BBC Arabic published the commentary below following their series in November 2016 on “Shame Online”, a digital documentary investigating a new and disturbing phenomenon: the use of intimate or sexually explicit images to threaten, blackmail, or shame young people, mainly girls and women, in some of the most conservative societies in the world.
For some women, the phrase “I could die of shame” is literally true. Thousands of women and girls are killed each year by their male relatives for supposedly breaching social norms around “honour”. In October alone, there have been six of these so-called “honour killings” in Jordan, including one in which a man is reported to have shot dead his sister after he discovered she had a secret phone.
For every woman who dies, there are many more whose families subject them to verbal and physical violence, restrict their freedom of movement, or force them to marry against their will. In some parts of the world, “honour” is wrapped up with the bodies and sexual behaviour of women. Women who breach religious or social codes of conduct (such as talking to unrelated men or dressing a certain way) are seen as having brought shame on their families. Men sometimes believe they have a duty to prevent women from violating these rules, and the responsibility to punish them if they do.
Governments often reinforce this violence rather than combatting it. Almost all Middle Eastern and North African countries criminalize sexual conduct outside of marriage for both men and women. Yet it is women who are most often charged under these laws. Several countries reduce sentences when a man kills a woman if she’s believed to have had sex outside of marriage. In addition, many countries still allow unscientific and abusive "virginity tests" for rape victims.
Governments can help end discrimination against women. They should repeal all legislation that criminalizes adult consensual sexual relations, reform laws so that killers are appropriately punished, end "virginity testing," and combat out-dated attitudes through education. Lives are at stake here. It’s time for governments to ensure that no more women die of shame.