The Arab Holy of Holies

Salman Masalha

The Arab Holy of Holies

Last Saturday (February 7, 2010) a demonstration against violence towards women in Arab society was held in Nazareth, at the initiative of the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee. It isn’t every day that Arab women win reinforcements in the shape of marchers from the entire spectrum of Arab politics in Israel. The ink on the placards carried in the procession had barely dried when reports were published of yet another woman who was killed.

Some say “family honor killings” in Arab society is another variation of violence towards women. However, it is impossible to ignore the fact that while in other societies the murderers are husbands or lovers, who commit the murder in a context foolishly called “romantic,” in Arab society these crimes are committed by brothers, fathers and male cousins as well. Arab intellectuals, who evade responsibility by equating the two phenomena, fall into trap that locates them in a dark corner: Stipulating an equivalency between the two phenomena obliges them to explain what is “romantic” about the murder of a woman by her brother, her father or some other male relative.

To get tot the root of the problem it suffices to read an article Sheikh Kamal Khatib, deputy head of the Islamic Movement in Israel, wrote in January of 2007. The article reflects the prevailing norm in many levels of Arab society, in all the communities – Muslims, Druze and to a lesser extent Christian. Khatib harshly attacked the demand to defend women’s rights and compared it to colonialist conspiracies.

Khattib’s remarks came in response to an article written by attorney Samar Khamis of the Adalah Legal Center for Minority Rights in Israel. She spoke about the oppression of the Arab woman and gave as an example forced marriages and the sanctification of virginity. “The call to revoke the sanctity of virginity,” wrote Khattib, “is tantamount to slashing with a dagger and crudely attacking our religious, moral and national holy of holies.” What angered Khattib more that anything else was the existence of the Aswat (Voices) organization of Arab gay women: “What service do such women give apart from corrupting, destroying and abandoning our people’s morality, image and identity?” thundered Khattib in his article.

The perception that loads the entire burden of “Arab honor” onto women’s shoulders draws its strength from the tribal structure, which is the main obstacle to the society’s development. The roots of the problem lie, on the one hand, in the total lack of understanding of the essence of masculinity, and on the other hand in the fact that the Arab male lives in a state of cultural, religious, social and political oppression. The battered Arab man has grown up in an oppressive tribal structure in which he seeks out the weakest link in order to beat it, oppress it and even murder it. In this way he relieves his frustration by loading his “lost personal honor” onto the woman’s shoulders.

The deep meaning of this outlook is that none other than the Arab man himself denies himself his personal honor. Since he is also denied his social, cultural and political honor he finds, in a circuitous and also cowardly way, a substitute for demonstrating his masculine honor. This is in the extremely low way of demonstrating superiority towards the Arab woman.

In order to bring about a change there is a need for a revolution of consciousness, the aim of which is to liberate the Arab male from the oppression in which he is sunk. Education, both in the home and at school, must transmit the perception that honor stems from the individual himself. The individual’s personal honor is connected solely to the individual himself and no other individual has any connection to this honor. The distorted perception of male honor is what is destroying Arab society and these issues necessitate profound and courageous discussion.

It has been my good fortune to number among my best friends some Arab lesbians. I can say that the contribution these women make to society is far greater that that of many Arab men, whose entire maleness boils down to puffing their chests and growing mustaches.


Published in Hebrew:
Special to Haaretz Online, February 11, 2010,
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