The price of honour

The price of honour
Comment: Arab women have been servicing their men for far too long. From acts of intimidation to fatal domestic violence, this abuse and obedience must end now, writes Farrah Akbik.
7 min read
04 Aug, 2020
'Society can't accept that we as women, are also human' writes Akbik [Getty]
I don't think I was ever sat down and given a lesson in the dos or don'ts, especially not by the men of my family. I looked upon them with well-established respectful awe.  

As Arab women it was the norm to pamper, entertain, never cross, and subconsciously fear the men. I learned all this through observation, through what I saw the women around me doing. An English male friend once observed "you are very obedient." "It's an illusion," I responded.
"No, it's very real," he said.

How his words cut through me! But he was right, I was, without even having realised it. My decisions were always based on the needs or demands of those males around me, which always outweighed my own.

As a child on a playdate, I saw my nextdoor neighbour launch a glass at the wall above our heads, his wife cowering in silence as if it were her fault. The reason for the shattered glass was that we children were being too loud and had woken him from his sleep. It was her reaction that I remember more rather than his action, that reticent acquiescence. Culturally schooled into our roles, very few women broke with the norms, and if they did they were always slandered, and more often than not, by the women themselves.

There is a lot to be said about the inferior place afforded to women in our societies. Or indeed the active role they play in sustaining the patriarchy. I never could quite understand why boys were revered, why we had to tiptoe around them.

It all came back to honour. That ugly word that had a stranglehold around our female necks

Every day interactions were conditioned by the hierarchy that defines the sexes. I remember being at my neighbour's house playing with two of my girlfriends again, when there was a tiff between them and their slightly older brother. We couldn't have been more than nine or 10 years old. Dolls went flying, hair was pulled, and the mother rushed in and pulled the siblings apart. 

But her anger was directed entirely at the girls. "Your brother is the crown that sits upon your heads, and should he tell you to jump from the balcony then you obey!" as he smugly smirked at them from behind her back. Then there are the rules for the girls. My Moroccan grandmother summed it up with the old saying, "It's best to go and mess around in the Jewish quarters, and on your return home make sure your Muslim neighbours are witness to your good character!"

I was inadvertently made to carry a fear of what others may say, and it all came back to honour. That ugly word that had a stranglehold around our female necks. Every single one of us, to varying extents. From the extreme of murder, to the lesser crime of social defamation. 

Another time, it was Eid and my sister and I - teenagers at the time - pulled out some perilously short dresses and did our family rounds, leaving behind a trail of scandalous gossip which quickly reached my mother. Our dresses soon saw the sharp end of her scissors.

On her return from the gynaecologist one day, she relayed the story of a young woman who had opened up to her in the waiting room. The woman was there to have her hymen reconstructed (a widespread surgery in the Middle East).  She'd been engaged but her fiancé had decided to leave her knowing full well the repercussions she would face, having taken her virginity. I couldn't quite understand how it was better for her to partake in this deception, rather than to just be.

But apparently no, for society can't accept that we as women, are also human. That we have the right to journey the road of life, to love, to learn, to make mistakes, to live without bearing the honour of our male relatives upon our backs. 

My friend's mum should have scolded her son, my mother should have spared my dress, the woman in the clinic should not have had to "repair" her hymen, and my grandma should have said the neighbours can eat khara!

Some of these might seem like low level instances of sexism, but they all count towards a stifling existence focused on maintaining the requisite "honour". Too frequently, this results in the brutal murder of women, and very often, the perpetrators get away with appallingly short sentences. 

Ahlam was a Jordanian woman in her 30s, said to have been divorced and "returned" to her parents as if she were used goods. Ahlam lived in fear as she had made her way to one of the safe houses. Yet for reasons unclear, she returned to the family home.

In making that cup of tea for her daughter's murderer, Ahlam's mother assented, became complicit

In July of this year, neighbours heard her screams penetrate the walls as she fled into the street clutching her bleeding neck. Her father, pursuing her with a brick, crushed her skull, then lit a cigarette, and Ahlam's mother brought him a cup of tea. His hands still bore bloody witness to the murder.

Sarkhat Ahlam, the screams of Ahlam, she pleaded yet no one came to her rescue. Those screams were captured on video, her lifeless body too. In making that cup of tea for her daughter's murderer, Ahlam's mother assented, became complicit.

Is it that women are so powerless, that we are wired to accept society's sentence? These cultural conventions are centuries old and are ignored by equally archaic judicial systems. Legal articles mete out lesser punishments to "crimes of passion" to "family disputes", just because the victims are women. 

Ahlam means 'dreams' in Arabic. Like every one of us she had her dreams, dreams her father spilled onto the road from her crushed head. Ahlam deserved to live without fear, without the need to flee from the very people who should have kept her safe. In Jordan, it is not unheard of for women to seek incarceration for fear of being "honour killed". What makes a father break his daughter's skull, and then sip tea in view of her bloodied corpse? 

There was always this concept that a woman is only as strong as the man who has her back - that a woman without male protection is a weakness. I myself married very young, and as a result, was passed from father to husband. I never lived alone, I was never wholly independent of a man, until I decided to divorce. I was discouraged. "A divorced woman is but a 10th rate citizen!"

Read more: Palestinian bride-to-be's murder reignites campaign against domestic violence

My point is that things will not begin to change, until more women dare to speak out, regardless of the repercussions.  We must begin to move away from the silence I've seen too often, and to move towards educating our future sons to believe that they are not more important than their sisters.

Barely had I finished writing this when another murder occurred. This time of a young Palestinian woman named Rozan Nasser, on her way to buy clothes for Eid with her fiancé. He strangled her and left her lifeless body in the car, before fleeing to Jerusalem.

If anything, these women's dreams should be honoured, so that they leave behind some sort of legacy, so that their brutal deaths are not in vain. So that the Jordanian government, and indeed all Arab governments seek to annul or change those laws that protect our murderers. Let not their screams be silenced. Enough of the blind obedience, only to be rewarded with brutality. No more.  

Farrah Akbik is a British-Syrian author writing to raise awareness of the hardships of Syria and Syrian refugees, particularly women. Born to a Syrian father and Moroccan mother, she is pursuing a Masters in Creative Writing in London.

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