Escape or betrayal.
Added: Wed, 23 Jul 2008 23:00:00 UTC
Thanks to Linda Ward Selbie for the link.
Escape — or betrayal?
Why Muslim women who are oppressed by their families are often reluctant to break free
Whenever another honour killing hits the headlines or another Muslim female is vaporised into a forced marriage, the question I get asked more than any other is: "Why don't these women just leave?"
Even though the sense of intimidation and menace these women are subject to may be palpable, the answer to this question is not a simple one. There are many reasons why women who live in non-Muslim societies in the west and have the ability to leave their families in search of a better life do not do so. First and foremost however, what needs to be identified is that most Muslim societies exist in cultures where the authority of the family is overarching.
When a woman flees a forced marriage, a threatening brother or even the risk of death, as far as she is concerned she also leaves behind not only that but sisters, aunts, cousins, an entire culture, a belief system and closely interwoven units. The burden of honour, the shared ownership of the ramifications of her choices, stretches out across the lattice of her family and renders every move she makes magnitudinous, sending waves rippling and tainting hapless family members on the fringes of the epicentre.
The thought of escape conjures up images of innocent younger sisters shamed and abandoned, growing up in the shadow of her dishonour, and mothers who did their best to provide more freedom than her father would have allowed, crushed — their faith and trust in her flung back in their faces. To that she will add the vision of countless family members and friends who invested in her, gave her succour with a kind word or a gesture of understanding.
Emotionally blackmailed, it is difficult for her to view an escape as a heroic brave leap; the huge number of those she hurts and the dearth of those she benefits make it seem a selfish, cowardly endeavour. Surely, she thinks, it is more commendable to sacrifice oneself on the altar and at least elicit some satisfaction from one's martyrdom, than it is to bolt?
Besides, what is on the other side? The liberal ideals of a western culture do not a family make. She might have her freedom but who to share it with? She may fall in love, but who to rejoice with? From within the cultural outlook of a traditional family, it is difficult to envision the friends, colleagues and significant others who would potentially, eventually, come to be a comforting network. She thinks about the fact that by leaving behind her family, she truncates their existence in her life, freezing them out and precluding her children from the pleasure of maternal grandparents, aunts and uncles.
But it does not occur to her that their presence in her life may guarantee her daughters the same fate and that raising children within the same value system would predestine them to the very same dynamic she strove to escape. Bereft of all links to her prior life, she alone must impart her own genesis to her offspring, a heavy burden under which to traipse into womanhood.
The prospect of succumbing gradually thus becomes less daunting and is not necessarily an either/or. Muslim women more often than not are allowed, indeed encouraged, to get an education, a decent job as long as it is within the confines of the respectable parameters prescribed by family and milieu — not always a fate dire enough to warrant or justify a wholesale uprooting.
A cousin of mine once rejected a suitor to whom she had already been promised by her family. As her mother wept in anticipation of the perceived disgrace, an aunt gently whispered to her that she should "marry him, become a doctor, have children and buy some pretty curtains". And so she did. Was she forced? No. Not in a classic honour-based, violent way. But little enforcement comes in the way of physical violence; most is psychological and hence more insidious.
This dictatorship of the family is a result of a complex interplay between social pressures, cultural heritage and religious observance and is not a Muslim issue as much as it is a cultural one. The elders of a family are victim to these structures almost as much as their daughters, forced to choose between powerful parental instincts and their perception of themselves and their offspring as part of a tightly woven fabric, the rupture of which assails their very identity and self-perception.
In contrast to societies where individual opportunity and achievement are championed, Arab culture in particular subscribes to a more sober view of individualism, even more so in women, and is suspicious of all endeavours that do not run in tandem with the values of the group. This contributes to a way of life where the suppression of individual desire is likely and one's personal feelings, preferences or fears shrink in comparison to the grandeur of powerful existing structures, where these values have been so internalised that the injured party may even have sympathy for his/her oppressors, cognisant of their helplessness against their indoctrination, seriously believing no one person is evil or fully culpable. This ring fence applies to men as well as women, granted with a larger circumference for male members of the clan.
Of course, it is not just a religious issue; the pull of the eternal deep-rooted institution is omnipresent — be it religion, nationality, race or class. Only a few decades ago, inter-racial marriage came with the threat of familial excommunication, and if none had raised their heads above the parapet it would have stayed that way.
This conflict between the temporal and the ostensibly eternal is what is important. Whether it is campaigns to combat forced marriage in Muslim and non-Muslim Asian communities or honour killings in Arab regions like Jordan and Iraq, efforts need to be made to not only identify girls and women at risk but to provide mentors, sponsors and look to create alternative networks to make a break less daunting.
Evidently, not all Muslim women are oppressed but many are, and the high-profile stories in the media are only the most extreme manifestations, the tip of an iceberg of a silent mass of women living lives of quiet desperation.
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