July 14th was the first memorial day for victims of honour based violence in Britain. The memorial day was secured by the charity Karma Nirvana, in conjunction with Cosmopolitan magazine and the Henry Jackson Society, and is officially called The Day of Memory for Britain’s Lost Women. It occurs on the birthday of Shafilea Ahmed who was suffocated by her parents in 2003 for refusing an arranged marriage and ‘bringing shame’ upon the family.
With a specially designed cover – I would say its most powerful – limited editions of Cosmopolitan were produced for an event at the House of Lords. The cover is composed of a blurry black and white picture (echoing the now famous photograph of Shafilea) showing a woman suffocating and holding up her hands as if asking for help. The magazine is wrapped in film and the reader is encouraged to rip it open and ‘free’ the girl.
I had planned to discuss the idea of obedience in this post. When I learnt that the memorial day was going to be on 14th July, this deadly aspect of honour culture brought home the tragedy of unthinking obedience and the varied guises in which it’s extracted from people.
The idea of obedience is entrenched in human history and society. It appears to me that history can be read as the battle between obedience and disobedience. All rulers, empires, and most religions, have demanded obedience; all have promised rewards to the obedient and threatened punishment to the disobedient.
Societies have demanded obedience from their members, men have demanded obedience from women, and families have demanded obedience from children, particularly daughters. Like the Russian dolls which fit inside each other, the idea of obedience has been cloaked in virtues we cherish and value: such as loyalty, respect, duty and of course – honour.
Honour based violence occurs when a daughter, sister, wife, or daughter-in-law is considered to have ‘tarnished the honour’ of her family by having been disobedient in some way. She may have turned down a marriage, she may have or be thought to have a boyfriend, she may be considered too independent or too westernised. Men have also been victims of honour-based violence but not in the numbers that women have suffered.
Obedience and honour are social constructs. Over the course of centuries, one idea has been bolted onto another idea, resulting in an edifice we call culture, tradition and morality. Obedience is the cement for this edifice, and honour is the stick to force this compliance.
What is society is so afraid of? Society is afraid that if each and every idea is not followed then the edifice will come tumbling down. This fear of the edifice falling apart has been echoed whenever social movements have arisen: from workers seeking rights, to women seeking the vote, to the establishment of same sex marriage. Many and loud were the voices of doom prophesying the destruction of the institution of marriage if same-sex marriage were to be legalised. But, in the fullness of time, it was legalised in some countries, and last time I looked, judging by the number and frequency of marriages of all kinds, the institution of marriage is not just safe but positively thriving.
It’s crucial to note that certain kinds of obedience is necessary and required for a safe and just society, to guarantee civil liberties, and to protect the rights of all. It’s absolutely correct to ensure people are able to live in dignity, with self-respect, and respect for others, that they’re able to make their own choices, as long as those choices don’t advocate harm to anyone. Obedience should be less about following rules and more about values.
We all know the demand for unthinking, unquestioning obedience goes hand-in-hand with the desire for authority, whether that authority is expressed through tradition, religion or politics. On whom is the burden of unquestioning obedience placed? Generally the ones with the least amount of power, workers who have no bargaining rights, women, children, and in some cases bloggers. One of the charges levelled against Raif Badawi, the blogger who set up a liberal website and who was sentenced to a thousand lashes, is that ‘he was disobedient.’
How can obedience be expressed as a value? I believe it’s vested in self-respect, and self-respect comes from self-examination, self-discipline, from respecting the rights and safety of others, and doing the right thing, whether there’s any kind of cost involved or not.
Self-respect is the enemy of unquestioning obedience. Which self-respecting parent would brutally destroy their own daughter? The killing of a child by a parent goes against the natural order of life and is the most profound, most treacherous of all betrayals. No other breach of faith can be compared to it: no deceit between a husband and wife, no disloyalty between friends, no fraud between business partners.
Honour killings are based entirely on the obedience of the parent to society’s demands. The parent is required to make a sacrificial offering of the disobedient daughter; not just to punish the individual but also as an example to all others who may be so tempted. Neither the aggressor nor the victim are allowed the idea of self-respect. Unquestioning obedience is the enemy of self-respect. But the parent could assert self-respect, merge disobedience with disobedience and redefine honour.
Dedicated to Shafilea Ahmed and all other victims of honour-killings.