Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Deconstructing "Sex", "honour" and patriarchism in the Middle East

A reply by Bint Battuta on the nature of 'patriarchal societies' got my creative juices flowing to the point that I felt my reply and the subsequent discussion must become a post unto themselves. I'm fascinated by this matter and unfortunately my questioning has been misunderstood by many on more than one occasion with devastating consequences! What I have always intended is to understand the deconstruction by some feminists of 'male' domination in societies and understand whether this is indeed valid or if it is misleading. I hope to hear some interesting and constructive feedback from all interested readers!

Please find below Bint Battuta's response (in italics) to one of my posts on 'honour' murders

"While one can argue that it is the patriarchal society which encourages such crimes, a lot of these acts have, in many cases, been ordered by women as well." I don't see your point. A patriarchal society includes women as well, most of whom (whether consciously or unconsciously) prop up that system. So just because women may be the ones that instigate those crimes doesn't mean that the patriarchal system has not played a role.

That's a very good point Bint Battutah. Perhaps you might be able to help me with a few questions I have on these matters. The last person I had discussed this with became rather 'aggressive' when I asked these questions, but I mean no disrespect and only a desire to see how valid that commonly made argument is. For myself, as a layperson, I wonder whether it is accurate to label the kind of society which has produced this injustice as 'patriarchal'. You say that these women either consciously or unconsciously reinforce the same male dominated superstructure, but there is an argument which says that they in fact have been just as complicit in it's formation as the males. From this I mean that while the male 'input' on history and the formation of society has been focused on the most, can we truly discount the influence of females on it? Just because it has not been noted or focused upon, can we really say it was not there? I think someone arguing for this would have a hard time convincing people this was the case.

If these women were compelled to take part in the patriarchal society, the commonly held assumption is that they had no hand in the matter and so the responsibility is no longer theirs. However, if we take 'free will' to be the absence of compulsion, there is also an argument to say that these women 'freely yielded to compulsion' and that the real issue of freedom for them was whether to yield or not to yield. Questions of what 'free' means then indicate that it is something different to this commonly held assumption. So, their coercion, into a patriarchal society, if that is indeed the case, cannot have happened.

From another perspective, relevant to the example of when the women actually ordered the 'honour' murders, another argument would tell us that this action was in fact 'free' even when no other action was available in the confines of this 'patriarchal' society. Let's say that they had two scenarios, to order the killing or not. If they chose to 'not' order it, they would have been forced to do so by their societies. If they in fact, of their own volition ordered the murder and under no compulsion (unconsciously as you would call it), then would that not mean that they did so freely as well?

So there are two problems with what you say, firstly can we say that a patriarchal society is truly the product of only aggressive and domineering 'males', without the complicity of females. So the women 'freely' yielded to the compulsion by the males when they could have done otherwise. Secondly and last, the women who ordered the honour murders did so freely and under no compulsion (unconsciously reinforcing the 'patriarchal society'), in spite of the fact that they had no alternative. That to me seems like they freely did so, which means we cannot blame it on a 'society' that frames it but rather on something else.

My argument would be that what we call a 'patriarchal society' is in fact a truly 'unjust' society which preys on it's weaker members and both males and females have in fact been complicit in these injustices. I think projecting the blame onto the 'other' in this case the male, simply serves to deflect the guilt which both parties must accept for their silence on or perpetrating of injustice. In order to build a truly just society where these murders aren't even considered perhaps we can consider a 'thought experiment'. Traditional conceptions of sex and gender have to be recognised and realigned not as victim and perpetrator, but as something which recognises the different and complementary roles they play in constructing society. Sex too, needs to be destigmatised not by utilising a 'libertine' approach of what some would call 'free love', but by in fact 'legalising it' in the sense that traditional obstacles to concepts such as 'marriage' and 'divorce' are turned into legal contracts which are respected by all and stripped of intimidating and backwards stereotypes and negative connotations. In such a situation, there is no 'shame' in a girl running off with a man if they got married, which, in it's reconstructed understanding, would be a legal 'human' right devoid of notions such as 'shame' and 'honour', sex is no longer considered dirty or dishonourable when these conditions are met. Thus, people could decide then and there to get married and formalise their 'relationship' openly in front of the society on an equal contractual basis rather than the male 'owning' the female. In Britain for example, it is still customary for the female to take her husbands surname since she is a 'part' of his family now. In eastern cultures, while the dowry is intended as a payment for the bride and only the bride, it's meaning has been warped into a belief that you are somehow 'buying' the bride, when in fact it is to safeguard her financially, a throwback from a time when males by necessity and a hard life were the breadwinners and a divorce would leave the female in dire straits.

A society where gender is recognised not as a division but as different expressions of a common humanity would also lead us to seeing sex as an act between consenting adults not in a libertine understanding of the term, but as a human 'right' which is to be expressed in a legalised and formalised relationship which safeguards the 'rights' of both parties. I think historically the Middle East once had such attitudes (to varying extents), prior to colonialism and the imposition of prudish European or "Victorian" reservations on sexuality and it's expression. Rather than repressing it, as we have been in most of the late 19th and all of the 20th century, we would redefine how sex and gender relations are expressed and remove the stigma attached to it. I think tackling the mentality behind 'honour' killings using this approach and framework removes the causes for it, rather than attempting to bulldoze it, which would only make some people defensive of the practice as 'custom'.


Damascene George said...

"I think historically the Middle East once had such attitudes (to varying extents), prior to colonialism and the imposition of prudish European or "Victorian" reservations on sexuality and it's expression."
There's something I miss here, what exactly are you referring to. What was better in the middleeast regarding sexual liberties before 19th century, how is it different than our days, and what does the Europeans have to do with all this?
Excuse my ignorance, I'm sure I miss something here, cause this statement looks very surprising for me.

nadia said...

the partriarchal system describes one in which men have power, so whether women support it, freely or not, is irrelevent. the question is whether it unfairly discriminates against them. it's definitely not to say that men are inherently oppressors and women are inherently good, it's just that the status quo currently benefits them.

Maysaloon said...

Damascene George,
Welcome! That's a good point you bring up and I was surprised myself when I started to look into it further. I'm sure you must be aware of Edward Said and his ideas on Orientalism, well interestingly there has been work done recently by Joseph Massad which seem to take this a bit further. We as Arabs tend to forget the very real impact that colonialism and occupation had on us. Living in the shadow of a much more advanced neighbour such as Europe in the last 200 years has had a profound influence on the ways we think, dress, govern ourselves and see ourselves in relation to the rest of the world. Now, not all of this has been good as Said says in his work Orientalism. Massad takes this further by saying that even our own perception of sex and sexuality as well as gender, were also influenced by a narrower "european" view which was passed off as 'civilised' or modern. In essence, the prudishness we have with regards to sex and our own bodies is not as a result of 'Islamic' or 'Arab' perceptions of the dirty as female or 'vagina', something we overcame a long time ago, but rather something we were made to grow into and is someone elses view.

Now you find that sexist views of what constitutes male and female in our society, the "sly boys" wooing numerous faceless "babes" as long as the same doesn't happen to their sister or mother or cousin. This too is a continuation of how sexual attitudes are being imported whole sale from the West and if we are to build a just society, we must stop stereotyping ourselves and accepting this. I hope I've made some sense because I'm at work and can't type freely!

Maysaloon said...

Hi Nadia,
I see your point and you're right. Like I said I wasn't trying to say patriarchism isn't there, but just trying to understand more clearly what it is and does. Do you think that more 'power' to women would be the answer? Should the power be shared or transferred? I say this because I don't believe you can make 'power' and 'domination' disappear, it just changes hands. If that is truly the case, then I wonder where the real problem lies and how to fix it.

nadia said...

I say this because I don't believe you can make 'power' and 'domination' disappear, it just changes hands.

well i think we should try and limit inequalities as much as we can. i don't know that we're ever going to live in a metaphysically perfectly equal world, but i don't think anyone-outside of a few wackos-suggests that the world would have no problems if women were running it. i'd like to live in a world where everyone were treated the same, but also justly and humanely.

if honour killings were applied to men and women equally do you think opinion of them would be different?

Maysaloon said...

Absolutely. I think if honour killings were applied equally to men and to women, then in this world's patriarchal society, people would start to make it a priority pretty sharpish, so that may not be a bad thing! I'd probably already be dead in such a world anyway :)

nadia said...

just wondering have you read much of islamic/arab feminist thinkers like leila ahmed, fatima mernissi etc etc? i'd be curious as to your thoughts on them.

Maysaloon said...

I think what they are trying to do is fantastic. I haven't had the time to read in depth into their arguments, but from the little I have read it is right up my alley. Someone actually recommended Mernissi to me quite recently and I have to say she's on my mental reading list :)

Unfortunately I've tended to focus on other issues in my studies rather than gender and religion, so I'm relatively new to this both fields. I am against opportunists such as Irshad Manji and those who tell me Islam is a "masculine" faith when clearly what they are referring to is the practice of the ignorant masses and tradition rather than the faith itself. I think Ahmed also makes that distinction doesn't she?

nadia said...

yeah i'd say that's a big part of what she does. the first section of women, gender and islam does an overview of the status of women in law under the other abrahamic religions, as well as persian/classical/babylonian/egyptian civilzation as a point of reference, which i think is good.

i haven't actually read irshad manji, just seen her tv appearances, but she strikes me as just telling people in the west what they want to hear. that she doesn't read arabic or farsi doesn't really help to lend her scholarship much credibility in my book.

Maysaloon said...

What about yourself? What is your position on the work they are doing and on their subject matter? I would love to meet an actual Islamic feminist or a feminist who isn't also trying to destroy Islam. I think someone like that with enough momentum in the Arab and Islamic worlds can make a real difference gradually.

bint battuta said...

"I wonder whether it is accurate to label the kind of society which has produced this injustice as 'patriarchal'."
All societies are patriarchal…and I agree with Nadia's description of what that means.
"Living in the shadow of a much more advanced neighbour such as Europe in the last 200 years has had a profound influence on the ways we think, dress, govern ourselves and see ourselves in relation to the rest of the world."
Absolutely – so it shouldn't be hard to see that women have been profoundly affected by living in male-dominated societies for much longer. To argue about these particular women ordering murders without coercion or compulsion misses the point. Having said that, I respect and admire your desire to explore this topic in a deep and thorough way.

I've read Irshad Manji's The Trouble with Islam - she's not a scholar, just full of anger.

Maysaloon said...

Yaay Bint Battuta has arrived! This banquet was all in your honour :)

Thank you for your comment by the way and I do agree with you now on the term patriarchal societies!

bint battuta said...

Well, thank you for the banquet!

Liyana T said...

We did Mernissi last semester on gender. She brought up arguments concerning life prior to the injunctions of Islam which was matrilineal (not to be confused with matriarchal) as opposed to that post Muhammad which was bent on patrilineal regardless of what Muhammad's views on this. I think I do agree to some extent that the patriarchal system is not onloy reinforced by men but women as well. I am not quite sure why they reserve such punishments such as honour killings but I think this has much to do with having an identity. The dichotomy of the mother in law and the daughter in law are two opposite poles which are segregated by society in due fact that women are valued by her sexual beauty and according to the laws of time, this cannot be maintained forever, thus she is forced to rely on a platonic love of her son. She the mother in law then perceives that the daughter in law as a stranger permeating within her sphere while her husband is surely either at best in the coffee shops and at worst being with his new wife. Much of patriarchy not only affects women but also men. In examples of honour killings, young boys who are underaged are used as a means of a loophole to get past by the law. This could have detrimental and devastating effects on the young boy himself being forced to kill his sister on such a flippant excuse as 'honour'. I do agree, it is an unjust society, the workings itself is that the woman from having survived honour killings - displaced into a home which is not hers when she is married becomes a dominatrix in domestic politics after she reproduces sons. What is funny to me is that it is exactly mimicking the same problems faced by caste conscious India and male-child obsessed China when in Islam both of these have been duly rejected as Jahiliyah

Loga'Abdullah said...

I reviewed Irshad Manji’s book here – I think you may find it interesting


Feel free to contact me if you have any comments or suggestions about this book review.