respectability of sorts, an indication of your social status, as of how people of your community view you. When it comes to women, the term has more specific connotations. It refers to ‘chastity’ and ‘virginity’, and if a woman is married, it refers to her ‘fidelity’. Therefore, unlike men, a woman’s honor is deeply bound to her sexual status. In such a society, Dilek Cindoğlu observes "The virginity of the women is not a personal matter, but a social phenomenon." The idea is not alien to us, implicitly or explicitly, we see it all around us. We are familiar with the notions of izzat and namus indigenous to our population. For instance, Pashtunwali, the unwritten ethical code of Pushtuns says that a Pashtun must defend the honor of Pashtun women at all costs and must protect them from verbal and physical harm.
We see a bizarre duality in this. On one hand, we see women as fragile creatures whose sexuality is constantly at threat and something which needs to be protected. On the other hand, we see women as inherently sexual creatures whose sexuality must be controlled socially, and by force if necessary. According to the patriarchal mindset, the man is protector and controller of women, and his honor is lost if he fails to protect her sexuality from other males or if he fails to control her sexuality. In an honor-based society, women become the honor of men. If a woman is treated in a dishonorable way, or if the woman herself does something thought to be disgraceful, it brings dishonor to the men and the family. In sexual honor, both these aspects often come into play together. When a woman is seduced, the society’s reaction is two-fold: simultaneously the society views her as having been mistreated by the man and views her as having done something disgraceful. We hear of how girls “defile” a family’s honor by running away or marrying someone of their own choice. This is in an instance in which the men of the family have failed to control her. Then we also hear of a girl being shamed and losing her honor if she is raped. This is an instance in which the men of the family have failed to protect her.
Complementary to this idea of honor is the idea of revenge. When a man is dishonored, he can compensate for this by taking revenge from the man and woman who brought this dishonor to him. Traditionally, this has led to the horrible practices of honor-killing and karo kari. While such practices are still prevalent in our tribal and rural areas, they have reduced somewhat in our urban settings. However, just because we (the readers of Us) do not observe the violent manifestations of honor-killing around us, it doesn’t mean that they underlying mentality no longer exists. It exists, and it exerts its control in subtle ways.
While it is men who create the notions of honor, it is women of the society who maintain and propagate them. The biggest opposition to feminism comes from within the women themselves. In the words of Ilsa Glaser, women act “as instigators and collaborators” with their gossips and accusations and discrimination against members of their own sex who have suffered the alleged ‘dishonor’.
The institution of honor is not just primitive, it is wrong, and as moral beings in a modern society, we must make a conscious effort to suppress notions of patriarchy and honor. The only way to be able to do so is first to become aware of them. Look around yourself:
• Do you find that girls and women are expected to conform to enforced dress-codes such that violation of them is seen as dishonorable conduct?
• Have you seen assaults on girls and women being justified because they weren’t covered up from head to toe?
• When it comes to marriage, have you seen the larkay-walay asking around about the girl “Larki ka character kesa tha, larkon say dosti kitni thee?”
• Have you observed that a girl’s falling in love and/or desiring to marry by choice is seen by the family as a matter of dishonor?
• Are single women perceived as being in dire need of male protection?
• Is divorce seen as a dishonor?
• Are the victims of rape seen as having lost their honor?
• Does the society put an insistence on the virginity and chastity of girls, but has little regard for that of men?
• In the case of an affair, the girl is seen as losing her honor, while nothing really happens to the boy’s honor?
• Girls are not allowed move around on their own?
These are all some of the indicators of a patriarchal mindset, things so common that we barely notice them. A society where men are either trying to protect women or take advantage of them is not a very healthy society. A society where sexuality of women is controlled by men is not a moral society, no matter if it claims to be so. There is no honor in such honor.
Let me end this article by a simple exercise. How many words of abuse do you know of that are meant for a woman of indecent character? Try to think as many as you can, in all languages you know. Now, how many words of abuse can you think of that describe a man of indecent character? Why is the former number so much larger than the latter? Think about it.