Not Our Men

This habit of displacing patriarchy to the ‘Muslim’, has generated wealth and fame for many in South Asia, so much so that any and all attempts to remind people of the Orientalist lineages of the term, and the racial nature of its application, are often met with disdain and mockery. But the fact remains that there is a massive industry – from NGOs, to artists to writers, pandering to the Orientalist and racist categorisation of crimes against women by Muslim men as ‘honour killings’, while remaining quiet or dismissive of attaching the same label to other regions of the globe where close-relative based violence against women remains large and growing. It is an industry facilitated by easy media narratives, and by easy framing of Arabs and Muslims are uniquely misogynist – something one sees in the discourse and discussions of so many expatriate and ‘recently arrived’ college academic / researchers who within days are confident about ‘explaining’ the looks, cat-calls and flirting of Arab men as cultural deviance and violent misogyny. For as long as they are the Arab men they are not interested in meeting of course.

I came across this piece in the news today, and once again, what immediately struck me was the fact that the piece was speaking about close male relative violence agains women, and yet never once does the writer refer to these acts of violence as an ‘honour killing’? In fact, no quotes or statements from a representative of an international NGO, or a feminist or even a ‘concerned’ artist, is offered to suggest that there is a unique pathology among Spanish men that is pushing them to attack and kill their women because of an insult to their ‘honour’ or their patriarchy as their pathology. 

Inderpal Grewal has argued – in her paper ‘Outsourcing Patriarchy’, that the use of this term, and the campaigns that rise up around it (including pressure on governments to create laws against it), happens

… through gendered orientalisms, cognizant of the tensions in ‘global feminist’ project’s use of the idea of masculinity to analyse some areas of the world (see Sinha 1999) and patriarchy to describe others (Pulkki- nen 2009). Some cultures are understood solely through patriarchy while others are seen to have outgrown it. This reflects a belief that Tuija Pulkinnen (2009) recognizes in scholars as diverse as Carole Patemen and Jacques Derrida that modernity involves a move from ‘undemocratic patriarchy to democratic brotherhood’…the concept of patriarchy has been outsourced from the USA and Europe to do its messy work elsewhere. Such outsourcing requires that many in the USA believe that patriarchy no longer exists, or that if it does, it is limited to zones that are believed to be anachronistic to the rest of the country. Outsourcing as metaphor indexes the partici-pation of corporate and transnational media in this process, and the value and profits that are extracted from such narratives of difference and a ‘patriarchy elsewhere’.

In particular, she identifies how ideas of ‘the modern’ and ‘the unchanging’ – a hang over from Orientalist depictions of Arab / Muslim societies, continues to inform this issue:

Thus ‘modern man’ is not motivated by something called ‘honour’, and patriarchal violence becomes, by definition, behaviour of the ‘other’ and the violence of the ‘self’ society is understood as random or otherwise motivated (Fabian 2002).

This is especially true in anthropological work on the Middle East (e.g. Mernissi 1982; Warnock 1990). Even feminist work seems concerned with how patriarchy serves as a cause of ‘honour killings’, but not with how crimes come to be understood as ‘honour killings’. For example, Lama Abu- Odeh (2000) argues that the notion of purity organizes honour society and that violence is seen as protection in such contexts. Diane King (2008) suggests that patrilineage and reproductive sovereignty is an explanation of honour killings in Kurdistan. In these analyses, the term ‘honour’ seems to have become sutured to a ‘crime of culture’.

In this work, honour is not used in any other way than to refer to or explain a crime, although it more suggests the cause of the crime. In this way, ‘honour killings’ refer not simply to a cause of death, but also to the cause as the work of a patriarchy. The term ‘honour killing’ enables the articulation of this patriarchy in some sites, locations and communities but not in others – the term sticks to a crime by certain bodies against other bodies. It seems to have little explanatory value for societies seen as ‘western’ but a great deal of meaning is produced if the concept is yoked to Middle East or South Asian bodies and groups.

Or I have argued in an earlier post on The Spinning Head (see:…/25/our-honor-but-their-passion/)

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.

In fact, even a brief perusal of recent stories reveals how stories of violence against women in other parts of the world are framed – as ‘crimes of passion’ or simply as ‘domestic violence’. Note how ‘domestic’ violence avoids placing the concept of honour on the men of the house – husband, father, son for as long as they are not Arab or Muslim. This was how O.J. Simpson’s murder of his wife – an act of jealous rage and resentment, was framed too. But never as an ‘honour killing’, because they are ‘modern’ men, while the Arabs are unchangingly medieval and locked in their ‘anti-modern’ outlook defined by something called Islam and their culture. Here is a ‘crime of passion’ explanation:

Here is another example of a terrifyingly misogynist society that yet again – perhaps because of its complete and absolute surrender to the capitalist mode of life, entirely gets a pass.

There are no calls, or campaigns at the United Nations, or at any international human rights NGO or even photojournalists collectives or art organisations, speaking and demanding that we ‘speak out’ against violence against women in Europe and the USA. Or Japan. This despite the growing levels of violence that women in countries facing severe economic and social fragmentation. There are out outraged voices at celebrity events, or any Hollywood starlet determined to ‘save them from their men’. Now why is that?

We need to look at the structural and historical roots of this violence – a pathology that affects every nation around the globe, and that is instigated by a host of reasons. And yet, simple and simplifying discourses around violence against women in Muslim countries – particularly in South Asia, continue to be framed around racial categories and understandings, and too many in South Asia – writers, journalists, film makers, photographers, NGO workers etc. thrive off this racist discourse.

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