[This article is an excerpt from a longer article by Louise Simon that you can read here.]
A woman’s position, achievements, or age … are not as significant as her behavior in determining how she is perceived. Boys are often presented with a positive “carrot”—you will be honored if you behave appropriately. Girls, on the other hand, are taught from a negative “stick” perspective—your appropriate behavior ensures you do not bring shame upon yourself, your family, and the wider community. Girls are consistently taught about what brings shame and are strictly disciplined in how to dress, talk, and act. Women in the Middle East speak about their need to avoid doing things that would result in a loss of honor and argue that men have more ways to actively achieve honor. These Middle Eastern women bemoan perceived “double standards” where it is acceptable for boys to have girlfriends, but not the other way around: “boys who date girls never marry them because they can’t trust that they haven’t had other boyfriends prior to them, and because they wouldn’t want to marry girls with such loose morals.”
While Muslim women can gain honor in the ways described above, it remains true that a woman’s honor is most often shown through modesty and sexual propriety. An Arabic expression sums up this emphasis: “A man’s honor lies between the legs of a woman.” A man’s, and therefore the family’s, honor lies in a woman’s chastity. Thus, the men in a woman’s life—her father, brothers, uncles, husband, and sons—are pre- dominately concerned with ensuring that she acts in a way to preserve the honor of the family, particularly through preventing her from doing anything that could lead to an accusation related to sexual shame. Egyptian doctor, writer, and feminist Nawal El Saadawi (1994: 43–44) emphasizes that for the men in a family “[t]he stigma of dis- honour, of losing one’s honour, could only be washed off by blood.” She proceeds to vividly describe a woman’s wedding night where a midwife pierces the bride’s hymen and shows the blood as “the mark of an intact honour . . . honour meant the honour of the male, even if the proof of it was in the body of the female.”
For a woman, even a suspicion of sexual impropriety can “wreak havoc with her family’s honor” (Baxter, 2007: 747). The wealth of journal articles about Muslim women and “honor killings” or “honor violence” demonstrates the high value placed by Muslim men on maintaining their honor in the community through female sexual propriety. The men of the family are not the only members who are responsible for the behavior of the women. Baxter (2007: 751, 752) states that in Palestine, older female relatives are also expected to monitor a woman’s behavior, and that her “performance of daily, mundane activities” is “observed and evaluated” for appropriateness.
Women are expected to cover, or hide, their “awrah/aurat,” the “shameful” or “naked” parts of their bodies, the interpretation of which varies across the Muslim world according to local contexts and interpretations of Islamic law. For some, cover- ing their bodies with loose-fitting long clothes, is enough. Some advocate covering the ankles, feet, and hands. For many, a head-covering of some sort is prescribed, but what kind of head covering is also debated. Southeast Asian university students expressed surprise when they saw a video of a fashionable Muslim in the UK wearing a turban- like head covering (rather than a hijab), saying “the requirement is to cover the neck.” Other Southeast Asian students felt free not to wear a head covering of any sort, with some indicating that context is more important: ‘in some rural villages if you don’t wear one [a hijab] people will think you are not good and not polite. In the city, however, no-one can tell if you are a “good” girl or not: some girls wear one for show, to hide something that would be shameful, like a tattoo or the fact they are really prostitutes.’
For other Muslims, it is not just the body that needs covering but the voice as well— they must ensure that their voices are not an allurement to men. Women are taught not to bring attention to themselves in public and to act appropriately around men by speaking quietly and sparingly, and by being modest and demure—sometimes the word “shy” is used. Modesty in the Horn of Africa is shown by keeping one’s eyes down, covering one’s mouth when one speaks, smiles, or laughs, and not shaking hands with men. Women must not be too extrovert, or too social around men. Women in South Asia are careful about what they wear, who they talk to or associate with, and how they talk, especially to men outside of their homes. One South Asian Muslim said women “should walk slowly, with small steps, not swinging their arms.” A polite, well-mannered woman in Southeast Asia is said to be one who “sits properly, does not speak loudly or rudely, does not make noises with her spoon when she eats, and does not wear sexy clothing.” A woman’s name should not be called out in public in some Middle Eastern contexts, since honorable women are meant to be “unseen.” The women in a family are sometimes not even spoken about by the men—to the extent that other men may not know if a friend of theirs has sisters.
In many countries, women are not permitted to be seen in public with a male who is not a relative. This is to ensure that she does not do anything that could be conceived of as shameful, and to stave off any gossip that could arise from her actions. However, in one Southeast Asian context where there is freer mixing of males and females, a Muslim woman asserted that it is still important for women to “dress in a way that won’t arouse a man’s lust and not go from boyfriend to boyfriend or do something that would damage one’s reputation.” Males and females must not be demonstrably affec- tionate toward each other in public, even if they are married. Women will also ensure they are not seen anywhere that would bring them into disrepute. Southeast Asian university students said they would not go to karaoke bars or nightclubs. Similarly, in the Middle East, a Christian woman observed that: ‘there are certain cafes in my city where alcohol is served and/or people smoke water pipes, and my friends would never go to them. Not just because they don’t smoke or drink, but because they want to put themselves at a distance from any possibility that someone could accuse them of something dishonorable.’
Religious and pious behavior can bring a woman honor. In the Gulf, one Christian woman reported that piety is less about clothing and more about knowledge—the abil- ity to study, memorize, and recite the Qur’an is prized. In South Asia, a woman who behaves religiously, by getting up very early to pray, for example, is given more honor. Conversely, some Muslim women in Southeast Asia feel that “being more pious or giving the appearance of being more religious” (e.g., by wearing the niqab)3 does not bring a woman more honor. They said it is “sometimes embarrassing when people act piously in front of others.”
Other Muslim women have reported different behaviors lauded as honorable or respectable, including “obeying one’s husband’s wishes” or being “good to” one’s hus- band, and “not fighting back.” One South Asian woman commented that her sister silently endured domestic violence to honor her parents—if her parents had known and had brought her home, they would have been shamed. Modest women in Central Asia hide their troubles, not showing them to everyone but continuing to smile and have a “warm face.” Honorable women in the Gulf “have dignity even in the face of suffering” and are “empathetic and can mourn with others.” In West Africa, the first wife in a fam- ily, as well as the husband, are respected if they can “stay calm.” Taking time to walk through the village, to sit, and to talk to everyone in a “calm” way shows “you have everything under control, which is a sign to everyone that you’re trustworthy.”