15 November 2011

In Iraq, Juliet's Father and Brothers Would Have Killed Her

Rand Abdel-Qader, 17, [was] murdered because of her infatuation with a British soldier in Basra, southern Iraq, [and] her father is defiant. Sitting in the front garden of his well-kept home in the city's Al-Fursi district, he remains a free man, despite having stamped on, suffocated and then stabbed his student daughter to death.

Abdel-Qader, 46, a government employee, was initially arrested but released after two hours. Astonishingly, he said, police congratulated him on what he had done. 'They are men and know what honour is,' he said.

Rand, who was studying English at Basra University, was deemed to have brought shame on her family after becoming infatuated with a British soldier, 22, known only as Paul.

She died a virgin, according to her closest friend Zeinab. Indeed, her 'relationship' with Paul, which began when she worked as a volunteer helping displaced families and he was distributing water, appears to have consisted of snatched conversations over less than four months. But the young, impressionable Rand fell in love with him, confiding her feelings and daydreams to Zeinab, 19.

It was her first youthful infatuation and it would be her last. She died on 16 March after her father discovered she had been seen in public talking to Paul, considered to be the enemy, the invader and a Christian. Though her horrified mother, Leila Hussein, called Rand's two brothers, Hassan, 23, and Haydar, 21, to restrain Abdel-Qader as he choked her with his foot on her throat, they joined in. Her shrouded corpse was then tossed into a makeshift grave without ceremony as her uncles spat on it in disgust.

'Death was the least she deserved,' said Abdel-Qader. 'I don't regret it. I had the support of all my friends who are fathers, like me, and know what she did was unacceptable to any Muslim that honours his religion,' he said.

From here.

This take on Islam, while not universal, is also not uncommon in many parts of the Islamic world. And, when it comes to the role of women in society, the portion of the Islamic world (as measured by population anyway) where there are values that overlap with those of the West or those of the East, for that matter, are probably less common.

I'm not necessarily asserting that Islam has always been so harsh, or that Islamic doctrine compels these traditional cultural practices. I don't consider myself confidently enough informed after three semesters in college learning about Islam, past and present, and some independent inquiry later in life, to have an accurate opinion on that question and the answers to that question are tenuous and enmeshed in doctrine, legend and politics. My instinct is that the practices of urbane convert Byzantines in the heyday of the Islamic empire when its cities were the greatest in the world, its multi-ethnic holdings made its capital diverse, and it was a global center of science and medicine and mathematics were probably not nearly so harsh as those that prevail in Basra today.

Islam, of course, has no monopoly on treating women monsterously. There are circumstances in which traditional Hindu values are just as troubling. Women's lot hasn't been that great historically in much of Christian and Jewish history, and other religions dead and still flourishing have had their own hangups; the list is not exhaustive. Different denominations, sects and branches of each of these religions differ materially on the appropriate roles of women. Mormon views on gender and sexuality differ from Episcopalian views. Hassidic Jews and Reform Jews differ. A Saudi Arabian Wahabi and a South Pakistani Sufi are worlds apart. The range of views on the roles of women amongst modern Hindus in India is probably greater that the range of views held by Christians globally.

Individual sects also evolve. Life as a Mormon woman in 1851 was much different than it is in 2011. The day to day life of a Jew in much of the period of pre-Rabbinic Judaism was probably more like the life of a modern Middle Eastern Muslim than it was like the life of an American or Israeli Jew today. Vatican II greatly changed the approach of the Roman Catholic Church to the lives of the women in its parishes.

In short, I am not convinced that religious doctrine is really what drives the way that particular cultures at particular times treat women. But, if that is the case, what does?

One important big picture hypothesis of anthropology sees these differences as strongly linked to historical means of food production and economic organization, and further to the technologies associated with those forms of economic development. Hunter gatherer societies are prone to different norms than herders who are prone to different norms than hoe farmers who are prone to different norms than plough farmers who are prone to different norms than societies that have been urban for many generations. Perhaps there are other distinctive types I've omitted, fishing or raiding perhaps. Cultures of honor are often linked by anthropologists to a legacy linkd to herding on marginal lands, which was a leading means of economic survival for the ancestors of modern Arabs for thousands of years and was the kind of society in which both Islam and Judaism apparently arose.

Histories of war, of weak or strong states, of scarcity or abundance, of stable societies and rapidly changing ones may play a part as well.

I think it is hard to say that honour killing is a practice that ever makes some kind of cultural sense in the 21st century anywhere, even among modern herders who have found other fixes to the circumstances that favored its codes of honor, despite their superficial similarity to the societies where it may have arisen. It seems like one of many cultural legacies that are vestigal and the product of vastly different circumstances at some point in the past, although it is hard to imagine what those circumstances could have been. It seems to take multiple generations for cultures to adapt to new circumstances. Perhaps, in a century, it will have pretty much vanished. But, its existence and widespread acceptance in multicountry areas also points out that the notion that there is some universal morality out there that is not socially constructed is naiive.

As the story quoted above makes clear, there is more than a societal norm at work here either. The wife of the man who killed his daughter divorced him and was appalled by his actions, and that wife had misjudged her own sons. While the police, militias, and local politicians have backed the man's actions, others in the society perhaps a subordinate faction in terms of political power would not have backed his actions (and the official bureaucracy where he worked certainly had some misgivings about it) and many of the people who don't think that he should be punished for what he did probably wouldn't have done it themselves. There are about three honor killings a month in Iraq in a country of more than 24 million people. The symbolism is powerful, and part of a larger ethos that also sanctions private corporal punishment including killings against gays, looters, and prostitutes, but the frequency of these events suggests that the vast majority of young women who had been discovered acting as Rand Abdel-Qader had, might have been punished, but not nearly so severely, by their families who were less extreme exemplars of the "culture of honor" displayed in this case.   We will probably never really know what made her father so much more of a violent asshole than his fellow countrymen who share the same ideology but aren't so extreme in acting upon it.  America is full of men who kill their daughters, who may be very similar; they just don't receive so much public acceptance when they do so.

My sense is that there are parallels between the value system in which this makes some kind of sense and the American gun culture. "Make my day" killings may be rare in the American South, but they have a powerful cultural resonance.

It also isn't obvious precisely how societies "grow out" of this kind of culture.  Dueling and physical violence in response to insults, even among elected officials in Congress was common place in 18th century America and France.  Now, this kind of behavior is gfreatly suppressed and it has been for most of the 20th century at least.  What factors were most critical in bringing about that change? How could those lessons be applied elsewhere?


Steve Roth said...

Hey, came by because I much liked your comment on the EITC over at Lane Kenworthy's. This post as well; worth checking out Steven Pinker's discussion of cultures of honor in his latest book, on the historical decline in violence.

Also like the ref below re: shareholders (not) owning corporations. Just to say hi, I've subscribed.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Pinker's book is on my "to read" list (like a lot of people). I've read reviews and I am on the fence over whether he's reading too much into it. As to crime, I think he's probably on point (including culture of honor). As to war, I'm not so convinced.

I hope you enjoy the blog.