MA students' blog posts
No Honour in Violence - Helin Khan
Helin Khan writes about her personal experience of 'being judged from both my Bengali, predominantly Muslim and Western, White English communities' and about the difficulty of escaping patriarchal control as a Westernised, Asian woman.
For my dissertation, I recently read a book called Women, Violence and Tradition: Taking FGM and other practices to a secular state, by Tamsin Bradley. I originally borrowed it for its chapter on ‘honour’ based violence (HBV), but I found information within the entire text that made me further analyse diaspora communities within the UK.
In the introduction, Bradley examines the particular forms of patriarchal control that have manifested for diaspora South Asian and Muslim women. There are specific ways these groups of women are discriminated against; there is little space for nuanced and complex identities to form, and after 9/11 the bodies of these women became symbols of their religions and cultures. Part of the discourse for Muslim women especially, was of their supposed ‘oppression’ from religious and traditional powers:
“Islam has been repackaged and presented through dominant imperialist discourses as ‘the problem’ and once again the lives and supposed oppression of Muslim women presented as the evidence of a problematic tradition” (Abu-Ludhod, 2002).
This quote highlighted the struggle of control over South Asian and Muslim women; from their inherited societies who may use patriarchy to ensure they behave in certain ways, so as not to ‘dishonour’ their families and bring ‘shame’. This is also while battling the wider Western society that resolves to ‘save’ these women from practices seen as alien and barbaric to Western, ‘democratic’ sentiment. This exocitises these groups of women, failing to recognise the blatant gender issues still happening in the Western world too.
I have personally experienced both forms of oppression, by being judged from both my Bengali, predominantly Muslim and Western, White English communities. It is difficult to create your own identity while both sides attempt to control and regulate your actions and thoughts, especially concerning sexuality, clothing choices and intellectual advancement.
While it’s fine for a woman to be educated, I couldn’t be smarter than my future husband. It was acceptable for me to wear Western clothing, so long as I was modest and didn’t show too much of my body, for fear of it bringing ‘shame’ upon my family. At no point was I allowed to experience sex or dare to enjoy it, speak about it, or experiment, and this was from both communities rather than just one.
I have personally witnessed a shift in the ways race, gender and religion are interlinked due to the rise of Muslim women wearing headscarves in the UK. When my paternal grandfather moved to England in the 1960’s, barely any Muslim women wore a full head covering garment. When I was younger, my mother rarely covered her whole head when she wore a scarf, but this has changed in the last few years. I believe this is because of the increase in Islamophobia and racial tension and attacks happening in the UK; since 9/11 it has become more important than ever to protect one’s self from harm, while also expressing solidarity with those in your community. One particular way this has occurred is through wearing hijabs. Despite being a visible emblem in the religion, with a high risk for potential danger, the hijab or headscarf has become a potent, political symbol.
I personally find this problematic, since the hijab is gendered. While I respect those who wish to wear them for their own reasons and faith, I see it as another way to ensure gender divisions in the Muslim and South Asian communities. It also helps to create a divide between what is ‘Islamic’ and what is ‘Western’, propelling women to the forefront of possible risk. These divisions can create one-dimensional ways of understanding what woman are or ‘should’ be, providing credence to the ideas of subservience, ‘honour’, shame and obligation. Being a Westernised, Asian woman, I find this form of control through clothing comes from both sides; one convincing me to cover up to avoid shame, while the other ‘encourages’ me to wear whatever I want, while simultaneously shaming me for ‘showing too much’.
There are arguments from secular feminists, such as Kelly (2005) who state that “patriarchal oppression is universal and although it weaves its way into fabric of societies differently, it is this ultimate dominance of a certain masculinity that is responsible for the injustices women suffer”. I agree with this statement in part, while also realising the need to analyse culture and religion alongside gender, race and class. Intersectional modes of examining South Asian and Muslim women are crucial in order to avoid exoticisation or essentialising their lives, and the violence they may be subjected to.
The response to the increase in anti-Muslim hate is for a greater demand of protection and rights to live a Muslim way of life. However, I believe the agenda is to perpetuate control of women, by masking it through religious identity. This can be seen particularly through the behaviour of religious authorities who are majority male. Their authority is based on claims of knowledge concerning divinity and ‘truths’; this ‘knowledge’ is rarely questioned, and so maintains the patriarchal status quo. This way of thinking then gets passed onto the next generation.
Taking these factors into account, it is easier to see how ‘honour’ based violence stems foremost from patriarchal control. This code is not only implemented by men, but also women. Many women will use gossip, rumours and personal comparison to ensure another woman in the community ‘stays in her place’. To reject these notions is to bring ‘dishonour’ and ‘shame’ which are patriarchal forms of control. I have found this pattern in my research into HBV cases in the UK. Threats of Westernisation are also perceived as ‘dishonourable’, which only helps to exaggerate the idea of HBV being a ‘cultural’ issue, rather than another form of violence against women.
While I have been particularly lucky to have an open minded family who encourage education and learning, the issue of gender, ‘honour’ and shame still permeate into my life because of the influence of the wider communities. While I may never face HBV, I have experienced the forms of patriarchal control used over women to ensure their obedience.
In many South Asian communities, women bear the responsibility of ‘honour’; any form of rejection means exclusion from society. Having studied MAWS, I now have a better understanding of where these forms of control originate from, and how they are not so different to the Western forms of patriarchy. It has also helped to validate my own personal experiences.