Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

July 17, 2011

Abused by society no longer?

Filed under: Abuse — Razib Khan @ 8:25 pm

Via Sepia Mutiny a depressing and heartening story about an abuse victim in Bangladesh. The depressing part is when a deranged husband bites off the nose of his wife and gouges her eyes out because of suspicions of infidelity. The heartening part is the reaction of large segments of Bangladeshi society when the husband’s apologists attempt to use the accusation of infidelity as the justification for his behavior, and are rebuffed and rebuked.


Earlier this week we had a discussion about natural human impulses and how they relate to norms. I have believe that the reaction of this husband was an extension of natural human, and particularly male, instincts. In other words, there’s an evolutionary rationale for why men in particular are extremely sexually jealous of their mate’s infidelities. The rationale can be succinctly stated: paternity is theoretical in a pre-modern environment. When intersecting with patrlineal, patrifocal, and patriarchal social conditions, as is the case in Bangladesh (and arguably most of the world) the “natural” response by males and coalitions of males is to engage in vigorous “mate-guarding.” The offspring of females are assimilated into the male kinship network, and the male’s family is responsible for provisioning them. Any suspicion of infidelity must be met with extreme consequences to discourage “free-riding.”

In many barbaric societies this system is reinforced by broader group-level norms. Not only does the focal male-dominated kin-group enforce mate-guarding with extreme vigilance, but the female’s natal kin-group may also defer to the suspicions so as to protect its own “honor.” The dynamic can extend outward, so that enforcement of these norms falls not just upon the dyad of the two male-dominated kin-groups which have entered into an exchange of females. So you see cases where whole villages can come together and kill a woman who has defiled the “honor” of two families. This sort of norm enforcement is replete in the literature.

What’s going on in Bangladesh today? The cultural scaffolding for this sort of behavior is starting to melt away. I suspect the reasons for this are manifold. On cause is likely the necessity of some female participation in the modern labor force resulting in greater economic independence of women from either their husbands or their male relatives. Additionally we might be seeing the fracturing of kinship networks due to smaller family sizes and geographical dispersion. The material and ideological forces which militate toward the arrow of history pointing toward liberalism broadly understood is tearing down the set of norms which result in innumerable women being physically and psychologically destroyed by the web of “honor” which minds “traditional” societies together.

I believe that in many ways this strips away may of the layers of constraint to the point at which citizens of modern liberal democratic states exist in a world of male-female power relationships which more closely approximates that of small-scale hunter-gatherers. Removing away the social amplifiers does not negate the likelihood of violence of men upon women. The male instinct toward mate-guarding may remain, and males are on average larger and more powerful than women physically. But in the ideal situation these sorts of assaults no longer receive positive sanction. Rather, they are negatively sanctioned by society as a whole, and females may fall back on the protection of their natal kin-group and circle of friends, which is what human sentiment is predisposed toward (i.e., even if “honor” societies the relatives of females may sometimes enforce norms reluctantly because of their natural emotional attachments). Female infidelity in this scenario is not a concern of society, it is the concern of one male, and the nuclear family. This does not mean that tragedy is averted, but it does serve as a check on the impunity which men in many societies have felt in relation to their physical domination over women.

January 12, 2011

“Not our girls”

Filed under: Abuse,crime,Racism,Rape — Razib Khan @ 2:55 pm

Long and thorough piece from Eurasian Sensation:

The sort of young men of Muslim backgrounds who commit this sort of crime are certainly not acting out any religious or cultural imperative. Rather, they are cherry-picking whatever cultural influences serve their purposes in the worst way. The rebellious sociopathy of the gang lifestyle; the lure of easy sex and cheap titillation that abounds in Western countries. These things of course are totally at odds with the culture of Pakistan, Lebanon or any other traditional country. Yet by channelling that traditional perspective of female morality, and victimising only those they view as degraded and cheap, it becomes that much easier to justify.

The only thing I would say is that the author underestimates the widespread and pervasive justification of the exploitation and dehumanization of the Other baked-into-the-cake of most human societies. Both Muslims and Christians traditionally enjoined bans upon the enslavement of co-religionists, but not of unbelievers. Terms like “sociopathy” can be slippery. As I have noted before, soldiers are not murderers in the eyes of most cultures, because they kill the Other. Similarly, sexual exploitation of dehumanized groups may not even be sociopathic, because the reference for sociopathy is based on in group morality.

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