In a rural community in Palestine, I watched a teacher tell a group of women that their husbands do not have the right to beat them, no matter what. “Even if he sees you kissing another man, he does not have that right,” she passionately pressed. One woman immediately interrupted. “If he cannot beat his wife,” she pondered aloud, “how can he take back his honor?”
After class, the teacher and I talked about honor in this community. “It’s synonymous with control,” she explained. “Men use honor to convince and condition women to accept their own subordination.” In honor-based cultures, a man’s reputation is vested in the behavior and bodies of the women in his life. While the specifics vary according to culture, honor impacts every aspect of life for girls and women. They do not have freedom to make their own choices because they are reflections of an abstract concept attached to their fathers, brothers and husbands. Their lives are not their own.
When an honor code is broken, women are often subjected to abuse and sometimes even death. The United Nations says that approximately 5,000 honor killings are reported a year, with an unknown number that go unreported. A girl can literally lose her life for holding hands with a boy. Further, women are ending their lives at alarming rates. Afghanistan, a place where honor is pervasive, is one of the few countries where more women commit suicide than men.
“I know my rights because I can read them”
Education is a one way to step away from the restrictions of honor. “I know my rights because I can read them,” one Palestinian woman said after learning to read, “and though I don’t have rights now, I know what I’m fighting for.” This is the start of change. When girls go to school, they don’t just learn to read and right: they learn the life skills, such as critical thinking, that they need in pursuit of these rights.
But yet girls did not place the honor burden on themselves. To transform honor-based cultures, men and boys must see their wives, daughters and sisters as individuals and not honor vessels. The United Nations HeforShe campaign is behind global efforts to mobilize men and boys for gender equality. In the meantime, organizations like the Tahirih Justice Center and Karma Nirvana help victims of honor-based violence, and the Malala Fund, Room to Read and Enhance Worldwide are some of the many organizations that provide access to education. When men and boys feel responsible for their own actions rather than the actions of girls and women, everyone is free.
What can everyone do right now? While it is important to support organizations working on the issues, knowledge itself is a form of activism. By learning about issues impacting girls and women and then sharing information, we can all help shrink the global tolerance for gender apartheid.