The ultimate consequence of honor and shame

Sent On: 
Wed, 2020-02-12
Newsletter Number: 

Last year 21-year-old Palestinian woman Israa Ghrayeb [Isrāʾ Gharīb] was killed by her own family because she had violated their honor by placing a video on Instagram. She became the victim of a horrible honor and shame culture in the Arab world. Dutch Arabist Eildert Mulder, also advisor to the board of the Dutch Arab-West Foundation, publisher of Arab-West Report, wrote a commentary about this in the Dutch daily Trouw. Israa was Muslima but the honor and shame culture is in no way limited to Muslims only but can be found among Christians in the Arab World as well. Mulder refers to Deuteronomy 22: 20-22: “then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death with stones, because she has done a disgraceful thing in Israel, to play the harlot in her father’s house. So you shall put away the evil from among you” [New Kings James translation]. Please read Mulder’s text here.

It was expected in the days Deuteronomy was written and it is expected today in Arab culture that a woman maintains her virginity before getting married. This is of major importance in an honor and shame culture. Old Testament scholar Prof. Dr. P.B. Dirksen responds to this and warns that we should not take texts outside the context of the time they were written in. In other words, such texts should be seen as an object for study but not as a guidance for the life of believers today. Similar texts also exist in Islamic scriptures. While many scholars are aware of the dangers of literal interpretations some believers, however, may use them as justification for acts to preserve their honor and prevent shame.

It is good to refer here to last year’s report of CAWU intern Erica Canova exploring the impact of honor and shame in Egyptian culture. Of course, there are large differences between a large city as Cairo and the countryside and between people of different levels of education and regions. The sad story about the death of Israa Ghrayeb shows what the consequences can be if the sense of honor of a family or tribe needs to be protected and shame is to be prevented against any price. The family denied they had killed her but admitting this would be tantamount to admitting shame. In an honor and shame culture it is perfectly acceptable to lie if this helps to protect one’s honor and thus the family claimed she died of a heart attack while medical examiners found she had died due to complications in her respiratory system caused by repeated beatings.

The impact of honor and shame can be seen everywhere in society, for example when Christians are claiming that a young Christian girl has been kidnapped by Muslims. In the cases I have seen this usually concerned problems within the Christian family and/or a love story that resulted in a girl converting to Islam. This is widely perceived by Christians as shame on the family and the response to shame is blaming the other. Please read my report about this here.


February 12, 2020 

Cornelis Hulsman,

Editor-in-Chief Arab-West Report