February 21, 2011

Muslims, Christians, honor killings, and abortion

Filed under: Books,Interfaith relations,Religion and sex — Camassia @ 9:28 pm

I will post more about Miroslav Volf’s Allah, but I wanted to try to fill a gap in Volf’s book by bringing in another book I just read, Kwame Anthony Appiah’s The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen. For all the differences Volf discusses between Muslims and Christians, he never mentions one that always comes up whenever people start debating the subject: women. Volf says in passing that he doesn’t much like the status of women under Islamic law, but he’s focusing on commonalities in the book, so he never goes at it directly. Yet some Christian sources he quotes make it apparent that the dispute isn’t just a product of modern feminism, but an older idea of how best to honor women. Medieval Christians disapproved of Muslims’ practice of polygamy and concubinage and their hope for carnal rewards in heaven; Martin Luther is also quoted as saying their freedom to divorce treats women disrespectfully. We don’t hear from the Muslim side about this, although the Quran does accuse Christians of worshipping the Virgin Mary.

I have, for a while now, been developing a theory that honor is actually an important part of feminism, and indeed American culture in general, despite the fact that we tend to think of honor codes as belonging to foreign cultures and older times. That’s why I was interested in Appiah’s book. Appiah is a philosopher of Ghanaian origin now at Princeton, which means I know practically nothing about him because my knowledge of philosophy is minimal. But he evidently writes for a mass audience, and in this case he argues more or less what I was thinking: that the desire for honor is an ingrained part of the human being, and that it still exists in the modern West but in an altered form. He argues that honor can, in fact, be employed in the service of liberal reforms. In the book, he describes three “moral revolutions” of the past — the end of dueling, footbinding, and the Atlantic slave trade — which fought traditional notions of honor with newer versions of honor. After that, he discusses how this process might be deployed to end honor killing.

As Appiah points out, honor killing is forbidden by Islamic law, so Volf was in that sense justified not to bring it up in his book. But Americans tend to place it among the alleged barbarisms of the Muslim world, both because of its fairly widespread practice there and because the actual Muslim laws on sexual behavior are nearly as harsh. Appiah acknowledges that as well, so he doesn’t entirely exonerate Islam from the issue.

But first, Appiah writes a very interesting elucidation of the meaning of honor. Honor codes, he says, are not the same as moral codes. That’s how you can get a situation like you have with honor killing, where law and religion say one thing and honor says another. In fact, that is true to some degree of the three other examples he gives. Dueling was always forbidden by the Christian churches and by civil laws, but was so entrenched in the aristocracy that almost nobody got convicted for it. Footbinding was long criticized by the literati and subject to an attempted ban by the Manchus when they took over China in the 1600s, but it persisted so hard the Manchus ended up adopting it themselves. The slave trade was legal, of course, but was never without controversy in both religious and secular quarters.

To help clear up what’s going on, Appiah distinguishes between several different types of honor. The one Americans are most familiar with is esteem, the honor accorded to somebody for doing something well, whether it be their job or their avocation. Such esteem is not necessarily related to morality, which is why people say things like, “He’s a scuzzy human being, but I love his music.” But the type of honor that was more relevant to his case studies is peer recognition. The duelists of early-modern Europe were landed aristocrats — “gentlemen” — and the dueling custom was based partly on their recognition of each other as peers. Being a gentleman, like other peer honors, is something you’re born with and don’t have to earn. But you can lose it, if you don’t behave in a way befitting the peer group. If a commoner insulted a gentleman, the proper response was to strike him with a horsewhip. If a gentleman insulted a commoner, the commoner couldn’t do much of anything. But if a gentleman insulted a gentleman, that called for a duel, a fight carefully designed to have a level playing field. Appiah points out that this equality was treasured partly because it ignored the internal rank-ordering among the gentry, ranging from royalty down to untitled landowners.

Dueling was about individual and family honor, but the other cases involved national honor. Appiah writes that footbinding was also an aristocratic custom among the Chinese, though it filtered down to the masses. The hobbling of women signified their chastity, since they presumably couldn’t get into much trouble if they could barely walk. In that sense, it reflected personal honor. But once China came into regular contact with the West, the Chinese realized that other countries were horrified by their sign of honorable chastity. This amplified the longstanding criticisms, shored up by Christian missionaries who not only preached against it but introduced the locals to unbound women who were nonetheless chaste.

The slave-trade episode brings peer recognition and national honor together. According to Appiah, what really made the movement effective was that the working classes organized against it. (This is in Britain he’s talking about; obviously the U.S. situation was different.) The movement ultimately reflected the push toward equality in Western societies, which theoretically treats all people as “honor peers.” Appiah says the word “honor” died out from this meaning precisely because it was associated with hierarchy, but the British gentry’s egalitarian peer-recognition system essentially became democratized. He prefers to use the term dignity for this, following the more recent language of human-rights activists. Describing the shift, he makes this observation:

A number of philosophers have recently argued that it is always a good idea, in discussions of equality, to ask first, “Equality of what?” This view has a great deal of merit as a philosophical proposal, but I think it is the wrong place to start historically. When equality became, with liberty and fraternity, one of the three great slogans of the French Revolution, it was not because people had a clear idea of what it was they wanted equality of. What they knew for sure was what they were against: treating people badly because they were not born into the nobility, looking down your nose at the common people. The ideal of equality in modern times begins, in short, with the thought that there are certain things that are not a proper basis for treating people unequally, and only gradually moves on to identify some things that are.

Appiah goes on to say that race and gender have joined the unacceptable bases for discrimination, in some quarters at least. As a result, his cure for honor killing isn’t especially different from other Western liberals': promoting the advancing equality of women with men, and shaming those who resist. But what I got out of it is a lot more complicated.

Honor killing, like footbinding, is ultimately based on reproductive control. Just like Chinese families bound their daughters’ feet to make them look chaste, families in honor-killing societies are expected to police their daughters’ sexual behavior in a conspicuous way. This helps prevent illegitimate children from being born, and also gives some promise of fidelity to future husbands. This in turn boosts women’s chances of getting husbands of high status — or any husbands really — putting both the woman and her family in an honorable estate.

Unfortunately, Western women today aren’t exactly making like Chinese missionary wives and demonstrating how all this is unnecessary to create chaste spouses. In fact, defenders of honor killing — as well as female genital mutilation, which follows a very similar logic — often point to Western decadence as an example of exactly what they’re guarding against. Since the sexual revolution, a sizable contingent of Westerners, feminists not least among them, have sought to disconnect honor questions from chastity altogether. But there is one controversial, morally dubious practice that Westerners engage in that also ensures their reproductive control. The title of the post tipped you off: abortion.

Now, when I say abortion is a morally dubious practice, I am not talking about my personal opinion of it so much as what Americans at large think of it. Poll results are notoriously variable on this, but the overall gist of it is that a large number of Americans believe abortion is morally wrong, a killing even, and yet they are willing to allow it in some cases, especially rape. So that leads to the conclusion that a non-trivial number of Americans think it’s OK to end an innocent life to clean up after sexual misconduct.

Many activists don’t buy this. They think the inconsistent numbers mean Americans don’t really believe that abortion is wrong. But after reading Appiah’s book, I can completely believe they think both things at once. It is highly consistent with what happens when honor and morality conflict. The question is, if this is honor killing, what sort of honor is being defended here?

The pro-choice movement certainly uses honor language, especially of the variety that crops up in Appiah’s slave-trade chapter. They rally people who never had an abortion, and probably never will, by implying that the honor of women as a whole is at stake. Abortion laws are men, or government, looking down on you and saying they know better than you. They are violating your bodily integrity and your human dignity. And if you let them do that, God knows what they’ll do next, because they don’t see you as an honor peer and feel they could do anything to you.

On an individual level, there are other honor issues, which vary depending on where you are. One is the old-fashioned shame attached to an unwanted pregnancy, exposing a woman’s unchastity. Among more progressive types, there’s still a certain shame attached to the evident sign that you don’t have your life together. To not put to fine a point on it, where I come from uncontrolled reproduction is for the ghetto and the trailer park, not for people who want to achieve anything. Also, with the battle lines drawn over abortion, choosing to go through with the pregnancy will be respected by pro-choice friends but probably not hugely sympathized with. And that doesn’t create a real friendly environment for adoption, as a commenter on a previous post pointed out: “It’s also hard to figure out if the legalization of abortion created a counter-stigma on women who give up their children for adoption. After all, it means walking around for at least four or five months having everyone know you are pregnant, but also having to explain “Well, but I didn’t want to HAVE a baby.” When the father is a rapist or something similar, bearing his child seems to be letting him colonize your life — not to mention the world — more than he deserves. All this makes it more difficult for women trying to compete in the workplace and politics with men who don’t have these problems.

So in one sense, Americans probably understand Middle Eastern honor killing better than they think they do. But of course, in another way honor killing and abortion are polar opposites. One assumes that reproductive control is a collective project, with the woman herself only having one vote in the matter, and often not the most important vote either. The other has the woman take on nearly the entire responsibility herself, with everyone else around mainly to support whatever decisions she makes.

If you truly don’t believe abortion is wrong, the appeal of the latter position, especially combined with the abuses of the former, is undeniable. But a few cautions are in order. The old collective model of reproductive control never really went away, partly because individuals aren’t always great at making sexual decisions. Many a woman has found that their friends were right when they said, “I know that guy is hot, but he’s bad news.” Parents still rightly try to shape their kids’ behavior, schools educate them about birth control, and so on. Where the collective model goes wrong, it is because people put the woman’s interests behind their economic or political ambitions, or hiding their own failures, such as the fact that they didn’t protect their daughter from getting raped. But it’s not like economics and failure-hiding aren’t reasons for a lot of abortions.

Another problem with the woman-alone model is the position it puts men in. Some men have claimed that, since women have the right to abortion, they should be able to refuse to pay child support, if the pregnancy was not their intention. Women have generally objected on the basis that, if one person has to decide whether to have the baby it should be the woman, and anyway men have so many other privileges this isn’t such a big deal. But this is not exactly a long-term plan for equality. Feminists want to take away those other privileges in any case, and the whole structure creates a zero-sum game between the sexes: the more reproductive control the woman has, the less the man has, and vice versa. If reproductive control is such a point of honor as many feminists make it, it’s little wonder that men don’t particularly want to cede it.

Some time ago, I wrote a post objecting to a commenter’s claim that taking away birth control from women would turn them into “reproductive cattle.” I can see now that it offended my honor, because it sounded like I need the Pill to make me a full human being. You don’t have to earn peer honor, but you can lose it — even when your peer group supposedly includes all of humanity. You still have to behave in a manner befitting a free, rights-bearing individual. That does not always come naturally.

I don’t know what the solution to all this is. But I think this has some bearing in dialogues with members of other societies. Volf, writing some guidelines for dialogue between Christians and Muslims, quotes another scholar saying that in any such discussion there are four participants: you and me, and your image of me and my image of you. Volf adds another dyad to that equation: my image of myself, and your image of yourself. I know what he means: when I hear some Westerners talk about Islamic societies, they can definitely sound like they believe their own PR a bit too much. We haven’t solved the age-old problem of reproductive control through free thought and technological magic. We haven’t really figured out how to honor women while accommodating biological differences. We do things that morally we don’t believe in. That doesn’t mean we don’t have any wisdom on these subjects to offer Afghan tribes or whoever, but we shouldn’t act like we already have the answers. Perhaps we can go looking for them together.


  1. […] Appiah’s description of the role Christian missionaries played in ending footbinding got me to thinking about what makes […]

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