Honour and shame: two sides of the stigma coin

zohra moosa
7 December 2007
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statue of shamed woman

I had a conversation yesterday with a friend about domestic violence within the Muslim community in the UK and the issue of why some Muslims resist discussing what they know is happening in the company of non-Muslims. In my friend's view, challenging Muslims, and Muslim men in particular, about domestic violence in such an open space, where non-Muslims are present, is problematic because of the current socio-political climate within the country, including widespread Islamophobia. She felt that a public naming of the problem would be hijacked by those with a racist agenda to further demonize Muslims in the eyes of the UK public, for instance by accusing Muslims of having barbaric cultures.

While I don't disagree that this hijacking is likely, I remain unconvinced that this is sufficient justification for not being vocal about violence against Muslim women in a relevant forum such as a meeting with the police on 'community safety' for one key reason: I believe advocating silence makes one complicit in the stigmatization of the victims. This stigmatization, in turn, is closely related to ideas about honour and shame that undermine women's rights.

It is extremely difficult for most women to report violence because the stigma of being a victim of gender-based violence makes them feel ashamed. In some instances, this shame is actually encouraged, as many examples of so-called honour killings have demonstrated. What is important to note about honour killings, or indeed other crimes against women and girls in the name of honour is the way that women are being framed as property where their bodies and behaviour have worth for others. This worth, which can increase or decrease, is about a woman's role as the embodiment of a man or a family's, or even a community's, honour through symbolic representation.

I believe that the reluctance to expose violence against women within one's racial or religious community is related to these concepts of honour and shame. I think for some people there is shame that the violence is happening to begin with. For others, there is a sense of shame about how 'the community' will look in the eyes of outside observers if and when this violence was to come to light. A community's honour, in terms of its ability to present itself as culturally righteous, is threatened by the evidence of its failure to protect its women from abuse by its own members. The solution proposed is to encourage community members, including women survivors who would benefit from being able to speak out about the problem and hearing that they are not alone, not to expose the violence at all.

In allowing the abuse of women to be treated as a political football, where women's rights to bodily integrity and justice are trumped by so-called community interests, the message is sent out that the worth of women to the community is in terms of their value as symbols and not for themselves. There is not doubt that the evidence of domestic violence within the Muslim community in the UK could be used for malicious intent by racist people. But why should Muslim women's interests, namely their rights to live free from violence, be sacrificed as a defence? Why should not the perpetrators be required to sacrifice something for providing the fuel for racists in the first place?

Photo by maureenml0521, shared under a Creative Commons license

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