If you’ve something to say, just say it

For reasons I can quite fathom it seems to be my week for picking fights with feminists for putting up bad arguments on important issues – first there was this little head to head over at Liberal Conspiracy and now there’s this article by Joan Smith in today’s Indy:

Joan Smith: ‘Honour’ killings are an outrage we must confront

Great. I’ve got no complaints there. ‘Honour killings’ are indeed a deeply shitty and reprehensible thing and confronting them, not to mention trying to prevent them from happening and chucking the book at those who commit them sounds a damn good idea to me. Brilliant – where do you suggest we start?

It’s a startling statistic: in one British city alone, 33 children under the age of 16 are missing from school rolls. Officials in Bradford have not been able to establish what has happened to them, and there are fears that some may have become victims of forced marriage.

Two days ago the children’s minister, Kevin Brennan, revealed the figure to the Home Affairs select committee and said that the Government also has concerns about 14 areas of the country which are suspected of having high levels of so-called “honour” crimes. Brennan said that Bradford City Council lost track of 205 children last year and had subsequently been able to establish the whereabouts of 172, leaving 33 – around 15 per cent – unaccounted for. While there may be an innocent explanation for some of them, the police and the Foreign Office forced marriage unit are dealing with around 500 cases each year.

Ah – some evidence of the problem.

Again, that’s absolutely fine by me – always worth knowing what you’re taking on before to try into things properly – so what’s next..?

The select committee’s chair, Keith Vaz, described the minister’s disclosures as “very, very serious” matters. “The figures you have given us quite frankly have shocked members of this committee just in relation to Bradford,” Vaz told Brennan. “There are 14 others areas where there are missing children. This is totally unsatisfactory.”

Last month the same committee heard evidence from a senior police officer that the true level of forced marriage and “honour” crime is not reflected in official figures, and that as many as 17,500 girls, women and young men may become victims each year. A series of trials has provided horrific insights into honour-based killings, one of the most shocking being the rape and murder in south London of a 20-year-old Kurdish woman, Banaz Mahmod, by hitmen hired by her father and uncle.

Until very recently, respect for the idea of multiculturalism has inhibited discussion of forced marriage and honour-based crimes in the UK. This doesn’t help anyone, neither potential victims nor the young men who come under pressure from relatives to commit murder on their behalf; in 2004, two boys aged 16 and 19 were ordered by their Bangladeshi father to kill their sister’s boyfriend, a student at Oxford Brookes University, who was from an Iranian family.

Oh right – some more evidence. Good, I think we’re starting to get a pretty good picture of things, so when do we start doing some of the confronting that was mentioned as the start and what kind of confronting are we thinking about here?

We have worrying levels of domestic violence in this country, carried out by people of all races and backgrounds, but it is important to recognise that honour-based crime is different in several important respects; it is planned in advance, may be carried out by more than one family member, and depends on the silent collusion, if not direct involvement, of many more. In Turkey, where hundreds of “honour” killings take place each year, a Turkish documentary-maker, Ayse Onal, has visited prisons all over the country, interviewing men who have been convicted of murdering sisters, daughters and mothers. Few of them show remorse and they are treated with respect by fellow-prisoners and guards, who approve of this method of restoring a family’s “honour”.

Okay, I take your point – this is all rather different to the kind of ‘run of the mill’ domestic violence we’re used to so presumably you’re thinking we need to take a bit of a different approach when its comes to the confronting bit in all this. Yes? No?

We urgently need to recognise honour-based killings as an expression of classic patriarchal values, which give fathers, brothers and uncles absolute power over women and younger, less-powerful males.

Well yes, that’s a perfectly reasonable theory although I’m not sure its something we need to ‘recognise’ so much as something that’s patently self-evident – this is the Indy you’re writing for here and given its target audience there’s just of a bit ‘teaching granny to suck eggs’ about that last observation.

And you’ve not mentioned anything on the ‘confronting’ side of things yet, either.

In societies built on such values, girls and women are regarded as commodities, not individuals. They are usually married off before completing their education, passing illiteracy on to the next generation. In Pakistan, where honour-based crime is a huge problem, the female adult literacy rate is 36 per cent, according to the UN, and only 15 per cent of rural women receive an education.

So it’s a Pakistani thing is it?

In Egypt, 45 per cent of women over the age of 15 cannot read or write, and 85 per cent of female heads of households in rural areas are illiterate. “Very often, a family will take their daughter out of school aged 13 or 14,” says Nihad Abul-Qumsan, director of the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights. “By the time she’s grown up, she’ll have forgotten how to read or write properly.”

Honour-based cultures depend on strict rules and even surgical procedures to allay their fears about women’s sexuality, and a staggering 97 per cent of Egyptian women have undergone genital mutilation. The Egyptian government finally moved to ban the practice (with results that remain to be seen) last year, after a 12-year-old girl died as a consequence of FGM.

Ah, right – its also an Egyptian thing as well… in fact this is starting to look very much like what you’re hinting at is that there’s perhaps a bit of ‘Muslim’ thing going on here that you’re not too chuffed about but heaven forbid that liberal old you be the one to come right out and say it plainly. I mean that would make you… well… a bit like Melanie Phillips, wouldn’t it, and you wouldn’t want anyone to think you were anything like that.

This is not just a women’s issue. When half the population is denied basic human rights, from education to being able to choose who to marry, the consequences are profound. Women are the “huge, untapped” economic resource of the Middle East, according to the World Bank, and there is a direct link between female illiteracy, poverty and poor health; life expectancy increases dramatically when women learn to read and write, while infant mortality and fertility rates fall.

Patriarchal values are supposed to make men feel strong but the evidence is that they do just the opposite, filling fathers and sons with unbearable anxiety and trapping entire families in poverty. They are the enemy not just of women’s rights but economic prosperity, and they have no place in the 21st century.

Yes, very nice but what about this business of ‘confronting’ so-called honour killings – what is it that you actually have in mind?

You specifically mentioned conditions in Pakistan and Egypt so are you thinking a bit of diplomatic pressure?

Or do you think we should criminalise forced marriages and treat claims to ‘honour’ as an aggravating factor in law and up the sentences for these crimes?

Or are you thinking that adding compulsory pilates, essays on Simone De Beauvoir and macrame classes to the national curriculum is going to the do the trick.

You don’t say – you set this all up with the idea that we need to ‘confront’ honour killings and then deliver a GCSE essay in contemporary feminist theory that says next to fuck all, at first glance, on the subject of how we should be confronting this issue.

And then, to take the whole fucking biscuit and dunk it in piss, you mince around like a cat on hot bricks rather that just say straight out exactly who it is that actually need to be confronted over these so-called ‘honour killings’.

Look, I should point out a this juncture that my reference to picking fights with feminists at the outset was intended to be just a little ironic. The actual feminist content in this article, i.e. the reference to the malign influence of rigid patriarchal social structures, is not in question. But what really hacks me off is the all the fucking pussyfooting around here.

The prevailing culture across the majority of the Islamic world is rigidly patriarchal and does, unquestionably, tend to promote worldviews which tend shit on women from a great height.

Whether and to what extent that culture is the product of specifically religious influences derived from Islam or the product of local cultural traditions, or a mix of both, is open to question – religion and religious texts are a ‘movable feast’ and if one looks at the text of the Koran – or the Bible for that matter, because Christianity and Judaism are no better in this respect – one can quite easily find textual references that can be interpreted as openly advocating misogyny and treating women like shit and other references which indicate that ‘true believers’ should do absolutely nothing of the sort.

Look, as I see it, what Joan is trying – and failing – to say goes something like this.

‘Honour killings’ are problem which is particular to, but not exclusive to, to Muslim communities and Islamic societies – you do, after, get this kind of thing within the Sikh and Hindu communities although seemingly much less often.

These are communities and societies the majority of which tend to be rigidly patriarchal and this patriarchal culture is one that is supported and sustained by specific aspects – or rather interpretations – of Islamic belief and elements of traditional culture.

In addition to using the law to deal with some of the obviously criminal practices that arise out of these social condition, such as forced marriages, ‘honour killings’ and female genital mutilation, there is a need to ‘confront’ those elements of religious belief and cultural practice which support and sustain those rigidly patriarchal attitudes which work against the interests of women, and one way of doing that is by empowering women through education and improving their economic circumstances.

Now that wasn’t difficult, was it. Everything that needs to be said has been said, and its been said in a manner that is clear, reasonably concise, relatively easy to understand and which, in no sense, degenerates into generic ‘Muslim-bashing’ of a kind that might be thought to be bordering on racism – which is what Joan appears most desperate to avoid here even to the point of rendering her article almost meaningless unless one is prepared to treat it like a cryptic crossword and figure out exactly what she fucking means by following the clues.

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