Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

Camels, Gnats, and Shallow Graves

Nine years ago I met someone in a convention about science fiction and society.  Let’s call him Dr. B.  Because of our mutual interests, we moved in overlapping circles.  Dr. B. used to write  tie-ins to SF movies and is now a professional philosopher.  He’s white, middle class and lives in a Western democracy.  He is vocal about atheism, individual rights and censorship.

Recently, he stated that he cannot bring himself to sign a manifesto by Iranian women.   Why?  Because the manifesto calls for abolition of polygyny.  As Dr. B. loftily explained, that’s (horrors!) a slippery slope that could lead to state scrutiny of all polyamorous connections.  Never mind the fact that most polygynous marriages are contracted under coercion; never mind the fact that sharia law is state law in Iran and sharia law does not make a distinction between private and public, between religion and government.

In the meantime, Afghani girls have acid thrown on their faces because they are attending school.  Saudi girls are locked inside their burning school, because they might run out of the flames “not properly” veiled.  Somali girls are stoned to death because they were raped.  Sudanese girls have their genitals shredded.  Indian girls get set alight for having “inadequate” dowries.  And then we have stories like this, from yesterday’s news (composite from several sources):

Sixteen-year old Medine Memi was discovered bound and lifeless in sitting position in a hole dug beneath a chicken coop outside the family’s house in the town of Kahta in Southeastern Turkey, 40 days after she had disappeared. The hole had been cemented over.   According to a post-mortem examination the large amount of soil in her lungs and stomach showed that she had been buried while fully conscious and suffered a slow and agonizing death.

The execution was an honor killing carried out as a punishment for talking to boys.  Medine had repeatedly tried to report to police that she had been beaten by her father and grandfather days before she was killed. “She tried to take refuge at the police station three times, and she was sent home three times,” her mother, Immihan, said after the body was discovered in December.   Medine’s father is reported as saying at the time: “She has male friends. We are uneasy about that.”

In Turkey’s impoverished Kurdish region, the practice of honor killing has become a well-known ritual that is chilling in its precision: when a young woman is suspected of “dishonoring” the family by wearing tight clothes, having unauthorized contact with young men, or falling victim to rape, a family council is called, and a family member appointed as an executioner.  Afterwards, the family will try to pretend she never existed.

Official figures have indicated that more than 200 such killings take place each year, accounting for half of all murders in Turkey. Community workers say the figures are likely higher, as many go unreported.  After the 2005 reform, passed to help Turkey join the European Union, a new practice of forced suicide sprang up.  According to media reports, victims would be locked in their rooms for days with rat poison, a pistol or rope, and ordered to spare their families the legal retribution by killing themselves.

Dr. B. got huffy when I called his quibbles about the Iranian manifesto risk-free privileged nitpicking.  This, friends, is the epitome of swallowing camels and dissecting gnats.  The Greeks have a more vivid, if profane, saying: The world is burning, and some people are combing their pubic hair.  Perhaps Dr. B.’s olympian armchair philosophizing would benefit if he lived for a month or two in Afghanistan — in a burqa.

Images: Top, Medine Memi’s place of execution; bottom, Shamsia Husseini, who’s still going to school, even after she and her sister Atifa were almost killed by acid attacks.

14 Responses to “Camels, Gnats, and Shallow Graves”

  1. I made a similar point a few years ago, in a post on Michael Bérubé’s What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts?.

    The issue was universalism and how coercive it really has to be. Part of what I said was

    “We can say “No matter what you think, you are entitled to health care,” because that doesn’t amount to forcing health care on the reluctant Christian Scientist. But what about the Christian Scientist’s minor daughter? That’s where the tension bites. We can tell the Christian Scientist “you are entitled to health care” without being coercive, but we can’t tell the Christian Scientist “your daughter is entitled to health care” without being at least potentially coercive. The Christian Scientist, if she is a dedicated Christian Scientist, won’t want her daughter to get health care as commonly understood – she will in fact want precisely to deny her daughter the entitlement to health care that we have in mind when we talk about entitlements to health care. And that’s a problem. That’s the problem.

    Because of course it applies to a lot of cases. Not just the Christian Scientist who doesn’t want her daughter to be entitled to health care, but also the parents who don’t want their daughters to be entitled to education, the parents who don’t want their daughters to be entitled to freedom, the parents who don’t want their daughters to have the right of refusal in marriage, and so on. It also applies to men who don’t want their wives to have various entitlements; it applies to men who don’t want their wives, daughters, sisters, mothers to have any entitlements. It applies to people who have power over intimates and dependents, because such people generally do have both de facto and de jure power to deny entitlements to said intimates and dependents, a power which it can be anything from difficult to impossible to interfere with, especially without coercion – without what the people in question would indeed see as tyranny. That’s the problem. That’s the problem and it means that saying “No matter what you think, you are entitled to [various things]” won’t untie this knot between universalism and difference.”

  2. Athena says:

    Exactly, Ophelia. And to espouse generalities like “no matter what you think, you are entitled to … non-coercive polyamory” betrays an oblivious, almost willful blindness to reality on the ground. Besides, no-exception laws based entirely on abstract principles can be as inhumane as traditional customs (example: the three strikes provision in the US, which deprived judges of contextual sentencing and flooded jails with minor non-violent offenders).

  3. ZarPaulus says:

    He’s refusing to sign a manifesto for women’s rights in Iran because it would abolish polygyny and he thinks it would result in suspicion of polyamorous relationships. What a jackass.

    I mean it seems like polyamory (having sex with multiple people who you aren’t married to) would already be illegal in Iran.

  4. I should add that Michael entirely agreed with my point, and has made it himself since. He’s a very reasonable guy! The book mentioned is a good one, too.

  5. Athena says:

    I don’t know if Mr. B. is an outright jackass, ZarPaulus, but he has been guilty of such lofty armchairism before; particularly so in connection with “Other” issues (women, non-whites, non-middle class…).

    Ophelia, I’m glad your words made a difference. Mine only led to huffing and puffing and accusations of ad hominem. Granted, I was not diplomatic — but as I said above to ZarPaulus, this is a repeating pattern, not a one-time event. Which tends to erode my patience and temper.

  6. Peggy says:

    Living my well-educated middle-class life, it’s so easy to forget that such injustices happen here in the US too. It’s usually not with such terrible violence or the official sanction (or willful ignorance) of the authorities of the case of Medine Memi, so we can claim it’s not so bad here. But still, “not so bad” isn’t the same as “not happening at all”. Thank you and Ophelia both for the reminders of how good I’ve got it.

    I wonder if Dr. B feels that the underage girls forced into polygamous marriages in Mormon fundamentalist communities don’t need legal protections either.

  7. Athena says:

    I wonder, too, Peggy. If individual rights trump all else, we need to ask whose individual rights take priority when we run into irreconcilable incompatibilities. The western countries are grappling with this, as immigrant communities remain insular and cling to their natal customs, instead of becoming fully participating citizens. Multiculturalism is all well and good — until they start forcibly preventing their girls from going to school.

    Also, how much can a terrified nine-year old “consent” to a marriage or to an irreversible mutilation? It’s a telling point that the less enlightened the culture, the lower its age of consent is for girls (not so for boys — their age of consent is invariably in the late teen years or even later). It’s equally telling that perhaps the strongest indicator for a society’s well-being is the social, political and economic status of its women.

  8. Caliban says:

    “Straining at gnats” is truly a correct assessment. In cases like this, polygamy is a tool of oppression and control. *shakes head*

  9. Athena says:

    Calvin, indeed. The disconnect is mind-boggling, no matter how you view it: rationally, emotionally, logically, morally.

  10. Marie says:

    As always, Athena, another excellent essay. This is one in which I totally agree with your strong stance for women and women’s rights. The horrific description of Medine Memi’s death is not just indicative of the Middle East. Last year alone in the UK there were over 200 “honor” killings and a smattering in the US. After I left the theater upon viewing “The Stoning of Soraya M”, the sick realization that this practice is condoned in all levels of their society made my stomach roil in objection.

    Whether the marriage is polygamous or monogamous, the objections of the woman child are inconsequential in comparison to the status of this male dominated society and its brutal justification of the law.

  11. Athena says:

    Thank you, Marie, but I wish I didn’t have to write such essays. Fundamentalist sects of all religions treat women like that — Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Confucianism, Buddhism. Those in power always make gods in their image.

  12. intrigued_scribe says:

    Thank you for sharing this outstanding essay, Athena. I agree; if only there weren’t a need for essays like this. And indeed, brutally maintaining absolute power is a common trait in Fundamentalist sects, alongside merciless oppression of women and even the smallest hints of opposition.

  13. r0ck3tsci3ntist says:

    These crimes against humanity and females are real and horrifying, engendering a feeling of impotent rage because they stem from a needless cultural bias. A culture which promotes female ownership in order to control mate selection as moral tenet is simply paving the road for these sorts of atrocities.

    I applaud the women of Iran and pray they achieve their freedom. Sadly, this is what happens when there is no separation of church and state. As many problems as this country (US) has, that’s one of the best things about it. And we must defend it or we will end up with our own form of sharia.

  14. Athena says:

    Heather, Kathryn, you’re right, of course. What really makes me feel literally unhinged when I hear of such things is the suppression of even basic instincts. What kind of man stuffs his own daughter, alive and struggling, into a hole and then paves it over? And her mother, her sisters stood by mute and helpless! What does that say about what conditions they live under?

    I have said it before many times, but it bears repeating: humans will limp along but not thrive until they treat women as fully human.

    As for this country and its prospects, I had an encounter with another Dr. B. (what’s with the Bees?). You will hear about it as soon as I’m done with reviewing some grants — there’s the usual backlog after I have to file one myself.