Sunday, 19 December 2010

Shame and honour

Last Friday night as I drove home from a party in Venice (Florida!), I tuned into the Public Radio Station which come out of Ft. Myers, FL.  I was all ears as I listened to a “World Vision” programme about women in Afghanistan.

I was glad to hear of the ways in which the gifts and abilities of women are being celebrated in Kabul.  

I could scarcely bear to listen to the fate of many young women outside of the capital.  They are girls really, who are married off at a very young age, and then become virtual slaves in the homes of their husbands.

  (Often the mother-in-law becomes the slave-master.   She is repeating her own experience from when she was a child bride).

Many of these girls can “take it no more” and they are led to suicide. The preferred method is by self-immolation.  These children will douse themselves with petrol, and then set themselves afire.

In the book “My life as a Traitor” by Zarah Ghanramani, the author relates that in Iran, one of her cousins did the same, and died after ten days of agonising pain.

Many girls are married off at a young age (maybe 9 or 10) for various reasons.   

Perhaps it is the lust of an older man. 

Maybe her very poor family needs the dowry money. 

Or a poor family might give their daughter to a richer man in order to acquire more honour within the clan or tribe. 

Far be it for the girl to resist.  

 Her resistance will shame her family.

“Honour and shame”:  These are concepts by which many tribal societies maintain a sense of stability and order.  They are day by day ways of living in lands such as Palestine, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and Bangladesh.

It is easy from a western point of view to view this as a Muslim issue.  But “majority Christian” countries such as South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda (etc) also have their codes of honour and shame. The rape of virgin girls is a supposed cure for AIDS in some of these lands.  The “honour” of an AIDS infected male can be mitigated by the “shame” of the girl who has been raped, (or so the men say).

When I was a child, growing up in England, there was a clear sense of honour and shame.  We were supposed to “honour our betters” in a class based society.    Young un-wedded women who were pregnant were considered a “shame” to their families.  They often “disappeared” from public view. They had been taken off to a home for unwed mothers where they gave birth.  Then the baby was inevitably “given up” for adoption.

There was also a hidden “honour and shame” system regarding “funny Uncles”, i.e. those un-married men who were perceived to be “pansies” or “fairies”.

In recent years in countries such as the U.K. and the U.S.A., the idea of shaming continues. Thus the names and addresses of sex-offenders are made public, in the belief that we are thereby made safer.

I was led again to thoughts about honour and shame as I listened to the Gospel reading in Church today.  Here it is:

Matthew 1:18-25

The Birth of Jesus the Messiah

18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah* took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
   and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’ 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son;* and he named him Jesus.

If Joseph had obeyed the law he would have “shamed” Mary.
Instead he relied on a dream, and “honoured” her.

Joseph shows us a way of rejecting the cruelty of shaming, and of rejoicing in the dream of honouring. 

God is with us (Emmanuel) in honour but  never in shame.

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