This was a strong piece about ‘domestic violence’ that appeared in The New York Times, but as I read it I could not help but connect it to the recently celebrated question of ‘honor crimes’ in Pakistan, against which our feminist government and our liberal class, are determined to wage an all out war against. It is the construction of this category – “honor crimes”, and the way it has become a means to suggest something unique, specific, and original to Islam / Muslims, that I want to question. and this article is just the way to do it. More importantly, it is the way in which Western liberal feminists and ‘native’ feminist/activists (of a certain upper or middle class mind you – class is a critical factor in these campaigns) find reason to create ‘activism’, or ’emergency campaigns’ around these unique category of crimes, while remaining silent about the crimes against women within their own ‘civilized’ society where no such campaigns are organised, and no ‘human rights’ discourse is applied. In the West, the brutality of its patriarchy, the misogyny of its society, are almost always swept under the carpet of ‘individual trauma’ or complex ‘individual’ histories, thereby exonerating society, culture, politics, genetics, religion. That is, the very explanatory factors almost always offered to explain or analyze crimes against women in the Muslim / Islamic spaces.
Nearly 30% of murders of women in the US are by direct male family relatives (see US Department of Justice report ‘Violence Against Women: A National Crime Victimisation Survey Report’, 1994. The numbers are even higher in other places such as, in Italy where nearly 75% of murders against women are carried out my direct family members (father, brother, husband or boyfriend (See Polovedo, New York Times, 2013 ‘A Call for Aid, not Laws, to help women in Italy’). These are always called ‘crimes of passion’, or simply murder. From O J Simpson to things far less celebrated, the acts of violence of men against women they feel have humiliated them, emasculated them, earned their jealousy, cheated on them etc. are when it comes to Western narratives, simply labelled as crimes.
But this changes when it comes to the world of Islam or Muslims. There, Orientalism created an entirely new label – honor crimes, dowry deaths and so on, ensuring that we see the violence against women in these societies as something uniquely pathological, something inherent in the philosophy and culture of the people who are Arab / Muslim etc. And tragically, too many in our societies continue to repeat these categories – this derivative discourse (Chatterjee, P), unthinkingly. Many have built fine careers on the basis of this derivative discourse, echoing it back to the West where it is seen as a confirmation of the superiority of the West itself, and another reminder of the need for violence and other intervention in Muslim / Arab societies to ‘save’ these women from the uniquely violent men they seem to have to deal with.
This is of course, Grewal Inderpal’s argument in her oft-cited work ‘Outsourcing Patriarchy’, where she argued, when pointing out the way violence/crimes against women in the Islam/Muslim atena, are categorise:
“There is little doubt that ‘honour’ is now an overdetermined concept – the preferred term in many regions for practices linked to reputation, pride, masculinity or respectability. Honour enables sexual, economic and political control, through gendered violence and governmentality, and through the protection of women. It has thus become ‘real’, incorporated within lived experience among those who claim to practice it and those who claim to eradicate it. Media circulation is an important aspect of how honour remains overdetermined in the contemporary moment, especially given the speed and reach of transnational media. A long colonial and newly racial history of anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant practices and beliefs ensures such media circulations.”
Joseph Massad’s in “Islam in Liberalism” lays it out more clearly (see page 207) when pointing out the contradiction that exists when speaking about such crimes in the West, and in the East:
“The comparison is often with a fantastical version of Europe and the United States, which societies are not subjected to an analysis characterised by cutural reductionism, and in which gender crimes are not exoticised or universalised. If a man kills a woman in the United States or a European country, the killing is not seen as part of a highly sexist Christian American or European culture in need of culturalist analysis, or even as part of a universal phenomenon of violence against women, and it is not subjected to special television programs and media campaigns that emphasise a culturalist schema, nor is it referred to in a category called ‘crimes of passion’ or ‘honour crimes’; there are no UN campaigns, and no international NGO intervention to stop such killings (though local US women’s groups attend to them as a local or a national problem without using culturalist language and often insist that these crimes are at odds with a US ‘culture’ that is allegedly based on equality.)”
As you read this tragic story in the Times, you see many of the points Massad and Grewal make – the focus on individual life circumstances, the argument that the reason domestic violence and partner crimes are rising is because of socio-economic realities, or depression, or sense of male inadequacy etc. but never ‘honor’.
We are today seeing many people being celebrated for their stand against ‘honor crimes’, but these people are guilty of over-determining this category, and of creating something that otherwise does not exist. That is, of manufacturing a ‘unique pathology’ associated with an Orientalist reading of our societies that suggests that an unusual, specific, unique reason for violence against women is to be found in places Muslims / Islamic. It manufactures an entire industry – from NGOs to popular cultural works, the embeds these distinctions, and erases our shared realities with other societies and worlds. By echoing the prejudice, they confirm and affirm prejudices, and isolate it from broader realities. It also distracts us from taking meaningful action against these crimes, and acts of violence, compelling NGO workers and do-gooder upper-class liberals, to search for answers in religion, or poverty, or culture while erasing the need to question and unravel socioeconomic structures (issues of property and land ownership, inheritance, reallocation, etc.) that the elite are themselves are a part of, benefit from, and that create this space for violence against women, the need to ‘control’ them or pass them around as commercial tokens.