Thursday, February 26, 2009

Love, Sex, Honor And Shame: Modern Women In Iraq


Sleeping Nude by Marcus Moura (Brazil)


He raped me in the train on our wedding day. I was 13 years old. I'd met him face to face for the first time that day; we were on our way to the honeymoon in Basra. I started screaming I was so scared, but I stopped when he started hitting me... (Zahra)

If you have the opportunity to only read one book in English about the status of modern women in Iraq, your choice should be Sana al-Khayyat's Honour & Shame: Women In Modern Iraq. The book is a ground-breaking, in-depth study conducted over several years among the women of Iraq by al-Khayyat, who was born in the country and holds a PhD in Sociology from Keele University.

In Honour & Shame: Women In Modern Iraq, Al-Khayyat presents a testimony to the world of Iraqi women. Ranging from executives to illiterate housewives, the women speak with frankness of sex and marriage, physical and mental violence, the fear of scandal and their indoctrination into the ideology of honour and shame.

Iraq, as al-Khayyat tells us, is a patriarchal society reinforced by Bedouin traditions. I would call Iraq a socially-dysfunctional society, where the rules, mores and rituals of Arabic culture and Islamic tradition form a heady syncretism which seeks, keeps and binds Iraq's women.

If you follow the Iraqi blogosphere, there is a lack of illumination on women's issues. The secrets Iraqi women have to tell, for the most part, are kept hidden from us, with only bloggers like Marshmallow, Riverbend, Layla Anwar and Touta discussing such topics. That is why, Sana al-Khayyat's Honour & Shame: Women In Modern Iraq is a hidden gem, a shining revelation, as the Morning Star tells us, which Lives and throbs with the yearning of Arab women to be free of oppressive constraint and submission.

Read it and weep. Here are some of the highlights (or lowlights) of the book:

Honor and Sexual Conduct in the Arab World

...the most important connotation of honour in the Arab world is related to the sexual conduct of women. If a woman is immodest or brings shame on her family by her sexual conduct, she brings shame and dishonor on all kin. The subtle differences in the notion of honour are reflected in Arabic, which has two words for honour. One, sharaf, means honour in the wider sense; the other, ird is so important that he will swear by it like the name of God; a man might swear by the ird of his sister...

Why the Arab World Encourages Marriage

Writing on the family, Nahas ('The Family in the Arab World', Marriage and Family Living) has explained the main reasons behind the encouragement of marriage in the Arab world. He notes that while Islam urges people to marry, the social climate of most Arab countries arouses sexual impulses early, although tradition still enforces sexual segregation. The marriage of girls also relieves the family of worrying about their virginity. Finally, the desire for children is very strong among the Arabs.

Love, Iraqi Style

There may be love, but it is not expressed; certainly not in the ways it is expressed in the West. It is considered to be very private, even for husbands and wives; they are not encouraged to show love to each other in front of other people--it would be considered dishonourable on the part of the wife and a weakness if it came from the husband... Husbands assume that for them to show affection might 'spoil' the wife, who would take advantage of them and become demanding.

Iraqi Women are Much More Tied to Their Natal Family Than Their Husband

Iraqi women feel that they belong to their natal family and have much stronger ties with it than with their husband. This might also explain why women tend not to develop any emotional feelings towards their husband; they see him as an outsider who might leave them at any time, whereas the natal family will never do so.

Iraqi Women, Sex and God

Iraqi women are taught to believe that to treat their husbands well in bed, that is, obey demands for sexual intercourse, fulfils their duty to God. Because of this, they put up with their husband's bad behaviour, and try to please him just the same.

Iraqi Men are Unfaithful, So Keep a Watchful Eye on Them

Girls are also taught from an early age that men in general are unfaithful and not to be trusted. By keeping an watchful eye on her husband, treating him well and trying to please him, particularly in bed, a wife will ensure that he remains faithful to her.

Iraqi Women, You Better Think Twice About Giving Birth to a Female Child

My mother had six children: three boys and three girls. When she had her last child--the third baby girl--my uncle was so angry, he beat my mother, causing her grievous body harm which resulted in her death a few months later. (Labiba)

The Most Important Role of Iraqi Parents is to Insure Their Daughter Remains a Virgin Until Her Wedding Day

Young females are socialized to fear men and sexuality and to protect their virginity at all costs. They are taught to avoid strenuous exercise, jumping from heights, or sitting on sharp edges, in order to keep their hymen intact. Correspondingly, the parents' most important duty is to ensure their daughter remains a virgin until her wedding day. That part of a girl's body is considered to be more important even than her eyes, arms or lower limbs.

It's Hard For an Iraqi Woman to Achieve Sexual Satisfaction With an Iraqi Man, or Even Know Where Her G Spot Is...

Iraqi men tend to have minimal knowledge of the female anatomy, and they either do not know how or do not wish to arouse their wives... Men's expectations of sex are high, but since women have no experience and their husbands have no interest in making it pleasurable, it is hard for them to achieve sexual satisfaction. It is important to stress that men themselves do not wish to initiate their wives into sexual fulfilment because they believe it will make them promiscuous.

Hide Your Eyes, Women's Underwear Is Present

Clothes are normally dried on a washing line on the roof, to keep them away from the eyes of inquisitive neighbours. It would be particularly shameful for women's underwear to be seen. This custom often necessitates a woman climbing two long flights of stairs to take clothes up to the roof, rather than using a line in the garden.

The Age Of No Hope

When sexually active, women are constantly controlled and watched until they reach what is called sin al-yaas, the age of no hope. This social belief affects every aspect of women's lives at this age, as some women enter menopause at 40. Starting from this age, and particularly if a woman is widowed, she will wear dark coloured clothes, in most cases black, for the rest of her life. She will wear very little or no make-up and restrict her activities, in order to be imraa wa koora, wa razima, 'a respectable woman.'

Male Sexuality in Iraq is Sacred And Noticed. Female Desire and Passion Must Be Silenced

Society operates a double standard as far as morals are concerned, recognizing only male sexuality. Moreover, this sexuality is regarded as sacred. The idea that women's sexuality and passionate nature, once aroused, will prove too strong to control, and could threaten the whole of the social system, is still a powerful force behind the treatment of women and the behaviour of men... If a woman feels any sexual desire it must not be admitted, even to her husband.

Walad Majnoon Wala Binit Katoon

An Iraqi proverb runs, walad majnoon waala binit katoon, meaning, 'A crazy boy is preferable to a katoon girl.' Katoon describes the concept of the most perfect girl imaginable, one who possesses all the 'feminine' virtues and household skills as well as being beautiful and charming.

Differentiation Between Males and Females Starts Even Before Birth

A phrase frequently used to congratulate a newly married couple is, 'We wish you prosperity and sons.' When a woman becomes pregnant, she will hope, throughout her pregnancy, for a boy. If the baby is a girl, everybody she knows will pity her and feel unhappy for her. In Iraq when people visit the mother of a baby girl, they frequently say, 'It's all right. The womb which held a girl will hold a boy next.' Or, if they are trying to be considerate, and the attitude of the in-laws threatens to become hostile, they might say, 'Never mind. At least the mother's all right.'

Do Iraqi Men Still Slaughter a Cat on their Honeymoon Night?

Another fast-disappearing traditional practice is the bridegroom's slaughtering a cat as the bride enters the bridal chamber before they have sexual intercourse. This was done to scare the bride into obedience, based on the belief that if she were to disobey the husband's demands for sex on the first night of marriage, it might make him permanently impotent.

Do Women In Iraq Still Know Very Little About Their Future Husbands? Perhaps So...

Most women in Iraq still know nothing more about their future husband than his name and appearance, some information about his family and financial status, and particularly his level of education. They know almost nothing about his personality...

Child Raising: Iraqi Ideas of Manhood and Womanhood

In order to fit ideas of manhood, boys are taught to treat younger children as inferior, though ill-treatment of young children is not acceptable from girls, who should always be kind and calm. Whereas boys are taught to be strong and not to be afraid, girls are constantly reminded of fear, and of their physical weakness. They are expected to control themselves and their needs and not be demanding... Boys, on the other hand, are taught to demand what they want and ask for it directly.

Submissiveness is Valued in Iraqi Girls

Because a girl is often awarded for being being submissive and obedient, she will tend to develop a passive or negative personality. The family will make decisions about every area of her life: what she eats, the clothes she wears, how she spends her time, and also more important matters such as education and marriage.

Yes, Iraqi Men and Women are Emotional, But Only Women Pay the Penalty for it

Women as well as men are socialized to be emotional, though in different ways. Men exaggerate their emotions (sometimes, as we have seen, by shouting at their wives and children), but this is not perceived as a sign of weakness. With women, however, although society encourages them to be emotional, this can sometimes work against them, since they are identified with traditional, backward practices such as crying for death... One of the strongest reasons given for excluding women from positions of decision-making is that they are over-emotional.

It's Socially Acceptable for Arab Men to Show Irritable Angry Behaviour

At all-male gatherings, men tend to be aggressive and quarrelsome. If a man is aggressive in the street, this may lead to a general fight. In the case of a car accident, the drivers might get out and start punching each other. Men also tend to make loud sexual comments about any woman in the street who is not veiled or who wears revealing clothing. This behaviour is more common among poor, uneducated people. When educated men need to release their aggressive feelings they do so mainly at home.


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