Beyond Honour

Book review published in SouthAsia (November 2007)
“Created out of man and for man, to relieve his loneliness and to help him, woman is shown to be responsible also for man’s troubles, not the least of which is his loss of immorality.” (Agonito, Feminist Researcher)

In her book, Tahira S. Khan has recollected the various ways in which the male elite has, throughout history and in all civilizations, interpreted religion and formulated laws, to keep female sexuality under its control. One of the most common ways of doing this has been the creation of the vague idea of ‘honour’, which is endangered only if a woman (and not a man) has loose morals. Honour has been projected in such a way that it has led to torture and numerous killings of women, over the centuries, in some of the most brutal ways imaginable.

More appalling is the fact that these atrocities are committed by a woman’s own family members (fathers, brothers, husbands, even mothers)and are in turn socially sanctioned: when the community openly supports such acts or adheres to the culture of silence.

Khan has, however, taken a historical materialist approach (Marx’s philosophical materialism or approach to social sciences and Engel’s further analyses) and has tried to look beyond the notion of honour as the motive behind these honour killings. Her research shows that generally loss of respect in society and shame are used to hide the real purpose of these felonies.

Most common reasons are sex and money or what are locally termed as causes of all conflicts: zar (woman), zan (money) and zamin (property). Material greed has even led to the economisation of the concept of honour. There are a number of ways in which this is done. For instance, intra-family marriages to keep money in the family or accusing a woman of adultery or fornication to extort money from her supposed lover, are quite common practices.

Through various examples of incidents and laws in different countries, Khan proves that such crimes occur not only in Pakistan, but also in a number of other countries. In the west, these are generally “crimes of passion” rather than honour killings as the society there is no longer obsessed with honour and shame. Due to dissimilarities in economic systems, geographical expansion, cultural amalgamation and political pressures, we can observe different attitudes of Muslim and non-Muslim
communities. However, in most places, it is shocking to note that the legal system does not consider this as serious an offence as murder.

The focus of the book is on Muslim countries and specifically Pakistan, where cases have been highlighted time and again, by national as well international media. The writer has included some personal observations and experiences. She also discusses the sexual socialization of youth in the country, the sexual ethics imbedded in our culture, patriarchy, linear purity, politics of the family institution, power hierarchy, misogynistic attitudes, feudalism and a great number of other factors, which together shape our society, culture and customs, the way they are today.

Despite the author’s in-depth analysis, the book is rather confusing on the point of whether Islam actually has laws that paved the way for the subjugation and social degradation of women or whether it was only the result of extremely biased interpretation by male Muslim scholars.

For instance, at one place she says that “during the time of the Prophet and the four Orthodox Caliphs, the concepts of the modern veil (Hijab, Purdah), separate quarters for women within households, or the exclusion of women from outdoor social and economic activities did not exist.”

At another place, it is said, “Allocation of separate spaces for men and women, and the practice of veiling introduced during the early days of Islam has strengthened segregation in the Muslim world through the centuries until today.” This ambiguity, unfortunately, exists throughout the book. Moreover, the author insists that chastity was not prescribed for Muslim men, which can be rebutted by even a brief
overview of Islamic teachings.

However, in other respects, the research work is laudable as well as extensive: there are discussions on the role of Pakistani political parties and their relationship with women’s rights activists, the chaos created by the existence of multiple legal systems, why socially deprived young couples still opt to transgress socially acceptable boundaries, the very controversial Hudood Ordinance, how new religious groups with their dars (preaching) offer their own set of puritanical solutions (often misguiding rather than guiding women) and so on.

In Khan’s opinion, the approach of feminist researchers, social workers and NGOs to this issue has not been as effective mainly because they raise their voices about cases or political reforms in isolation and fail to address the structural changes that are required(which should be more focussed on the exploitive economic system) to actually root out such crimes.

Overall, the book is a very comprehensive guide to the history and present state of things for women and will be of interest to a general audience, although description of some disturbing cases may be skipped. Readers can then draw their own conclusions to what is the right way to address this problem.

Tahira S. Khan holds a Ph.D. in International Studies from the University of Denver (Colorado) and is presently teaching gender studies in the United Sates. She has also published numerous articles and reports and is a women’s/human rights activist.

– Ayesha Hoda

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