Why do parents in some societies marry off their prepubescent daughters? Why are the practices of Female Genital Mutilation and the wearing of chastity belts common among some cultures? Why are girls of certain peoples punished for being raped? The answers to these questions are summed up in this Ecuadorian saying: “The honor of a man lies between the legs of a woman.”  Each of the above practices aims at ensuring the chastity of women. In “honor/shame” societies (many of which are in the Middle East and North Africa), the masculine honor of a man is directly correlated with the chastity of his female relatives. If he fails to control or protect his wife’s sexual virtue, and she is consequently unfaithful or raped, he cannot guarantee that her offspring is his own and he is completely stripped of manly honor.
The 2010 Iraq Freedom House report provides tragically pertinent example of such honor/shame ideology. If we judge the seriousness of a crime based on how severe the punishment is, then Iraqi society deems rape (worthy of 5-15 years in prison) a much worse crime than murder (for which the perpetrator will only serve 6 months-3 years).  At first glance, a Western thinker may find this utterly absurd. The system begins to make sense, however, when put into the context of an honor/shame society.
The first step of contextualizing these laws is to realize that what Westerners would consider murder, Iraqis see as rather acceptable “honor killings.” (“Honor killing” is distinguished by the victim being a female who has brought shame upon her kin.) According to the Iraqi penal code, “a man who kills his wife or close female relative and her partner after catching them in an act of adultery” can only receive 6 months to 3 years in prison if he is in fact tried and found guilty.  In that situation, neither the unfaithful woman, nor her lover is legally allowed to use self-defense and acts of revenge against the killer are prohibited. Condoning honor killings even more, the same short prison sentence (6 months-3 years) also applies to the killing of any person who makes reference to the dead woman’s sin, thus causing the husband to lose face. These laws communicate that destroying an unfaithful woman and all reminders of her disloyalty is an acceptable way for her male relatives to reclaim their honor.
Iraqi laws on rape clarify even more cultural attitudes about how men’s honor coincides with their women’s chastity. If tried and found guilty, rapists are sentenced to 5-15 years in prison (a much longer time than the punishment for honor killing). However, if the guilty man marries his victim, his crime is completely forgotten and honor is restored to the victim’s male relatives. When the woman or girl was raped, her father, brothers, and uncles were horribly shamed because they failed to protect her chastity. The provision that marriage to her rapist will clear all shame indicates that the Iraqi culture values men’s honor above women’s happiness and safety.
Not only do honor/shame societies value men’s honor above women’s happiness and safety, Iraqi law shows that male honor is more important than female life. This ideology is foundational for much of the harm women face in the world. It is left for us not to idly point fingers at Iraq but to examine our own countries’ ideologies for the harm or security they provide their female inhabitants.
One of the most harmful ideologies in my own culture teaches that a female’s worth is based on her sex appeal. This is why old women are not revered for their wisdom. Young girls are dressed like teenagers instead of the children that they are. Advertising agencies uses sexualized images of young adult women to promote any product from beer to furniture to car repair. A female politician cannot run for office without being publically critiqued as if they were a fashion model. Media images are digitally altered to create an impossible standard for how every female should look.
My society may not fit the honor/shame mold, but its ideology about women causes outrageous harm nonetheless: increasing mental illness, sex-based crime, and fallacious beliefs, held by both males and females, about woman’s intellectual and professional potential.
Valerie M. Hudson, Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill, Mary Caprioli, Chad F. Emmett, Sex and World Peace (NY: Columbia Press University, 2012), 8.
Huda Ahmed, “Iraq,” In Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa: Progress Amid Resistance,edited by Sanja Kelly and Julia Breslin (NY:Freedom House; Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010), 15 & 7
Ahmed, “Iraq,” 7.
Ahmed, “Iraq,” 7.