In Middle East, Femininity Used to Punish Men

A social media campaign started in reaction to a judge's decision to punish some criminals by dressing them in women's traditional Kurdish clothing.  Credit: Courtesy of KurdMenForEquality on Facebook

A social media campaign started in reaction to a judge’s decision to punish some criminals by dressing them in women’s traditional Kurdish clothing.

By Iqbal Tamimi

WeNews commentator

Wednesday, September 11, 2013


{jcomments on}–If there’s any question that demeaning attitudes toward women prevail in our Arab and Middle Eastern cultures just look at how men are punished and women are praised and how differently we talk about male and female subjects.

If anyone wants to shame or humiliate a man, it seems all he has to do is describe him as a woman.

This came into the headlines in April when an Iranian court forced a male convict to wear a traditional Kurdish woman’s dress and appear in public, as a degrading punishment.

In a remarkable and unusual act of civil disobedience, some Kurdish men from Marivan, a city in the Kurdistan Province of Iran, have protested this misogynistic, gender-shaming decision by getting dressed voluntarily as Kurdish women and posting the photos on social media to reflect their solidarity and respect for their women and pride of their culture.

I have also witnessed Israel use this procedure of humiliation against Palestinian men.

Many years ago, like all Palestinian refugees, I was forced to apply for a permit from the Israeli authorities and pay a considerable fee to be allowed to visit my home in the occupied West Bank for a maximum period of 21 days.

At the Israeli checkpoint, located on the borders between Jordan and the occupied Palestinian territories, on the King Hussain Bridge on the River Jordan, I saw old Palestinian men forced by Israeli soldiers to wear women’s under slips and dance in front of hundreds of people waiting for their documents to be checked.

One moment in particular left a deep painful scar in my memory, where a very old man, maybe in his 80s, was crying after being forced to dance wearing his daughter’s red under slip. I have mentioned this traumatizing experience in one of my poems, which I recited at the Bristol-Palestine Film Festival a couple of years ago, when poets from various countries and backgrounds shared verses about displacement and relocation.

Other Shaming Techniques

Men are shamed by femininity in other ways too.

For example, if you want to cast doubt on the importance of a conversation, the credibility of a source of news or to describe a conversation as silly and irrelevant, some call it “Kalam Niswan,” or “women’s talk.”

This anti-female culture was also evident during the Egyptian uprising, starting in 2011, when opponents provoked each other on social networks and online media by using humiliating expressions, including describing each other as women.

The supporters and the opponents of the regime used the “Bokra nelabesko Torah” threat. That means “we will, in the near future, force you to wear women’s head covers.” Torah is the plural of the word Tarhah; a woman’s head garment in Egyptian traditional clothes. This term is used as a threatening expression, warning the opponent that he will be stripped of his roles and duties in a degrading way and will be forced to stay home like women (a culturally inherited view that believes the only suitable place for women is at home, while anything to do with activities outside the home is a man’s area).

Clearly this expression is not accurate since Egyptian women have participated actively in the revolution and did not stay home idle, even though a considerable number of women were sexually harassed by thugs and security forces who assaulted them physically and verbally, specifically by groping, to deter them from participating.

According to the Almasryalyoum newspaper’s forum, some Islamists smeared the reputation of female activists by claiming that the women who participated in the Tahrir Square sit-in were prostitutes using drugs and drinking alcohol inside the tents.

This hostility towards female activists seems to have happened regardless of whom was in control of the streets in Egypt, whether during the Hosni Mubarak regime in 2005, the uprising in 2011 and even after the military retook power in 2013.

For a woman, it works the other way around. If you want to praise a woman, compare her to men.

Often a woman who shows courage is apt to be called “a sister of men,” suggesting that the source of her courage is her brothers and other men in her family and the male atmosphere in which she was reared.

Women are perceived in many Arab and Middle Eastern societies and cultures as appendices for men. From their point of view, a woman’s death is not as big a loss as the death of a man. Women are seen as easily substituted; their lives are not of the same worth of men’s. Such a mentality is in part the outcome of an ancient heritage from tribal cultures where men are seen as numbers, a force that reflects collective strength because they participate in wars, so their death is considered everyone’s loss.

Legal Reinforcement

There are even articles of law that are still valid in our day and age that discriminate against women shamelessly.

In Jordan, for example, if a man catches his wife in bed with another man and kills her, his crime is considered at court as an act driven by rage or temporary insanity that forced him to defend his honor. In this way he benefits from the idea of mitigating circumstance and serves only a few months in prison. In some cases he is acquitted when his wife’s close relatives, such as her parents or brothers, drop all charges against him because they feel ashamed of her wrongdoing.

Such a man is often considered a hero in the eyes of his community.

The rage factor, however, is not an accepted excuse for a woman. If she catches her husband in bed with another woman and kills him because he cheated on her, she will often be considered a murderer and be sentenced to the full punishment of many years in prison.

This grave injustice insinuates that women’s honor, safety and dignity are not equal to those of men.

In Saudi Arabia, it is even considered a disgrace to mention the name of someone’s mother or wife in public. Such folly might ignite a huge fight.

For that reason, most Saudi men whisper their mothers’ and wives’ names discretely, should they be forced to declare their names while filling forms needed for travel, such as for passports issuance.

Not only that, many women in Arab societies will not be called by their first names after marriage, but addressed by the name of their eldest male born. A woman might be called “Um Hasan,” meaning “mother of Hasan.” But she will not be called “Um Fatimah,” the mother of Fatimah, even if her female daughter happens to be born before her brother.

Iqbal Tamimi is the director of Arab Women Media Watch Center in the United Kingdom. She’s an award-winning journalist, campaigning for women’s rights and ethical journalism.

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1 Comment

  1. Julianne June 3, 2015

    Very interesting comparison, you work up the fact so illuminate.

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