Shame and honour re-appropriated: women finding their voices

On February 12, 2013, women of the Middle East, in the region and in the Diaspora, officially and publicly re-appropriated shame and honour. Suddenly, they are wearing the experience of surviving sexual terrorism and violence as a badge of honour, using their tragedy to fight for an end to violence against women.

Heidi Basch-Harod
8 March 2013

 The baby girl had been crying all night. Her mother could not calm her down. The howling only enraged an irritable, irate father. He picked the baby up from her bassinet and threw her onto the bed. Screaming at the two-month infant to “Shut up!”

The mother – scared, enraged, her nerves on end – quickly collected the screaming child and held her close to her chest. The father left the room. She continued to hold the baby close, pleading and begging her to stop crying, to calm down, everything would be alright. The baby calmed down. The mother brought the sleeping, exhausted child to the nursery and placed her gently into her crib. She closed the door behind her, and faced her husband.

Standing, protectively, in front of the nursery door, the husband asked, “Do you really think I would hurt her?” Disgusted, spent, hopeless, the mother glared at him and remained, standing sentinel, at her daughter’s door.

“Go to bed,” he growled. The mother refused, she could not budge; she was unsure what would happen next. Recognizing defiance the husband grabbed his wife lifted her toward the direction of their bedroom and threw her to the ground. The piece of flesh where he grabbed her right arm became swollen with the red, then purple-blue of a forming bruise. Defeated, she walked toward the bedroom and readied herself for sleep.

As she closed her eyes, the mother uttered a desperate prayer:

“Either kill me in my sleep tonight or give me the strength to wake up in the morning and take this baby out of this house, out of this hell.”

The mother woke in the morning and greeted her daughter with smiles and fortitude. She packed a bag of diapers and clothes, a few personal items, and she left the house. The mother drove to her parents’ home. They had sent her back twice, this time – this time – she would not return. If they turned her away, she would find another solution.

The mother’s father, who had insisted that she return to her husband, her place, where she belonged, this time he understood. Maybe he saw the bruises, maybe he looked at his granddaughter’s innocent face and knew he would not be able to live with himself for being an accomplice in this abuse. Maybe he saw his daughter for the first time, if only for a brief moment as a human being, in pain, in fear, fighting for her life. The mother and the baby did not return.

The mother of whom I speak is my mother. The infant girl was me.

My mother left my father when I was two-months old. In doing so, at the age of 21, she made the bravest, boldest, and first independent decision of her life. The decision to take control of her fate, to remove it from the clutch of the men who claimed ownership of her existence, who were born and bred to believe that men rule over women as their birthright.

There is a photograph of my mother and I seated on a large wicker chair with an enormous woven back that fans out behind her and me, seated on her lap. She wears a lilac-colored dress with short sleeves that fail to cover the evidence of that horrific yet redemptive night. I remember the first time I noticed the bruise, I did not think much of it. The story came to me only years later. I remember the confusing, deep pride in having evidence that my mother’s story was true, no matter how the passage of time and the people who wanted to protect “the way things were” denied the truth. To me, that bruise became an emblem of her self-restored honour.

The morning my mother fled from her abusive and unhealthy marriage, she did not merely wake up. She awoke. With the resolve to no longer live a lie, no matter how much shame, disapproval, and rejection she faced from her family and her community, she also gave birth to me a second time. In one courageous act of movement, she rewrote my destiny, even though it was one to which she had never been privy, did not know how it would look like, feel, or manifest. She could not do it for herself, but she was able to do it for me. She had nothing more to lose and everything to gain. Having reached her breaking point, she finally found her voice and made it heard.

Since the outbreak of the Arab uprisings in late-December 2010, I have been reading and witnessing the women of the Arab Middle East using their voices to be heard, to be seen, to be respected, to be empowered, and to be a meaningful party in the decision making of their future and that of their respective societies.

Portraying women as a formidable contingent of the uprisings, the world’s media outlets continue to cover women’s struggles in the Middle East. Many of the stories written are the same. Descriptions of women – accompanied by photographs – taking to the streets, commingled with men or separated into women-only groups of protestors, veiled and un-veiled. With their appearance, talk of secular versus religious groups and the jockeying for power over the state, its legislature, and, most importantly, its Constitution fill the lines of copy on the women of the Middle East in the “Arab Spring.” Suddenly, the global news-consuming audience is an expert on the buzzwords and terms like Salafis, Islamists, Muslim Brotherhood, and Shari ‘a –words that entered into the Western world’s vocabulary following the events of the morning of September 11, 2001. Words that have become more and more familiar, over the years of military and humanitarian involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the discussion of women and the uprisings, these words are tied into the future of women in the Middle East. Consequently, global decision makers and their entourages of analysts and aides are scrambling to interpret how women have and will include themselves in the discourse on the establishment of democracy, civil society, and global politics.

For those who look deeper into the stories, discoveries of decades-long women’s movements in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan, Bahrain, and even Yemen have come to the fore. Women in this region of the world have been struggling for decades for their rights to custody of their children after divorce, to work in public places, to vote, to pass on their citizenship to offspring, to utilize the education that so many now possess. Indeed, years of rule under Western-backed dictatorships proved to be a mixed blessing for the women of the Middle East.

Enforced quotas for women holding political offices, access to education and literacy programs, and the influx of non-governmental organizations addressing the development of women in the region certainly started to boost the status of women in the Middle East. But these programs have been irregular, inadequate for the size of countries such as Morocco, where women of the South or remote regions of the High Atlas remain out of the purview of these efforts.  Or, the Kurdish women of Turkey who, after years of discrimination and exclusion, who speak and understand only the Kurmanji-Kurdish dialect, cannot benefit from recently-established, government-sponsored literacy programs taught in Turkish.

Socio-economic status also determines who among the women of the Middle East are able to navigate their life path beyond the private sphere and into the domain mostly controlled by men. The chic and university-educated woman of Cairo may be able to enter herself into a controversial, temporary misyar marriage to enjoy a romantic dalliance, but the impoverished daughter of a desperate Egyptian farmer will be sold into that very same arrangement to alleviate financial burden on the rest of the family.

But across the spectrum, the issue of violence against women has revealed itself as the one challenge shared by all of the women of the Middle East. As a global ill that excludes no people or territory, it is also the issue that finds resonance among women and, fortunately, men, worldwide.

On February 12, 2013, I believe the women’s movement of the Arab Middle East may have experienced a revolution within itself. On this day, organized by a 99,000-strong Facebook group called, “The Uprising of Arab Women in the Arab World,” protests materialized outside Egyptian Embassies and Consulates, calling for an end to “sexual terrorism.” From Stockholm to Ramallah, Cairo to New York City, crowds of women holding signs and chanting slogans against sexual assault and rape endured by women protesting in Tahrir Square brought women of all walks of life, of all nationalities, across the world, to the streets in support of the “Global Protest Against Sexual Terrorism Practiced on Egyptian Female Protestors.”

Joining the One Billion Rising global movement combatting violence against women, fueled by the outrageous projection that one in three women will be raped or beaten in her lifetime, the protests have not only been against sexual harassment in Tahrir Square. On February 14, 2013, the demonstrations began to call out against acid attacks, against honour killings, against the blaming of women for the abuse meted against them at the hands of men, by fellow women, and by society-at-large. Bringing these taboo issues into the public sphere of global media, women of the Middle East re-appropriated two of the most paralyzing weapons used against them: shame and honour.

Shame and honour are two sides of the same coin in Middle Eastern societies – Arab, Turkish, Persian, Kurdish. In this paradigm, the worth of families is determined by the alleged virtue of their daughters, sisters, wives, and nieces. Accusations against this sacrosanct value can be fabricated for the purpose of eliminating unwanted wives, to silence a headstrong woman, to settle blood feuds, and to keep women from taking to the streets to fight for social and political justice. Women are thus held hostage by their own physical beings, for their femaleness, and the predictable and unforeseen triggers that breach the honour code. It has functioned as an unyielding power construct that leaves no recourse for justice, as the subject learns her place as a mere object in her society upon which battles are fought, but never in her favor – until now, perhaps.

On February 12, 2013, women of the Middle East, in the region and in the Diaspora, officially and publicly re-appropriated shame and honour. Suddenly, they are wearing the experience of surviving sexual terrorism and violence as a badge of honour, using their tragedy to fight for an end to violence against women. In doing so, they expose hypocrisy and call the bluff of those who try to use the issue of women as a distraction from the problems of unceasing poverty, inequality, nepotism, and tyranny. Refusing to be complicit in their own repression, these women are pushing beyond the realm of the familiar and experimenting with what will happen when the very thing that has kept them silent, instead, brings them screaming and shouting to center stage. They have found their voices in the shadows of their shame, with nothing to lose and everything to gain. 

Read dozens of articles written by women across north Africa and the Middle East on 50.50 - Women and the 'Arab spring'

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