Gender Discrimination (34): Public Opinion on Domestic Violence

One can, to some extent, understand – but not condone! – men who approve of domestic violence. After all, they may have good self-interested reasons to engage in it (power is useful). However, the level of female acquiescence is just baffling:

On average, 29 percent of women in countries with data concurred that wife beating was justified for arguing with the husband, 25 percent for refusing to have sex, and 21 percent for burning food. In Guinea, 60 percent of women found it permissible to be beaten for refusing to have sex with their spouses. In Ethiopia, 81 percent of women say that it is justified for a husband to beat his wife for at least one of the reasons listed in the Demographic and Health Surveys; 61 percent reported violence to be appropriate for burning food and 59 percent for arguing with their husbands. (source, source)

More about domestic violence. More posts in this series.

Religion and Human Rights (31): Polygamy, Right or Rights Violation?

In the U.S., 9 states – including Utah, the center of Mormonism – make polygamy a crime, while 49 states have bigamy statutes that can be used to prosecute polygamous families. Polygamy is only legal in North Africa and most of the Muslim world. Does it make sense to promote the right to same-sex, interracial and interreligious marriage, and at the same time oppose polygamy? (By the way, polygamy usually means polygyny: one husband, multiple wives – the opposite, polyandry, is extremely rare).

Marriage is a recognized human right, but does the word “marriage”, as it is used in human rights language, also cover polygamous marriage? From the texts of human rights treaties and declarations, it’s not even clear that it covers same-sex marriage – although it undoubtedly covers interracial and interreligious marriage. The word “marriage” isn’t clearly defined in the texts. Article 16 of the Universal Declaration merely states the following:

1. Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.

2. Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.

3. The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

Polygamy or same-sex marriage aren’t specifically mentioned as being forms of marriage that are included in the right to marry, but neither is it the case that sexual orientation or the numbers of partners are stipulated as unwarranted limitations to the right to marry. So the phrasing as it stands neither includes nor excludes polygamy or same-sex marriage as a right. Article 23 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights isn’t much clearer.

However, the case for same-sex or interracial marriage can be based on other articles, such as the non-discrimination provisions. Article 2 of the International Covenant states:

Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to respect and to ensure to all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction the rights recognized in the present Covenant, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

Sexual orientation is not mentioned but it is accepted that the list given here is a list of examples and not exhaustive. “Without distinction of any kind” is clear enough. Article 3 states:

The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to ensure the equal right of men and women to the enjoyment of all civil and political rights set forth in the present Covenant.

And Article 26:

All persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law. In this respect, the law shall prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

It’s not clear whether polygamists can invoke the same non-discrimination provisions. Perhaps the right to privacy can help them. Article 12 of the Universal Declaration:

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence… Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

However, apart from the question whether polygamy can be defended or not on the basis of existing human rights law, there are some good reasons why perhaps there shouldn’t be a right to polygamous marriage, even if it can be established that there is such a right. Wives may be pressured into polygamous marriages or prohibited from exiting them; they may suffer inequality and oppression in their marriage; and young girls may be forced to marry. The same risks exist of course in normal monogamous marriage, but are perhaps more important in polygamous marriage.

Moreover, polygamous marriage poses certain risks that are non-existent in normal marriage: excess boys in polygamous communities are often ostracized and condemned to a life of poverty and homelessness; and there’s a risk that marriage as an institution and as a general right may suffer when polygamy becomes widespread:

Polygamy is bad social policy for exactly the reason gay marriage is good social policy: everyone should have the opportunity to marry. Broad access to marriage is important not only for individual wellbeing but for social stability. And, to oversimplify only a little, when one man gets two wives, some other man gets no wife. There’s no better path to inequality, social unrest, and authoritarian social structures than polygamy. (source)

And yet, if it’s the case that

  • polygamy remains a fringe custom
  • polygamists are generally exercising their free choice and informed consent
  • no children are forced to marry or are sexually abused
  • and excess boys are not ostracized

then why would anyone oppose polygamy? Monogamous marriage isn’t illegal because some wives are beaten or because there are some cases of monogamous child marriage. One could oppose polygamy for religious reasons, but those aren’t sufficient in liberal democracies. Polygamy can only be problematic when it’s a practice that regularly and intrinsically leads to rights violations, as it does when child brides are common, when wives are commonly forced into marriage or when widespread polygamy makes it very difficult for men to find brides and marry.

Another thing to consider is gender equality. Even if polygamy is rare enough not to deny men a reasonable chance of marriage, and even if all polygamous wives are adults who freely consent to their marriage and who have equal standing within their marriages, then it’s still the case that the practice itself can signal gender inequality and hence perpetuate it. The reason is that polygyny, by its very nature, signals that men have more rights than women: a man can take several wives, but not vice versa. A legal right to polygamy would of course also entail a right to polyandry, but it’s unlikely that the risks to gender equality created by polygyny would be offset by many cases of polyandry. The more likely result is that polygyny fosters preexisting misogynistic prejudice because polygyny will always be more common that polyandry.

So, in the end a lot depends on how often polygamy results in rights violations. Is polygamy more like child marriage, which by definition is a rights violation (it involves pedophilia, the denial of education, health problems resulting from pregnancy at an early age etc.)? Or is it more like monogamous or same-sex marriage, which may produce rights violations such as domestic violence, but not intrinsically so? If some practice by definition violates rights, it should obviously be prohibited. If the practice only does so by accident and exceptionally, then it should in general be protected, especially when the practice itself is a human right. I claim that there is nothing inherently wrong with polygamy, as long as it’s not set up in such a way that it violates rights – as long as in most cases the wives consent (in an informed way), children are left alone, boys aren’t ostracized, and the practice isn’t so widespread that men can’t marry or that women feel they are second class citizens.

In this respect, polygamy is similar to hate speech. In the case of hate speech we are also dealing with a presumptive right, but one that can be abrogated when its exercise becomes too widespread with negative consequences for the rights of others. When a small black minority for instance is overwhelmed by hate speech, to such an extent that black people can’t go outside for fear of constant insult, then their right to freedom of movement should trump the speech rights of the haters.

For a more pessimistic view on polygamy, go here.

Gender Discrimination (28): Occupational Sex Segregation as One Cause of the Gender Pay Gap

It’s common knowledge that women tend to earn less that men, even in countries that pride themselves on their respect for gender equality.

One of the causes of this gap is occupational sex segregation, meaning that women and men tend to work in very different occupations. Coincidentally or not, “men’s jobs” are generally better paid than “women’s jobs”.

Now, “segregation” in this context may be too strong a term, since there are no longer a lot of legal restrictions on the employment of women, at least not in the U.S. Women aren’t segregated into very specific occupations, at least not by law. Cultural pressures may still exist, however. Women often feel obliged to choose occupations that mix well with family responsibilities, and those occupations tend to be less profitable. Such a sense of obligation is not a sign of gender equality.

It’s also not clear to what extent women – voluntarily or not – choose jobs that are less well paid, and to what extent employers decide that jobs chosen by women merit less pay.

And finally, let’s not forget that there’s a gender pay gap even within professions. Occupational sex segregation therefore can’t explain the whole pay gap. Hence, the gender pay gap may be an indication of different types of gender discrimination:

  • forcing women into jobs that are less well paid
  • paying less for the types of jobs that women tend to choose
  • paying women less than men within the same types of jobs
  • failing to give women and girls the same opportunities to enter some types of jobs (e.g. because of unequal education, child marriage etc.)

Gender Discrimination (25): The Plough as a Cause of Gender Inequality

Gender inequality means different levels of protection of human rights according to gender. No need to say which of the two gender’s rights are usually violated more or protected less rigorously. Gender inequality occurs in many areas of life:

  • in political representation or participation
  • in income or labor market participation
  • in labor sorting (when women are relegated to certain professions)
  • in family life (when women do not have the same marriage or divorce rights, inheritance rights etc.)
  • in criminal justice (when the testimony of women is considered less valuable) etc.

Too many areas to mention, unfortunately.

When you read about the causes of gender inequality, the usual suspects are religion, patriarchy and all sorts of anti-women prejudice. A different and interesting perspective, focused on inequality in the labor market, is the following:

Ester Boserup … argues that gender role differences have their origins in different forms of agriculture practiced traditionally. In particular, she identifies important differences between shifting and plough cultivation. The former, which uses hand-held tools like the hoe and the digging stick, is labor intensive and women actively participate in farm work. The latter, in contrast, is more capital intensive, using the plough to prepare the soil. Unlike the hoe or digging stick, the plough requires significant upper body strength, grip strength, and burst of power, which are needed to either pull the plough or control the animal that pulls it.

Because of these requirements, when plough agriculture is practiced, men have an advantage in farming relative to women. Also reinforcing this gender-bias in ability is the fact that when the plough is used, there is less need for weeding, a task typically undertaken by women and children. In addition, child-care, a task almost universally performed by women, is most compatible with activities that can be stopped and resumed easily and do not put children in danger. These are characteristics that are satisfied for hoe agriculture, but not for plough agriculture since large animals are typically used to pull the plough. …

[T]his division of labor then generated norms about the appropriate role of women in society. Societies characterized by plough agriculture, and a resulting gender-based division of labor, developed the belief that the natural place for women is within the home. These cultural beliefs tend to persist even if the economy moves out of agriculture, affecting the participation of women in activities performed outside of the home, such as market employment, entrepreneurship, and participation in politics. (source)

And there does seem to be a strong statistical correlation between historical plough use and prejudice against women.

Religion and Human Rights (27): Muslim Headscarves – Between Religious Liberty and Gender Discrimination, Ctd.

Once more on the issue of Muslim headscarves, because the controversy doesn’t seem to be going away. Belgium, my home country, has the dubious honor of being the first western country outlawing the burqa. Other countries like France seem set to follow, or have already interpreted existing laws on masks or police checks creatively in order to impose fines on women wearing a veil. Forcing Muslim women to show their faces is no longer a fringe xenophobic fantasy.

First of all, and before you get upset that a human rights activist such as me doesn’t take a more outspoken position against the veil, let me stress that I do worry a lot about gender discrimination (as regular readers can attest). I do believe that the veil – especially the complete face and body veil such as the burqa or the niqab – is an expression of a culture in which equal rights for women are – to put it mildly – not a priority. That doesn’t mean that every woman who wears a veil does so because of coercion or discrimination, or because she doesn’t have a right not to. Some do, but others wear it voluntarily, although the degree of “voluntariness” is something that’s always difficult to establish given the subtle effects of social pressure, tradition and education that are often difficult to notice – even for the self. However, it can be argued that also those women who wear the veil in a truly voluntary way – if truly voluntary can be something real, which I hope – contribute to an ideology of female inferiority and make it harder for other women who would like to remove the veil to do so.

Moreover, there can be different motives for wearing the veil voluntarily. Women can believe that this is a requirement of their religion (the Quran only seems to require “modest dress”), and that disregard of such requirements amounts to sin. Or women can decide to wear the veil for strategic reasons. They may believe – correctly I think – that wearing the veil enhances their freedom, for example their freedom of movement. One can argue that this strategic use of the veil isn’t truly voluntary, but that doesn’t make it wrong. I’m personally open to the argument that a prohibition of the veil can result in de facto house arrest for some women: their husbands may decide to force them to stay at home if they aren’t allowed to wear the veil in public. Now you might say that one evil doesn’t excuse another, but there is something called a lesser evil (I’ve made a similar point about sweatshops not so long ago). If wearing the veil allows women to venture outside of the home that is undoubtedly a positive side effect of something that in general may be a moral negative.

What about the arguments in favor of prohibition? Some of them are very weak indeed. It’s not because the veil makes some people uncomfortable that it should be prohibited. It’s not difficult to imagine the horror of the place where everything that makes someone uncomfortable is outlawed. Security risks also aren’t a very strong reason for a general ban, since women can be required to lift their veil in specific circumstances. The argument that modern democracies should be “secular” and that this requires the banning of religious symbols in public is indefensible in view of the human right to freedom of religion.

Some claim that the ban on the burqa is just one of many existing and undisputed restrictions on how people can dress in public: people can’t walk naked in the streets; or wear stockings on their heads inside bank buildings etc. But this confuses types of dress that are not religiously inspired with types that are. Religion does receive special protection in the system of human rights, and this special protection should be recognized if human rights are to be respected. Conflating religious dress with dress in general does not allow you to fully respect human rights. That doesn’t mean that the burqa can’t be banned in specific circumstances where there’s a good reason to do so – in Court rooms, in schools etc. But these exceptions don’t justify banning it altogether. (The justification for a ban in Court rooms is obvious and doesn’t need spelling out. A ban in schools – for both teachers and pupils – is justified on the grounds of the need for adequate education. In addition, there’s a phenomenon of peer pressure in some schools, where girls who wear the veil force others to comply).

How about the argument based on gender equality? That seems a lot stronger at first sight. But isn’t it true that gender equality wouldn’t be advanced a whole lot by a burqa ban? (Maybe a ban would even be bad for gender equality, if it forces women to stay home). And isn’t it also true that other measures in favor of gender equality, such as better education, stricter laws and better enforcement on domestic violence etc., would prove much more effective?

There’s another argument in favor of a ban, and it’s a pretty strong one, although you hardly ever hear it. A democratic community requires a common citizenship and a public space in which people can deliberate freely on their preferred policies. If democracy was just an exercise in voting, it would be compatible with the veil. It would even be compatible with complete solipsism and individuals never meeting each other. But it’s more than that. The burqa and niqab are – to some extent – incompatible with deliberation. One could argue that this only justifies a partial ban, namely a ban in places where deliberation occurs, and when it occurs. Just like the partial ban in Court rooms is justified. The question is of course whether proponents of the veil can accommodate a partial ban. Perhaps their religious belief requires the veil in all circumstances. However, we are allowed to require some level of flexibility of them. Rights often come into conflict with one another (take for example the right to free speech of the journalist wishing to expose the private life of a politician). And that’s the case here: the right to democratic government and the right to religious liberty should be balanced against each other, and maybe the former should take precedence. After all, not everything is justified on the grounds of religious liberty: for example, no one in the West argues that mutilation as a punishment for crime is justified, not even when it is prescribed by a religion.

Types of Human Rights Violations (3): Lighthouse Violations and Searchlight Violations

I think it may be helpful to distinguish two types of human rights violations. Or, to be more precise: two types of effects of human rights violations, because many violations will show characteristics of the two types. I’ll call the two types “lighthouse violations” and “searchlight violations”. To clarify these weird sounding names, I have an example.

In the UK, about 85.000 women were raped in 2006. In the US, during the same year, 92.455 rapes were reported. Real numbers are much higher, of course, because there are many unreported cases. In South Africa, one in four men admits to having raped someone. One in 8 more than once. Rape, as well as other types of violence against women (but not only women), is obviously a wide-spread social practice and not merely acts of sick individuals.

As with any case of widespread rights violations, one can understand this in two ways. One can believe that these violations are what I call lighthouse rights violations. In our example, the very fact that rape is a widespread phenomenon makes women aware of the dangers and forces them to adapt their behavior so that they limit the risks. (I talked about human rights and risk here). So the optimist view would be that there are certain automatic restrictions operating in order to limit the number of human rights violations.

The other, more pessimist view, would call widespread human rights violations searchlight violations. If we take the same example, the widespread occurrence of rape can give (certain) men the impression that the practice is normal and acceptable. As a result, the practice becomes even more widespread. Moreover, the practice not only benefits those men who actively engage in it, but men in general because it creates uneven gender relationships, female subjugation, inferiority complexes in women etc. Hence, also women who are not directly victimized by rape tend to be harmed by the practice. Rape shapes cultures, mentalities, gender roles etc.

This is of course a “glass half full or half empty” thing. Rape is both a lighthouse and a searchlight human rights violation. However, I think the more optimist view is probably more correct. If not, we would have to see ever increasing numbers of rights violations, which isn’t the case (at least that’s the intuitive conclusion; human rights measurement is still not a very sophisticated field of research).

Gender Discrimination (18): Missing Women and Gendercide in China and India

The word gendercide describes the results of sex-selective abortions that take place on a massive scale in some countries, particularly India and China. These abortions have led to the “disappearance” of perhaps more than 100 million girls and women (or about 1 million a year). Evidence of this can be found in the abnormal sex-ratios in both countries:

The sex ratio at birth was only 893 female births per 1,000 male births in China and India and 885 in South Korea (as compared to 980 for Kenya and South Africa and 952 for Cambodia and Mexico). … In India, the juvenile sex ratio (often defined as the sex ratio among children aged 0-6 years) has been falling … over the last 3-4 decades – from 964 females per 1,000 males in 1971 to 927 in 2001. … In China, too, the problem has become more acute over time. A study based on a survey of over 5 million children in China found that among children born between 1985 and 1989, there were 926 female births for 1,000 male births. But, among children born between 2000 and 2004, the number had fallen to 806. Thus, in both countries, the situation appears to be worsening. (source)

The main reason for these gendercides seems to be a strong cultural preference for male offspring. This makes it difficult to do something about it. Cultures change very slowly. Outlawing sex-selective abortions and prenatal ultrasounds doesn’t seem to work very well. It has been tried in both China and India, but the sex-ratios don’t seem to improve much.

It might seem that improving literacy and schooling among women might reduce the parental preference for sons. However, here, too, the evidence is not encouraging. There is disturbing evidence from India which points to a worsening of the juvenile sex ratio with increased female education and literacy. Why the perverse effect? A possible explanation has to do with the negative effect of female literacy on fertility. Educated women tend to have fewer children than less-educated women, and, in the context of a strong son-preference culture, the lower levels of fertility lead to greater pressure on couples to have boys instead of girls. This relationship between fertility decline and lower juvenile sex ratios has also been observed in South Korea and China. (source)

The only successful counter-measures are those that tackle gender discrimination at the root. There will no longer be parental preference for male children when man and women are considered equal human beings.

It is important to recognize that one (although not the only) reason for son preference is that, historically, inheritance laws in both countries have favored sons over daughters. While both countries now do not restrict women’s access to parental property, customary practices which consider sons the natural heirs of land are still prevalent in much of rural China and India. India only recently (in 2004) removed the discriminatory provisions of earlier legislation and allowed parents to bequeath their property to their daughters.

What is needed in both countries to combat the scourge of low juvenile sex ratios is a package of interventions that includes stricter enforcement of equal inheritance laws, economic incentives for parents to have daughters and educate them, and an educational curriculum at the primary and middle school levels that highlights the importance of equal treatment of boys and girls in the family. Even with such a package, it will take years for attitudes to change and for the practice of prenatal sex selection and neglect of the girl child to end. (source)

What is Democracy? (38): Equal Representation and the Share of Women in Parliament

In a representative democracy, one can reasonably expect to have a parliament that is roughly representative of the population in general: poor people should have their representatives or delegates just like rich people, women just like men, minorities just like majorities. This representativity or representativeness isn’t an absolute requirement. One can have a democracy without it. The people, after all, may decide that their views are best represented by an all-male, all-white body of parliamentarians for example.

However, it seems statistically unlikely that this would be their decision in each consecutive election in each democratic country. Imbalances in the demographics of parliament that persist over time and space are probably not the result of the choices of voters but of other factors, such as discrimination, unequal opportunities etc. If that’s the case, we are dealing with an imperfect democracy because democracy means equal influence and an equal chance to get elected (art. 21 of the Universal Declaration and art. 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights).

And that is the case. Take the share of women in parliament for instance. In almost every major democracy of the world, election after election, women are a (tiny) minority in parliament. It’s very unlikely if not impossible that women are systematically less competent than men to serve in parliament, or that the voters sincerely, rationally and objectively believe this to be the case. There must be other, more deeply embedded psychological motives for such a choice, related to the generally inferior position of women in patriarchal societies.

Gender Discrimination (11): Honor Killings

The press has reported a number of honor killings in the United States, Canada, and Europe. These cases show the killings to be primarily a Muslim-on-Muslim crime…The victims are largely teenage daughters or young women. Wives are victims but to a lesser extent. And, unlike most Western domestic violence, honor killings are carefully planned. The perpetrator’s family may warn the victim repeatedly over a period of years that she will be killed if she dishonors her family by refusing to veil, rebuffing an arranged marriage, or becoming too Westernized. Most important, only honor killings involve multiple family members.

Fathers, mothers, brothers, male cousins, uncles, and sometimes even grandfathers commit the murder, but mothers and sisters may lobby for the killing. Some mothers collaborate in the murder in a hands-on way and may assist in the getaway. In some cases, taxi drivers, neighbors, and mosque members prevent the targeted woman from fleeing, report her whereabouts to her family, and subsequently conspire to thwart police investigations. Very old relatives or minors may be chosen to conduct the murder in order to limit jail time if caught.

Seldom is domestic violence celebrated, even by its perpetrators. In the West, wife batterers are ostracized. Here, there is an important difference in honor crimes. Muslims who commit or assist in the commission of honor killings view these killings as heroic and even view the murder as the fulfillment of a religious obligation. A Turkish study of prisoners found no social stigma attached to honor murderers.

The perpetrators may interpret the Qur’an and Islam incorrectly, either for malicious reasons or simply because they are ignorant of more tolerant Muslim exegesis or conflate local customs with religion.

Here, Muslim-American and Muslim-Canadian associations might play a role so long as they cease obfuscation and recognize the religious roots of the problem. Now is the time for sheikhs in the United States and Canada to state without qualification that killing daughters, sisters, wives, and cousins is against Islam. A number of feminist lawyers who work with battered women have credited pro-women sheikhs with helping them enormously. Sheikhs should publicly identify, condemn, and shame honor killers. Those sheikhs who resist doing so should be challenged. Phyllis Chesler (source)

Cultural Rights (12): Collective Rights

Groups, and in particular, minority groups are often attacked, oppressed and persecuted. They are considered to be groups that are separated from the rest of society and that are legitimate objects of targeted attacks such as racism, xenophobia, discrimination, exploitation or even genocide. These attacks are often collective attacks. Persons are discriminated against or killed, for no other reason than their membership of a particular group. Colored people are oppressed because they are colored people.

Some people believe that a collective problem requires a collective solution. A minority that is collectively oppressed claims a collective right to protection, a collective right not to be oppressed. Acts that are expressed in collectivist terms have to be countered by rights using the same terms.

The question is whether it is really necessary or even opportune to solve the collective problems of some groups by way of collective rights or group rights. I believe that the often genuine problems of different groups and minorities (but also majorities) can be solved by applying a number of individual rights, such as the right to equality before the law (a law has to be general and equal for everybody and cannot be directed against or cannot discriminate against certain persons or groups), the right to equal treatment and to equal rights, the right not to be discriminated against, the right to life (in the case of genocide) and religious liberty.

The problem of gender discrimination in a number of Islamic countries is an example of a collective problem that can be solved by applying individual rights. There is no reason to solve this collective problem by adding so-called women’eds rights or collective rights of women to the existing individual rights. Gender discrimination is not a violation of women’s rights. It is a violation of the human rights of women. The principles of equality and non-discrimination are sufficient to solve this problem.

Individual rights are sufficient in all cases, although I have to admit that protecting groups by way of individual rights ignores or neglects the nature of the problem. Only the right of a group (for example, a group of indigenous people) to equal treatment recognizes the existence of a certain kind of discrimination. The individual right to equality, even though it can stop group discrimination, ignores the nature of or the motivation behind the attack on the group, and does not distinguish between individual and group discrimination.

However, the advantage of countering a collective attack by way of an individual right is that the existence of individuals in the collectivity is thereby accentuated. The cause of a collective attack is precisely the belief that a group is a collectivity and a unity, in which the individuals do not count. By using his individual rights to protect a colored person against discrimination, racism or genocide, we accentuate his individuality. He is no longer “just another nigger”, someone belonging to a collectivity, which is a legitimate object of discrimination. Individual rights accentuate the individuality of the person claiming the right, and already hint that there is no reason for discrimination. Discrimination requires collectives and the absence of individuals.

Collective rights do the opposite. Recognizing collective rights can sanction the existence of collectives. It makes thinking in terms of collectives legitimate, it puts the different individualities in the background and it strengthens the opinions of those who oppose and persecute certain collectives.

Religion and Human Rights (9): Honor Killings

An honor killing is a murder, carried out by a family to punish a female family member who has supposedly brought dishonor on the family. The acts which are the cause of dishonor can be

  • refusing an arranged marriage
  • being the victim of a sexual assault or rape
  • seeking a divorce, even from an abusive husband
  • committing adultery or fornication
  • pre-marital sex
  • flirting
  • etc.

Men can also be targeted by honor killings, but more rarely (for example in the case of homosexuality).

Causes

  • The practice is mostly associated with Muslim cultures (sometimes in minority Muslim groups in the West), although there is no support for the act in Islam. And it does occur in other cultures as well. In India, more than 5.000 brides are killed annually because their marriage dowries are considered insufficient. (However, one can argue that honor is not the main motivation in such cases). It also occurred in some Latin cultures (“crime of passion” is often still a “mitigating circumstance”). In Muslim countries, the practice is seen by some as a justified enforcement of religious rules, and therefore not strictly a matter of honor. This is corroborated by the fact that sometimes the killings are perpetrated against women by individuals who are not close relatives, but who claim enforcement of religious rules as their motive. In Iraq, for example, honor killings are conducted by armed insurgent groups on politically active women and those who did not follow a strict dress code, and women who are perceived as human rights defenders.
  • There is a strong correlation between honor killings and illiteracy rates.
  • Men often use honor killings to assert their dominant patriarchal status. Women in the family may support the practice in order to preserve the honor of other female family members and to preserve their chances of getting married in the community. It’s a kind of purge or purification.
  • Some claim that the practice goes back to ancient motivations based on anxieties about reproductive power. Women, who were considered by the tribe to be a factory for making men, were forced through “honor” killings to obey the man’s family planning and not to reproduce outside of the tribe or the extended family.
  • In a society where marriages are arranged by fathers and money is exchanged, a woman’s desire to choose her own husband is a financial problem, one which can be “translated” in terms of honor.

Consequences

Apart from the obvious consequences (death or lifelong disability), the practice of honor killings also forces women to stay in abusive marriages or to avoid reporting rape. If the women are killed, they are buried in unmarked graves and the community denies that they ever existed. And if they don’t die, the chances of receiving justice are minimal as many governments fail to prosecute the crime. And even when there is a trial, it’s the woman’s behavior that becomes the focus, not the defendant’s. As a result, the women sink deeper into shame and often don’t take the trouble of reporting the crime.

Numbers

Because the murders frequently go unreported and the perpetrators unpunished, it is difficult to get precise numbers on the phenomenon. Estimates range between hundreds and thousands of women each year. In Pakistan, it is estimated that every day at least three women are victims of the practice.

What can be done?

Some say that the backwardness of the tribes where most killings take place makes it very difficult to do anything. However, education can work. The fact that the Koran does not prescribe the practice should be explained and taught. Honor killings are just one instance of gender discrimination and education should focus on women’s rights and the equality of women. Where the practice is linked to arranged marriages and dowries, one should first tackle these problems.

The judiciary and the police should be forced to intervene. Penal codes should be modernized, and the economic dependence of women should be dealt with.

Related phenomena

Related phenomena are acid attacks (instead of killing women, acid is poured on them) and honor suicides. People can be forced by their community or by their feeling of guilt to kill themselves. Relatives thereby avoid penalties for murder.

Gender Discrimination (3): Female Genital Mutilation

Female genital mutilation (FGM), or the practice involving the cutting away of one or more parts of the female genitalia (often the clitoris), violates girls’ and women’s human rights, denying them their physical integrity, their right to freedom from violence and discrimination and, in the most extreme cases, their right to life.

The sanitary conditions in which the practice takes place are often substandard leading to medical complications, infections and even death. It is often performed without anesthesia by untrained traditional midwives or laypersons with rudimentary health training, using knives, razor blades or even pieces of glass. Another consequence of FGM are the complications during future child delivery – impacting on women’s rights to a family life. Women who have undergone FGM are twice as likely to die during childbirth and are more likely to give birth to a stillborn child than other women.

The practice also stigmatizes girls and women and affects their feelings of self-esteem given that the justification for the practice is the supposed beneficial impact on female promiscuity. Girls and women are made to feel that without the practice, they would be immoral parts of society. Other justifications are tradition, religious requirements and cleanliness.

FGM is often called “female circumcision”, implying that it is similar to male circumcision. However, the degree of cutting is much more extensive, often impairing a woman’s sexual and reproductive functions.

The BBC estimates that FGM affects 100 million women and girls annually. UNICEF estimates that 70 million women and girls aged 15-49 in 27 countries of Africa and the Middle East have undergone the practice (most girls undergo FGM when they are between 7 and 10 years old). The fact that younger women are less likely to have experienced FGM shows that the practice is becoming slowly less common.

The practice occurs mainly in Africa, but can also be found in Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen, as well as in parts of India, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Western countries seem to import the practice as a consequence of migration. However, until the 1950s FGM was performed in the West as a common “treatment” for lesbianism, masturbation, hysteria, epilepsy etc.

Gender Discrimination (2): Types and Causes

The issue of women’s rights, not in the sense of special kinds of human rights reserved for women, but in the sense of the equal enjoyment by women of their general human rights, remains an important one. The Universal Declaration and the human rights treaties forbid discrimination on the grounds of gender. Article 2 states that “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind”. Article 7 states that

“All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination”.

This means that the anti-discrimination rule goes beyond discrimination in the application of human rights. If everyone is entitled to equal protection by the law, then it means that there can be no law which discriminates. Every law which offers unequal protection to men and women is a violation of the Universal Declaration, whether or not this law seeks to protect human rights.

In real life, women and girls continue to suffer from gender discrimination in all parts of the world. Here are some types of gender discrimination:

1. Discrimination in family law

Article 16 of the Universal Declaration is about the equality in marriage:

“Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution. Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses”.

In many cultures, arranged or forced marriages are still very common, often resulting in sexual abuse. Women often do not have the same rights regarding divorce or inheritance. Polygamy is also a cause of discrimination.

2. Discrimination at work

Article 23 gives everyone, without any discrimination, the right to equal pay for equal work, but even in industrialized countries there is salary discrimination and there are promotion obstacles for women. In developing countries, this discrimination is even worse.

 

In some countries, the choice of work is restricted for women, de iure, but also de facto because of cultural mentalities or educational discrimination. Often women are not allowed to work at all and are confined to house keeping, which obviously limits their development opportunities.

3. Discrimination in education

The literacy rates and school enrollment rates for girls and women is often much lower than for boys and men. Girls are often forced to stay home and do the housekeeping, which in many countries is hard labor. In later life, when a girl is allowed to take a job, it will be a substandard one because of her low level of education. She will also be expected to continue to do the housekeeping.

4. Physical abuse

Because of the anatomy of their bodies and their relative physical weakness compared to men, women are often the victim of rape, female genital mutilation or other kinds of sexual abuses (such as the sex industry).

Some causes of gender discrimination

The causes vary widely and include:

  • Religious traditions and sacred texts. It seems that especially the Muslim religion contains many discriminatory injunctions, which moreover are often interpreted very literally.
  • Custom and culture. Culture shapes the way “things are done” and the thinking of people who believe that things should be done in a certain way. In many cultures we still witness male misogyny and machismo.

  • Education and upbringing. Mothers (but also fathers) often perpetuate involuntarily the inferior social position of their daughters by raising them according to traditional gender roles.
  • Law. The law often reinforces other causes of discrimination.

Different kinds of discrimination promote each other

In many countries, the birth of a boy is a reason to celebrate, whereas the birth of a girl is a disaster. Selective abortions of female fetuses and female infanticide are no exception, resulting in unnatural gender ratios. In some countries, such as China, the situation is made worse by government policy. In 1997, the World Health Organization declared, “more than 50 million women were estimated to be ‘missing’ in China because of the institutionalized killing and neglect of girls due to Beijing’s population control program.”

This negative attitude towards girls is not the simple result of male misogyny. The local law often stipulates that a son inherits his father’s property. Social and legal conditions may also make it easier for a man to get a job to help support the family. One kind of discrimination may therefore promote another.

The misgivings that are created by the birth of a girl are often caused by the dowry system. Dowry is goods and money a bride’s family has to pay to the husband’s family. Not only is it more difficult for a girl to bring in money into the family; when she marries she will become a financial burden. Sometimes, dowries represent years’ worth of wages.

Labeling girls as second rate from the moment they are born obviously creates feelings of low self-esteem, which will make it harder to break out of the vicious circle. When these girls grow up, they will inevitably transpose these feelings to their daughters and so on.

Another case in which one type of discrimination promotes another: women fall more frequently victim to sexual abuse than men. In some societies, the stigma attached to this kind of abuse often forces women to continue to endure their suffering. Moreover, family law can make it difficult for them to divorce their abusing husband. Even the mere fact of allowing the sexual abuse to be exposed can have harmful consequences for the woman in question. Exposure means dishonor for the family, which will then punish the victim. Some families even commit “honor killings” to salvage their reputation. In certain societies, all responsibility for sexual misconduct rests by definition with women.

A last example. A lower level of education results in a substandard job, which in turn results in poverty and dependence on men. This dependence will convince men of the inferiority of women. Women who lack education also lack the tools to improve their situation and combat discrimination.

A few facts

From the Canadian International Development Agency:

  • More than 80 percent of the world’s 35 million refugees are women and children;
  • More than 110 million of the world’s children, two-thirds of them girls, are not in school;
  • At least one in every three women is a survivor of some form of gender-based violence, frequently inflicted by a family member;
  • Women represent, on average, less than 10 percent of the seats in national parliaments; and
  • In sub-Saharan Africa, 58 percent of persons infected with HIV/AIDS are women.