Honour and shame: two sides of the stigma coin

10:29 am - December 12th 2007

by Zohra Moosa    

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I had a conversation yesterday with a friend about domestic violence within the Muslim community in the UK and the issue of why some Muslims resist discussing what they know is happening in the company of non-Muslims.

In my friend’s view, challenging Muslims, and Muslim men in particular, about domestic violence in such an open space, where non-Muslims are present, is problematic because of the current socio-political climate within the country, including widespread Islamophobia. She felt that a public naming of the problem would be hijacked by those with a racist agenda to further demonize Muslims in the eyes of the UK public, for instance by accusing Muslims of having barbaric cultures.

While I don’t disagree that this hijacking is likely, I remain unconvinced that this is sufficient justification for not being vocal about violence against Muslim women in a relevant forum such as a meeting with the police on ‘community safety’ for one key reason: I believe advocating silence makes one complicit in the stigmatization of the victims. This stigmatization, in turn, is closely related to ideas about honour and shame that undermine women’s rights.

It is extremely difficult for most women to report violence because the stigma of being a victim of gender-based violence makes them feel ashamed. In some instances, this shame is actually encouraged, as many examples of so-called honour killings have demonstrated.

What is important to note about honour killings, or indeed other crimes against women and girls in the name of honour is the way that women are being framed as property where their bodies and behaviour have worth for others. This worth, which can increase or decrease, is about a woman’s role as the embodiment of a man or a family’s, or even a community’s, honour through symbolic representation.

I believe that the reluctance to expose violence against women within one’s racial or religious community is related to these concepts of honour and shame. I think for some people there is shame that the violence is happening to begin with. For others, there is a sense of shame about how ‘the community’ will look in the eyes of outside observers if and when this violence was to come to light.

A community’s honour, in terms of its ability to present itself as culturally righteous, is threatened by the evidence of its failure to protect its women from abuse by its own members. The solution proposed is to encourage community members, including women survivors who would benefit from being able to speak out about the problem and hearing that they are not alone, not to expose the violence at all.

In allowing the abuse of women to be treated as a political football, where women’s rights to bodily integrity and justice are trumped by so-called community interests, the message is sent out that the worth of women to the community is in terms of their value as symbols and not for themselves.

There is not doubt that the evidence of domestic violence within the Muslim community in the UK could be used for malicious intent by racist people. But why should Muslim women’s interests, namely their rights to live free from violence, be sacrificed as a defence?

Why should not the perpetrators be required to sacrifice something for providing the fuel for racists in the first place?

This post was originally published as part of the 16 Days blog (25 Nov – 10 Dec 2007), part of the 5050 initiative on openDemocracy.

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About the author
Zohra Moosa is women's rights adviser at ActionAid UK. She also blogs at The F-Word and is writing in her own capacity
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Equality ,Feminism ,Religion ,Sex equality

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Reader comments

” for instance by accusing Muslims of having barbaric cultures”

But if “honour killing” is part of a culture, and such murder is obviously barbaric…?

Hello Zohra,

I believe that the reluctance to expose violence against women within one’s racial or religious community is related to these concepts of honour and shame. I think for some people there is shame that the violence is happening to begin with.

No, I don’t think that’s the conclusion that I would draw. As you hint at, there is a bit more to it. I think the problem is that women (and I am certainly not singling out Islam alone here) in most religions are portrayed as inferior creatures in the core religious texts. Therefore to highlight their plight at the hands’ of abusive husbands is not much of an issue to their religious community. It’s just part of the doctrine. But again, I wouldn’t want to single out Islam here, there are enough interpretations of Christian doctrine in which the husband is entitled to beat up his wife and children. Just as there are enough Muslim families where husband and wife live in an equal partnership.

So, to answer your questions (somewhat lazily): take religion out of the equation and go back to basics. You just don’t beat up anyone and certainly not your partner (let alone your children) who you are sworn to stand by for the rest of your life. And there’s certainly no shame in calling any abusive husband on their behaviour. The more such behaviour is exposed and the less it is implicitly tolerated by looking away the better.

Isn’t it contradictory to defend a culture against accusations of barbarism by stifling debate on that very barbarism ? I don’t understand how criticising the repugnant aspects of a culture equals racism, unless you define racism as anything other than uncritical acceptance of any and all cultural practices, aka moral relativism. Does “your friend” think the barbarism charge unreasonable and belive it only acceptable to confront the issue in a white/christian context ? You cannot have it both ways…..

But if “honour killing” is part of a culture, and such murder is obviously barbaric…?

The problem is, such simplifications are annoying. Of course honour killing is barbaric. But that doesn’t make the whole culture barbaric. The problem is, people from the outside looking in always caricature cultures based on news stories they hear. This applies as much to people like Hizb ut-Tahrir who say that “western culture” is decadent (although Melanie Phillips seems to agree…).

5. Margin4 Error

Excellent article zohra

I’ve often wondered why there can’t be a better framing of the debate by muslims themselves on this.

I have muslims freinds, for example, who decry people like Osama Bin Laden as not being Muslim. And as far as they are concerned he is no more an adherant of their religion tthan I (an atheist).

But within the UK this seems harder to do. While no good muslim man would disrespect a muslim woman by beating her, it seems harder for the ‘muslim community’ to effectively ‘expel’ its members and declare them non-muslims. (which is quite an influencing thing to do to a person who despite his violence would surely wish to consider himself a good muslim?)

I don’t know why this is.

If you regard someone as being a part of a community, and they regard themselves as being a part of that community, surely you should expect them to show loyalty towards it.

And to try to avoid embarrassing it in public.

I think your friend is making a mistake in thinking that the ‘admission’ of violence still needs to be made. The whistle-blowers from Asian communities are already out there, supported by women’s charities and groups who campaign against domestic violence. So I would say that the problem of culturally related domestic violence is a pretty widespread idea. If young British Muslims are worried about how their religion and community looks to the outside, then discussing the problem in ‘public’ would be a pre-requisite, I reckon.

Any attempts by so called ‘community leaders’ to suppress such discussion, or solve it behind closed doors, is always counter-productive. First, they look like an ostritch with its head in the sand, reducing the credibility of the faith and its followers. Second, they hamper the wider project, which is to separate these abhorrent practices from the decent aspects of the culture/faith – both in the minds of the adherents, and in the minds of the rest of the population.

With the establishment of the New Generation Network, and the rise to prominence of young, liberal people within Muslim and other faith communities, I would say that the “should we speak up?” question has already been answered.

There are many people who try to exploit the benefits of confusion over descriptions between cultural and religious communities, and they exist in all faiths.

Richard Dawkins recently described himself as a ‘cultural Christian’ in an attempt to forge empathetic connections with people of unshakable faith who he has previously rejected. People like Stephen Fry or David Baddiel claim their cultural connection with Judaism in order to reconcile their personal history with an analysis of Israel, while the Osama Bin Laden’s of the world know there is a ready-made audience for Jihhadism if they can overcome the separation between spirit and practice.

Truth is that you can never win an philosophic argument unless you win an audience to proselytise it for you, but winning an audience by playing up to their sentimentality is an acknowledgement of being on the losing side.
Truth will not be held hostage, as it is never the exclusive preserve of one side or the other. The way to the truth is found by seeking what is common between you.

If this lady’s argument is that you shouldn’t criticise wickedness and wrongdoing within your own community because it ‘lets the side down’, it’s a very poor one.

10. douglas clark


Did you actually read the last two paragraphs? The author is quite clearly coming from the other side of that debate.

Hi Robert @7
There certainly are whistle-blowers around. But the ‘widespread idea’ isn’t actually as widespread as I would like *within* some communities. I disagree that the question has already been answered – as clearly the conversation I had with my friend was raising it again.

It’s not just ‘community leaders’ that are loathed to discuss domestic violence either; and many young people are not only complicit, but some are the most passionate policers about not ‘airing dirty laundry’ for fear of it being used against them/us. It is unfair to suggest that all ‘community leaders’ are regressive and all young people liberal and progressive. It’s not that simple in my opinion.

ad @6, I think Muslim women, speaking for myself, belong to more than one community. That’s where the tension lies – in the case of the article, the expectation is that Muslim women should show loyalty to ‘the Muslim community’ rather than to other women or other communities of interest/affinity they/we may belong to.

Personally, I am not too happy with the notion that anyone “belongs” to a community.

If people should be loyal to an identity group such as “Muslims” or “women”, then what is wrong with the BNP?

The tension comes from a requirement to be loyal to different identity groups.

I am not happy about people being loyal to such groups in the first place.

13. Hit the nail on the head there, we are a British community or we are no community at all really. Trying to make divisions apparent in diversity only leads to prejudice.

Douglas – by “this lady” I meant the one who’s views were being reported – not the author of the article.

Hi Zohra,

I have already left a brief comment on your blog @ P.P. It’s brilliant to see this level of comment on here. In the midst of all the political wonkery that passes for news these days, it is easy to forget that there is still much to be done in obtaining full dignity and self-determination for women- particularly those in some minority communities.

If I could focus on one point in a spirit of collaboration, it would be your discussion around symbols. Deconstruction and Marxist Semiotics did a great job in the 70s and 80s of providing a sort of intellectual tin-opener to access these debates. Academia is full of ever more complex and problematising expressions of these schools of thought. But we have to take a more pragmatic approach if we want to want to see real change soon.

17. douglas clark


Point taken.

ad @13 I’m confused; your original comment @6 was about the reasonable expectation that people would be loyal to groups they see themselves, or others see them as, belonging to.

MixTogether @16, Hello

Could you say more on your ideas re symbols?

Zohra – I do feel that such feelings are a reasonable expectation.

It is just not something that I particularly want to encourage.

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