Question of cross-cultural honour

In 2008 in Yemen a young girl named Nujood, aged just 10, was recognised internationally for her courage in initiating divorce from her husband who repeatedly raped and beat her. Nujood's case provides an interpretation of the moral concept of 'honour' quite different to the modern Western perspective. Whilst morally abhorrent, we need to recognise this case may not be representative of the wider society within which these actions occurred.

There is some diversity in Western definitions of honour; however common themes include adhering to high moral standards, and displaying the qualities of worthiness, integrity and respectability.

In Yemen the legal age for marriage is 15, however quite often young girls are married off much earlier. Nujood's marriage was organised by her father to a man three times her age. Her father said he was trying to protect her and that her prospective husband had promised not to begin a sexual relationship until after her first period.

"...she won't be raped by a stranger and become the prey of evil rumours." The family is poor so, "...this will mean one less mouth to feed."

On her wedding night Nujood's husband came into her room "smelling of cigarettes and onions" and raped her despite her cries for help heard by her husband's family. Nujood was forced to leave school and engage in long hours of domestic work. Nujood asks her mother-in-law if she can go outside and play with the local children her own age. She is denied as this will ruin the family's reputation.

After months of crying and begging to be sent back to her parents Nujood's husband takes her to visit her parents. She tells her parents of the torment of the regular rapes and beatings. Her father says it is out of the question for her to leave her husband.

"If you divorce your husband, my brothers and cousins will kill me! …honour comes first. Honour! Do you understand?"

On her second visit to her parents Nujood realises that she must leave her husband. She receives no support from her immediate family however her father's second wife whispers to her that she needs to go to the court and ask for help.

Although it was extremely difficult for Nujood to go undetected to the courthouse, find a judge and ask for a divorce, she does so, eventually finding a progressive female lawyer to argue her case. Yemeni legal officials recognised the brutality and immorality of Nujood's husband's actions and immediately placed her in protective custody, and placed Nujood's father and husband in jail awaiting trial.

When she is confronted in court by her husband the first word he says is "honour". She sees how angry and ashamed he is. Realising how he has lost the respect of other men and knowing how important this is, she even feels a little sorry for him. Nujood wins her divorce and is considered by many a heroic young person, as no young girl had achieved this before in Yemen. As the verdict is read out one of her Uncles yells, "You've sullied the reputation of our family! You have stained our honour!"

It's impossible for us to understand the cultural context in which these actions took place. A local tribal proverb is, 'To guarantee a happy marriage, marry a nine-year-old girl.'

After her divorce Nujood discovers that prior to her own marriage her sister was raped by a stranger in her own home. Before rumours could spread to 'sully the honour of her family' her sister was forced to marry the young man who raped her.

Fear of rape and adultery, extreme poverty, the local interpretation of 'family honour' and a society where men are the only decision makers, all contributed to an environment enabling Nujood's tragedy to unfold.

Despite the taboos and rituals of the tribal village in which Nujood was raised, there are moral principles which are universal condemning rape and violence within or outside of marriage. It was morally wrong for Nujood's father to force her back to her husband as he knew she was being beaten and raped. His actions show his motivation was never to protect his daughter.

Nujood showed there were other options available to her father, such as seeking legal help and divorce. And of course there are always alternatives to rape and violence.

Geoff Lamberton is a senior lecturer in ethics and sustainability at Southern Cross University.

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