Honor Killing, Bride Burning, Veil Wearing... Are relationship between husbands and wives, fathers and daughters, brothers and sisters THAT much different in the Middle East?
Honor Killing is the killing of a family member (particularly female) that has jeopardized her family’s honor in any or more of the following ways: premarital sex, talking to a non-relative male, adopting “western” beliefs, fashions, or lifestyles, bring raped, refusing to marry someone her father or brothers have chosen for her, seeking a divorce, etc. There are several cases documented, all of which differ in detail but the theme remains the same. Honor killing is a blood sacrifice to cleanse the family name of any potential taint. Oddly, some of these offenses have been as simple as talking to a male on facebook or wearing jeans, or other situations where a woman is raped by a brother of cousin and then murdered by either the same or another brother or cousin to preserve the family’s name. Hangings, torture, burning, shooting, and strangling to secure the honor of a name.
In addition to violence by family members, there was recently an attack on a 26 year old woman in Iran for “bad hijab” or wearing her veil incorrectly, probably meaning part of her hair was showing. The girl was raped, murdered, and thrown in a ditch. Reports also claim Khomeini declared that virginal women are to be raped before executed to ensure they do not go to heaven. While Muslim women are expected to uphold their family honor, Muslim women are also being more fervently criticized by western countries for wearing hijabs, . Students are being suspended from school for refusing to unveil. There have been pointless killings and mistreatment of women just for wearing a hijab in public. Veils have now been labeled a security risk by airports.
The debated question: “Is this Islam or is this a cultural problem”? Personally, this constant debate is debate is getting old. Islam, like all religions, has changed from its advent until present day. The status of women, in religion or cultural tradition, has never been static. So, when analyzing the treatment and expectations of women under the banner of Islam there are no simple answers. Islam began as a religion where the wives of Muhammad were outspoken, involved members of the community. As Islam grew, especially after the Islamic conquests when it was both religion and government, it assimilated to prior established cultures and religions and was influenced by tribal customs, the Persians, the Byzantines, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Christianity.
While veiling may have been optional in early Mesopotamian city-states, Assyrian Law just before the rise of Islam on who could and could not veil. Wives, daughters, concubines at the service of a mistress, upper classes or “respectable” women were required to veil, but slaves and harlots would be beaten, have their ears cut off, or have pitch thrown over their heads if caught veiling. Veiling laws carried over in to Byzantine and pre-Christian Greeks societies up until the Arab conquests and may have influenced Muhammad to encourage his wives to do the same in order to protect them from neighboring visitors’ customs. Like veiling, there are other laws and traditions generally tied to Islam, but that really have roots in Christian or pre-Islamic societies.
The Code of Hammurabi (1752 BCE) set a foundation far before Islam where it instituted harsh punishments that greatly restricted women, but these laws became even more harsh under later rulers. For example, a man was able to pay debts through the pawning of his wife. Under this law, women and children had to be treated well. However, under the Assyrians it was lawful to beat, pierce the ears of, and pull the hair of debt-pawns. Assyrian Law allowed husbands to punish their wives in such ways, while Hammurabi’s Code also allowed such abuse; such as a husband to smash his wife teeth in with burnt bricks if she acts disobediently.
After Muhammad’s death this notion of modesty enveloped more than just the women of Muhammad and became a common Islamic practice in many areas of the Middle East. Notice the following quotes from Muhammad, chronicles, and historians how modesty evolves over time.
Sura 24 says, “Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and be modest. This is purer for them. Allah is aware of what they do. And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest and display of their adornment only that which is apparent and to draw their veils over their bosoms and not to reveal their adornment.”
This verse is often used to promote and support the modesty of Muslim wives, but it has been interpreted in many ways, which when compared, express very different laws. Abu Jafar al-Tabari interprets it more strictly saying,
“Lower the gaze so as not to look at what God has forbidden them to look at and to preserve their private parts from the glances of him who has no right to glance at them by veiling them with some garment. As for the adornment, it is the face and the hands up to the middle of the forearm including eye makeup, rings, bracelets, and dyes.”
This very specific interpretation supports the seclusion of women to all men but their husbands and family members, and would greatly affect the wife’s life outside of the home and perhaps within her marriage because it is so specific. This verse continues to lengthen and become even more specific with various writers. Nasir al-Din Baydawi’s verse says,
“Let them lower their gaze…guard their private parts by veiling them or by guarding against fornication. The lowering of glances is presented because the glance is the message of fornication. And let them not display of their adornment such as jewelry, dress, or makeup- let alone the parts where they are worn or applied. . .”
The writing of this verse was from the year 1285. It is like the status of women declines as the interpretation lengthens until finally al-Khafaji says,
“The whole body of the woman is pudendal, even face and hand, without exception, absolutely.”
The last interpretation of this verse is nothing like the original Sura 24.
Clearly the interpretations have evolved over time and perhaps have assimilated with preexisting beliefs. Though the verses do not indicate how these opinions were put in to effect, it does show societal opinions and possibly the norms. These interpretations as well as other continued to evolve as Islam assimilated with local customs and became more institutionalized, thus shaping Islam and the Islamic law system.
Now there are several “versions” of Islam depending on the government controlling that particular Islamic country. Some choose to institute a dress code and proceed to rape and execute women that don’t follow it. Some allow the honor killings with no repercussions for the murderer. Some countries have enormous malls with H&M, Mango Jeans, and women that wear multiple veils together because it is a current popular fashion. Some countries have Muslim fathers that carry our honor killings of their popular, tennis playing American teens and we label it “abuse” and never fully attempt to understand or shed light on the mind set behind the abuse.
Now Islamic women are trapped between a rock and a hard place. Do they follow their family and father’s wishes? Do they follow Islamic beliefs established according to their place of residence? Do they follow Britney Spears and Lady GaGa? Perhaps they should just try to survive between both worlds?