“Learn this now and learn it well, my daughter: Like a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman. Always. You remember that, Mariam.” This was the advice from Nana, a single mother, to her daughter in Khaled Hosseini’s novel, ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’.
There are certain things a respectable woman does and doesn’t do. She avoids eye contact with unrelated men, is modest in her attire and does not flaunt her ‘dangerous’ sexuality. Her honour, prestige and reputation are closely tied to the representation of her body and to male guardians.
Discussions about honour and shame in the Qur’an are often polarised around the cultural and social impacts of honour and shame. Some argue that honour and shame are significant aspects within the Qur’an, noting that several of the ninety-nine names of God refer to his honour. One author says, “honour appears as an entity in itself, something that God can possess and distribute”. The ‘mentalhealth4muslims’ website says “Islam defines shame according to whatever acts God deems unlawful (haram) or disliked (makruh)… any behaviour that is displeasing to God is what renders it shameful and anyone who engages in such acts should feel a strong sense of shame. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said ‘If you have no shame, do as you wish.’ ” At the very least, religion is often used to justify actions that are culturally associated with honour and shame.
A woman, alone in a garden, clinging to the man she supposed to be the gardener not only placed herself in a vulnerable position she acted shamefully, according to this previous discussion. And yet, the story contains none of those negative social impacts of shame for her, and in fact she becomes a messenger of the good news that Jesus has risen from the dead.
This important encounter in the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, draws our attention to another way in which Jesus deals with shame. He addresses this woman by name.
Mary Magdalene, grieving Jesus’ death, has gone to the garden where he was buried. She is stricken when she finds the tomb is empty, overwhelmed with the loss of the One who had given her life and hope. Her pain is so overwhelming that when she encounters a man, who she assumes to be the gardener, she begs him to help her.
I can still see the look of desperation on Madiha’s face when we found her at a hotel after she had left the college hostels without permission. This was her worst nightmare come true. There was the shame, but more than that her hopes seemed to have died. I remember caring for her in my rooms until family could come, and the way she shrunk back into herself, away from life. Grief and pain shrouded her, and all I could do was provide a safe space for her, though I also had that sense of foreboding about the arrival of her family.
I recalled this event when I was reading the Easter story again. With the gentle calling of her name, Mary Magdalene knew wholeness and restoration. In speaking her name Jesus lifted her from the shameful situation she had put herself into and restored her honour. In fact he sends her as his messenger to his disciples, a woman carrying the message of life and hope.
How could I have handled the situation differently to give Madiha honour and hope even when she was suffering shame in her cultural context?
Reading this story, I wondered how we create safe spaces in which women who are in situations of shame can be, spaces in which there is the possibility of encountering honour. It seemed to me that Jesus did this for Mary Magdalene. Even as she broke all the cultural rules of honour, being with him was a safe space.
Enabling women to know their value, which Jesus does in this case through the use of her name, reminded me that we need to be able to help women find/know their value. This is not always easy. But even as they face the cultural issues that burden them with shame, women need to know that they are valued, they have value. I acknowledge that this is not always easy, and yet it seems important in Jesus’ encounters with those who have suffered shame.
Jesus also entrusted a very important task to Mary Magdalene. She was to go and tell his disciples that he was risen. This deliberate act of commissioning Mary to a task reframed her story of shame as a woman alone in the garden with an unrelated male. Mary Magdalene was given a task of honour that left no room for the story of shame. How can we help women suffering shame by entrusting them with tasks that honour them?
How would you rewrite the statement of Nana in Khaled Hosseini’s novel in the light of Jesus’ encounter here with Mary Magdalene?
 Guru, S. (2009). ‘Divorce: obstacles and opportunities – South Asian women in Britain’, The Sociological Review, 57(2), pp.285-305. p. 293
 De Vries, G. (2007). ‘Explaining the atonement to the Arabic Muslim in terms of honour and shame: potentials and pitfalls’, St Francis Magazine, 4(II), pp.1-68. p. 34
 Quoted in: Mansoor, Nasreen (2017). Exploring Honour and Shame for South Asian British Muslim Men and Women. PhD Thesis. p. 56
 Name has been changed
Featured image: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-37735368
© When Women Speak … April 2021
CH spent more than three decades in South Asia and the Middle East working in education, community development and the Church, and was part of Interserve’s International Leadership for nine years, and recently returned to a leadership role. Her research has included women’s activism and social change in South Asia, violence against women and missiology. She is currently focussed on developing new streams of ministry among women who live under Islam and enabling women academics and practitioners to shape missiology and mission practice. She holds a PhD in Gender Studies (Australian National University).