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Middle Eastern Notions of Honor


Ancient and modern Arabs, as well as other ethnic groups of Muslim and Mediterranean peoples, adopted ideas of honor that reinforce the ties of an individual to his or her tribal clan or extended family. One type of honor, sharaf, applies to men and is attained through maintenance of a family's reputation, hospitality, generosity, chivalry, bravery, piety, and, sometimes, nobility or political power. Another variant of honor, irdh in Arabic (irz in Turkish), pertains to women, or more specifically, to the sexual use of their bodies, their virginity, or their chaste behavior. The honor of the clan was besmirched if unmarried women did not remain virgins, and if married women were unfaithful. Men were to maintain their clan's honor by punishing their errant women if they brought shame on the group, thus maintaining the patrilineal nature of lineage and society. Scholars have termed this concept and resultant or related behavior the honor/shame dynamic. Lila Abu Lughod, in her study of the Awlad'Ali Bedouin, shows the complexities of this dynamic, for being humble and exhibiting "shame," hashham, can paradoxically demonstrate pride and honor.

Historically, honor has been closely connected to the institution of marriage. Women's honor corresponded to men's lineage rights, because the ultimate violation of irdh took place if a woman, unmarried or married, gave birth to an illegitimate child. Yet since a man's honor required legitimate male offspring to carry on his lineage, a wife's infertility could provide a man with an argument for taking a second wife, since polygamy is sanctioned by Islam, and outlawed in the early twenty-first century only in the Muslim countries of Tunisia and Turkey. Many groups continue to believe that family honor is maintained through endogamous marriages, often of cousins. While this tendency may be subsiding in larger cosompolitan centers, men in Bedouin society are frequently required to marry relatives whether or not they form a romantic attachment with them, and this also provides a rationale for polygamy.

Beyond marriage, many customs in the Middle East have developed to display or protect honor. Various articles of dress, which varied tremendously by geographic area, group, and sub-climate, often identified membership in a particular tribe, or occupation, and thus demonstrated the honor of that group—for example, the urban notables or wealthy town dwellers of Moroccan cities. The custom of female as well as male circumcision was also related to the notion of honor. Male circumcision was and is practiced by Jews and Muslims in the region, but is not thought by most scholars to affect male sexual functions. Female circumcision, however, which involves removal, or partial removal, of the clitoris and sometimes the labia, as well as infibulation, and is found in North and Western Africa, the Nile valley, and among the Bedouin of the Sinai peninsula and the Negev, is clearly related to sexual honor. The custom predates the monotheistic religions, but is now considered by some to be "Islamic" and a marker of cultural purity and family honor since it may render girls less susceptible to sexual stimulation. Families still believe the custom to confer honor and purity on girls and that, if uncircumcised, they will be unwanted as marriage partners.

Clan or family honor was a strong factor in the pervasive system of tribal law governing revenge or monetary compensation, termed dhiya (blood payment), for murder or severe bodily injury. The act of revenge, or the sum paid in its place, restored "honor" to male family members who must avenge crimes involving their relatives. By making payment, or enacting revenge, a lengthier feud could be avoided. The system of compensation or revenge was incorporated into Islamic law, although modern civil penal codes since the nineteenth century have substituted state punishments or incarceration in most nations.

Mediation of conflicts by respected and honorable individuals in rural or urban settings derives in part from tribal norms, wherein the precise technique of choosing mediators and the method of mediation is customary. Similarly, some parties may seek refuge from avengers in the homes of honorable or prestigious clan members. Honor is often connected with status, prestige, noble lineage, and reputation.

Notions of honor have affected literary conventions, and also religious and political ideas. In classic Islamic literature, women's honor was seen to be protected when references to the beloved were made with the masculine verbal forms and pronouns in Arabic. The notion of courtly love, hubb'udhri, manifested ideals of honor, for this love was unrequited, indeed often undeclared, and so brought no shame upon the beloved. This ideal encircled the Mediterranean and was not restricted to Muslim countries.

Notions of honor have interacted with other ideals such as respect for piety, pious learning, and reverence for the prophet Muhammad, his family or descendents, other holy men and women, religious scholars, or the dedicated leaders of the Sufi orders. Such individuals believed to uphold the honor of the community through their devotion to piety, good works, and their ability to intercede for ordinary Muslims. In the Mediterranean and Middle East, similar beliefs concerning the honor of and respect for holy sites, connected with Christian saints and martyrs, or religious figures in Judaism, cause people to associate honor with a sacred landscape.

There is a popular belief that urbanization, modernization, materialism, the sedentarization of tribal peoples, incursions of tourism, and Western influences are eroding the traditional honor of individuals and groups. Hospitality is a revered aspect of honor to many groups in the region, expressed through a code of behavior toward strangers as well as neighbors or relatives. Festivities mounted by families for weddings and other celebrations are an extension of their honor. Couples also regard failures to supply material goods stipulated by marriage agreements as breaches of the other side's honor. Thus, honor is an increasingly expensive commodity, and not merely a philosophical "good."

Problems may be experienced where tourists violate, by their presence or conduct, norms of gender segregation, or where tribal members are economically impelled to serve as guides, or otherwise work in tourist-related services. Many women who have donned the head covering or dress referred to as hijab, or Islamic dress, perceive themselves to be upholding their honor, just as much as their piety or religiosity, since so many of them work in mixed-gender settings, or travel to work on public transportation.

Historically, and in the modern era, honor is also claimed by the rulers and ruling classes. In some cases, the noble or honorable lineage of particular rulers, such as the Hashemites of Jordan, or the rulers of Morocco, is attributed to their historical derivations and descent from the Prophet, and for the Hashemites as the former administrators of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

Presidents of modern countries are accorded a large degree of pomp and circumstance, and in the Middle East this is culturally expressed in terms of their honorable status and not Iranian women, Tehran, 1979. Many Islamic women wear garments that conceal most of their body to show their piety and to uphold their honor. The Arabic concept of irdh, which addresses the acceptable behavior of women, disavows women who are not virgins at marriage or who are unfaithful. © CHRISTINE SPENGLER/CORBIS merely the fact of their political power. Similarly, the elite politicians of many Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries have held open houses, through which they have both claimed honor and granted political favors to their supporters.

Paradoxically, while honor accrued to those with power, tribal mores tended to elevate individuals. Politically, this construction of honor has been interpreted as a form of integrity, often in the face of an overwhelmingly corrupt milieu. Even beyond the Arab regions, such honorable integrity is, in the early twenty-first century, a part of a modernist, Islamist ideal for men that Fariba Adelkhah terms javanmard.

Honor has proved problematic for certain marginal elements in society. The honor of professional entertainers in Muslim and Mediterranean society has often been questioned; for females, because their bodies or voices were displayed in public; and for males, because their patrons might expect to dictate their choice of performance. Thus superior entertainers would uphold "honor" by demonstrating adherence to their own aesthetics and choice of repertoire.

Sherifa Zuhur

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