Family Honor and Women: an Unfinished Business

Family honor and women in the Middle EastBy Dr. PAMELA CHRABIEH and MARIANNE BADINE

In many societies, family honor related to virginity became an outdated issue. However, in most Western Asian and North African cultures for example, horrific realities prevail. “Honor murders” occur in cities and villages, in poor neighborhoods and upper social classes. These murders are based on the belief that a woman is the property of her family – in patriarchal societies, men are considered to be the leaders of the family and women are to be obedient.  Should the woman’s virtue come into question, for whatever reason, or if she refuses to obey her father, husband or brother, her family’s “honor” is thought to be disgraced and the woman must be killed by a male relative to restore the family’s good name in the community.  Often, women are killed because of mere suspicion that they have engaged in illicit sexual activity, or in cases of love affairs, rape and sexual abuse, even by a family member.

A woman’s virtue or purity is often related to her physical virginity. This has traditionally been tested by the presence of an intact hymen, which was verified by either a physical examination (usually by a physician, who would provide a certificate of virginity) or by a “proof of blood,” which refers to vaginal bleeding that results from the tearing of the hymen. The physical examination would normally be undertaken before the marriage ceremony, while the “proof by blood” involves an inspection for signs of bleeding as part of the consummation of marriage, after the ceremony.

In some countries like Morocco, the value of virgins manifests through the bride wealth. Virgins traditionally command a higher bride wealth value than their divorced or widowed counterparts. The bride wealth locks the productive and reproductive services of the woman to her husband and his agnates. The higher bride wealth of virgins not only commends the effort of the bride’s family but also provides the woman with more means to secure her role as a wife and later as a mother. Thus, a marriage of convenience prolongs the bride’s virginal status and enables her to transfer this status to the next marriage. Any breach upon this status endangers the transference. A verification of a nonsexual breach may ensure the woman’s reproductive value and her family’s honor.

The unmarried females of the family also run the risk of becoming undesirable as prospective brides. If one girl in the family is not a virgin that stigma transfers to her sisters and close female cousins. Although virginity vicariously affects female marriageability, it directly affects family honor. Virginity has a direct link to the honor system. For a group wanting to exchange its women, the wife-givers, in forming alliances, the purity of a woman represents the care, the value, and the trustworthiness of the group from which she originates. It may also ensure that the offspring from the untainted woman clearly belong to the receiving group, the wife-takers. The solidifying of alliances in an environment in which the government cannot be trusted is imperative for survival.

Even in seemingly liberated countries such as the Lebanese, although female attractiveness may be emphasized as being important in terms of pleasing a man, men are accorded more sexual freedom than women, which results in a double standard. The emphasis on protecting women’s virginity in order to ensure their desirability as marriage partners (women’s main social role), and the emphasis on preserving family honor, contribute to this value.

Virginity, as indicated in its need for verification and certification, is a product of a social act. When linked to honor and marriage, the virginity of a woman no longer belongs solely to her. The protection of her body as a commodity becomes the responsibility of the group, particularly the head of the family and other male members assigned to protect her. Her virginity is a crucial unifying element in maintaining the cohesiveness of group. Since the premature loss of virginity affects the entire group’s reputation, a responsible woman guards her chastity or hides any evidence of its damage, using Hymenoplasty procedure and other non surgical artificial hymen products – refer to the following paper for further information: “Artificial Virginity Products: A subversive Reading” [1] -, or simply ancient practices such as spilling vials of animal blood on sheets and panties to replace the virginal stains.

What about legal sanctions of honor crimes? In some countries such as Jordan, Morocco and Syria, although “honor crimes” are legally sanctioned, defense of the family honor is considered a mitigating factor.  Article 340 of the Penal Code of Jordan, for example, provides for an exemption from penalty if a man kills his wife or female relative after finding her “committing adultery with another man.”  Similarly, Article 548 of the Penal Code of Syria provides an exemption from penalty if a man kills or injures his wife after finding her committing adultery or other “illegitimate sexual acts with another man”.  The law also provides for a reduction in penalty for a man who kills or injures his female relative after catching her in a “suspicious state with another.”

In conclusion, even if the Arab ‘Spring’ seemed to herald at first a new era of emancipation for women in Western Asia and North Africa, we fear a rollback of what rights women had before, especially with the rise of fundamentalist movements, new forms of dictatorships and slow reform processes of family status laws. The issue of family honor is one of many crucial ones to be tackled in order to improve the conditions of women. New laws do not change social attitudes instantaneously; indeed, in some cases they make the conservative elements more combative, but in the long run they help combat injustices and create more opportunities for women.

MARIANNE BADINE is a Lebanese student and blogger. Visit her blog: THE APPRENTICE


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