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Price Of Honour Essay, Research Paper

The scholarly journal being critiqued is “Price of Honour: Muslim Women Lift the Veil of Silence on the Islamic World” by Jan Goodwin. As an award winning journalist, women’s’ rights activist and prizewinning foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, Jan Goodwin spent four years covering the Middle east through wars, insurrections, and the volcanic upheaval of resurgent fundamentalism. “Price of Honour: Muslim Women Lift the Veil of Silence on the Islamic World” is the story of Goodwins’ intrepid journey toward an understanding of the women behind the veils, and of the often contradictory political, religious, and cultural forces that shape their lives. Defying stereotypes about the Muslim world, Goodwins’ acute analysis of the world’s fastest growing religion deftly illustrates how Islam’s holiest texts have been misused to justify honour killings, and how male pride and power have warped the original message of a once liberating faith.

Attiya Dawood is one of the many women writers who have emerged as powerful and unfaltering voices for women living in the underdeveloped world, a world joined not only by the thread of Islam but also in its unequivocal denial and suppression of basic human rights to its female population. Women’s voices in that part of the world are no more faltering, fearing, or whispering anymore. They are fighting not only against illiteracy, culture, tradition but also against that omnipotent concept of honour killings which is constantly invoked to legitimize various restrictions and abuses.

Poems by Attiya Dawood serve as an appropriate prologue for a book which deals with the situation of Muslim women in the underdeveloped world. Jan Goodwin travelled through the Islamic heartland to 10 countries : Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, UAE, Kuwait, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, West Bank and Gaza, and Egypt. She interviewed hundreds of women, from peasants to city elite, from ordinary housewives to vanguards of women’s rights in those countries. She also spoke to countless men who found segregation between men and women only natural and justified in Islam, and also to their religious leaders who were more than obliging to provide theological basis for these practices from Quran and Islamic history. Goodwin especially concentrates on honour killings, a cruel and unjustifiable practice which is becoming increasingly common in Muslim societies.

Goodwin’s journey starts in Pakistan where she lived for two years in the late eighties. There, she kind of adopted an Afghan girl as her daughter. Later on, this Afghan girl was physically abused by her own father and was forced to marry a man older than her father. As she witnessed this trauma, Goodwin wanted to understand what it was like to grow up as a Muslim female in the underdeveloped world. She wondered whether what happened to this Afghan girl was a general phenomenon in the underdeveloped countries or was this experience intrinsic to a culture, specially one espoused in the Islamic countries. By the time she finished her exploration she was convinced that the plight of women in these countries was largely the result of ‘Islamic values’ and of what she calls ‘leitmotiv’ of growing fundamentalism in these countries.

The book can be loosely divided into three parts: her interviews with the women and detailed case histories of those victims of abuse and exploitation; her efforts to find theological and theoretical underpinnings of the situation; and her effort to determine the political dimensions of Islamic world and its influence it has on the West.

The part detailing women’s situation in the countries Goodwin visited, serves as a journalistic catalogue of case studies, and is perhaps the best part the book. Goodwin’s journalistic skill to keenly observe the impact of dress codes and locating symbolically important cases of women’s abuse help the reader to grasp the gravity of the situation. According to the author, the coerced use of ‘Hijab’ or veil in these countries is the most visible symbol of fundamentalists’ attempt to deprive their female population of their basic human rights. Such demands on dress code in the name of modesty are usually followed by other efforts to legitimize and institutionalize inequality for women. Legal issues such a polygamy, child custody in case of divorce, or for that matter, the very right to divorce, rights of property, legal barriers a woman faces in cases of rape, all accumulate to relegate women as second class citizens in these societies.

In 1985, the president of Pakistan established a commission to investigate the status of women. The report concluded “The average woman is born into slavery, leads a life of drudgery, and dies invariably in oblivion. The grim condition is a stark reality of life for half of our population simply because they happened to be female”. Not surprisingly, according to the author, the government suppressed the findings. In Afghanistan “fatwas”(religious orders) are issued to ban or limit education of women, and the first Islamic government installed after the fall of communists in 1992 immediately declared that only men could participate in future elections. In Iran ‘Pasdaran’ make sure that women are properly dressed and the clergy emphasizes the role of women limited to household and raising children. In Kuwait women demonstrate for suffrage. In Jordan ‘Islamicists’ seek to ban women from holding public office because they are “deficient and lacking in religious education and understanding, rash and guided by their emotions”. In each country, suppression of women is sustained primarily by creating an atmosphere of fear and intimidation and augmented by discriminatory customs and/or laws all invariably justified in the name of Islam. Goodwin concludes that it is this atmosphere that has encouraged honour killings. Any woman defying these laws or “fatwas” and disregarding discriminatory customs is considered to have violated the honour of her father, brother or husband and is therefore punishable by death.

A large part of the book is also dedicated to prominent and not so prominent cases in each country of horrific abuses of women. Goodwin is basically a journalist and the best part of her book is when she uses her journalistic skills to investigate and interview her subjects. The quality and depth of her investigation seems to depend on the length of her stay in a particular country. For example in Pakistan, where she stayed longest, she was able to investigate not only very famous cases but also cases of very ordinary women whose misery was at least equal if not more than those of the prominent ones. She also had time to interact with the local organizations which are in the forefront of struggle for women’s rights in the country. Her coverage of Jordan on the other hand is limited to a few, very prominent cases of harassment of women there by the Islamicists and a rather large part is devoted to Jordan’s Queen Noor.

Goodwin tries to go into details of how the Islamicists distort or misuse Hadith (Prophet’s saying) and the Holy Quran(Holy Book), the very sources of legitimacy of their actions, in order to fit their fatwas on women. In a chapter captioned “Muslims, the First Feminists”, the Prophet Mohammed’s own life, specially his relationship with his wives is extensively examined, as are various quotes from the Holy Quran and Hadith on the subject. The author is convinced that Islam is basically a progressive religion with specific rights for women and its early adherents, specially Prophet Mohammed, emphasized the role of women in every aspect of life.

Perhaps, not incidentally the women’s groups in Islamic countries are using these arguments as their prime defense against the discrimination. Although politically prudent, such line of defense, the author believes, has arguably its limitations. First of all, it accepts the parameters of debate defined by the religionists. Secondly, Quran and Hadith are subject to interpretation which historically has been done by the men themselves and not all of them have claims to being progressive. Such bigotry against women is by no means unchallenged. There are groups in these countries that are trying to do the best they can to soften the blow. Numerous organizations offer legal help, shelter for the battered women, counselling, education, and combating the gender issue at the political level. Not so incidentally, as Goodwin finds out, women who lead struggle for their rights in these countries invariably come from politically powerful families.

These women lead handful of organizations trying to protect women from honour killings. Although they may be somewhat marginalized for the moment, they all are trying to carry on their struggle within the system, broadly accepting legitimacy of the Islamic values their societies espouse. They are not feminists, as defined in the west. Neither does the author, to her credit, try to see the Islamic world only through the prism of western feminist spectrum.

Finally, a considerable part of the book is devoted to the ‘menace’ of Islamic fundamentalists, specially as it relates to the West. Here, the books strays considerably away from its main theme and degenerates into hysteria of Islamic world’s threat to the western civilization. Saudi assistance to the PLO (which incidentally was cut off after the Gulf war), corruption of the oil rich Arab Sheiks, America’s dependence on the Arab oil, and power of the petro- dollar all seemingly conspire to give power to what is called in the west today as Islamic fundamentalists. Such hysteria only matches with the commonly held belief among these Islamicists that there is somewhere a ‘group of Jews’ sitting in their dark rooms who have nothing better to do than to constantly devise and spin ways to ‘destroy’ Islam. Goodwin is unable or unwilling to distinguish between the Islamic world at large and some segments of this world that wants to bring about an ‘Islamic Revolution’. At times she falls right into the ‘Orientalist’ role succinctly defined by Edward Said. It is regrettable because it digresses from the main issue and gives strength to the already existing impression that indigenous women’s movements are nothing but front organizations set up by the western world.

Goodwin chose, particularly in the Arab countries, to stick with highly educated, elite women, and not everyday women. Anyone who has lived in the Arab or Eastern world

Omar 4

knows that the experiences of these women are not in any way the same as the experiences of the average woman. Secondly, Goodwin usually gives the reader very little relevant background on political and social movements within a country, so the average reader will have no way of knowing that Fatima Gailani (Afghanistan) is part of a highly educated, elitist, esoteric political party in Islam that is not very popular with the Afghani people, and that the claims she made in this book were not necessarily true, or able to be substantiated by any other source. I find this highly disturbing, coming from a “reputable journalist” such as Goodwin. My final complaint for this review is that Goodwin often does not finish what she starts in each country section, and the reader is left feeling that something is incomplete or that information is missing. She jumps too often from person to person, and then abruptly ends a chapter, leaving the reader unsatisfied.

However, when the pros and cons of this book are weighed, the pros exceed in number. What makes this book so fascinating are Goodwins’ extraordinary interviews with hundreds of Muslim women from royalty to rebels, from urban professionals to peasants. The Muslim women, the symbols of honor for their men as she describes, speak out in this book and take you behind the veil into their hearts and minds. In their world, Islam is a total way of life that affects all aspects of being: public, private and spiritual. Goodwin explains how Muslim women are affected by the rise of fundamentalism, and that the position of women remains the barometer of change in the Muslim world. In the name of religion, women are being banned from travelling, working, studying, divorcing, voting, holding positions of power and from making their own decisions about major or minor aspects of their lives. Above all, they are being slaughtered in the name of honour, with the killer being allowed to go scott free. It is the price they pay for honour.

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