Comes Naturally #99 (July 28, 2000):
Of Sex, Honor, Power, and Control

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July 28, 2000
Copyright © 2000 David Steinberg


Perhaps the most fundamental of all the issues raised by the women's movement for equal rights is the struggle for women to gain the right of sexual autonomy. Sexual autonomy means the right of every woman to fully inhabit her personal sexual feelings and desires, to pursue her own sexual pleasure and satisfaction, rather than defining her sexuality primarily to please the men around her. Sexual autonomy means the right of every woman to behave sexually in whatever ways she finds most fulfilling to herself, rather than looking, first and foremost, to fulfill her partners.

Of course, there is also the core question of economics and financial autonomy for women. Equal pay for equal work, 59 cents on the dollar, and so on. Without economic autonomy, you might well say, sexual autonomy doesn't have much meaning. But we all know very well about the economics of gender equality-- these are the issues that we see in the news every day. The importance of sexual parity, by contrast, is constantly getting swept under the rug or into the closet. No one wants to admit that sex is just about as important as money, with regard to both personal fulfillment and personal empowerment.

Sexual self-determination is an essential aspect of personal growth, strength, and expression for anyone, regardless of gender. It is one core way that we come to know who we are, come to know that we are valid and important as human individuals, that our basic needs and desires will be honored, respected, and validated. The power and independence that we get from owning, embracing, and controlling our sexuality are just as important as what we get from owning, embracing, and controlling our economic circumstances -- at least once we have taken careof the most fundamental economic needs: food, shelter, medical care, a modicum of basic comforts, the knowledge that one will not be destitute in old age. Most of us who live in the wealthiest nation on the planet hardly hve to worry about these sorts of economic fundamentals. Our economic concerns are about luxuries, not needs. But when it comes to our sexual needs, our concerns becomes a good deal more primal, and it is here that the situation of women diverges most radically from that of men.

It is because sexual autonomy and empowerment are such fundamental human needs that governments, moralists, religious institutions, and other power brokers spend so much time, energy and money controlling the sexual feelings and behavior of everyone around them. If you control people's sexuality, you are well on the way to controlling them completely. People who are sexually disempowered lose a fundamental platform from which they might demand other forms of empowerment. People who are sexually confused and divided against themselves are easier to control and manipulate in non-sexual arenas.

Full sexual equality for women continues to be a difficult and complicated social issue, even in these times of expanding awareness and political organizing for gender equity. Significantly, only some forms of women's sexual power are controversial these days. Women's ability and right to sexually impact the men around them is well-estblished. Women are constantly being encouraged to work hard (and spend a lot of money) so that they can become more effective objects of male sexual desire. Women's proper sexual expression, the culture declares, is to arouse sexual desire in men, and then to subtly (or not so subtly) trade fulfillment of that aroused desire for a variety of other benefits (affection, marriage, financial security, the right to choose what color to paint the dining room).

But respect for women's sexuality on its own terms -- a woman's right to full sexual feeling, agency, and fulfillment in their own right -- is another matter entirely. To this day, women who lay claim to even the limited range of sexual expression that our sex-phobic culture grants its men are likely to be denigrated as sluts and whores, to be ostracized and marginalized by men and other women alike.


Nowhere is the connection between sexual autonomy and personal empowerment more clear than in cultures that exert the most severe forms of sexual proscription for women -- the "honor killings" that have recently become an issue of international attention and concern. Honor killings are most common in traditionalist Muslim cultures of the Middle East and South Asia, but they have also occurred among Middle Eastern Christian communities, and also in Great Britain, Norway, Italy, Brazil, Peru, Venezuela, and the United States. They involve the outright murder of women who are seen to have brought dishonor to their families through various forms of actual, suspected, or even imagined sexual behavior. This behavior can vary from actually having sex outside of marriage to merely talking to, or being seen in the vicinity of, men other than their husbands.

Throughout many Muslim communities of the Middle East and Pakistan, particularly communities where people are poor, uneducated, and unexposed to Western sexual attitudes, if a woman is perceived to have acted in a sexually dishonorable manner, the only way a family can regain its social esteem is for some (male) member of the family to kill the woman in question. Brothers a nd husbands rise to the occasion, sometimes with reluctance, but far more often with pride. Often the legal system stands solidly behind them -- either excusing the killings entirely, or dealing with them with exceptional leniency.

While most honor killings take place without publicity and are quietly concealed by government authorities, groups campaigning to outlaw the killings have collected disturbing statistics on the widespread practice of this form of antisexual murder. The Woman's Empowerment Project of Palestine, for example, reports at least 20 honor killings in Gaza and the West Bank during 1996 alone. The United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) notes that more than two-thirds of all murders in Gaza and the West Bank during 1999 were honor killings. Another UNICEF report cites more than 400 honor killings in Yemen, a country of only 16 million people, during 1997.

Official statistics in Jordan show 25 to 30 honor killings per year, a third of all reported Jordanian homicides. Human rights groups in Jordan say the actual figures are much higher. A government report in Egypt cites 52 honor killings out of a nationwide total of 819 murders during 1995, the last year for which crime statistics are available. In Pakistan, 286 honor killings were documented during 1998. Large numbers of honor killings are also known to take place in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq.

An insightful report by Amnesty International on honor killings in Pakistan explains that, in these cultures, "a man whose honor has been damaged must publicly demonstrate his power to safeguard it by killing those who damaged it and thereby restore it. The man who kills for reasons of honor becomes "ghairatmand" [possessing honor] and is morally and legally supported by his kinsmen."

Indeed, under Turkish law, killing a blood relative after witnessing an act of adultery, or even on suspicion of an illicit affair, is considered to be an act caused by "heavy provocation," with the usual death sentence for murder of a blood relative reduced to one-eighth of its severity (whatever that might mean). Article 340 of the Jordanian penal code says that "he who discovers his wife or a female relative committing adultery and kills, wounds, or injures one or both of them is exempted from any penalty." Article 341 adds that murder is a legitimate act of defense when "the act of killing another or harming another was committed as an act in defense of [a man's] life or his honor, or somebody else's life or honor." Article 98 further stipulates that "he who commits a crime in a fit of fury caused by an unlawful or dangerous act on the part of the victim benefits from a reduction of penalty."

Islamic scholars and women's groups hasten to point out that honor killings are neither prescribed nor justified by the religion of Islam. (Islamic law does, however, provide a penalty of 100 lashes to a single woman who is conclusively found to have a "relationship out of wedlock." If the woman is married, the prescribed punishment is death by stoning.)

"Islam recognizes and celebrates the inherent dignity bestowed by God upon all human being regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or religion," says a position paper on honor killings by the Muslim Women's League, an organization "working to implement the values of Islam and thereby reclaim the status of women as free, equal and vital contributors to society."

"Islam is clear on its prohibition of sexual relationships outside of marriage," says the League. However, "any accusation of illicit sexual activity [zina] must have been seen by four witnesses; and they must have been witness to the act of sexual intercourse itself. A woman falsely accused of zina has in her support the Qur'an, which spells out harsh consequences for those accusers who are unable to support their allegations with four witnesses."

This requirement for strict verification of sexual impropriety is quite a far cry from the circumstances that prompt most honor killings. While some women murdered in the name of honor are punished when they are discovered in the act of having sex outside of marriage, others are being killed for behavior far less certain or severe. Thus, a man in Jacobabad, Pakistan, killed his wife simply because he had a dream that she was having an illicit relationship. A 14-year-old Pakistani boy and 10-year-old Pakistani girl were killed after the boy was seen drying his sweat-stained shirt in the sun on a hot day while the girl was resting on a hammock nearby. The girl's elder brother, upon seeing this scene, spread word that the two had been sexual. They were killed several days later.

In Turkey, a teenage woman's throat was slit right in a town square after a love song was played on a local radio station, dedicated to her. A Pakistani woman was shot dead by her husband as she lay sleeping beside her 3-month-old son because a neighbor had seen a man, not a member of her family, standing in a field near where the woman was working. "I could not let people say I didn't protect my honor," her husband explained.

A 16-year-old Jordanian girl who had reported to the police that she had been raped, was shot in the head four times by her older brother as soon as she returned to her family. "She came to the house at 8:15," the brother proudly told a Time magazine reporter, "and by 8:20 she was dead.... She committed a mistake, even if it was against her will. It's better to have one person die than to have the whole family die from shame."

Dr. Hani Jahshan, the deputy medical examiner of Jordan, has the job of examining girls and women who leave home and are subsequently accused of having had illicit sex. He tells of examining the hymen of one 17-year-old girl who had run away from home with her sister. The girl's father had accused her of meeting strange men in a restaurant. Dr. Jahshan found that the girl's hymen was intact and ordered her released. Two weeks later both the girl and her sister had been killed by their father and two brothers who refused to believe that the sisters were still virgins.

As one Pakistani man explained to a Nightline reporter, "we don't let women out as there are various dangers. If someone told me my sister had gone outside, I would obviously have to break her mouth and hands and everything else."

Whatever the sexual behavior that is thought to have brought dishonor to the family, the woman in question has no opportunity to respond or to defend herself. Indeed, as one human rights activist in Baluchistan (Pakistan) explained to Amnesty International, the issue of whether a woman is guilty of an alleged transgression is entirely beside the point. "What impacts on the man's honor is the public perception, the belief, of her infidelity. It is this which blackens honor and for which she is killed. To talk of 'alleged kari' (blackness) makes no sense in this system, nor does your demands that a woman should be heard. It is not the truth that honor is about, but public perception."

Long-standing efforts to abolish and prosecute honor killings have recently drawn international attention. In April, 1999, Samia Sarwar, a 29-year-old Pakistani woman, was shot to death in the Lahore office of her lawyers. Sarwar was seeking a divorce from her abusive husband, a divorce that was considered dishonorable by her family. The killer, hired by the Sarwar family, came to the law office accompanied by Sarwar's mother and uncle. After killing Sarwar, the gunman attempted to kill at one of her lawyers as well. Sarwar's father, Haji Ghulam Sarwar, is president of the Chamber of Commerce in the sizable Pakistani city of Peshawar. Since the killing, Samia Sarwar's lawyers have received numerous death threats from the father and a group of his supporters. A reward has repeatedly been offered for their assassination. This despite the fact that one of the lawyers is head of Pakistan's Human Rights Commission and a United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Arbitrary, and Summary Executions.

After unusual public outcry, both within Pakistan and abroad, a resolution was brought to the upper house of the Pakistani Parliament by the Pakistani People's Party, condemning the practice of honor killings. The resolution, however, was defeated, setting off protests by human rights activists in Islamabad, the Pakistani capitol. In late September, the government responded blandly, saying only that it would study Amnesty International's extensive analysis of honor killings in Pakistan. Minister of Information Mushahid Hussein noted that he thought the Amnesty report was exaggerated. He stressed that no new legislation was needed to deal with the issue, that the question was one of ensuring proper enforcement of laws that already existed.

A campaign by women's and human rights groups in Jordan to repeal laws that condone honor killings has won public support from newly-crowned King Abdullah and his brother, Prince Ali. This continues royal backing for honor killing legal reform that was initiated by the late King Hussein and actively promoted by then-Queen Noor. While public disenchantment with honor killings is growing in Jordan, it is nevertheless expected that the repeal effort will be defeated when it comes up for consideration by the Jordanian parliament later this year.

As a legal system crystallizes in newly autonomous Palestine, the Palestinian Women's Center for Legal Aid and Counseling is conducting an active campaign to bring the issue of honor killings to the attention of both the Palestinian National Authority and the Palestinian Legislative Council. Sharif Kanaana, a professor of anthropology at Birzeit University, predicts increasing reexamination of the honor killings issue as more Palestinian women become educated, find jobs, delay marriage, and become increasingly independent of their extended families.


All in all, it kind of makes you glad you live in the land of the [somewhat] free and the home of the [sometimes] brave, doesn't it? And yet the issue of who controls women's sexual desire and activity is one that is also being fought daily in this country -- in the courts; in local, state, and national legislatures; and in a hundred million bedrooms from coast to coast.

Of course, we don't break women's hands for going out of the house unescorted, and we don't legally codify killing women for having sex outside of marriage. But we still ostracize sexually active women, particularly adolescents, as bad girls and sluts; we still look down on women who celebrate their sexual feelings without apology or shame; we still treat women who have extra-marital affairs as a threat to the social order, differently from how we criticize men who do the same; we still ridicule women who actively pursue sexual pleasure in unconventional ways -- whether that involves vibrators, younger men, or just more sex than others think appropriate; we still condemn prostitutes for choosing to be sexual in the name of financial gain and independence; and we still, in many states, insist that marital rape is not a crime. Significantly, these social tools for exerting sexual control of women are not simply implements of the patriarchy: It is often other women, even more than men, who are quickest and most brutal in condemning the sexuality of their more obstreperous sisters.

It is certainly true that, in many Western cultures, these attitudes are in the process of rapid change, for many of the same reasons that Sharif Kanaana cites regarding changing attitudes toward women in Palestine -- new education and career opportunities for women, increased acceptance of women whose identity transcends their roles in extended or nuclear families, access to accurate sex information, and of course the availability of safe, reliable birth and disease control. But until women in this society are as free as men to think of sex primarily as a vehicle for their personal pleasure, expression, and fulfillment, it would be a mistake to think that the honor killings that occur halfway around the globe have nothing to do with our world of Western "progress."

[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see Three books by David Steinberg -- "Photo Sex," "Erotic by Nature: A Celebration of Life, of Love, and of Our Wonderful Bodies," and "The Erotic Impulse: Honoring the Sensual Self," are available from David by mail order at If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]

David Steinberg
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