‘Ayb’ rang in the ears of almost every child of MENA parents for the majority of our developmental childhood years. As children, we are generally unaware of the social standards of MENA culture. As a result, parents discipline us with a scolding that starts with ‘ayb.’ The Arabic word used for socially inappropriate, shameful, or dishonorable. However, as time goes on and you grow older, you start to question why this word is almost exclusively used to scold the women in your culture.
The Arabic usage of this word suggests that a person is expected to feel ‘ayb’ when they violate social/religious rules. It is more specifically associated with breaking the rules of decorum and proper behavior.
Growing up in a MENA household I slowly started to question our cultural standards. Mostly the double standards that have rendered women as being the main target of the controlling, scrutinizing nature of the word ‘ayb.’ While men can have their behavior and character attacked and criticized with this term, the nature of the criticisms never have the same objective of attempting to control and suppress. Objectively, misogyny is a global phenomenon that impacts MENA cultural standards. As a result, the culture of shaming members of MENA culture disproportionately affects women.
Some argue that ‘ayb’ is used to ensure a woman is behaving properly for her own benefit and when speaking to women in order to protect them from the maleficent nature of the world. However, the foundation of the word in contemporary MENA linguistics is different. It suggests that ‘ayb’ is a tool of political and social inferiorization, suppression, and the silencing of women. The word has many political ramifications that have been used to maintain the oppression of women in MENA society.
On top of its utilization to shame and condition women into social propriety, ‘ayb’ has infantilizing connotations as a word used frequently to discipline children. Equally, it’s used towards women who are deemed overtly sexual, crossing cultural boundaries, and violating the standards of the properly constrained MENA woman. This word is rarely utilized to uphold a culture of shaming towards men and to control them to adhere to traditional cultural standards. The scolding, demeaning nature of disciplining women by highlighting the shamefulness of their clothing, relationships, or being too present in the outside, non-domestic world is never equally extended towards their male counterparts.
Men are given the grace of forgiveness, excuses, and a lack of accountability. Men’s violation of cultural standards is met with dismissiveness. “They are ‘shabab’ (young men), they all do this. This is normal for them.” An unmarried MENA woman is labeled a “girl” and her behavior and actions are under their strict control — if the family is honorable and respectable. Her actions will be constantly reprimanded and corrected until she is married. After that, her actions will be continuously reprimanded and corrected by the husband that is approved of by her family.
In general, even the simplest actions by women and girls can be regarded as ‘ayb,’ whether it be chewing gum in public, going to the store alone, laughing or talking too loudly, staying out past dark with friends, or even pursuing certain careers. Language and the implications of shame-based jargon in MENA culture perpetuate violence against women. This is consequently justified through the MENA mantras explaining that if a woman had obeyed the arbitrary rules of her society she wouldn’t have to suffer the consequences.
Honor-based violence and crimes are often justified by the perpetrating family members who are men, or even women. This is done by explaining how the sisters, daughters, nieces, wives, cousins, etc. whom they had murdered had behaved in a “dishonorable” and “immoral” fashion. Or even had marriage disputes and thus shamed their family name. As a result of the culture of shame in MENA and the general Muslim society, the proper punishment for the women and girls’ perceived moral transgressions is deemed to be murder.
Reputation as a highly valuable social asset contributes to the culture of shame and its inextricable link to the burden of honor being placed on the women in a family. Women are required to strictly remain within the boundaries of the cultural rules of MENA society to maintain the “sharaf” or honor of their family. If a woman is known to violate taboo cultural standards, the men are blamed for not being strict enough. Their frustration for having a damaged reputation is manifested into violence towards the women of their family. Instead of protecting their own women from the vicious campaigns of the community to destroy them, they place the value of public reputation above the value of the lives and prosperity of their kin.
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