It was at my grandmother’s funeral that I learned my most important lesson in shame. Sitting in a boxy room in London’s Regent Street Mosque with Quranic recitations bellowing through the speakers, we all mourned a woman who was the essence of softness and honor her entire life.
By the end of the prayers, what would have been a moment of reflection instead became a misguided lecture from a disgruntled elderly man, addressing half the room on the consequences of being “immodest and unchaste.” With nods of agreement coming from the men in the congregation, the message was clear. The “far too relaxed dress code amongst the women was simply unacceptable.”
As irrational as his words were, it was a blunt reminder of a shallow community, desperately trying to conceal the cracks within their culture of young women becoming “over-westernized.”
Whether or not I wanted to take note of his stern words, it was too late. I already felt shame attach itself to my body.
With pressures on women to be the pillar of morality, modesty, and honor, it often feels as though our bodies are regulated under the veil of shame. The choices we make in how we dress, how we talk, our relationships and how we choose to use our bodies are constantly scrutinized, with the added question “But what will people think?” lurking in every corner of our minds.
Coming from a Middle Eastern community, largely patriarchal in its customs and religious in its practices, there are far too many women excluded from social circles for fear of becoming a source of dishonor to their families.
I grew up understanding that there was a difference between how men and women were viewed by society. What I especially remember about the families around me was their unwavering intent to hold onto anything that reminded them of home. There was a fear amongst our community of becoming so rootless that letting go of traditions meant losing parts of our identity.
In my culture, raising daughters, sisters and women within the family unit to adhere to a strict moral code was just one of many ways to keep the ties of family and traditions sacred. It was also the most direct way to draw ties with how things were done “back home,” by holding the values and moral codes of the places we left behind close to us. Regardless of how those very codes had changed over time, there was little fluidity in our communities for women to completely take control of their lives outside of cultural expectations.
The intense demand for family pride and honor comes at a high cost, with women often becoming the victims of all the shaming.
We were made to be very aware of the cultural and at times extreme acts of control over women’s bodies as stories within our social circle spread much faster than my readiness to absorb them.
I will never forget hearing the news of young girls in London, only a few years older than me, whose lives were cut short at the hands of their male relatives. They were victims of so-called “honor-killings.” Everyone in our community heard their names, yet what was so alarming was the silence that followed.
Instead of identifying the stigmas that led to their killings, women were continually labeled as “loose” and their families belittled for not being able to “control” their daughters, as if controlling them was the solution. I always understood that these young girls were not guilty of rejecting their culture or families. Their only intention had been to live full lives instead of carrying the weight of their community and its patriarchal mindset.
There is often a heavy load of unresolved trauma that affects families like mine living separately from their extended relatives and the clearer confines of a more traditional society. Cases of cultural violence and shaming that have taken place within my own community in the UK have often reflected the widespread sexist culture that the older generations of both men and women are guilty of perpetuating. Those guilty of committing extreme crimes, such as honor-based violence, are not themselves fuelled by their morals or beliefs alone, but spurred on by those around them with feelings of intense shame and failure.
An estimated 5,000 “honor killings” are reported in the world each year, according to the UN, yet many cases go unreported. The reality is that these women are often not honored for their strength against all odds, but instead are shrouded in shame, with graves left unmarked or unvisited.
There is a fear of modernisation within our communities, where it seems the value placed on women being the inferior gender within society is at risk of being challenged by systems that promote gender-equality and female empowerment.
The way women’s bodies are governed within our society is detrimental, a system that many have tried hard to push back against. As I think about the statistics of gender-based violence within my own culture, it is easy to understand why women feel the need to suppress so much of who they are to live a life free of judgment and fear.
When I visited Iraq for the first time, I was 16 years old and was hyper-aware of being a young woman in a society that I barely recognized. Being the “foreigners” of our family circle, my sister and I were quickly clued up on the moral code, shrinking ourselves to avoid standing out.
Between the innocent giggles of our female cousins, we were strongly instructed “to not look at men on the streets, to not laugh too loud or sit in coffee shops, chew gum, or wear revealing clothes.” These were all shameful acts within a society that left us no room to grow or experiment.
In the UK, growing up around an older generation of our extended family and friends, we didn’t fare much better with our choices or independence as women. Sure, I was free to wear mini-skirts and make-up, with bedroom walls covered entirely of boy bands, but, relationships and especially sexual expression were forbidden.
Both in Iraq and London, I was blind to the influence that these patriarchal traditions had over the way I viewed and emotionally connected to the men around me. When everything in my life was telling me what was shameful, I couldn’t see beyond this to what was normal.
As feminist Bell Hooks writes, “Inside many females is a girl who was taught from early childhood that she must become something other than herself, deny her true feelings, in order to attract and please others.” I was guilty of conforming to a role of passiveness over self-assertion, always bending myself to fit into the needs of others instead of my own, because that is what was expected of me. Taking up space and owning my body was not something I was ever comfortable with.
Although society is now shifting in a positive way for women there are still those who are reluctant to see a change in the social order of how women are treated. The fact that even a proportion of Middle Eastern men still insist on virginity as a prerequisite for marriage despite their own sexual experiences highlights the double standards in morality between genders.
As a result, so many women grow up fearful of intimacy and physical relationships, because this alone carries a risk of rejection when finding a spouse. This explains the terrifying reality of hymen restorations as a way of retaining a sense of “purity and innocence.” The so-called virginity tests, inflicted on women alone, are part of the problem. Its only purpose is to serve patriarchal customs, sexually discriminating and demeaning women into believing that they only function in society as physical bodies with a sell-by date.
Almost every woman has experienced the many views that society holds over us: that non-virgins, divorcees and women who are unable to conceive or simply not interested in becoming mothers are unworthy of marriage or love. Society often drums into us that we should feel ashamed of these choices.
What is especially clear to me is that within my culture, it is customary to believe that a woman’s honor exists within her hymen and uterus alone. There is little to no sex education for us, only a culture of shame, leading to some women feeling disconnected and unseen.
The fear of pulling myself apart in order to live a life unjudged is a daily battle leaving me wondering how many of my choices in life have been influenced by my culture. Until we let go of the stigma attached to shame, we may always be suppressing who we are and hiding a part of ourselves from others. Talking about shame and rejecting gender norms imposed by society can help us to live with our choices without feeling guilty or inadequate as women.
Alifa Rifaat is one of many authors whose writing amplifies the voices and frustrations of women living within barriers of culture and patriarchy. “Daughter, I’m not crying now because I’m fed up or regret that the Lord created me a woman. No, it’s not that. It’s just that I’m sad about my life and my youth that have come and gone without my knowing how to live them really and truly as a woman.”
Her words remain with me every time I reflect on my body and my choices. My freedom to live as an individual I owe to all the groundbreaking women within my community and beyond who dared to choose love and reject a life of shame.