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Op-Ed: On Rape, the Culture of Shame - and Radio Interviews

How objective information provided by an expert in a radio interview was skewed by those wishing to use it for political ends.
Published: Thursday, July 24, 2014 1:39 AM


Before I write anything at all,I wish to make it clear  that I, Dr. Mordecai Kedar of the Department of Arabic at Bar Ilan University, am an avowed feminist - a fact to which the male and female Jewish and Arab students who participate in my "Gender Issues in the Islamic World" seminar  will attest as I see that as more important than the subject matter.

It follows that I am absolutely opposed to any type of violence towards women, and certainly against that violence which has sexual connotations. Rape is rape is rape, it is a moral, legal and inhuman transgression that is forbidden in every situation and in any dispute, whether national, religious ethnic, economic, familial, personal – anything at all. My personal approach is that a rapist should be castrated by chemical or other means, so as to protect the public.

I have certainly never called for and never will call for or recommend to any nation – and certainly not to my beloved Israel – to use rape to deal with any problem, security or otherwise. Every state in the world must adhere to the rules of  law and ethics according to the accepted international accords and international law.

This may seem an odd statement for me to make, and self-evident to anyone who knows me, so let us get to the crux of the issue so that the reader will understand the reason for the above paragraphs.

The Middle East is the setting for many varied cultures, many of whom keep  to some degree the traditions and customs that characterized them throughout history. Unlike us, most of the people living in the Middle East – even if we do not take the Syrian, Iraqi and Palestinian refugees into account – have not undergone the kind of migration that destroys an ancient culture, and in many cases the traditional frameworks in which they lived throughout history, the tribes and extended families (hamoulot), are still extant and vibrant today.

One of the foundation stones of tribal life is "the culture of shame". I recommend that the reader look at what Arab and non-Arab researchers write on the subject, as well as what the midle-eastern man on the street has to say about "Thaqafat al-'aib" (the culture of shame) and how it affects all the circles in the life of an individual, family, exteneded family (hamoula) and state.

The guiding principle of this culture is that a man must refrain from any act that shames himself and his family, directly or indirectly. He must do only those acts that do not cause his family to be ashamed of him. 

The worst shame a man can experience is that caused by immoral sexually-connected behavior of his wife or daughter, and this behavior will lead to their punishment.  In many cass the punishment is death, what is euphemistically called "murder for profaning the honor of the family" or "honor murders". A woman who has been raped brings shame upon the famly, even if she was forcibly raped. She is considered "used merchandise" because she has lost her virginity, and the family will try to keep the rape a secret so as to avoid shame. (See here)

Since they are well aware of this cultural ethos, there are men who put pressure on other men by threatening to rape their opponent's sister or mother. A man who is threatened that his mother or sister will be raped will yield much more quickly and easily to pressure than someone who has neither a mother or a sister, especially if the threat is serious.

In Arab countries the law forbids rape, but in many cases people do not behave according to the state's laws but stick to their own society's norms when it comes to what is permissible or forbidden.

Rape is less publicized than murder because in the case of murder there is a body or a woman is missing, so these events generally become known. In contrast, rapes – if they do not result in pregnancy – can be hidden to avoid shame, and are therefore less known, especially if they do not result In a revenge slaying. Nawal El Sadawi dedicated several of her books to the topic of women in the Arab world, including The Hidden Face.

In the Middle East, rape is a weapon of war and seen as the strongest expression of destruction inflicted on the enemy. Much has been written of the mass rape in Darfur, Western Sudan, perpetrated as a means of humiliating and banishing large populations there.  There were many incidents of rape in the Syrian civil war that began in 2011, in most cases perpetrated by messengers of the ruling government who raped women and girls of the opposition in order to take revenge on the men and make them hesitate to continue the fighting.(See Huffington Post, April 2013.

In 1990 Kuwaiti women and girls were raped by Iraqi soldiers who overran that country (See NY Times, Dec. 1990) .

Qaddafi's Libya used rape on a wide scale and that travesty resulted in the murder of many girls who became pregnant - by their own families so as to protect the family from shame.(see BBC, June 2011) 

The security forces of Mubarak in Egypt humiliated young women who demonstrated against the government with sexual humiliations and "virginity checks". (See Al Jazeera, March 2012)

It can be said that throughout the Arab world sexual violence and rape are an inseparable part of the many conflicts that are tearing the Arab world into shreds. Rape during conflicts is a weapon of war that has terrible psychological effects for the victim and her family, and its purpose is to subjugate them mentally, sow fear in their hearts and paralyze them militarily. This finds its expression in the Arabic proverb: "Death but not shame", meaning "I prefer death to humiliation",  because shame in that culture is worse than death.

And now, for the radio interview. I was asked by the interviewer how one can deter a suicide terrorist-bomber, the kind that does not fear death.  My laconic, prompt answer was the standard one used in the Middle East,  that is, that the threat of raping the wife or mother of the terrorist is the only threat that could prevent him from a suicide attack. It goes without saying that I did not even hint at the possibility that Israel could or should commit such a travesty as to act in that fashion. The use of rape as an example was meant to point out he great difficulty a country like Israel has when dealing with this culture, because Israel would never commit or condone immoral and illegal acts, as I wrote above.

If someone actually found it possible to understand from what I said that I include Israel among the nations who act in that manner, I can only accept responsibility for not explaining the issue clearly enough.

Unfortunately, there are those who are exploiting what I said to badmouth me, the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies and Bar Ilan University.

I am sure that whoever is doing this is motivated by goodwill, excessive morality and sincere fear for the rule of law and the image of the State of Israel, and not, heaven forbid, by any political disagreements or cultural divide with me or any of the institutions of which I am a member.