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Open Democracy: Embracing shame: turning honour on its head

14 February 2014. The challenge that embracing shame poses to the longstanding perversion of honour, is the struggle for women’s human rights –  the realisation of which will result in the entire community’s advancement and healing.

The social construct and custom of honour maintains order for many societies in the middle east and Africa, south and central Asia, and the worldwide diaspora of these diverse communities. A woman, the physical manifestation of honour, embodies this involuntary burden through her every day actions and decisions – or lack thereof – from the moment she takes her first breath until the day she dies.

Honour (namus, onur, şeref, izzat) has many meanings in the context of these societies: modesty, shyness, decency, virginity, decorum, virtue, reputation, and pride. Upholding honour through arranged or forced marriages, zero tolerance for homosexuality, killings, female genital mutilation, women’s confinement to the private sphere, and loyalty to an abusive husband and/or in-laws, is meant to guarantee a healthy society; one in which the family unit is strong, giving respect to the heritage and history of the people carrying out the ways of generations that came before. In practice and reality though, honour has been, and still is, the justification for long-established, community-sanctioned violence against women.

The absence of honour or a breach of the honour code, whether real or projected, is shame. Shame threatens the stability of a society as it upends the traditional powerbrokers (tribal elders, religious leaders, women whose livelihood is female cutting, passive or vindictive family members), and jeopardizes the status quo. Persistent incidents that result in shame are even more feared under suspicion that, perhaps, such occurrences are intentional efforts to effect change. And indeed, in recent years more and more women and men are embracing shame – having discovered that, within the shame, lies the key to individual human rights and dignity. Within shame – and the challenge that embracing shame poses to the longstanding perversion of honour – is the struggle for women’s rights, the realization of which will result in the entire community’s advancement and healing.

On February 14, the One Billion Rising movement reconvenes to rise for  justice. Instructed to gather in front of the very infrastructure meant to protect and serve the people, across the globe advocacy groups, organizations, and individuals will employ the medium of creative movement, art, and music to channel pain, anger, frustration, and hope on the doorsteps of police stations, school houses, places of worship, and government offices. In doing so, One Billion Rising seeks to put the shame on the true culprits: the people and places that passively or actively dishonour the human rights of women. In this day of global unity, once again the world will witness how women and men are turning honour on its head in the ongoing fight to eradicate violence against women. Yet, this day merely symbolizes the every day and ongoing struggles undertaken by men and women in honour-based societies fighting against the abuse of power that is primarily exercised upon women and girls. After the day has finished and the Youtube videos have gone viral, the real work will continue.

In 2013 and continuing today, two stories that challenge the suffocating paradigm of shame and honour continue to unfold in the middle east – from the region’s western reach in Morocco, to the heart of the conflict zone that Iraq and Yemen continue to be in the ‘war on terror’, to the questionably stable and wealthy Gulf states. These groundbreaking developments provide encouragement that the global movement for women’s rights will continue to gain momentum, uniting men and women from all walks of life, who have been separated by oppressive political agendas; skewed religious ideologies; greed; fear of the “other;” change; authority; and ignorance. Again, it is the questioning and defying of the seemingly unshakeable grasp of shame and honour on society’s moral fabric that repeatedly provides the means by which meaningful change becomes possible.

In March 2012, under Article 475 of the Moroccan penal code, a 16-year-old Moroccan woman was forced to marry her rapist. In upholding a law that allows a man to evade punishment for raping a woman, the presiding court performed its role in carrying out justice: restoring the lost honour of under-aged Amina Filali’s family. The victim herself, forced to marry her perpetrator, was delivered into the hands of Mustafa Fellak, who continued to beat his wife/victim for seven long months, until she refused to endure any more. Swallowing enough rat poision to end her life, Amina’s suicide sparked outrage in Morocco and abroad, igniting a discourse on the sinister prioritization of tradition and an unjust definition of morality, over the rights of the individual. In the past two years, steady national and international efforts to amend the Moroccan penal code finally bore fruit when, on January 23, 2014, Morocco’s parliament unanimously amended Article 475 no longer allowing men to avoid punishment for rape through a forced marriage. Not only did the campaign achieve its main goal, but the victory has also served to spotlight the ongoing civil society-led contestation of remaining Moroccan legislation that, directly or inadvertently, sanctions violence against women in the name of honour. Having crossed a previously formidable threshold, the definition of honour for Moroccans is currently under re-construction.

As far back as 2003 efforts to stop FGM in Iraqi Kurdistan began when Kurdish women cautiously approached foreign medical workers about complications stemming from their circumcisions. The medical workers enjoined Kurdish activists, like Suaad Abdulrahman, Women’s Project Director of WADI (Association for Crisis Assistance an Solidarity Development Cooperation), and along with her  team, Suaad began travelling to remote areas of Iraqi Kurdistan: “At first, we didn’t talk about FGM directly because the subject was still taboo and it was difficult to start these types of conversations in these socially and religiously conservative places. Instead, we talked to them about general health problems, and in the course of these conversations, the women began to open up. It soon became clear that FGM was the source of many of their physical, emotional, and sexual problems.”

Ten years later, through the efforts of organizations including WADI and Hivos, khatana (circumcision in Sorani Kurdish) of women in Iraqi Kurdistan has significantly decreased. In October 2013, a report released by WADI analyzed interviews of 5,000 women and girls in areas of Kurdistan where, as of 2004, the rate of khatana was nearly 100 percent. Presently, in the areas of Suleimaniyah, Halabja, Raniya, Goptata, and Garmyan, 66-99 percent of women age 25 and older report that they have been cut; in the “pertinent age group of 6-10,” however, the rate is now close to zero in Halabja and Garmyan. As of July 2012, seven small villages in Iraqi Kurdistan declared themselves FGM free zones. These communities serve as role models to other villages considering the same path, especially when awareness of the incentives that become available to villages that ban khatana becomes known. In the village of Toutakhel, for instance, in exchange for their commitment to ban khatana the inhabitants received basic school services and a small classroom.

But until women starting to speak out against the practice, a tradition mandated and condoned by the Shafi‘i school of Islamic law that is abided by in Iraqi Kurdistan, no one spoke of khatana, as it dangerously bled into discussion of the taboo of sexuality and women’s sexuality. Falah Muradkhin, Wadi’s Iraq Project Coordinator, said ” I found out that my mother and sisters had been cut only after I began this work. I never knew! And once I did, this work became very personal.”

Determined to challenge the practice and to uphold the ban on khatana that finally went into effect in 2011, dedicated mobile teams of Kurdish female activists continue to travel from village to village, educating women on their legal rights to refuse this practice and the harmful psychological and physical effects it has on the female body and psyche. Joining the Stop FGM Campaign, Kurdish men now speak in public of the deleterious effects on intimacy, partnership, and marriage that they endure with wives whom they did not know underwent khatana as young girls. As far back as 2005, in a documentary film called “Handful of Ash,” one man testified that “circumcision is similar to neutering animals,” and had he known his wife was cut, “even if they paid me $10,000, I would not have married her.”

Thomas von der Osten-Sacken, one of the founders of the Stop FGM Kurdistan Campaign, says “the fact that FGM is reported in the media when anti-FGM demonstrations take place, in parliament sessions and committee meetings, homes, and schools – a discussion that inherently involves sex and sexuality – indicates that something of a sexual revolution has transpired in Iraqi Kurdistan.” While the goal of the alleged sexual revolution of Iraqi Kurdistan is not sexual liberation, it is a crucial development in the improvement of women’s rights in this tumultuous part of the middle east. Local advocacy groups in Yemen, Oman, and Egypt have now approached the Kurdistan team to implement the same strategies in their countries, giving birth to the Stop FGM Middle East campaign.

From Morocco and Iraqi Kurdistan, to Sweden, South Africa and the United Kingdom – where an English teenager of Somalian origin went public with her rap against FGM, growing numbers of women and men in honour-based communities continue to rise against the social code they once believed to be the bedrock of social order. Preferring ostracization and persecution to silent suffering, and the willingness to embody shame instead of honour, marks an unmistakable evolution in an increasingly global movement to promote, uphold, and implement women’s rights.

published by Open Democracy

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