Honor killing in Syria: so far, and yet so close

My new favorite blog has, by my rough count, 14 new posts this morning. All substantive, many on foreign policy issues (yay!), and on a Monday, no less. By the time I get this post up, I’m sure there will be more, and you really should go scroll through ’em all. I want to highlight one in particular, though, that gets to the core (in a roundabout way) of why the US has such problems dealing with international issues in general and the Middle East in particular.

In discussing a really spectacular (and heart-wrenching) article in the NYTMag about a young girl in Syria who dishonored her family at the tender age of 15 by . . . being kidnapped and raped, and who was stabbed to death by her brother a year later, Jill points out that there’s a tendency to “other” the attitudes and behaviors of so-called honor cultures. I certainly did it when I read the article; my first response was, “Those people are insane.” Hell, this happens even when bad stuff happens here — we immediately distance ourselves from uncomfortable attitudes or events — but it turns out that the “honor codes” from which the relevant Syrian laws derive come not from the much-maligned Quran, but from a combination of Bedouin tradition and . . . Napoleonic regulations, imposed upon the region by the French mandate. As Jill notes,

The notion of protecting women’s chastity is certainly not solely an Islamic one. Honor killings are the most brutal outcome of a system that fetishizes virginity, female submission and male authority and ownership, but it’s dishonest to pretend that these killings come from some crazy foreign value system totally unlike our own. […]

The people who killed Zhara, and the people who kill thousands of girls and women all over the world in the name of “honor,” are evil extremists. But they aren’t rare, and they aren’t unique in their view of women as property, their emphasis on “chastity” as an all-important freshness guarantee, and their desire to control women’s bodies and sexual choices.

Indeed. Adding to that, on a more meta level this helps demonstrate the weird dichotomy of having an action (honor killing) that’s so far beyond our experience — to the point of revulsion, and, I think, rightfully so — that we can’t have any response but mental separation *along with* the fact that Americans exist in a culture that largely sympathizes with the ideas behind that horrific act, ideas elucidated by Jill above.

This is a tough line to walk as we try to deal with other cultures and people (especially in the Middle East), and it further represents a challenge for those of us who want to simultaneously understand and respect differing values . . . but retain the right to condemn them. I’m certainly not a full-on cultural relativist, and I have no problem saying that some cultural practices are bad, or even evil (including, I should note, some of our own). Conversely, we can’t just dismiss everything we don’t like, if only because the best tactical way to change things is to know where the weak spots are, know how to effect change in an pragmatic way.

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