The War on Women's Sexuality
Continued from previous page
Where does this honor-based view of female sexuality come from?
Well, on the one side, we have societies in which patriarchal families and communities are seeking to control women through practices such as enforced virginity before marriage, demands that they take on a particular familial role, their requirements for a specific form of dress, even physical segregation. These are honor societies where gender and sex are considered the primary social indicator of status. Honor lies in man’s fighting prowess in these often tribal societies, and this included the protection of “his woman,” and a woman’s honor lies in guarding her chastity before marriage and begetting children for her husband should she marry. It’s an extraordinarily different sense of the body.
On the patriarchal side, there’s this idea of the body belonging to the community. Virginity is an interesting example of this because the woman is seen as a marker of family boundaries, a symbol of the community. She’s viewed as both the source of the literal, as well as, in the more figurative sense, the source of the continuity of the community. That sounds like a privileged status, but in fact what evolves from that is the notion that she needs to be under the control of men — of fathers, of husbands, of brothers. The stress on virginity reflects the imperatives of the larger society: promising society’s continuity through marriage and children. So the woman’s consent is irrelevant, since her purpose transcends herself. So we see prohibitions of women going out in public unaccompanied by men to this very day, notably in much of the Middle East and North Africa. These are ways of a family ensuring her honor.
What’s fascinating in the issue of rape is that even something so horrendous gets defined in rather different prisms. Whereas rape to us is very clear — it’s an extreme violation of a woman that obviously by definition involves absence of consent — in highly patriarchal, traditional contexts, rape is really a subset of adultery. The rape is the violation not of the woman but of another man’s ownership of that woman. We see this play out in India and repeatedly across these very patriarchal parts of the world. There is this atrocious notion that a woman who’s raped is a) dishonored and b) that she can to some extent save her honor by marrying the rapist.
For many individuals across the world today the other side of it is that the woman controls her own body. She controls the right to sell her labor power, to sell her intellect on the job market, to go to school or university, to choose whom she shall marry. So you have this principle of honor on the one side and self-determination on the other.
You make a point of making a distinction between how women’s bodies are viewed in patriarchal, honor-based societies and by Muslim culture as a whole. What are those key differences?
We need to make a distinction from the cultural aspect of the backlash and the political backlash. When we talk of the Islamist movement, in particular the militant Islamist movements, the backlash shifts from purely being cultural to including the political. The institutions that are viewed as leading to women’s progress — progress in your terms and my terms — become targets of attack, and the West, broadly speaking, is viewed as a major source of this corruption. Anything that’s identified with the West — churches, obviously the United States, nightclubs and the like — become viewed as corrupt and viewed as targets of attack.