Sunday, July 12, 2009

COMMENT: The honour killing they seem to have forgotten about ...

We've all heard of Amina Lawal, of Mukhtar Mai and of the various victims of honour killings over the years. But one woman's honour doesn't seem to figure very highly in European and Western media outlets. Indeed, in Australia, not a single News Limited newspaper has reported the murder of Marwa al-Sherbini. Not a single News Limited blogger has commented on the incident, including xenophobic bloggers like Andrew Bolt who frequently pluck poorly-reported stories of violence against women of nominally Muslim heritage.

Funny, that.

Marwa al-Sherbini is in her early thirties, smart and attractive. She comes from an educated middle class family, both her parents working as pharmacists. She grew up in the cosmopolitan Egyptian city of Alexandria. She now lives in Dresden, a city once famous for a severe allied bombardment at the end of the Second World War.

Every morning, Marwa readies herself for work. She puts on her pharmacy uniform and her headscarf. She stands in front of the mirror, check her makeup and smiles. But Marwa’s smile hides her secret dread. Each morning, Marwa’s honour is sullied and her security threatened by the violent and vicious taunts of a man.

“You slut!” he screams at her, “You whore!” The man doesn’t stop at mere words. He threatens her with violence. He even follows her to work, shouting taunts at her in the presence of horrified onlookers.

Marwa has had enough. She talks to her employers who put her onto local police. She brings an application to court. The man appears and is fined. She appeals. She knows the fine will not stop him. If anything, it will make him angrier and give him more reason to carry out his threats.

The date for appeal arrives, and Marwa attends accompanied by male relatives. The accused also attends. In the presence of the judge, the prosecutors and other persons present in court, the man screams out the same violent abuse. “You slut! You whore!” But this time he goes even further. He produces a knife and stabs her. Not once. Not twice. Marwa is stabbed at least 18 times.

It must have been a Herculean effort for the man to find the time and strength to stab Marwa 18 times. Readers might consider the effort involved by merely stabbing the air that many times.

Marwa is three months pregnant at the time. Her three year old son witnessed the whole incident.

Now let’s imagine for a moment that the man involved in the taunts and the stabbing was Marwa’s husband. Imagine if Marwa had applied to the court for an order restraining her husband from making violent threats toward her, stalking her and harassing her. Imagine if he had then stabbed her in court. No doubt this honour killing would have made a prominent story in your metropolitan daily newspaper. No doubt it would have been treated as yet another story of an honour killing. No doubt some columnists would have frothed at the pen about how Muslim migrants don’t integrate and are typically violent to women while good white-skinned European men (as if Muslims cannot be white or European!) never engage in domestic violence, let alone the kind of violence that led to the murder of Theo Van Gogh in the Netherlands.

But Marwa’s attacker was not her husband. Marwa’s husband, an academic working at the prestigious Max-Planck-Institut for pharmacology, was present in court. He tried to save his wife and was somehow confused by court security as the attacker. Perhaps they assumed that a Middle Eastern looking man was more likely to attack a woman than a German of Russian descent. Marwa’s husband was shot and at the time of writing was in a coma in hospital.

But then he also wasn’t a complete stranger but rather her neighbour. The stranger would taunt and threaten Marwa because she wore some cloth on her head and because she didn’t quite look like everyone else in Dresden.

It all started one day when she took her son to the local park. The man was seated on the swings, and Marwa politely asked if her son could use the swing for a short while. He responded with a continuous array of taunts and threats. He labelled her “terrorist”, “Muslim bitch”, “whore” and numerous other names. In court, he questioned what right she had to be in Germany. Before stabbing her, he declared:

Do you have a right to be in Germany at all? When the NPD comes to power, there'll be an end to that. I voted NPD.

Perhaps this is what’s worth contemplating. More and more European voters are turning to far-Right parties. Many of these parties have replaced virulent anti-Semitism with virulent anti-Muslim (and general anti-immigrant) sentiment. And mainstream European parties are meeting the far-Right challenge by co-opting far-Right rhetoric and attitudes, encouraging ugly sentiment.

What isn’t quite realised is that it isn’t just immigrants that suffer. Their children, their relatives, the descendants also suffer. When they marry Europeans and have children who don’t quite look European (whatever that means), the European spouses and their part-European children also suffer.

And inevitably it is women who suffer more than men. Women are easy targets for hate-filled men. When a man feels a woman has sullied his honour or the honour, he lashes out against her. She is the easy target. A harder target is the man’s own anger, his deeper issues.

Violence against women is violence against women. It is just as evil whether it is perpetrated by a particular kind of religious fanatic or by someone inspired by fanatical hatred of a particular religion. The result is the same. A woman is harmed. Her family mourns. Her community falls into a deep communal depression.

I could write more, but it's hard to keep up with the rage and anger I feel at those who only seem to care about a Muslim woman being killed when they can use it as an excuse to malign her culture and to make life difficult for her children and others she left behind.

Words © 2009 Irfan Yusuf

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