Cultures of Honor

A new book exposes the dark reality of honor crime.

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.

Recognizing and resolving these incoherencies eventually enabled her to leave her husband, resist the outrage of her family, and distance herself from the women’s groups that sought her non-white presence on their boards as ideological cover. She remarried, completed a Master’s thesis, and became a tough-minded advocate of gender equality and freedom.

Like most real-life stories, Aruna’s is not a seamless narrative of progress from darkness into light, and she and her co-author have resisted the temptation to smooth over her own faults and failures, including her guilt at neglecting her children and the anti-Semitism that was a reflex part of her beliefs before she immigrated. The result is that the reader of Unworthy Creature believes in Aruna and appreciates her humor, self-irony, and savvy. After years of being told she was “unworthy” and stupid, she has clearly relished the chance to step forward as an authority on her life and culture.

For this she has faced the predictable criticism: from members of her own community embarrassed by her frankness, and by white liberals shocked by her apostasy. As Kay and Papp make clear in the discussions that frame Aruna’s story, official silence about honor-based misogyny has made it difficult to address openly the cultural norms that led to the deaths of such women as Aqsa Parvez in greater Toronto and the Shafia girls and their stepmother in Kingston, Ontario, all of whom were killed to save their families from embarrassment. Papp has made it the project of her later life to end media squeamishness about honor violence and to convince people “that it is not racist to admit that some harmful social behaviours are rooted in cultural traditions.”

This is no small task. We live in a culture in which fear of offending and the desire to appear tolerant are dominant values, and in which books such as this one tell a discomfiting story for media and political elites. One can only hope that such a shocking and well-crafted account, which Barbara Kay in her characteristically limpid prose has rendered both readable and compelling, will play a part in the turning of the tide.

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Tags: memoir