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Forward to the Past

by James Bowman

Posted: Jan 27, 2010 05:29 PM

This story from yesterday’s Daily Telegraph illustrates a point I made a few years ago in my book Honor, A History about how hard it is for those of us who are the creatures of a post-honor society to understand honor cultures in general and non-Western honor cultures in particular. A 16-year-old girl was raped in Bangladesh. She got pregnant as a result. She was then sentenced to receive 101 lashes for getting pregnant while her father received a stiff fine and was threatened with ostracism by the village elders — who proceeded to pardon the rapist. Shades of poor Mukhtar Mai, the Pakistani woman who was sentenced by another lot of village elders to be gang-raped and whom I wrote of in my book. Her case was later a cause cél bre when the Pakistani government decided that it made the country look bad in the eyes of the world. Perhaps the Bangladeshi government will come to think the same thing, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

The point is that primitive honor cultures have little or no moral conception of honor, while ours, where it exists at all anymore, has become completely moralized. What are we to make of a culture where the honor of women belongs absolutely to their families — that is, to their male relatives — rather than themselves and rape is not a matter of the guilt of the rapist but of the shame of the victim? The rape victim’s innocence had no bearing on her loss of honor. All that mattered was that she, and her family, had been dishonored by the rape and even more by the pregnancy. Insofar as there was any rational explanation for such a bizarre way of looking at the world, her and her family’s shame was owing to the fact that they were not rich enough or strong enough or smart enough and were therefore lacking in the social clout (another name for honor) to prevent it. So they lost what little status they had to start with.

Yet perhaps this bizarre world is not quite so foreign to us as we would like to think. Another story in the same day’s Telegraph tells us that a 16-year-old schoolgirl in Northern Ireland has put her virginity up for sale on the Internet in order to pay for her education. This is apparently not an unheard of state of affairs in the old country these days, as the links to the article suggest. In September, 2008, the Telegraph reported on an Italian model who planned to sell her virginity for one million Euros, a price that even Elliot Spitzer might find a trifle high. And then there was the Romanian student last May who auctioned off her virginity to pay for her studies. It was knocked down for only 10,000 Euros to an Italian businessman, but she seemed quite happy with the bargain until the tax authorities in Germany, where she was living at the time, decided that she had to pay more than half the money in taxes.

She, by the way, claimed to have been inspired by the American woman whose own virginity-auction a few months earlier was said to have made her $3.7 million to pursue her graduate studies in Family and Marriage therapy. So it seems that America is not immune to the trend either — as, indeed, we might expect. For the whole of the Western World is becoming re-paganized when it comes to sex, and there is a certain logic to the sale of one’s virginity, as in other commercial transactions involving sex. Female sexuality is again becoming, as it was in the honor cultures of pre-Christian times and still is in the more primitive honor cultures of today, shamelessly regarded as a commodity. Maybe we’re all following the gangs of feral youths on our streets back to something like the honor cultures of old. Can sacred prostitution, polygamy and virgin sacrifice be far behind?

 

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