Thursday, August 19, 2010

Kristof and WuDunn: The Shame of “Honor”

Of all the justifications used by men as they torment women, the notion that women’s lives must be restricted in order to protect their honor is the most insidious. In many societies women are viewed as possessions. As possessions they need to be protected in the same way one would protect a cow or a vehicle. Women are guarded in the same way cars are guarded: they are stored in a garage until they can fulfill some need of the owner. There is no altruism here. Men are competing against men and the one with the greatest possessions wins. Women are merely chips in this age-old game. On one hand, this makes them assets to be protected; on the other hand it makes them assets to be targeted.

In their book, Half the Sky, Kristof and WuDunn describe some of the myriad ways in which the notion of "honor" is used to abuse and kill women.
"Of all the things people do in the name of God, killing a woman because she does not bleed on her wedding night is among the most cruel. Yet the hymen—fragile, rarely seen, and pretty pointless—remains an object of worship among many religions and societies around the world, the simulacrum of honor."

"The cult of virginity has been exceptionally widespread. Not only does the Bible advocate stoning girls to death when they fail to bleed on their wedding sheets, but Solon, the great lawgiver of ancient Athens, prescribed that no Athenian could be sold into slavery save a woman who lost her virginity before marriage. In China, a neo-Confucian saying from the Song dynasty declares: ‘For a woman to starve to death is a small matter, but for her to lose her chastity is a calamity’."

"This harsh view has dissipated in most of the world, but survives in the Middle East, and this emphasis on sexual honor is today a major reason for violence against women."
The more value you place on an asset the more likely it is that an enemy or rival will try to take that asset away from you. This represents a cycle in which the "protected" female is viewed as ever more valuable and thus becomes ever more vulnerable, and results in things like "honor" killings.

The most efficient way to humiliate a man is to rape his daughter. It is generally not a punishable crime if the rape occurs against a family of a lower class, and the victim is expected to disappear—either through suicide or being murdered by her own family. This supposedly eliminates the shame experienced by the remaining family members. Often the rape of a young woman is ordered by the community elders (men) as punishment for something someone else did—perhaps a relative. Why punish a man when there are plenty of women around for that purpose? The net result is supposed to be another dead woman.

There are many variations on this theme of a woman’s value being determined by her virginity. Kristof and WuDunn describe a common practice in Ethiopia. If a young man wants to marry a young woman but suspects that he does not have enough money to pay the bride price or that the parents will not approve of him, he gathers some friends and kidnaps and rapes the girl. This diminishes her value greatly and the girl’s family, acknowledging her now lack of value, usually feels that she might as well go ahead and marry the young thug. In Ethiopia rape is not a crime if you end up marrying the girl. If she refuses, the man is highly motivated to continue kidnapping and raping her until she changes her mind. The authors pointed out that a US advocacy group put so much pressure on Ethiopia that they eventually changed the law to make rape a crime even if the girl agreed to be married. Unfortunately, laws passed in capital cities often have little standing in the countryside where tradition is generally stronger.

Kristof and WuDunn use the phrase "honor rapes" to describe the most vicious and, numerically, the most prevalent application of rape. One hears of mass rapes in civil wars in Africa and forms an image of rampaging young men with guns and hormones seeing women as easy targets of opportunity. What is actually occurring is more complex and even more abhorrent.
"In recent genocides, rape has been used systematically to terrorize certain ethnic groups. Mass rape is as effective as slaughtering people, yet it doesn’t leave corpses that lead to human rights prosecutions. And rape tends to undermine the victim’s tribal structures, because leaders lose authority when they can’t protect the women. In short, rape becomes a tool of war in conservative societies precisely because female sexuality is so sacred. Codes of sexual honor, in which women are valued based on their chastity, ostensibly protect women, but in fact they create an environment in which women are systematically dishonored."

"In Darfur, it gradually became clear that the Sudanese-sponsored Janjaweed militias were seeking out and gang-raping women of three African tribes, then cutting off their ears or otherwise mutilating them to forever mark them as rape victims. To prevent the outside world from knowing, the Sudanese government punished women who reported rapes or sought medical treatment....[they were treated as criminals] The crime? Fornication, for by seeking treatment she was acknowledging that she had engaged in sex before marriage, and she did not provide the mandatory four adult male Muslim eyewitnesses to prove that it was rape."
Let us leave this subject with the authors’ chilling observation:
"In 2008, the United Nations formally declared rape a ‘weapon of war’.....Major General Patrick Cammaert, a former United Nations force commander, spoke of the spread of rape as a war tactic and said something haunting: ‘It has probably become more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in an armed conflict’."


  1. I find it interesting that it took until the year 2008 to declare rape a "weapon of war." Rape has been used for centuries as part of the ravaging of cities and towns during wars, in particular during the Crusades! In my humble opinion, the only reason it is used as such is that it expresses how men really feel about women that they do not own. In other words, women are to be used. If she is yours, you protect her, if not, she is up for grabs.

  2. I think the difference is that in this case there is no ravaging or sacking of cities going on. Rape is being used as a stealthy measure to undermine a society/tribe. In other times rape was a byproduct of warfare. Here it is the means of warfare.


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