By Emma Mackenzie Hillier / EMH
When I first began the task of curating a website inspired by the themes found in Anita Majumdar’s The Fish Eyes Trilogy with Brian Quirt (Artistic Director of Nightswimming Theatre; Director/Dramaturg of the Trilogy), and Rupal Shah, (Producer), it was after several months of working with Nightswimming and numerous discussions about the three plays.
After much conversation, Brian pointed out that all three plays in the Trilogy touch on notions of female honour. I took a moment to process this. Female honour isn’t a term with which I come into contact on daily, weekly, or even monthly basis. In my prior research, I’d been focusing on several of the specific elements that tie these three plays together: feminism, sexuality, and cultural appropriation. As it happens all of these ideas are intimately linked with the idea of female honour.
It’s difficult to find articles, posts or in fact, any information or definition of female honour when researching online. Often, it’s alluded to as part of a larger discussion around feminism or sexual identity, but rarely directly discussed. Don’t believe me? Try a quick Google search for “female honour” and see what pops up.
I’ll save you the trouble. The first five links to pop up are: a Wikipedia entry on the British honour for women, “Dame (title)”; a Wikipedia entry on Honour Killing; two links to the same academic article published in 1995 titled “Expanding the boundaries of female honour in early modern England”; and a South China Morning Post article called “Dressed to kill: First female PLA honour guards steal limelight at leader’s visit”. Hmm… other than the Wikipedia entry none of these seem relevant.
One could argue that the term simply refers to both men and women. And that would fly, until you just barely scratch the surface of that thought. Take a moment to Google “male honour” and, oh my, well that’s a fatherload of very specific information: What is Honor? | The Art of Manliness; Male Honour, Social Control and Wife Beating in Seventeenth Century England; Men of Honor – Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia; Mafioso: Code of Honor – AskMen; and the list goes on.
I am not suggesting that a simple internet search is indicative of an entire cultural attitude. But it does indicate what resources and wells of information are available about a topic. I took this discovery in stride, mulled it over, and began to seek a definition of female honour. This meant a lot of reading, web searches and re-examination of the plays. What I realized was disheartening and downright terrifying. What was true for women 400 years ago is still true today: a woman’s honour is characterized through the public’s perception of her sexual character and conduct. Think The Scarlet Letter, or for those more interested in a contemporary example, the film Easy A.
The second play in The Fish Eyes Trilogy examines a high school community’s response to a young woman’s sexual assault by one of the “cools” of the school. The victim is routinely intimidated by the other students, physically assaulted, and then forced by the school’s administration to finish her semester at home. If that sounds extreme or unrealistic, I would direct your attention to an extract from Amnesty International’s “Violence Against Women in the Name of Honour” an article about women’s honour in Pakistan:
“The mere perception that a woman has contravened the code of sexual behaviour damages honor. The regime of honor is unforgiving: women on whom suspicion has fallen are not given an opportunity to defend themselves, and family members have no socially acceptable alternative but to remove the stain on their honor by attacking the woman.”
The mere perception? Talk about a perpetual witch hunt. What we call “honour killings” in the West are part of an accepted practice in parts of Great Britain, Brazil, India, Ecuador, Israel, Italy, Sweden, Uganda, Turkey, Jordan, Pakistan and Morocco. Similar crimes are called “crimes of passion” in Latin America.
For an exacting description of what comprises an honour killing click here.
And yes, “honour killings” are practiced in Canada, evidenced by the Shafia Case and the Bano case. You could argue that these murders, as I can’t dignify them with another name, are part of a culture that is not Canadian or even North American but I would disagree with you.
I would direct your attention to the Rehtaeh Parsons case, which involved a gang rape, intense bullying of the victim from the community and fellow students because of her “illicit” behaviour, her eventual suicide, and incredible ineptitude on the part of the Halifax police.
Or, I would direct you to the story of Amanda Todd, who, because of a topless photo taken of her without her knowledge while engaging in consensual online chats, was systematically hunted down by the man she flashed, who released the photo to her family and friends. Even though she switched schools numerous times, he found her and made her a subject of derision. The result? She was emotionally bullied by students at each school she attended, and was actually beaten in front of students and her teachers who could barely control the student attacking her. She eventually committed suicide.
Or, I would direct you to the case in Steubenville, Ohio, in which two high school football players raped a minor. During the trial, the football players’ lawyers attempted to establish that because of the minor’s character and lack of credibility their clients were not responsible for what they did to her. Luckily the judge didn’t accept that line of argument and both were determined to be delinquents (the juvenile version of being found guilty).
Or, or, or. I could offer you more horrific stories, but I think I’ve made my case. These each sound like impossible situations, but before they became headlines the response to the victims was one of derision, continued bullying by their peers, and in the case of Rehtaeh and Amanda, by the community at large. No one individual member from their family or community killed these young women. The community at large did. Because of the sexual violence visited upon them, they were made to be the subjects of scrutiny, heckles, and leers instead of those who inflicted the sexual violence. Or, in other words, these young women lost their honour.
The term “honour” doesn’t come up very often in regular conservation. But it quietly regulates much of how we comport ourselves and on what we base our opinions of others. For example: not completing all terms of a contract is related to one’s honour; avoiding enacting one’s ideals or principles is related to one’s honour; we honour the memory of one who has passed away; or honour someone for courageous acts. All of these explicitly or marginally relate to how we perceive others and whether or not they are honourable. And the double-standard that exists for women is infuriating.
If a woman in any part of the world is sexually assaulted, some of the first questions raised by police and defence lawyers ask how the victim may have provoked the assault (for example). Teenagers in high schools operate under a double-standard: if a teenage girl loses her virginity, then she’s a slut; but if a teenage boy does… that’s great! And it’s only after he’s slept with several young women that he’s labelled a player. If you ask me, “player” is a far superior term for someone who enjoys sex than “slut” or “whore.”
What is even more infuriating is that I even need to write this article. For generations, feminists have been fighting to have the culture at large recognize that women are not on equal footing with men. Our laws have changed but social opinion hasn’t. These opinions are internalized by women at a young age, which creates lasting marks for years, contributing to the social confusion and double-standards that plague our society and culture.
I call for a new standard. A standard that doesn’t see a woman’s honour as dependant on her sexual identity, but that depends on her ideals and how she maintains them; her acts of valour, generosity, and charity; her championing of her own ideas and her own power. I call for a standard that doesn’t rely on the male definition of honour. But rather one that relies on the individual, their personal ideals, and their ability to live up to them.
For more information on The Fish Eyes Trilogy, premiering at Great Canadian Theatre Company in October and touring to the PuSh Festival, The Belfry Theatre, The Banff Centre, and The Aga Kahn Museum, click on a link to any of the individual theatres or check out Nightswimming’s website, Facebook Page, or Twitter feed.