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
Awais Aftab

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 Cindo─člu 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.


Please send your feedback to us.mag@thenews.com.pk. You can contact the author directly at awaisaftab@gmail.com.


Komal said…
Great article. Thank you for writing this, and good on Us for publishing it! The checklist at the end was especially useful.

These ideas of honour come from a patriarchal ideology that constructs women as passive, and as the property of men. Since sex is something men do to women, i.e. women are 'had sex with' since they are passive, there is no/little distinction between sex and rape (why should consent matter if either way you're serving your function as a receptacle?), and women have to be constantly protected from being 'had sex with'.

And of course, all these ideas of honour etc. are excuses to control women, as you pointed out in your article.
Nida said…
"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."

Very well said! It is amazing how often and how far some of the women I know and love (even my own mother) go to make the victim the one to blame. I'll hear comments like "She was wearing such revealing clothes. What was the bechara man to do? She should have had enough shame to not walk out of the house exposing her ankles!" (not an exaggeration)
Anonymous said…
Have you been following the "Slut Walk" phenomenon which started off in Canada but has spread throughout the Western thinking world.
If not google it. Womaniser's there are called Ladies's Men while a women/girl whose clothes are revealing is called a Slut. Notice the Dichotomy.
One of my friend once said that Banu Qudsiya(Author of Raja Gidh) stated that men too should have been born with signs of getting pregnant, as a girl/woman does if she has sex out of marriage.
This hypocrisy is widespread in our society. A woman is a woman's worst enemy.It is the duty of Mother's and Sister's and especially their Father's to teach sons the respect of a woman , wether she is Burka Clad or in a Bikini.
This is what the Prophet ( Peace Be Upon Him) meant when He said that" A believer is modest outside his home but relaxes with his wife"
We have abused the concept of Hijab to justify Chauvanism. The covering was ordained from Allah directly to women , becuase of course being beautiful , there is a desire to assert " I am beautiful". Hijab was NOT ordained to make women subservient to men.
We have used Hiajb as a tool for men to supress woman's sexulaity and use it as an excuse to justify a man's lack of sense. Hence especially in the Pakistani or similar soceity, a woman's beauty is considered her fault. Her sexuality is not her's to live by. We men of such soceities fail to appreciaite a woman's beauty for what it is, beauty , a reflection of one of the Qualities of Allah.
Salaam, Musaafir.
P.S:- you might find Three Minute Philosophy clips on you tube help us the less enlightened get a grasp of philosophy.
Rekhaa said…
A substantial post. As insightful as is useful.

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... 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.

Something to say here. I believe there is truth and untruth mixed in what is being said above. While the truth is that the woman do propagate notions of honor and dishonor, the untruth lies in the portrayal of women as being conscious and willful authors of this role-play of 'instigators and collaborators' in patriarchy. They seem to be such women who stand guard ferociously with their calculated wisdom against feminism - even if feminism means breaking free from the shackles of primitive societies forever. That, I do not think is true. We all know that women living under patriarchy are a 'permanently irredeemable hostage' to that patriarchy and its order. We know well too that they live in constant fear of reprisal in any form (cruel oftentimes as is known) if they do not confirm to the moral (or immoral) standards set by these 'Saints of Patriarchy' who apparently guide them, mentor them and thereby protect them. If, perchance, they still dare to assert their feminism, they would risk nothing less than their lives oftentimes. In a way, if they have to live, there is no choice but to helplessly and humiliatingly confirm to whatever moral codes that have been created around them. The danger in brainwashing women into such an acceptance has always resulted in the blurring of perceptions between freedom and slavery, morality and immorality, honor and dishonor, dependence and independence, weaknesses and strengths and such other qualities. What then is the truth value or significance of attributing these 'gossips and accusations and discriminations' directly to such ignorant women? Especially, if that is the only conduct that is admired and rewarded, if that is only way they can protect themselves and if that is the only way they could possibly survive in such a patriarchy? Yes, it might be quick and easy to utter that instead of aimlessly gossiping and accusing each other these women can fight and stand up against injustice done to their kind. But, surprisingly, when it comes to some real action in the battlefield there will always be a dearth of ammunition and the spirit of courage. In playing a hostage trying to free oneself of such a patriarchy, one will better realize this.

I sincerely believe that even in patriarchy every woman 'secretly and genuinely' desires to break free and award herself the kind of freedom she desires to enjoy. But how will she enjoy this freedom if she cannot first live and breathe? And if she lives and breathes, she is fated to play a role etched out by the patriarchy to which she is tied to. So it is kind of a cyclic drama: one that women hardly pen themselves but are always forced to play well. The 'gossip and discrimination' we speak of is mostly a strong desire to please the sexist men folk around them, to assert their loyalty to them or the clan, to gain in return whatever little peace, protection and love they might get. After all, peace, love and protection are important to all even if they be provided in diminutive quantities, reluctantly or willingly.

Majority of the women I suppose do care for their ilk and have a lot of goodwill. Only, there should not be any stress of patriarchal noose around their free-thinking minds for a thing like that to manifest.
Sabahat said…
I posed the same issue of women having such a delicate honour and men being virtually dishonour proof to my mother a long while ago.

The reply I got was, "Larkay to hotay he beghairat hain, larkion ko he sharam karni parti hai" and "Larkon ki baisti iss liye nai hoti kyunke unki koi izzat he nai hoti."

But again larkon ki izzat honi chahiye. Just as girls are seen as epitome of chastity, boys should also be bench-marked on the same criterion. Its this acceptance of the loose character of men that is the problem.

Men who have a track-record of doing every conceivable vile act, when they start looking for a rishta the first thing they say is "larki shareef honi chahiye."

Why does a person lose honour if he does something which is unacceptable to the society? Is the fear of society the sole driving-force left for us? It should certainly not be the case. Whatever anyone does is totally their own business. Everyone will go to their own graves.

"Nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so."