Using Honor to Challenge Patriarchal Thinking

Using Honor to Challenge Patriarchal Thinking June 24, 2020

My previous post looked at a few examples in Scripture where women accepted and maintained patriarchal ways of thinking. By “patriarchy,” I refer to a system of rules, customs, and assumptions that preserve or prioritize the rights and power of men over those of women.

This mentality is not always apparent. Many well-intended actions draw from latent assumptions about the priority of men over women. Understanding how women reinforce such thinking is one key component to combat patriarchy within society and the church.

This post looks are several contemporary contexts and highlights a creative way that some women have subverted conventional patriarchal customs.

Muslim Mothers & Female Genital Mutilation

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a common practice in some Muslim societies. Although sometimes referred to as female “circumcision,” FGM is utterly different and exceedingly cruel. Depending on the context, young girls have their clitoris partially or entirely removed. Sometimes, their vagina is sewn shut.

In a fascinating and important documentary, “The Honor Diaries,” several women discuss the rationale behind the practice. On midwife explains, “purified girls grow taller and get marriage proposals, but unpurified girls grow short and stubby.” Notice her manner of speaking. Girls who received FGM are considered “purified.” Why? Egyptian cleric, Sheikh Yussuf al Badri, adds this:

“Circumcision is the reason why Muslim women are virtuous, unlike Western women who run off to their sexual appetite in any place with any man.”

The documentary’s panel laments the fact that women often are the primary maintainers of patriarchal systems. Mothers fear that their daughters won’t get married if they receive the procedure.

What values drive this specific behavior? Honor and shame. In these conservative Muslim contexts (though not limited to such settings), a family’s honor is wrapped up in the sexual purity of women. Therefore, husbands and fathers take extreme measures to control a women’s body and sexuality.

For more examples in an African context, see here.

Patriarchal Perspectives among Western Women

How do women in the West perpetuate assumptions or practices that can marginalize the status of women? I’ll briefly suggest a few ideas.

  1. “Boys will be boys”

The first is the tendency to hold boys and girls to different standards. The point is encapsulated in the phrase “boys will be boys.” This plays out in various ways. For instance, I recently heard an underlying assumption governing people’s differing responses to men and women concerning sex.

The basic idea was this: Men have the right to ask for sex. Women have the right to say “no.” As a result, if a young man and girl have sex, the girl suffers disgrace while little or nothing is said about the boy. In some cultures, the girl could be killed.

  1. Body shaming

Body shaming is a favorite weapon of choice for many women. (Don’t believe me… just read some of the hubbub surrounding the recent photo of Adele that showed her 100 pounds thinner than before.) Guys might not realize it, but women dress for other women, not men.

The best line from John Mellencamp’s “Wild Night” opens the second verse.

All the girls walk by dressed up for each other
And the boys do the boogie woogie on the corner of the street
And the people passing by just stare with the wild wonder
And the inside jukebox roars just like thunder

Why do this? Subconsciously, many women measure their worth by their appearance. They absorb this thinking from the same sort of patriarchal views that create FGM in other cultures.

  1. Shaming boys for showing emotion

A less direct method is the habit of shaming boys for showing emotion. I’m not saying that we should teach boys to cry all day and not learn toughness. No, I simply highlight the tendency to reinforce notions of masculinity that scorn displays of emotion. When men learn from their upbringing that sadness or grief is not acceptable, those emotions eventually come out as anger. Also, such men attempt to control the situations and people around them (including women) to an unhealthy degree.

Challenging Patriarchy in India

Now, I’ll give an example of how women and India have challenged patriarchal assumptions. These women used honor and shame as tools for improving the health and safety of women in India. I’ll quote an article that explained the situation faced by Indian women.

Like most of northern India, Haryana values males much more than females. Even before birth, males often receive far better care, while females face a high risk of selective abortion because of their gender. Once born, girls continue to face discrimination through constraints on health care, movement, education or employment. However, they also face much higher risk of violence due to the widespread practice of open defecation.

In 1999, the Indian government began the “Total Sanitation Campaign.” A major goal of the effort was to increase the number of toilets in people’s homes. So, they developed the slogan: “No Toilet, No Bride.” Between 2005–2009, 1.42 million toilets were built in the northern Indian state of Haryana.

In one village, women used a “name and shame” approach. One Indian woman said,

“We started to make a list of people who squatted in the open,” Narsaiah says. Guravaiah adds: “In the panchayat [local government] meetings, those names were read out.” The strategy worked. Humiliated by being publicly identified for defecating in the open, the men agreed to build private toilets.

As a result, the men were publicly shamed for defecating in the open. Rather than suffer humiliation, the men consented to build private toilets.

On the other hand, the campaign also created a healthy way of shaming people into building toilets. People wanted to avoid the potential shame of criticism and not having a wife. So, they were proactive and built toilets on their own initiative.

This beautiful example demonstrates how women can challenge prevailing assumptions about women as well as the use of honor and shame.


[1] See Emily Wax, “In India, New Seat of Power for Women.” Washington Post October 2009; Joanne Lu, “Women in northern India said, ‘No toilet, no bride,’ and it worked,” 18 May 2017.

[2] Joanne Lu, “Women in northern India said, ‘No toilet, no bride,’ and it worked”.

[3]  Stella Paul, Global Press Journal. Sept 12, 2012. Online:

Photo Credit: Flickr/MONUSCO Photos

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