Honor Related Violence and Patriarchy: Honor Stronger Than Life ! Par Evelyne Accad

“…The patriarchal system is built on the exploitation of Nature and of women… Men reinforce their strength by subjugating Nature just as they do women.”

Wounding Words, p. 3

“…The young girl must be a virgin on her wedding night: If she is not, she cannot be established in honorable conditions and her family will be covered with shame. Hence virginity is the chief concern of parents in the course of bringing up their daughter. Father and mother are obsessed by rape and premarital sexual relations.”

Paul Vieille, Family Alliance and Sexual Politics, p. 455.

The Mediterranean woman is one of the serfs of our age, generally spoliated in spite of the laws, sometimes sold, often beaten, bound to forced labor, and assassinated almost with impunity.”

Germaine Tillon, Le harem et les cousins.


The aim of my presentation is to show the relationship of honor crimes to patriarchy, to women’s position in society, to virginity, to war, to incest, to the concept of purity and impurity, to tribal institutions, to sexuality, to the notion of sacrifice and blood spilling, to male control and violence, all of them being condoned by laws that have not changed for centuries, and continue to baffle women and keep them under submission and fear. My contention is that unless we try to change the system of sexual relations conceived in power struggles and a structure of submission and domination, the abuse of women will continue and so will other forms of oppression, abuse and degradation.

The laws governing the domestic private sphere – marriage, divorce, children, adultery, rape, battery, incest and killing – restrict women’s priorities and rights and empower the man at the expense of the woman. The suffocating personal status codes are products of societies where the individual has no value apart from the general community which includes family, sect, and tribe that determine the thoughts and actions of the individual. Accordingly, Arab legislation reveals many violations against women particularly in the domestic sphere. Among the violations of human rights are laws that regard domestic violence whether physical or psychological as generally private issues to be dealt with within the boundaries of the family. The general view is that the home and the family are deeply entrenched and invincible structures in which outsiders must not meddle… Given the general resistance to doing anything about women’s ordeals and problems in a rigidly masculine society, the fight for legislative reform must be accompanied by an effort to educate people and raise awareness campaigns to the political and legal status of women.

Some background:

In my part of the world, the Middle East, a girl is brought up from early childhood in constant fear of losing her virginity. There are several psychological explanations for this virginity mania. There maybe, certain Koranic and Biblical injunctions regarding virginity, but, in general, overrating of the hymen seems to spring from more down-to-earth reasons. A man is only convinced that he has made a wise choice if his bride brings an intact hymen to the marriage bed: he considers it evidence of exclusive possession, proof that the merchandise in brand new. Further, it means that the man is assured that his wife has had no prior sexual experience and thus will not be able to compare his performance unfavorably to that of another man.

Beyond these personal considerations, however, virginity has an intrinsic value in that it represents the “honor” of the girl and, more importantly, of her family. Honor is very closely connected to women’s virginity. In the event that a girl brings dishonor to her family by losing her virginity, it is considered normal for her brother to murder her in order to avenge the family’s honor. Even worse, public opinion permits such ritual murder and in the courts it is considered only a misdemeanor. So far, no court has ever handed down a sentence of life imprisonment or capital punishment for a man judged guilty of having murdered a woman for “misconduct”. Once it is established that the victim had led a “disorderly life”, the sentence does not exceed fours years of forced labor. Those who avenge their “honor” therefore know in advance that the law will be lenient.

There is heavy social pressure on a brother to take such vengeance: he is made to feel that he is “unmanly” if he does not wash the family honor with blood. In most cases, it is the brother rather than the father or husband of the woman who is responsible for avenging honor, but in some cases the whole village turns out to stone the woman is a display of collective social responsibility. As is usual in other parts of the world, the seducer is not punished, only the seduced, the woman. Sometimes the little girl or adolescent has been raped or forced into sexual relations, yet she is considered the guilty one, the one who has to pay the price even onto death!

Can there be anything more barbaric than killing a girl for something over which she has no control and perhaps has never looked at, due to a sense of shame? Only 41.32 percent of girls are born with what may be considered a normal hymen, 11.2 percent with an elastic hymen, 16.16 percent with so fine a membrane that it is easily torn, and 31.32 percent with a thick elastic hymen…. The Lebanese Constitution guarantees equality among all Lebanese citizens… However, if we look at the Lebanese penal code, we find that it does not really conform to the Constitution… These laws are related to the so-called “crimes of honor.” … Crimes of honor refer to those actions committed by a man in an effort to defend his honor… man’s honor in our Middle Eastern societies is more closely related to the sexual behavior of the women in the family than to his own behavior! In other words, a man can commit adultery and yet be considered and honorable man, as long as women in his family are safeguarding their sex organs. A man can sleep with a different prostitute each day, but if one of the women in his family was only suspected of having had a sexual relationship outside of marriage, his honor would be greatly wounded. Hence he would be excused for killing the suspected woman and her partner. … What is the use of any legal system that is incapable of implementing justice? What is the importance of a law if it cannot protect innocent girls like Hala from ignorance, anger and unjustified suspicion. … laws should not be subject to the biases or prejudices of a patriarchal system that uses religious and moral values and sometimes man’s honor to mask its cruelty.

As I started reading about crimes of honor, I became increasingly shocked and felt it would be more realistic to call them crimes of horror. Rana Husseini, who will be talking here today, has well documented the fate of Jordanian women victims of these crimes. Several other countries all around the Mediterranean basin bear witness to honor murders and I wish I could name each woman victim of such crimes here today, but it would be an impossible task since it has recently been documented that 5,000 women fall prey to such violence each year around the globe!

A recent Time Magazine article documents how “for many Iraqi women, the tyranny of Saddam’s regime has been replaced by chronic violence and growing religious conservatism that have stifled their hopes for wider freedoms… the most terrifying development has been the rash of honor killings committed by Iraqi men against sisters, wives, daughters or mothers whom they suspect of straying from traditional rules of chastity and fidelity. … Iraqi professionals believe that women are now being murdered by their kin at an unprecedented rate…. The number of victims of honor killings in Iraq since the US invasion in March 2003 may total in the hundreds.”

Arab women are supposed to bleed on their wedding night as a result of the breaking of the hymen, and they are supposed to perform a ‘public’ virginity with a certain body ‘style’, the body moving within a defined and delimited social space. Each one of the above borders, the vaginal, the bodily, and the social is enforced through a set of regulations and prohibitions that the woman is not supposed to violate… A crime of honor can occur when any of the above borders are crossed. Killing a woman because she fails to bleed on her wedding night is only one possible scenario for an honor crime… The man who kills his sister to defend his honor epitomizes in a dramatic way, through his act, the performance of his gender. Virginity, in its expanded sense (the vaginal/the bodily/the social) is also the locus of his gender in that he needs to guard, supervise, and defend against incursions, his women’s virginity… Male performance is equally sanctioned by penalties. If a man doesn’t intervene by killing his sister once she has shamed him, he suffers a loss of his gender—he is no longer a man (therefore, a wimp, a woman). His performance has suffered a serious failure.

HRV, Blood and Virginity:

Failing to bleed on the wedding nights leads to honor killing, a call for more blood, blood to erase the shame not bleeding to account for one’s purity. Why so much importance put on blood and virginity? Honor killing is a rite of purification. The group or tribe looks at the failure to bleed as a stain that needs to be washed in blood. And it is the woman who is sacrificed. The notion of purity and impurity is closely linked to this rite and has nothing to do with Islam per say (it is practiced by other religious groups all over the Mediterranean) but more to do with tribal behavior and institutions. Tribes are competing political military organizations and competition is mostly symbolic: it is located in honor, and honor is located for the males in defending their territory, their group, people in the group who are not fighting, essentially the women. To sacrifice a woman stained by rape or adultery is to give back to the tribe its purity, therefore its honor. A man who rapes or commits adultery does not fall under the economy of the pure and impure because he is not considered as someone who reproduces and creates life.

Discussion of the problem of virginity has allowed us to grasp the origin of the differentiation of the value of girls and boys, of women and men. Woman, valued as an exchange good, as being a procreator and a means of sexual pleasure, in relations between families and lineages, is devalued as a person. Her status in the politics of lineages makes of her, besides, a subject of continual anxiety. The boy does not pose the same problems. He is both threat and protection; he is destined to head a family, to regulate the relations between this family and other families, notably through the politics of marriages. He is not imprisoned in the “natural” roles of sex and reproduction; he is politics and culture, and “on him rests the order of the world.”

HRV and Patriarchy:

The tribe or group is patriarchal. The myth of blood’s purity or impurity is linked to the myth of the common ancestor. In such system, women are not allowed to choose their own sexuality. They are mainly for procreation; they must produce male descendants to the common ancestor; they are only instruments for reproduction. And this reproduction enters into the political strategies of the tribes. Sexuality and reproduction must be controlled. In the political tribal hierarchies, women are valued only if it can be assured that they are pure, i.e. have been untouched, hence the importance attached to virginity. Virginity is not only a mean to ascertain paternity (since there are other means for that, such as delay in remarriage, etc.) but it belongs to the myth of purity, which is one of the central anthropological values of tribal communities in the Arab world. The sacrifice of a woman engaged in illicit sexual behavior, whether victim or accomplice, reestablishes the purity order in its patriarchal lineage. Men are the sacrificers, they reestablish their tarnished honor by killing the woman who has become impure. Thus they reaffirm their control over women and their fidelity to the law of the patriarchal group.

HRV and Incest

The taboo of incest allows the accounting of who belongs to whom, while incest plunges one into uncertainty. It is an instrument of control over people. It was instituted by the Catholic church as an instrument of control over compulsions and sexual desires in making people feel guilty. In tribal patriarchal societies, the control of women is also an instrument to control sexual desire. This control is much more severe and strict in tribal societies because marriages are political operations with women as reproductive instruments. All matrimonial alliances are controlled and there can be no relations outside of marriage, while sexuality is over valued. Respect for the authority of ancestors in men/women relations, each person being accountable to the ancestral totem of the tribe, is mythically invested by a flawless honor. Men and women are not equally responsible for this ancestral honor. Women considered irresponsible for their acts, and passive “irresponsible” beings, if raped or committing adultery, are stained and stains must be washed, purified. All women of the tribe are to be pure. Those who fall must be eliminated.

According to a psychology professor I interviewed in Lebanon, the taboo of incest is not very strong in Middle Eastern societies (even if it was primordial in Phoenician civilization), thus the spread of honor related crimes and the bloody wars. The family or group relates to each others incestuously, yet such behavior is accepted as long as it remains within the group. If a woman falls and “sins” outside of the group, she puts the group in danger and must be eliminated in order to restore the order. Men of the family feel that by killing her they prove that nobody touched her and the group could remain intact. Only educating children and adolescents about the importance of the incest taboo could restore a society and void it of such crimes, leading to the wars we are witnessing. In her opinion, education is the answer to crimes of honor.

HRV and War:

In my study of the relationship between sexuality and war through the literature of Lebanon, I was able to determine and establish how sexuality is a force that has a revolutionary potential so strong that many political women and men are afraid of it and prefer to dismiss its importance. Yet to get at the roots of the important issues confronting us today, it can no longer be ignored.

In my study, both male and female authors paint the disastrous consequences of virginity rites connected with the notions of honor, ownership of women and sexual relationships. It is these customs which lead Al-Shaykh’s female protagonist, Zahra in The Story of Zahra to despair, madness and final death. She rejects them from the beginning and is revolted against male’s views of her body and sexuality. She would like to be freed from them and in control of her body and of her life. She uses the war to break down the taboos and to assert herself sexually. She finds out that the war is much stronger and more destructive than anything she has known before, and that the customs she hoped to get rid of through it are only temporarily shifted. They come back with greater strength and more destructive violence. And Etel Adnan in Sitt Marie Rose uses the narrator’s voice to comment on the frighteningly dangerous outcome of the codes of honor related to virginity, and how they reinforce tribal confessional sectarianship. As for Tewfiq Awwad, in Death in Beirut he shows the direct link between the customs of virginity, the exclusive propriety of women leading to violence and crimes at the foundation of a society built on divisions and an exclusive sense of propriety. In such a system, women are dominated, raped, led to suicide or killed by men themselves manipulated by political power. It is a vicious circle of power struggles in which women are the ultimate victims. And Halim Barakat, in Days of Dust through the interwoven stories of the Hyena and the Flying Dutchman, demonstrates the importance of the concept of virginity and the codes of honor related to women’s roles in society, with the strong implications of woman as earth, and Palestine as the ultimate woman.

In most of the novels under study, the codes of honor–related to virginity and to crimes meant to wash the family’s or tribe’s honor/pride in blood–are connected to rape, itself associated with death. Rape is linked to the notion of death. It is the absolute forbidden (specially on women of one’s tribe) therefore the absolute temptation of death (when inflicted on women of the other tribe). Men prove their masculinity through sexual acts of violence against women of the other clans. It, therefore, reinforces the system of the clan by making women vulnerable and in need of the men’s protection. In Al-Shaykh, the major female protagonist is subjected to rapes throughout her sexual life which ends with death as the ultimate rape. In Awwad, the sexual act, in most of the men’s imagination and in their practice, is associated with rape. They seem unable to conceive of it differently; it is part of the system of power where they prove their masculinity and domination. Their way of conceiving sexuality often results in the death, suicide or annihilation of the female protagonist. And in Elias Khoury, The Small Mountain, the wish of the central male protagonist is for the city/woman to be raped because she is like a prostitute and incarnates all the decadent moral values of industrial and modern life. But rape is not enough, it has to reach its limits into total destruction, and the devastation has to spread to other cities/women in the world, leading to annihilation and oblivion. While Etel Adnan, who also compares the city to a woman, sees her rape/destruction as men’s ultimate cruelty, sadism and violence. She feels sorry for this woman/city and seeks for solutions in peaceful non-violent alternatives, even in the notion of self-sacrifice if that could help alleviate the hate and destruction. As for Barakat, the images used for the Arabs’ being defeated by Israël are of invasion, destruction and rape, taking place on the male protagonist’s body who is utterly frustrated and depressed because rendered powerless.

Sexual relations conceived in a system of power struggles and a structure of submission/domination will obviously result in rapes, honor crimes and the abuse of women. Rapes are associated with unwanted pregnancies and abortions. In none of the war novels do we find conception, pregnancy and giving birth as something positive and happy. Both female and male authors seem to view life conception and creation as impossible and repulsive in the context of the war. The female protagonists are the ones who pay the price, because the male protagonists view women as having to assume the whole responsibility of contraception and pregnancy. The sexual act being, in most instances, one of rape and domination, women appear as mere objects of possession, vessels into which the men pour their anger and frustration, prolongation of the feelings and acts of war. Abortion is the direct result of rape, like destruction is the direct result of war. Life cannot be engendered in such a context.

The novels by both male and female authors end with the brutal death of some of the female protagonists. Their death is the direct result of the male protagonist’s violence, worse perpetrators of the war. Zahra and the child in her womb die from the sniper’s–and father of the child–bullet. Marie Rose is executed by a gang of young Christian militia men. Young Sybil also dies from a sniper’s bullet. Zennoub is cruelly gang raped and, as a result, she commits suicide. While Miss Mary, who shows real solidarity for her female friends, and who tries to protect Tamima dies, shielding her from her brother’s cruel hand. In only one of the male author’s novel, one of the male protagonists dies. It is from fighting and one does not feel as sorry for him as with the female protagonists’ deaths. His death is the result of his own violence and not a cruelty inflicted from the outside as with the women. Even if violence coming from the oppressed holds a certain justification, the death of its victims does not stir our sympathy as does the death of innocent victims. In all of the studied novels, female and male authors concur in portraying their female protagonists as the ultimate victims. Where they disagree is in showing their responsibility and/or innocence. Khoury is the one who holds women responsible for their own victimization. His rage against the victims is so great that he calls for their total destruction. It is as if he were blaming the oppressed for being oppressed and calling for more oppression to get rid of oppression. Fanon’s view of violence as catharsis can be compared to Khoury’s call for total annihilation. They both call on negative, destructive means for the transformation of society. There is a similar element in Al-Shaykh’s novel where a homeopathic cure against the war is sought by Zahra who goes to the sniper. The difference between Khoury and Al-Shaykh is that Zahra does it through masochism, thereby emphasizing her own victimization, while Khoury inflicts it through sadism, thereby increasing the cruelty and expressing a total lack of compassion for the victims.

An obvious conclusion to my study was that the fear men have of women led them to domination and war, while the fear women have of men’s violence led them to masochistic submission or/and rejection of the men, and commitment to political, human and feminist causes. Both the female and male authors agreed on this. For example, the sniper’s first reaction to Zahra was rape, as a way of proving his masculinity through control and domination. Fear was one of his primary motivations: fear of life, fear of women’s capacity to reproduce, to give birth, fascination with death and destruction. He did not want to assume the responsibility of the life he had engendered in Zahra’s womb, when he daily killed innocent victims and destroyed life. In order to reestablish the chaos, daily drug and only meaning of his existence, he had to kill her. And for Talal in The Small Mountain, fighting was like making love to a woman: it was frightening and never fulfilling. The author described a group of fighters who had lost the meaning of life, a fraternity of men always afraid, attracted and repulsed by women and by war, who knew only destruction in which they could loose themselves. The hate and fear they felt for women became their ultimate motivation for war. Such fear was epitomized by the relationship the central character had with his wife. The author described boredom and weariness in their relationship, thereby trying to justify the need for war to bring about necessary changes. The main character had an obvious fascination with death and destruction closely related to his sense of pleasure. He was chained to his wife through habits he could only destroy through war. And he ran away from the other two women in his life, because they represented life and freedom which he was unable to accept, busy as he was with destruction. It led to an obsession with destruction, as if destroying the city and the woman it symbolized could bring in ultimate jouissance. And Zahra, afraid of the violence ripping her country apart, submitted herself masochistically to one of its worse perpetrators, thereby hoping to overcome her fears. While the central women characters, in House Without Roots by Andrée Chedid lived their lives independent from men and with a commitment to bring about the transformation of society through peaceful means. And Marie-Rose stood in front of the fascist young men of her country, confronting them with their perverted values, in an act that defied their violence and rejected them all together. This chabab gang was afraid of Marie-Rose who epitomized feminine/feminist values and who dared confront them with words, showing them their corruption while asserting her femi-humanism and her commitment to the oppressed and the down-trodden. They had to get rid of her, just like the sniper had to get rid of Zahra.

I also concluded that the meaning and importance given to a military weapon and to the sexual weapon were equal. Man used his penis like he used his gun: to conquer, control, and possess. The whole macho society had to be unveiled and condemned because in the present system, one tried to obtain material goods and territory, not in order to enjoy them, not out of need, but to enlarge one’s domain and authority. Similarly, sexual relations were not built on pleasure, tenderness or love, but on reproduction, the preservation of girl’s virginity (so-called ‘honor’ of the family), the confinement and control of women for the increase in male prestige, and the overestimation of the penis.

The ideas about sexuality, its centrality to social relations among and between women and men, and its relationship to war and national interests, probably make sense in different degrees everywhere. What made the situation in Lebanon unique was that these questions took on huge proportions and were more obvious than elsewhere. Lebanon as a Mediterranean country, highly dominated by Islamo-Arab influences carried the codes of honor and women’s oppression, as well as masculine-macho values to their farthest limits. The tragedy of this situation held its own answer.


Are there solutions to the desperate situation exposed here? Would laws punishing the murderers be enough to dissuade the perpetrators of such crimes? And how about educating the young and adolescent about the taboo of incest, the respect and love of women away from possession and jealousy? Have some of them been tried? How about inculcating the importance of mixity, hybridity, creolization rather than purity and exclusivity?

In Lebanon, in commemoration of the late Laure Moghaizel, a lawyer and feminist activist who struggled all her life for (w)humen’s rights and peaceful resolutions to conflicts, the Lebanese Women’s Council organized a conference which was attended by a crowd of 500. During the celebration, Justice Minister Bahij Tabbara declared that he had presented the cabinet with a draft law to render crimes of honor punishable by law…. According to Tabbara, “Giving amnesty to a person who committed a crime of honor only encourages people to take the law into their own hands—an act which no longer coincides with the legal system in Lebanon.” Article 562 of the Lebanese penal code currently pardons a man if he surprises his wife, one of his relatives, descendants or a sister practicing adultery or pre-marital intercourse and kills or wounds one of the two without premeditation.

So far none of these solutions have been implemented, or developed with any kind of success. How much longer will we have to wait? How many more innocent women and girls will die before the world wakes up? In Palestine where honor crimes are quite prevalent and where Israeli laws do not interfere, unlike in other domains, women’s rights activists (both Palestinian and Israelis) decided to have a special ceremony with candle lighting every time a woman or girl would succumb to such crimes, since no real ceremony accompanies here burial and she is denied even a decent funeral because of her “downfall and impurity.” How many more candles before the night falls on a world indifferent to the cries of 5,000 women slaughtered in shame each year?

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