By Jocelyn Perez
For thousands of years, gender has shaped societies. Humans have placed each sex into a category in itself, creating roles each spouse is expected to follow. Further, although the law might suggest otherwise, men and women are still not considered equal. In many cultures, men have maintained an autocratic stance, keeping women on the sidelines as homemakers and nurturers. This idea of male domination versus female limitation is instilled in the teachings of Islam, and can have dire consequences for women who challenge their subordination. For the sake of restoring honor to a family, wife murder is a common practice in several Arab nations. The family’s reputation is valued above all, even human life. If a threat arises, a man will kill his sister, his daughter, and even his wife, to see the balance restored once again. The act of honor killing is perceived as the cleansing of “an unbearable stain” notably referred to as “ghasalat al arr, which means washing away the shame” (Zoeff).
In the Arab world of chastity and obedience, a woman treads a thin line between honor and shame. If she is seen in public without her head covered, stays out past a certain time or is caught speaking to a man she is not related to, it would result in physical abuse. However, if she were to object to a decision made by her husband, leave him for any reason, stray from his bed, or be taken by force, then it would lead to her death. Her actions, intentional or not, would be considered disrespectful and detrimental to the family structure. A woman’s place and purity (her hymen) constitutes a family’s honor, not a man’s merits; “so the honor of a man is not related in any way to his behavior” (The Monitor). Meanwhile, when women violate the social construct, redemption is achieved through murder. All too often, Arab nations fail to implicate those involved because the act is not considered a murder. At most, the husband may serve a prison term of a few months. While the Qur’an does not advocate spousal killings, it asserts that family honor is considered a core virtue. It promotes constant interconnections, and being just, “Hold to forgiveness, command what is right; but turn away from the ignorant.” [7:199] Yet, many Muslims commit these atrocities and justify them by claiming that they are done “with the name of Allah dripping from their lips”(Exclusive). It can be seen as commanding respect through fear, and punishing the ignorant. This form of scriptural reinterpretation does not differ from that used by religious extremists that believe in suicide-by-bomb in the name of the Holy War.
The oppressive nature of these practices comes under serious scrutiny when they are committed on American soil. This society preaches about equal rights for both sexes, and the dissolution of male superiority. An individual’s right to live and freedom of choice is accepted as a basic human right. A person has the ability to dress how they choose, to express themselves freely, and to speak to whomever they wish. An individual’s honor is earned through achievements, and personal growth. The amount of respect the person receives is not meant to waver due to the actions of their spouse. We are all undoubtedly interconnected, but factors that may bring one shame, does not necessarily bring the same shame unto another. For instance, extramarital affairs are unfortunately common and divorce has come to be perceived as a fact of life. If Americans were to consider reputation a virtue, the death toll would be in the millions. Fortunately, our legal system condemns domestic abuse, sentences murderers to long prison terms and in some cases, the death penalty.
These core values and institutions often conflict with those of Arab immigrants who are unwilling to assimilate. In their eyes, Americans are considered disrespectful and out of control. This only makes them cling to their cultural beliefs more desperately. Then, when these honor killings occur in the states, the murderers try to claim that they are the true victims and that they were only doing what had to be done. Therefore, the warped rationale is: “A girl who commits a sin deserves to die” (Jehl). Unfortunately for them, the U.S. penal code has no place for honor killings and does in fact rule them as murders, regardless of circumstance. Cultural justification defenses prove faulty because as an immigrant the individual must recognize the rules of the country in which he or she resides. In addition, the ever-present pressure to conform to the majority culture brings the issue under an even more critical lens.
The idea that one’s self-respect can be redeemed through bloodshed is appalling. A spouse is meant to be a life partner and an object of affection. The role of the husband in an Arab household has become that of a dictator. His wife is at his disposal, and he holds the deed to her life. This act of degrading a woman to a mere reproductive vessel and personal servant is a complete violation of human rights. These disturbing notions are only supported by the fact that “tenth grade textbooks teach [Saudi] children that it is permissible to kill adulterers” (Exclusive). This illustrates to what extent these ideals are instilled in the Arab culture. By permitting the murders of wives, the government sanctions these unjust killings by allowing anyone to murder and not be reprimanded accordingly. There is such an outrages disproportion, in terms of gender rights, that a man could kill his wife without probable cause, and his actions may be simply “based on hearsay or gossip” (Exclusive).
I believe that every individual has the right to pursue their happiness, with the resources they have at their disposal. Honor killings should not be justified by religious text, nor applied to the unwritten interpretations. The killers only use these tools as excuses and sadly they have become an accepted as the norm in Arab nations. Women have every right to live out their lives in the manner they see most fit; divorce is always an option. Women do not deserve to be whipped two-hundred times or stoned to death in public, for defying their husbands’ opinions. Women are entitled to their thoughts, beliefs, likes and dislike. Robbing children of their mothers’ love, wrenching mothers from their daughters’ side, in the name of Allah is preposterous.
This practice of taking a life for the sake of maintain honor in the community, may be deemed barbaric by outsiders, but I would say it is egotistical. Does a man feel so emasculated by his wife’s impurity, defiance, or sense of self, that he must kill her to bring her down to squirm under his boot soles? Why is an Arab man able to have an affair, kill or abuse his wife and children and continue to exude honor in his community? Until these questions can be answered by the Arab community, only those who commit these crimes on our soil will be prosecuted; our court system will prove to be a considerable adversary. Although the lives of those lost cannot be rectified, we bring honor to their dishonorable deaths by achieving justice. For the Arab people honor may be cleansed with blood, but they will realize that it is the blood of their loved ones that leaves a permanent stain.
“Exclusive: Honor Killings in Islam.” Weblog Entry. Women Against Shariah. 15 Sept 2008. 22 Sept 2008. http://womenagainstshariah.blogspot.com/2008/09/majority-of-muslims-in-arab-countries.html
“Honor Killings Come to America.” Weblog Entry. Solomonia Archive. 27 April 2004. 22 Sept 2008. http://www.solomonia.com/blog/archives/003699.shtml
Jehl, Douglas. “For Shame: Arab Honor’s Price- A Woman’s Blood.” Polynize.20 June 1999. 22 Sept 2008. http://polyzine.com/arabwomen.html
Manji Irshad. “Honor Killing: Comes to America.” Weblog Entry. Women Against Shariah. 29 Aug 2008. 22 Sept 2008.
Quotes From the Holy Quran. 101 Islam. 23 Sept 2008.
The Monitor. Aug 2002.The Palestinian Human Rights. 22 Sept. 2008. http://www.phrmg.org/monitor2002/Aug2002-2.htm
Zoeff, Katherine. “A Dishonorable Affair.” The New York Times. 23 Sept 2007. 22 Sept 2008. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/23/magazine/23wwln-syria-t.html?_r=3&oref=slogin&oref=slogin&oref=slogin