Cultures of Honor

Janice Fiamengo is an author, editor, and Professor of English at the University of Ottawa.


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Review of Aruna Papp and Barbara Kay, Unworthy Creature: A Punjabi Daughter’s Memoir on Honour, Shame and Love. St. Catharines: Freedom Press, 2012.

One of the ironies of our age is that the North American women who successfully lobbied over the past 30 years to change the public perception of marriage, sexual assault, and abortion should have shown themselves so pusillanimous and divided over the suffering of non-Western women. When I was a university student keen to understand feminism, I learned early on that white women should stay silent when the subject was violence against women in such regions as South Asia, where women are subject to strict codes of honor punishable by beatings or murder. It was racist, I was told, to point the finger at non-Western cultures for women’s abuse; all patriarchies subjugated women, none more so than the North American version, and whites who criticized other cultures were exhibiting a long-standing colonial arrogance.

Two women have refused this feminist orthodoxy to co-author Unworthy Creature: A Punjabi Daughter’s Memoir on Honour, Shame, and Love. Barbara Kay, the supporting author, is an acclaimed National Post opinion writer and public speaker who came to know Aruna Papp after Papp wrote to congratulate her for one of her columns. In the column, Kay had distinguished honor-based violence from normative domestic violence, and Papp was struck by her discernment and clarity. Eventually the two women decided to collaborate to write Papp’s story.

The oldest daughter of Seventh-Day Adventist parents in the Punjab, Aruna grew up in a culture saturated with the honor-based values and customs. There was never a time when she did not know that boys were more valued than girls, that a girl’s only hope in life was to fulfill the role assigned to her—as daughter, wife, daughter-in-law, mother, or widow—and that to fail in her role, through disobedience or sexual “pollution,” was to risk harsh physical punishment and ostracism.

For Aruna, this meant accepting a life in which beatings by her revered father were eventually replaced by beatings at the hands of the man to whom her parents married her. It meant witnessing a girl burned to death for rebellious behaviour and noting the failure of family members or neighbours to condemn her killing. It meant seeing a female baby that had been thrown onto a trash heap and being told it was nothing to cry about. It meant suffering from feelings of profound worthlessness. Raped by a male relative while she was a young girl, Aruna said nothing because she knew she would be killed if the “shameful” fact (her shame, that is) were revealed. On her wedding night, she was terrified that her husband would discover her secret and send her back to her father, who would be forced to kill her to purify the family name. Thinking of her own death, she felt no anger, only sadness for her papa. “I loved my father so much that the thought of his humiliation sickened me. I hoped I would have the opportunity to tell him that I loved him and that I was not angry with him for ending my life.”

How this abused and nearly-illiterate young woman found the strength to defy family strictures and make a new life for herself in Canada as an immigrant services director, independent-minded activist, teacher, and author is the story that Papp has told in this riveting memoir. From the moment of her arrival at the airport in Montreal, where only a screaming fit prevented her and her husband and children from being sent back to India, to her grit in pursuing university education despite language and educational deficiencies, Papp was determined to allow no Canadian opportunity to pass her by.

In the midst of domestic turmoil, she became involved by chance in social services work for which she developed passion and expertise. Here she also encountered the crippling dogma of multicultural feminism, with its cut-throat animosities and hierarchies of oppression. Her articulation of the contradictions of progressivist theory is forthright and cogent:

Feminism made me question my whole upbringing, encouraged me to be judgmental about the patriarchy, and challenged my loyalty to the men in my life. Feminism told me to be strong and forthright and autonomous. But at the same time multiculturalism, an equally prominent philosophy that Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau had decreed would be Canada’s guiding principle for a just society, seemed to be telling me that judging the behaviour of people from cultures other than western Christian ones was patronizing and elitist. Multiculturalism seemed to be telling me I should continue to live exactly as I always had, because inequality of value between men and women was part of my culture, and all cultures were deemed to be of equal value.

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  • Schlomotion

    Ms. Fiamengo should really disclose that she keeps giving glowing reviews to authors that are all from the same media company as herself, PJ Media. This is a conflict of interest and should be shameful to someone like herself who is a college professor. Whenever one of these book reviews comes out, all you have to do is cross-reference the name of the author with PJ Media. So far and invariably, Ms. Fiamengo is being showcased by PJ Media so that she can showcase other people from PJ Media. It is intellectually inc.estuous to be reviewing authors who all are all coworkers at the same company as you and not disclosing that fact. This stands out as as gross an act as plagiarism, and while we unfortunately expect that from bloggers, it cannot stand in book publication and review, nor can writing your own glowing review, nor can writing a glowing review for your friend at work.

    • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nLNn2YflwNs Roger

      And you really should disclose the positive reviews you issue are for the same kind of authors also.

      Why don't you give a list of authors you agree with? Trista Parsi is one of your kind of people, isn't he?

      • Schlomotion

        No. Actually. I never heard of him until you mentioned him 40 times. And actually, now that I look it up, I see that it is Trita Parsi. I'm not actually up on all the pantheon of Swedish Iranians like you are. I also place very little stock in the credibility of politicians and pundits my own age or younger, unlike you who are pushing 50 and perpetually age 14.

        • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nLNn2YflwNs Roger

          Yawn….. sure. And you have any credibility why?

    • C.Geber

      What rubbish. What a gross act of finger-wagging nonsense. Disclosure? Conflict of interest? Reviews are not some kind of consumer report. Who or what would the disclosure protect? What would it look like? Something like: "This reviewer often reviews books written by authors who have been published by the same media company as the reviewer. The reader of the review may deduce that the reviewer and the author(s) share a political outlook. The reader is not required to read the review, nor to agree with the opinion or the political outlook it expresses. No review carries a warranty of disinterest. The fact that the reviewer may be employed by a university, does not provide an implied warranty of disinterest. The reader of the review assumes the risk of being persuaded to purchase a book, or to take an opinion from the review as a result of the persuasiveness of the reviewer's expressed opinion."
      As for reviewing a friend's work – happens all the time. In fact, it is not considered fair practice to give a book to a reviewer known to be hostile personally to the author of the book. That hostility should be declared – if the review is hostile. Absent personal animosity, any book is fair game for reviewing by experts in the same field, or know-nothings, persons of similar opinions and interests, people of opposing opinions and interests, by-line pundits or Joe Schmo.

      • Schlomotion

        Reviews are not some kind of consumer report? Oh no? The disclosure protects the integrity of the author from accusation that his work has not been peer-reviewed, but rather passed off to a promoter from his same company to ensure that the book would receive favorable reviews, or get read at all for that matter. In fact, one can observe the cycling of authors on Frontpage, plugging their book one week and getting a favorable review the next week, writing a favorable one the following week, strenuously quoting the book as a source mid-week. The disclosure protects the readership from being duped by a team of shills, or Shillman Fellows as it were, into accepting an intellectual wooden nickel.

        The disclosure would look like this: "This reviewer works for the same media company as the author of the book she is reviewing. She is paid to write this review, and if it were disfavorable, it would not have been published." Of course, we can infer all of this for ourselves. As a former publisher of a magazine I gladly advertised my own creative content therein, but never stooped to give it a favorable review, or a favorable review to content issued from the same label by my partners and affiliates. That's just obnoxious.

        Reviewing a friend's work makes perfect sense, if you are forthright about it and state as much. No. This reviewer, and this publication/website prefer to let you accept the counterfeit or figure it out for yourself. This is indeed like watching you vigorously defend plagiarism. You are vigorously defending a faux-peer review that is just like insider trading.

        • C.Geber

          Consumer report?
          Peer review?
          Plagiarism?
          Insider trading?
          Are all these concepts now to be redefined in order to make the expression of conservative opinion on other conservatives a dishonest, if not criminal, exercise? Newspeak.
          Please tell me what "is" is, again?

          • Schlomotion

            Firstly, these are not conservative, but neoconservative opinions you are defending.
            Secondly, it really is pathetic that so-called conservatives have to crawl into the sympathy pit, endorsing all kinds of intellectual dishonesty and counterfeiting simply to fit in with the mainstream of actual conservative opinion. No. Claiming to be persecuted is strictly the realm of Likud-style conservatives trying to insinuate themselves into WASP conservatism.

            Nothing needs to be redefined except perhaps "integrity" because of this marvel of insider reviewing.

          • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nLNn2YflwNs Roger

            Are you a 'neo-troll' since troll just doesn't go far enough?

            That, and we can pretend it means anything we want, "neo" is so convenient that way.

            Should we let you crawl into a sympathy pit?

    • C.Geber

      Really, wouldn’t it be simpler to state your disagreement with the substance of the review and the book? Why not actually explain why you disagree that cultures of honor are cruel? Tell us where the authors and reviewer get it wrong substantively? Or are you so worried that pointing out the horrors of certain societies is the "neocon" pretext to send the country to war, that you have to dance about flapping specious rulebooks to impugn the integrity of a cabal of writers – essentially on the basis that they share a negative view of enslavement of women. Or perhaps you are among those paleo-conservatives who believe that when it comes to women, the Taliban run a very tight ship? (To borrow from Boris Johnson, or someone.)

      • Schlomotion

        It would be simpler, but my goal is not to be simpler. My goal is to describe the fundamental flaws of the structure, aims, and methods of an organization that I disagree with. I too hold a negative view on the enslavement of women. That doesn't mean I would attend a lecture that was plagiarized, or a lecture with the pretext of showing Muslim inferiority so that people will feel better about going to war. I don't like global warming, but that doesn't mean I would vote for Al Gore or want him in charge of a green economy Ponzi scheme, or listen to Ira Einhorn on Earth Day. Merely debating the arguments presented and the reviews presented by the authors is to accept that they are duly operating in good faith and with academic integrity, not simply making good arguments. A man about to get the electric chair makes excellent arguments, but how did he get in the chair?

        Academic Ponzi schemes are just as bad as financial Ponzi schemes. Why are you asking me to pardon a cabal and overlook the crooked means by which they achieve a pulpit for social criticism?

        • C.Geber

          So I was correct. I might have guessed you are a warmist. Warmists apply exactly the same tactics to demonize "deniers" : impugn their good faith as means of dismissing what is actually been said, and do so because the cause is more important than fact.
          Now we have Ponzi schemes. "Academic" ones at that. Worse than financial ones! And plagiarism, again.
          You are perfectly free to read or not to read anything you wish. You don't like the sermon? Leave the church. And who asked you to pardon anyone? The defendants, their guilt and the dock they stand in are all entirely your invention. A drama in your mind. Go ahead – lock up the prisoners in those cramped grey cells.

          • Schlomotion

            It is not my problem if because of ideology, you are on the wrong side of global warming and of breathing. That doesn't make me a "warmist." It makes you an energy lobbyist. That's your prerogative, if you want to dismiss tree rings and ice core samples and atmospheric data because you prefer Israel and oil to air and temperature.

            You are mighty quick to use Ernst Zundel's and David Duke's argument against me though. Accusing me of being in a cabal of denial-accusers to take the heat off of this unscrupulous group of writers glad-handing one another's work as insider promoters from the same company.

            You are also quick to banish me from the "church" of huckstering islamophobic authors. However, the church also runs bus ads all over major cities, attacks college campuses, infiltrates talk radio, and slanders candidates. The best way to leave this particular church is to dismantle it.

          • C.Geber

            "Dismantle"? Are we still in the realm of metaphor? Or are you entering the world of violence?
            If metaphorical, what does "dismantle" mean? Step by step – veil by veil – you come closer to revealing your naked despotism. Not pretty.

          • Schlomotion

            Not violently, but actually, such as how the PTL Club was dismantled after accounting fraud, books taken from shelves like Kaavya Viswanathan's. Shuttered like a boiler room bust. 501(c)(3) nonprofit statuses revoked for inurement. Open discussion in the press of bias and suppression. Cataloguing of the peer review fraud with source watchgroups. Association of repeat offenders with their networks for easy reference and vetting of guest speakers.

  • PAthena

    I'm glad that Aruna Papp has finally made public that the term "Multiculturalism" was invented by Pierre Elliot Trudeau. H invented it to deal with the situation in Quebec, with the Parti Quebecois campaigning for the separation of Quebec from Canada, French Canada vs. English Canada. Trudeau replied that Canada is a "multicultural" nation." He did not mean the nonsense that has since been used to justify the moral relativism that Aruna Papp describes, that all cultures are morally equal.

  • Stuart Parsons

    PLease stop insulting Schlomotion. !4 indeed ! He can't be a day over 4.

  • Ghostwriter

    And again,Schlomotion continues his run as FPM's village idiot.