Via Jezebel, we have the story of Noor Almaleki at Marie Claire, who was killed last year by her father for failing to uphold his Iraqi patriarchal honor. This is one of those “honor killings” in which “honor” means that men’s self-respect is held between women’s legs, and a man’s ability to maintain that “honor” is more important than a woman’s ability to have a life.
The author at Jezebel, Irin, as well as some commenters, are asking what the difference is between Islamic cultural honor killing and Western intimate violence which sometimes culminates in murder. At first glance it may look like the sort of mindless cultural relativism that tends to get Irshad Manji up on her badassed soapbox, but after reading the Marie Claire article, it’s not a bad question. The way Noor’s parents stalked and terrorized her after she moved out sounds a lot like the way many abusive men, coming from more liberal cultures, control their wives and girlfriends when they try to leave. But Noor wasn’t getting this abuse from her boyfriend or husband. She was getting it from her parents. I think that’s the primary difference between Western misogynist violence and Middle Eastern control of women. So-called “honor killings” by men from Islamic cultures can be attacks on their wives, but are more often directed at daughters and sisters. These are men whose culture encourages them to view their daughters and sisters as property which must be controlled, and the sight of that property refusing to accept that control makes these men feel personally attacked.
Whereas in Western cultures, even abusive men tend to expect a certain level of independence in their daughters. I’m not saying that Judeo-Christian-secular American men never kill their daughters, but when they do, they don’t have a culturally-sanctioned rationalization handy like Faleh Almaleki has for his actions. In Western misogyny, it’s the wife or girlfriend who needs to walk a tightrope to avoid violence. Then you may ask if this is a meaningful difference, and actually, I think there is an important distinction to be made here. The difference is in the culture of marriage.
Part of Noor’s story was an attempt by her parents to marry her off in Iraq to a man of their choosing. Whether a marriage actually took place is still up for debate, according to Marie Claire, but they definitely made the attempt. In Western misogyny, a woman is under major pressure to marry or at least enter a long-term relationship with a man, but it is expected that she, and not her parents, will choose the man. At the very least, a Western woman theoretically has the ability to say yes or no to a relationship with a particular man, regardless of her parents’ wishes. In Islamic cultures, arranged marriage is prevalent, and let’s be honest about what arranged marriage really means: it means the parents decide that their daughter must get married, when they say she does, to a man of their choosing, and she has no say in the matter. (Whether the groom has any control over the proceedings depends on the particular culture.) An arranged marriage is a forced marriage. In that environment, the bride’s family is responsible for keeping her under control (virginal, obedient) until they hand her off to her new husband. A family socialized in a Western culture is not under this kind of pressure, because their daughter’s marriage—if, when and to whom—is not their responsibility.
(And this is not to say that Western women aren’t under vicious pressure to attach themselves to men—we still live in a culture that often sees single women as a problem. But we also live in a culture which, despite its sexual double standards, generally accepts that most people, of both genders, will have premarital sex with people they don’t end up marrying, and this does not make their eventual marriages any less valid.)
The primary difference between Eastern misogynistic murder and Western wife-killing is that Western culture assumes a woman has the right to decide if, when and to what man she will attach herself. Even in the traditional “shotgun wedding,” the bride has obviously had sex with the groom at least once already, and not because her parents ordered her to do so. In a culture where a man killing his daughter is called “honor killing,” a girl doesn’t have even the illusion of owning her life. She is property, in ways that her brothers are not, from the moment she is born. She is her father and brothers’ property in the sense that they are responsible for keeping her in line for the benefit of her future husband. Her life belongs to the man she will marry before that man is even chosen for her.
The culture of arranged marriage promotes violence on women in ways that generalized sexual double standards do not. Arranged marriage is one of those intractable displays of misogyny that liberal Westerners need to stop shrugging off as “that’s just their culture.” It is a culturally sanctioned lifelong rape. It’s no coincidence that cultures that practice arranged marriage are also cultures where divorce is difficult if not impossible for women to obtain, where wife-beating is considered normal, and where rape victims are often prosecuted as offenders. It’s a cultural environment in which sexual consent on a woman’s part is irrelevant; the man putting his cock in her is either the appropriate man, or he isn’t. If he isn’t the appropriate man, then he might be punished accordingly, but she is definitely in trouble, regardless of how much control she had over the encounter. When her family arranges her marriage, they are effectively forcing her into a situation in which she is required to have sex, with a man she might not even grow to like, on a regular basis, presumably for the rest of her life. She is expected to have that man’s children; that’s the whole reason why her sexual propriety and obedience is such an overwhelming preoccupation. In a culture where it’s seen as perfectly normal that a family can force their daughter into a situation of compulsory sex and childbearing, there should be no surprise when some fathers and brothers resort to murder when those girls fail to stay in line. It’s not like those girls were ever supposed to have lives of their own.