A Question of Honor

What do female genital mutilation, forced marriages and acid attacks have to do with honor?

(photo: Register Files)

Honor Diaries is an award-winning documentary about the phenomenon of honor violence against women in Islamic societies. 

It’s a disturbing, yet inspiring film that tells the story of nine activists who are working to improve the lot of Muslim women. These nine women, who were themselves the victims of violence and intimidation or had friends or relatives who were, are hoping to motivate others to speak out against the soul destroying customs of the honor culture.

What do female genital mutilation, forced marriages, and acid attacks have to do with honor? In Islamic societies, a man’s honor has less to do with his character and more to do with his ability to control the women in his life. If wife, daughter, or sister behave themselves, they bring honor to the man (and the whole family). If they adopt Western ways or dress, or if they question the tenets of Islam, they bring dishonor to the family, and the punishment can be beatings, disfigurement, or even death. 

Thus, an “honor killing” is committed in order to restore family honor and purity.

The film provides several examples. After cutting off his wife’s nose and ear, one man proclaims, “I am proud of what I did. … I did this for my honor.” A Canadian man who, with the help of his son and wife, killed his three Westernized daughters and his other wife, says, “God will see that I am not left without honor. Nothing is more important than our honor.”

Honor Diaries has been shown on 275 college campuses, at the United Nations, the National Press Club, and the British Parliament. Hopefully, it will be seen by many more audiences. The situation for Muslim women won’t change unless the pressure of public opinion is felt strongly in Muslim societies.

Because of the size and influence of the Church, Catholics could play an important role in raising awareness. The film provides a convenient way to do this. It could be shown in parishes, on Catholic college campuses, at Marian conferences or in other venues.

But, if they remain true to form, Catholic groups may be reluctant to get involved. There is a great deal of confusion among Catholics about Islam, and the main result has been avoidance of the subject. Priests do not talk about Islam from the pulpit, experts on Islam do not get invited to speak at Catholic parishes (although Catholic specialists on Islam are frequently invited to speak to Protestant congregations), and bishop’s conferences issue bland and platitudinous statements about our “spiritual brethren.”

The reason for this caution is that the leaders who set the tone for other Catholics seem to have drunk deeply from the cup of multiculturalism. For them, the “virtue” of cultural sensitivity is on a par with the virtue of charity, and divisiveness is the cardinal sin. Catholics who have been conditioned to think this way believe it is simply wrong to question or criticize another culture.

It’s a mindset that is shared by many in the West, and the filmmakers address it head-on. The logline for Honor Diaries is “culture is no excuse for abuse.” The nine women featured in the film keep coming back to this point: When cultural sensitivities come in conflict with basic human rights, it is the cultural sensitivities that should yield.

Catholics understand this in regard to other issues. In recent years, our own culture has shifted toward acceptance of abortion and same-sex “marriage.” A Catholic who maintains that the right to life is of greater importance than a woman’s right to choose to end her unborn child’s life will be trampling all over the sensitivities of many in our culture. So, too, the Catholic who denies that same-sex “marriage” is a fundamental right. His position will be offensive to those who subscribe to an opposite set of deeply held beliefs.

There are, in short, higher values than cultural values. And although it would be nice if cultural values reflected these higher values, this is not always the case. In such circumstances, universal human rights that are rooted in natural law should trump merely cultural values.

However, it’s a bit more difficult to assert this truth when it comes to completely different cultures. You can criticize the abortionist, but criticizing the aborigine or the Afghani is well-nigh taboo. Still, the same principle holds. There are more important things than a man’s culturally conditioned sense of honor — and a woman’s right to life is one of them.

It’s a sensitive issue to be sure, but let’s not let’s our highly developed sensitivities prevent us from coming down on the right side of the issue. Many Muslim women feel trapped in the Islamic honor system. When Catholics and other Christians remains silent on the issue, it only serves to reinforce the trap.

Of course, it’s not just fear of offending that prevents Catholics and others from speaking out. Anxiety about being smeared with charges of racism and Islamophobia is also a factor. And it’s a realistic fear. 

Last year, the University of Michigan at Dearborn canceled a planned showing of Honor Diaries after the administration came under pressure from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). The CAIR officials perceived the film as — what else? — an attack on the honor of Islam, and lobbied vigorously to have the event canceled on the grounds that it was “Islamophobic” and “anti-Muslim.” U-Mich took the hint and caved.

The question for Catholic organizations is this: When the time comes to make a decision about Honor Diaries or about any other criticism of Islamic oppression, will they take their cue from CAIR or from the Church’s teaching about the equality and dignity of all human beings?

It’s estimated that 5,000 women per year are victims of honor killings and that 8,000 girls per day are subject to genital mutilation. In many countries, more than half of all marriages are forced. Those who believe that we should respect other cultures at all costs, should stop and count the actual costs.