Saturday, April 11, 2009

'Honour': Crimes, paradigms, and violence against women, edited by Lynn Welchman and Sara Hossain

I have read much of the introductory and theoretical chapters of this book, which concerns so-called "crimes of honor" against nonconforming women, and which is packed full of information and insight. I was particularly struck by the conclusion of an article by Purna Sen, "'Crimes of honour,' value and meaning." Sen objects to one common way that "honor killings" and "crimes of honor" are discussed, especially when the crimes take place in Islamic countries or communities. Sen find it less than useful to contrast the "culture" of the "West" or the "international community" with the "culture" of a criticized community:
Making culture the divisor also renders those who inhabit the culture under scrutiny problematic per se, and suggests that their salvation lies in abandoning this culture and, by implication, adopting another. Almost invariably that Salvation is Western, Judeo-Christian culture. Is this really the answer? If the problem were Islam, or Islamic culture, it might be -- but then only if Western culture and religion had eliminated violence against women. If violence against women exists in the cultures that criticise the "other," as it clearly does, then existing cultural practices do not determine the safety women, as in no culture are women assured freedom from violence.

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OpenID tenthmedieval said...

Hmm: "in no culture are women assured freedom from violence"? Well, neither are men. Except, of course, in the eyes of the law. If the law prescribes equality of reprisal and justice for both men and women who are victims of violence in one culture, and doesn't in another, then there is a debate to be had here. I mean, yes, let he who is without sin cast the first stone and so on (oddly apposite context!) but if we have to establish Utopia before being able to point fingers, very little will ever get better for women or men anywhere. I don't think this is the reason to question Western Judeo-Christian chauvinism. There are plenty of those reasons but this isn't one. We need, perhaps, to find a better basis for comparison that doesn't group whole populations as ethical monoliths, but we don't need to abandon comparison entirely simply because of our own flaws.

11:04 AM  
Anonymous magistra said...

I think you do have to consider cultures in this case: it is a limited advance, for example, to have Indian laws against dowry killings if the practise is still socially acceptable. You can't easily enforce a law when you have widespread social rsistance to it.

What I think is more productive than implying 'abandon your culture' is to show how particular cultures have reduced domestic violence without abandoning their religion/culture. Honour killing was once just as much as much a western Christian tradition, after all: now it's not, even if domestic violence still continues.

I think that's where historians can play a useful role. There is scope for a lot of historical projects which narrate and analyse how progressive political projects have been achieved in particular countries, whether it's gay marriage or the abolition of slavery or ending capital punishment etc. (Just as there have been attempts to learn from the Northern Ireland peace process, which in turn learnt from the South African peace process etc.)

I think that developing such studies can be ways of showing 'how you can get here from there', and show that cultures can evolve without being destroyed.
(Admittedly, it's hard for medievalists to join in on such attempts to show liberal progress).

5:00 PM  

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