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Women's Shame – 2: Embodied

In the last post we discussed how shame (and blame) is often ascribed more to women, including in situations of crisis or violence. Rather than avoidance or even private counselling, thus colluding in the hiddenness and trauma of shame, Jesus openly encountered women who were carrying ascribed social shame, thus exposing the shame and at the same time publicly restoring their status.

As well as socially ascribed shame, which comes to women through life situations, women also experience shame in embodied form.

Embodied shame

Young women and men in the west and beyond experience shame associated with their bodies. An article suggests that for children as young as six to eight years old, more than half of girls, and a third of boys, think that their ideal weight is thinner than their current size.[i] Eating disorders have been linked with shame. External shame, feeling of less value than others, is associated with anorexia nervosa symptoms. Internal shame, believing that we have not lived up to our own standards or expectations, is connected with bulimia nervosa symptoms.[ii] While both women and men experience this, it is more prevalent in the female population.

But shame is more particularly localized in a woman’s body. The proverb that ‘a man’s honour lies between the legs of a woman’ (quoted in the previous post) locates the honour of men, of families, even of nations, in a woman’s sexual chastity. This contrasts with male sexuality, where the expression of virility can be even valorized, or at least not sanctioned in the same way. In his article on shame and gender, Kressel discusses “the Arabic notion of ird,[iii] and its related frame of thought that encodes femininity with shame.”[iv] The strength of this association governs not only what happens to women in sexual terms, but also shapes where and how women may move, what they wear, and what they can or cannot do. Lama Abud-Odeh suggests that Arab women “are supposed to perform a “public” virginity with a certain body “style,” the body moving within a defined and delimited social space. Each one of the above borders, the vaginal, the bodily, and the social is enforced through a set of regulations and prohibitions that the woman is not supposed to violate.”[v] So where women can walk (particularly in public places), how they walk (bodily comportment), with whom, how they dress, how loudly they can talk or laugh, are all mandated towards the goal of guarding their modesty. Sadaf Ahmad notes that for women in Pakistan “any activity deemed culturally inappropriate thus results in the loss of honor, and not just hers but also her family’s, and eventually her nation’s.”[vi] Family and national honour is then protected through ensuring that women keep within carefully prescribed community cultural guidelines for modest dress and behaviour.

When shame is located in the woman’s body, if she is thought to have transgressed community expectations for female behaviour, then family honour may be restored by killing her.[vii] The UNPF estimates that 5000 women are killed each year in ‘honour’ killings (almost all in the Muslim world). Authors Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn estimate that the real figures are at least 6000 annually.[viii] Beyond honour killings, women are also victims of ‘honour rapes’. Allying women’s sexuality with shame allows the use of rape as a weapon to disgrace the victim’s family, clan or nation. Mukhtar Bibi[ix] in Pakistan has given other women courage by her refusal to suicide after a gang rape ‘punishment’[x] of her family, but rather being willing to face public shame to see her rapists charged, and provide help for other women.[xi] Militias in many countries have recognized that the most effective way to terrorize a civilian population is to commit brutally savage rapes. Rape was formally recognized as a ‘weapon of war’ by the United Nations in 2008, now so widely used that one commander suggests “It has probably become more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in an armed conflict.”[xii] I heard of rape stories of unspeakable sadism from Syrian refugee women at the hands of occupying militias.

A related dimension of embodied shame is the injunction for Muslim women to cover or hide their ‘awrah.’ Awrah is ‘that which must be concealed’. While it is often translated as ‘nakedness,’ in literary Arabic it actually means ‘defectiveness, faultiness, deficiency, imperfection; genitals; weakness.’[xiii] What constitutes awrah differs both according to different Muslim schools of law, and also according to context. It includes some parts of men’s bodies, but it is more extensive in relation to women’s bodies and can include their voices also, and even their whole body form. Gabriele Vom Bruck comments about Yemeni women: “On attaining physical maturity, a woman is said to be ‘aurah, literally, that which is indecent to reveal. … One of the guiding principles of learning to be female is to conceal one facet of identity – the surface of the body –from non-mahram[xiv] both at home and in the street.” Women’s perfume and voices are included in their ‛awrah.[xv] The inclusion of women’s voices in their awrah is the reason that women Qur’anic reciters do not perform in public today in the Middle East. I have been told that if a woman’s voice is heard outside her apartment, it is as if she walked outside naked. Even in Indonesia, where women reciters of the Qur’an are common, they may face restrictions in international competitions, and also around the question of whether they can perform if they are menstruating.[xvi]

Fedwa Malti-Douglas quotes Nawal El-Saadawi’s childhood “sensation that my body was ‘awra.”[xvii] The English translation of El-Saadawi’s book translates it as “Shameful! Everything in me was shameful, and I was a child of just nine years old.”[xviii] In early twentieth-century Indonesia, Ahmad Dahlan (1868-1923) asked his female students, “Aren’t you ashamed of showing your awra to men?” “It would be a deep embarrassment, Sir!” they replied. “Then why do you go to male doctors when you are ill, even when you deliver your baby [and let them see your awra]? If you are ashamed, then continue studying and become doctors, so that we have female doctors for women.”[xix]

The enforced hiddenness of women’s bodies reflects hierarches of gender and power, which embed shame in women as bodies. This hiddenness allows the perpetration of abuse and violence on them. The embodiment of shame in women makes rape a weapon of warfare, which is used to demonstrate the shame and weakness of the enemy, and their failure to preserve or defend their honour in their women. And weakness, with shame, is made female in form.

Shame embodied – God incarnate, and crucified