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School's Out: Honor Codes and Dress Codes

Maclean's Magazine Cover on February 13, 2012 showing the main story title "A Sick Notion of Honour" in red letters on a black backgroundSome big news broke recently involving the so-called "honor killing" of four women close to where I live, and the media coverage has just been troubling to say the least. A father, his eldest son, and his second wife have been convicted of first-degree murder in the slaying of three of their daughters and his first wife.

The fact of Geeti Shafia, Sahar Shafia, Zainab Shafia, and Rona Amir Mohammad's deaths is an unmitigated tragedy. But its political meaning for the Western states whose resources are being funneled increasingly into surveillance and policing (domestically, through immigration and border services, and through imperial wars) is not self-evident.

Nor, perhaps, is its connection to the topic of youth, sexuality, and education, but let me tell you what I think about that.

Much reporting has focused on how the girls were killed because they were beautiful, had boyfriends, wore revealing clothes, and just wanted to be "Westernized." It's obvious that in addition to telling Western states in a post-9/11 landscape that they are the modern antidote to what one national magazine has called "ancient barbaric 'honour' code," this kinds of journalism lets women know what they need to be in order to be truly modern, civilized, and free. Using the ironic combination of breathless surprise with tropes the "real" Canadian citizen is already expecting to hear, this editorial laments:

Collage of the three Shafia sisters and the first wife. The eldest two sisters look very posed and made-up. One of them is reflected in a mirror, taking her own picture with a cell phone

Before they died, the Shafia sisters were caught in the ultimate culture clash, living in Canada but not allowed to be Canadian. They were expected to behave like good Muslim daughters, to wear the hijab and marry a fellow Afghan.

Obviously, "real" Canadians don't wear the hijab, or promote troublesome ethnic enclaves by marrying within their communities of origin. Worthy members of the First World are independent from their communities, from religion (except from the Christianities which pass as secular in North America), dress in ways that reveal their bodies (definitely no veils allowed in this formula), and normatively heterosexual (not "fertile and conniving," or polygamous, like the girls' parents). Moralizing exposés like this represent an insidious example of the ways that youth—girls, especially—come to know who they are only through distinction from the (racial) Other. In the Orientalist picture drawn by media, these girls are victims of misogyny and barbaric sexual practices (polygamy, excessive fertility, arranged marriages) while "real" Western girls are portrayed as totally free from sexism, misogyny, social, familial, and reproductive control (yeah right!). This picture gives people an excuse not to acknowledge the ways that they themselves are tangled up in anti-woman anti-feminist systems.

Mainstream reports on the Shafia murders have taken the opportunity—when countless other women are hurt and killed every day in North America by their families, partners, and others—to narrate a profoundly racist story of fatal pre-modernity and the "ultimate culture clash" between "real Canadians" and "Muslims." The last StatsCan report on domestic violence revealed that 7% of Canadian women reported being physically or sexually victimized by a current or former spouse in the past five years. In 2007, intimate partner violence accounted for approximately 1683 US women's deaths. Yet, as Sherene Razack notes in her book Casting Out: The Eviction of Muslims from Western Law and Politics, "we do not, in these instances, refer to culture [or religion] as the root of the problem." (And figures like these don't even account for the women who can't or won't speak up, or for the hundreds of missing and murdered women of color whose deaths many officials don't even bother to count).

It is disheartening yet fully predictable to see this exploitation of a tragedy for race pleasure, what Anthony Farley describes as a pleasure in one's own superiority (ie. The magazine's take that "Most Westerners" would find a story about such misogyny "unthinkable") and the other's abjection.

Following the lead of many feminist, anti-racist activists, we would all do well to ask: What does this particular narrative of the Shafia case teach girls about how to recognize their own agency? Why this attention to "honor-related violence" (HRV) coupled with a failure to locate it on a spectrum of violence against women? Why in conjunction with religion and "non-Western" culture? Why now?

In my opinion? The way this story is being sensationalized now, instead of others, furthers a lot of imperial interests. One of them is reflecting to young females an image of themselves as being like the Shafia sisters—craving beauty, boys, sexual freedom—but as having the choice and the civilized duty to succeed where their culture/religion caused them to "fail."

Previously: Slut Shaming and the Empowered Young Woman, Popular Media and the Gay Teen Martyr

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Comments

6 comments have been made. Post a comment.

You ht the nail on the head.

I couldn't agree more with this post. What happened to these girls and their mother is horrific and the fact that it was at the hands of the people who were supposed to love them most makes it so much worse. However, the level of media attention this story received is completely out of whack with the typical amount of attention given to other cases of familial and domestic violence. Instead of recognizing this act as an expression of patriarchal power politics, it's being framed as something exotic, something completely nonexistent in Western culture. I know sensationalist reporting gets the most page views, but violence against women is a terrible thing, no matter who the perpetrator is. It's all worth our attention, not just when it allows us to paint other cultures as oppressors.

And, just because this line is NEVER drawn in news articles about honor killings, there is nothing in the Islamic religion that justifies honor killings. In fact, one of the first things the Prophet did as prophet was to outlaw the pre-Islamic practice of female infanticide, in which baby girls were buried alive to keep them from one day bringing "dishonor" to their families. Honor killings persist in SPITE of Islamic teachings, not because of them. I don't care whether or not these killers consider themselves to be Muslims; they're murderers and, in the eyes of their religion, they're still murderers.

I liked the article but I

I liked the article but I loved you comment because it is spelled much more boldly. Thanks.

Thanks for your comment, Mia.

Thanks for your comment, Mia. I have found it particularly interesting in the Canadian coverage how reluctant newsmakers are to make the explicit link between Islam (the West's stereotyped and monolithic (mis)understanding of an internally heterogeneous and contested set of religious and cultural practices) and HRV. The relationship is more than clearly implied though, and left unchallenged by sloppy journalism that allows any number of concepts to stand in for and bleed into each other. The color line = the culture line = the religion line...the hijab becomes a "veil," though it covers only the the hair...women's various body coverings, though worn only by some and sometimes moreso by fashion-conscious urban women such as in Egypt, becomes the symbol for Islam...and ultimately the popular imagination conflates a language [Arabic] with a culture [in reality, numerous Islamic and non-Islamic cultures] with a vast and shifting geo-political terrain [the "Middle East"] with a religion [really, a number of cultural and religious formations].

I do agree with the sentiment, but...

But I don't think the article was that bad. I'm grateful the story was told. Yes, the murders have received an incredible amount of media attention, however I don't think inordinately so. Three sisters and a wife murdered in such cold blood by members of their own family deserves an inordinate amount of attention, JMO.

And for sure the murders had nothing to do with Islam. They were about patriarchal control of women's sexuality, and I think the article said as much. I didn't see the article blame Islam. Did I miss that? If it was implied and I missed it, I need to go back and read it again, I think. Maybe I was assuming these things weren't there, and didn't see them as a result.

Thanks for your feedback,

Thanks for your feedback, Teej. The larger point I wanted to make with this post was that the Maclean's coverage is just one particularly influential example (since it is a national magazine with huge readership) of a much larger discourse of racial difference - conceived of alternately as being Muslim, Arab, or Middle Eastern, depending on who's speaking and for what purpose - in an age of US-led imperial wars in the Middle East. The images of the imperiled Muslim woman and the dangerous Muslim man in contrast to the often-assumed norm of the civilized white citizen have been extremely useful to US, Canadian, and other global Northern administrations in order to legitimate all kinds of surveillance (which can encroach on anyone's civil liberties, not just those being racially profiled), policing (in Canada, the Harper government is constantly talking about shutting down the borders even as the government quietly recruits the various kinds of migrant labour on which our economy depends), and arbitrary detention (Canada uses something called a "security certificate" that has allowed them to detain without evidence anyone who it suspects has the potential to engage in terrorism and to adjudicate whatever information they find, such as a history of simply being in Afghanistan over a certain period of years, in a secret trial).

Through oft-repeated language that equates the practices of some modern day people with the ancient past (what David Harvey calls time-space distanciation) and analytical unclarity that allows "culture" to stand in for "religion" to stand in for "colour" to stand in for "danger to the West," popular media reinforces notions about who are the "real" citizens of liberal democracies and actually justify treating people with certain "profiles" as second class citizens, all while congratulating itself for "standing up for women's rights" - when there's very little evidence that it ever cared about them in the first place. This is what I was trying to get at by mentioning that there are hundreds and thousands of women every year who go missing or are murdered by their families, spouses, and clients but their stories aren't sensationalized. They're not sensationalized because they don't further an agenda of securitzation in the same way as the "foreign threat" does, and because these are bodies that are already expected to endure violence and be expendable - often bodies that class politics has marked for deferred death (destitute women, sometimes sex workers) and that white settler colonialism has set apart using camp mentality (Indigenous peoples living on reserves, people of colour ghettoized in "ethnic enclaves"), etc.

Honestly, I think the best analysis I've read of how this ideology all works and who it works for is Sherene Razack's Casting Out: The Eviction of Muslims from Western Law and Politics. She uses case studies sort of like I tried to do in my post, in order to show that the language, images, and treatment of racial "others" in the post 9/11 landscape are not just about a news item or an individual opinion; they are part of a much larger, insidious, and powerful ideology that protects the interests of economic and cultural hegemonies of the global North.

It's the misogyny

I agree in part, but I think the media attention to this was not because they were Muslim, etc., but because it was a premeditated murder of children by their own parents for apparently mild infractions (what they wore, being independent-minded, etc.). Why it resonated with so many Canadians (me included) was because the thread of misogyny and patriarchy is familiar. All Canadian women might not have endured misogyny to the degree of these women, but we recognize it, we remember it, we feel it and it makes us angry. I think the tremendous interest is more about that. And i think the Maclean's article was overall very sensitive and well-done.