Barbara Kay on honour and feminism

On Nov. 11, PAH Governor Barbara Kay gave a speech to the Canadian Association for Equality in Ottawa, entitled “A Question of Honour: Feminism and Multiculturalism in the Political Crosshairs.” Here is the full text of her talk.

Last month, in the city of Dessau, Germany, the body of a 20-year old Syrian woman, identified as “Rokstan M.” was discovered in a shallow grave. Rokstan M. was educated, with a job as a translator for the German government. But after she was gang-raped by three men, she knew what was in store for her. On a social media profile, she wrote, “I am awaiting death. But I am too young to die.” She was indeed stabbed to death, on her mother’s command, by her father and brothers. The premeditated killing was necessary, her mother told the police, because the gang rape had shamed the family; only Rokstan’s death could restore their honour.

The curious thing about the case of Rokstan M. was that apart from one tabloid account, the crime – what is well understood as an “honour killing” – was not reported in any of Germany’s major newspapers or websites. Burying news of the incident was tantamount to journalists admitting that both the rapes and the murder held singular cultural implications in this turbulent migratory moment that Germans were better off not brooding upon.

I first started writing about honour killings following the horrific death of Toronto teenager Aqsa Parvez in 2007. Aqsa was killed by her father and brothers, with her mother’s complicity and her extended family’s cooperation, for her refusal to accept an arranged marriage to a kinsman in Pakistan. But conflict between Aqsa, who was keen to integrate fully into Canadian life, and her family, who clung to old-world norms, had been simmering long before that tipping point led to action.

Professionally speaking, two things about the Parvez case galvanized me.

The first was that Aqsa was victimized in spite of having sought out help to escape her family’s harassment to wear a hijab and give up her non-Muslim friends. Everyone recognized that there was a problem: her teachers, the social services and the police. Nobody abandoned her. She was offered refuge with sympathetic parents of friends. Her parents were called in and it was explained to them that in Canada parents did not have the right to coerce their daughters’ choice of clothes or friends or activities, so long as they conformed to Canadian norms. The parents assured the social workers they understood, and pretended to cooperate. And then at the first opportunity, Aqsa’s family tricked her into coming home, where she was most brutally, ritually tortured and slaughtered.

So that was the first thing: the “system” was pressed into service; it did what it was designed to do; and it failed. It would also fail the Montreal Shafia sisters a few years later when they tried to get help. By the time of the 2012 Shafia trial – Afghanistan immigrants Mohammad and Tooba Shafia with their son Hamed had conspired to murder the family daughters Zainab, Sahar and Geeti, as well as Rona Amir, Mohammad’s first wife – it had already struck me with the full force of revelation that honour and shame are such powerful motivators in certain cultural communities that no threat of punishment can deter killers. Their loss of standing amongst their kinsmen and community is literally intolerable, and incarceration or death is preferable to that loss. As Muhammad Shafia put it, “Even if they hoist me up onto the gallows, nothing is more dear to me than my honour,” and later, “There is no value of life without honour.” The Shafias are currently filing for appeal of their life sentence on the grounds of “cultural stereotyping.”

The second thing that stoked my polemical fire was the reaction to Aqsa’s murder in the media. Almost as one, the liberal press swiftly labeled the killing an act of domestic violence, and implied most firmly that it could happen to any young woman in Canada. I remember that when Sarah Fulford, the courageous editor ofToronto Life, ran a piece on the murder and called it by its proper name, an honour killing, she was virtually mobbed by feminists for her political incorrectness.

This infuriated me. The premeditated ritual killing in cold blood of a teenage girl by her father and brother with the collaboration of her mother on the enthusiastically stated grounds that the girl had stained the family honour could most emphatically not happen to any girl or woman in Canada. You’d be hard pressed in this country to find a single killing of a child – boy or girl – (rare in any case) by a Canadian parent in which the mother or the father (I cannot think of a case in which both parents cooperated in killing a child) was not, or did not at least claim to be, mentally ill at the time.

But in Pakistan there are anywhere from 1000 to 5,000 honour killings a year (1000 is the official number; all inside observers say this is a risibly low number)[1]. And almost invariably, the guilty parent or parents and brothers in these coolly premeditated and sometimes long-planned killings state in their defence that family honour had forced their hand. In the Shafia case, the girls had, according to their father, “betrayed” him by acting like “whores” (their social lives were extremely modest by Canadian standards). They were “filthy and rotten children.”

And yet in the media, there were those who could not yield on the issue, so the debate on whether it was domestic violence or a culturally-motivated killing continued. And on the domestic violence side, the claimants were, from what I read, usually ideologues determined to force the square peg of multiculturalism into the round peg of feminism by glossing over the telling cultural details of Aqsa’s murder with a condemnation of domestic violence as the product of a universal patriarchy, and Aqsa’s murder merely an extreme example of it.

Before plunging in any further, I want to clarify what I mean by a word I have now already used thirteen times: honour. I began to realized there was confusion about its meaning when, after I began writing about honour killing and identifying them as such, I would receive emails from readers, saying, “I wish you wouldn’t refer to them as crimes of honour. They are crimes of dishonour, and that is what they should be called.”

I understand these readers mean well. They do not want to see linked to criminality a word that we in the West normally associate with high-mindedness, public service and strong principles. But those readers were confusing honour with morality. Westerners often fail to grasp the distinction, because in the West honour codes no longer apply to ordinary citizens, and they are rarely invoked as a motive for behaviour, good or bad. But it hasn’t quite disappeared from our vocabulary (though usually expressed as condemnation ofdishonourable behaviour, which we are more apt to recognize instinctively).

Honour and morality are entirely different phenomena. Sometimes honour is consistent with morality, and sometimes it isn’t. Cultural critic James Bowman, whose 2006 book, Honor: A History, is a magisterial exploration of the concept and one I recommend highly, defines honour, in essence, as “the good opinion of those who are important to you.” In the West honour codes mainly persist in groups who operate at the margins of civilized society, where the group’s security is contingent on every individual member’s willingness to submerge his individuality in a larger collective cause.

If, for example, you are a member of the Mafia or of Islamic State, honour is a driving force for murder. For the Marine Corps, though, it is honour, not morality, that will send members back into the thick of battle to rescue a fallen comrade. Morality is a private matter, but as Alexis de Toqueville wrote, “Honor acts solely for the public eye.”

In Bowman’s definition of honour, the “good opinion of those who are important to you” holds sharply contrasting significance for men and women. Honour for men, he says, is always related to physical courage. Honour for women is always related to sexual selectivity. (As an exercise, test your response to these two insults: “You’re a slut” and “You’re a coward.” Which insult holds the greater offence for you?)

Because the idea of upholding one’s honour is so foreign to our present way of thinking about male-female relationships, we tend to forget that until about a century ago, western civilization was steeped in gender honour. In the West, Christianity combined with honour to produce the ideal of chivalry, a code of honour according to which men saw the protection of women and children as their masculine duty, and according to which woman saw the upholding of sexual virtue and commitment to husband and children as theirs.

Chivalry is of course long gone as an ideal, but no other honour code guiding sexual relations between men and women has taken its place. That doesn’t seem to concern us (perhaps it should?), but our lack of an honour code is threatening to people from other parts of the world for whom intact honour is still the sine qua non for self-respect and family status in the wider community.

The chivalric code was benign in principle and often positive in execution, but a dark side of chivalry also flourished in the West. Up until 1991 in Brazil, adultery-motivated wife killings were treated as non-criminal and were even called “honour killings.” Nearly 800 of them occurred in one year. Until 1981 in Italy, honour was a legal defence for killing a woman, and fathers or brothers who killed their female relatives might only receive a three to seven year sentence. Until the 1970s, under the Code Napoléon, a crime passionel was a valid defence for murder in French law. Until 2009 in England, “provocation” – i.e. adultery – was a legal defence for men who killed their wives. A UN report in 2002 cited the penal codes of many non-Muslim countries – Argentina, Venezuela, Peru and Ecuador – that allow for partial or complete use of a defence of honour in the killing of women.[2]

Today however, we must deal with the unpleasant reality that indulgence for honour killing – which in any case was never the murder of children, rather of unfaithful sexual partners – has virtually disappeared in the West, but is indeed a problem elsewhere. Honour-motivated violence (HMV) is not solely a Muslim problem; it is prevalent amongst Hindus, Sikhs and even Christians in South Asia. But the overwhelming number of honour-motivated crimes occur in Muslim-majority countries, sometimes supported in law. Article 340 of Jordan’s criminal code, for example, stipulates that “a husband or close blood relative who kills a woman caught in a situation highly suspicious of adultery will be totally exempt from sentence.” Not “demonstrating” adultery, note, but only “highly suspicious.” [3]

For in honour cultures, even a rumour can be an incentive to violence. In 2011 a Punjabi father killed all six of his daughters because two of them were rumoured to have been flirting with boys. The incident struck me with unusual force, because it echoed an episode in a memoir on which I collaborated[4] with a very courageous Canadian of Punjabi provenance, Aruna Papp, who survived and escaped the honour codes of her upbringing, but paid a high price for her freedom.

The eldest of six daughters (one son), Aruna Papp is a second generation Christian (Seventh Day Adventist). Her illustrative tale of the power of rumour in an honour/shame society begins at a boarding school she attended in her early teens that was run by white missionaries from Australia. One day she suffered an attack of appendicitis, and there were no facilities at the school to deal with it. But when the headmaster brought her to her home in Delhi, her father was appalled, because he was sure everyone would assume she had been sent down for some compromising sexual behaviour. In that case her reputation would be ruined, nobody would allow his son to marry her, and furthermore none of her sisters would find husbands either. In his eyes, it would have been better for her to stay at school and die for lack of medical attention than to shame the family and compromise all the other girls’ fortunes.

And that was precisely the reason that the father in the news killed all his daughters. Because the reputation of two of them was compromised, all of them were damaged goods. Such appalling stories drive home the clear message that in honour/shame societies, like South Asia and throughout the entire Middle East (except Israel), neither women nor men consider themselves individuals, free to make decisions based on their own interests and desires, but as highly codified “roles”: mother, father, daughter, son, husband, wife, brother, sister, mother-in-law. All must play their part in this ancient, complex and tightly wired performance matrix. If one steps out of character, the whole family dynamic is disrupted and breaks down. Honour resides in the sexual purity of the daughters. Deviation from female purity causes shame to the family. Only severe punishment of the offending female can redress the family honour.

When Aruna finally had the operation (her father invited several of his relatives to the hospital, not for comfort but to ensure they did not start any rumours themselves) the headmaster, who had been horrified by her father’s indifference to Aruna’s suffering, sarcastically offered the removed appendix to him as proof that she had a good reason to come home. But instead of recognizing the offer for the insult it was meant to be, Aruna’s father happily accepted the appendix and carried it in a little bag in his pocket, flourishing it at people when they asked about his daughter’s health as a way of deflecting rumours about her virtue.

One of the remarkable features of that story for me was that Aruna did not herself find her father’s behaviour at all wounding or irrational. From earliest childhood it had been clear to her that girls were a devalued species, appreciated solely for their eventual ability to produce sons, and even that fragile social capital was worthless if she did not come to the marriage (arranged of course) intact, both physically and socially.

Aruna immigrated to Canada in her early twenties, already a mother of two children after a forced marriage at 17. It took years, but she managed to free herself from that abusive, loveless marriage, claw her way up the educational ladder and make an academic career for herself through research into the disparity between the culture of her upbringing and the Canadian cultural norms she embraced with gratitude and joy. After completing her graduate studies, Aruna took up a decades-long career in counseling and activism on behalf of Canadian women of South Asian provenance, including teenagers exactly like Aqsa and the Shafia girls, who were trying to escape the suffocating bell jar of repression in their homes.

I have spoken personally with some of Aruna’s protégées. Their stories are quite heartbreaking. I learned that even physical escape from oppressive homes can be near impossible, as whole communities (including taxi drivers, who may refuse to drive a fleeing girl to a shelter, instead returning her home) tend to support the family, not the girls. What is most upsetting for me – and should be to feminists who ascribe the same freedom of action to women brought up in other cultures as we do to our cultural peers – is the reflexive betrayal of the natural mother-child bond in cases where family honour conflicts with maternal love. At the trial of Aqsa’s father and brother, for example, Aruna interviewed 21 women of her community in attendance, and asked them how they felt about the murder. Every single one of them answered with one or another variation on the theme, “It is too bad Aqsa had to die. She should have obeyed her parents,” and “She brought shame to her family, so what else could they do?”

I think we must reconsider the word “free” in the light of this contextual material. During the recent election campaign’s niqab debate, progressives and libertarians argued that women should be free to wear the niqab. Their premise in taking this position is that every woman who obliterates her social identity comes to this decision as an individual, and entirely of her own volition. Such a view is naïve and, in my opinion, grossly under-informed.

They are supported in this understanding by the very public and theatrical performances of a few confident Muslim women, such as Zunera Ishaq, the citizenship-ceremony poster girl in her “fashionable” Burberry-style and leopard-print coverage with matching masks, whom they take to be representative of all niqab’d women. It does not occur to these champions of tolerance that a woman who is forced to wear the niqab, or who does not need to be forced because she accepts her social disappearance as appropriate and natural, is never going to make a public statement that she is wearing the niqab against her will. Taking Ms Ishaq as representative is a clear case of selection bias, something all educated observers should beware of.

It does not occur to them that the niqab, when deliberately politicized as it was with the citizenship ceremony, might be a strategically planned wedge to entrench its acceptance in western societies as a constitutional or charter “right” (Ishaq wanted her case to be heard as a charter issue; it wasn’t, but one day may be), and that there may be far more involved here – an advance, say, in an ongoing “stealth jihad” rather than the expression of an alleged religious obligation. At a 2007 Montreal fundraiser for the Canadian Islamic Congress I attended, Islam convert and Hezbollah-supportive journalist Yvonne Ridley cried out to the women in the audience, “Put on your niqabs!” She did not mean it in any religious sense (she herself does not wear one); she meant it as a gesture of solidarity with ideologically and politically triumphalist Islam.

Because I take the view that the niqab is, politically speaking, far more than the sum of its one flimsy part, I have made it a niche topic in my work. I feel more than the usual sense of urgency about it because my editorial board is stocked mainly by libertarians, and I stand almost alone in my public condemnation of it. Over more than five years of pontification on the subject, I have failed to sway a single member of the editorial board to my opinion. A bit discouraging, but that, as they say, is show biz.

So once more into the breach…

The niqab is no more an Islamic obligation than foot-binding is a Buddhist obligation – it is a regional custom in both cases – and the niqab is no more a simple piece of cloth denoting modesty than the Confederate flag is a nostalgic homage to mint juleps. The Confederate flag has been removed from institutions in the South because of its symbolic freight. The niqab carries symbolic freight as well: second-class citizenship, social apartheid, sexual degradation, chattel status and draconian Shariah-prescribed punishments for the most trivial of deviation from unjust laws, not to mention homophobia and disgust with western standards of sexual freedom for women. The niqab is, not to put too fine a point on it, what feminists call slut-shaming in their cultural peers. Multiculturalism and freedom of religion are fine ideals, but when they collide with democratic principles, choices must be made.

Can feminism and multiculturalism learn to co-exist in harmony?

According to feminist theory, which is Marxist in its template, all women everywhere suffer from the evil of The Patriarchy, just as in economic Marxism, all workers suffer everywhere from the oppression of Capitalism. If feminists were to admit the obvious, that male-female relations are a function of culture, rather than a universal principle of oppressor and oppressed, they would have to admit that we here in the West are not living in a patriarchy any more, and that women have achieved the major goals that feminism set out for them to achieve. Women made demands, and men met them. Institutional misogyny has ended in the West.

The Patriarchy is not an ineluctable force in human affairs. It arose organically from conditions in tribal life, and while it persists in certain parts of the world, it has withered in ours. If feminism had remained a reform movement, it would have dissolved by now – just as, say, the literacy reform movement in Britain disbanded with the passage of the Universal Literacy Act in 1885. The Act did not guarantee every child would become fully literate, but it guaranteed every child would have the opportunity to become literate. Reform movements are content with institutional progress.

Instead, feminism doubled down into a revolution. Revolutionary goals tend to be utopian – mere progress is never enough – and tend to produce an industry of stakeholders who spring up in the academy to nurture it. When too many grievances have been redressed to justify continuing activism, career-invested revolutionaries move the goalposts, finding new grievances that are often trivial or based entirely in theory, not reality.

Male-female relations will never be perfect. There will always be a small minority of misogynists (all of whom, it seems, troll social media, making them seem more numerous than they are), a small minority of abusive men, a small minority of controlling male partners. But these men are not the norm in our society, nor is their behaviour ever condoned by their families or their communities or by any of society’s institutions. But if feminists were to admit that what is systemic in one culture is contingent in another, the feminist revolution would have lost its scapegoat – here at least – and feminists would have to admit that while the Patriarchy exists and women are suffering from it, the Patriarchy as a norm is elsewhere, and only here when elsewhere brings it with them.

Thus, in order to help women from patriarchal countries, feminists first have to acknowledge that their situation is vastly different from our own. Intimate partner violence – the updated term for domestic violence – is demonstrably violence of a completely different order from HMV. What we call “rape culture” on university campuses – frequently better defined as regretted drunken hook-ups rather than rape by Criminal Code standards – is light years away from a real rape culture – that is, a culture in which the rape of women is disturbingly common, is considered a stain on the victim rather than the perpetrator, and where the punishment meted out for the stain, while ignored or unaddressed by official law enforcement, is met with approval by kinsmen and society in general.

They must acknowledge that sex selection abortion, always femicidal, reflects a systemically high valuation of males and low valuation of women. (In the West, sex selection abortion is rare, but when it happens, it is usually andricidal.) In short, they would have to acknowledge that western culture is today, with individual exceptions, friendly to women, and most other cultures are, with individual exceptions, unfriendly to women. Such acknowledgement would, they believe, open them to charges of racism, and they simply can’t go there. What is more, they are the most vocal in condemning as racist those who do go there.

After she started attending classes at York University, Aruna met many feminists, and at first she enjoyed taking part in their animated discussions. But then, when she told her new friends the particulars of her life and they refused to pass judgment on the honour/shame dynamic her experiences reflected, slowly a certain truth dawned on her. As we wrote:

It seemed to me that the two most actively promoted orthodoxies at York University were instructing me to think in two opposed ways.

Feminism made me question my whole upbringing, encouraged me to be judgmental about the patriarchy, and challenged my loyalty to the men in my life. Feminism told me I had to be strong and forthright and autonomous.

But at the same time multiculturalism, an equally prominent philosophy that Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau had decreed would be Canada’s guiding principle for a just society seemed to be telling me that judging the behaviour of people from other cultures other than western Christian ones was patronizing and elitist. Multiculturalism seemed to be telling me I should continue to live exactly as I always had, because inequality of value between men and women was part of my culture, and all cultures were deemed to be of equal value.

What a paradox it all was. My recently-acquired education had given me the critical tools to compare my life with the lives of women from other cultures, evaluate the differences and pass judgment on my past experiences. So it seemed to me quite ironic that those [women] more educated than I were telling me on the one hand to throw off the shackles of my past, and on the other to accept them with serenity and even pride.

I would have more respect for the feminist position of nonjudgmentalism regarding other cultures if they applied the same principle to alternate life choices by women within their own culture. But here we find a double standard that demonstrates the soft bigotry of low expectations at the core of multiculturalism. The feminists did not judge brown South Asian Aruna and attempt to convert her to their program, but they did judge and try to convert white western me.

As Terry Corcoran, editor of the Financial Post, noted in a recent column about feminists like writer Margaret Atwood and former Supreme Court Justice Louise Arbour, who defend the niqab as a form of sexual liberation, “How odd. How totally contradictory for a movement that has been largely intolerant of any suggestion that women who bore children and stayed home during the 1960s were doing so freely as a matter of personal choice.”

He is spot on. We homemakers were told we only thought we were choosing home over careers freely. In fact, we were allegedly experiencing what is known in Marxist circles as “false consciousness,” i.e. we had been brainwashed, and it was the duty of our feminist sisters to awaken us from our political slumber. The founder of modern feminism, Betty Friedan, told us we were living in social “concentration camps.” I can assure you, as a “survivor” of the homemaker track, such an invidious comparison is beyond contempt. If my home was a concentration camp, what, pray, are the homes of women living under the regimes of the Taliban or the Saudis?

The philosopher Hegel famously wrote, “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.” At the end of the day, we will all be wise enough to understand that the ideologies of feminism and multiculturalism cannot co-exist in harmony. But will such wisdom come too late? Gang rapes have happened in our own culture. But when reported, they were prosecuted, the perpetrators punished, the victims comforted and the crimes deplored by society. Gang rapes followed by honour killings of the victim were never part of our culture, but while we report them, and ordinary Canadians have no difficulty in seeing them for what they are, feminists and feminism-inspired liberal elites have difficulty calling them out as cultural anomalies. Will we one day, as is apparently happening in Europe, see gang rapes followed by honour killings that go literally unreported, let alone unjudged for what they are, so that they do not, in the words of the Shafia murderers, “culturally stereotype” the rapists and the killers? What does the fact that I can plausibly speculate on such a possibility say about our own culture? Nothing good.

Feminists must choose between, on the one hand, an inflexible ideology and service to the ever-narrowing interests of their western peers, and on the other fidelity to reality and the expanding plight of women from misogynistic cultures. Tolerance of misogyny in the name of multiculturalism will inevitably lead to intolerance of tolerance in the name of a single culture. And it won’t be ours, or what’s left of it.


1 “Killing for Honour,” Briefing, The Week (UK version), September 25, 2010

4 Unworthy Creature: A Punjabi daughter’s memoir of honour, shame and love, by Aruna Papp with Barbara Kay (Freedom Press Canada), 2012.

The Prince Arthur Herald
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons