I’m a little late commenting on last week’s parsha, but after some discussions on it this Shabbat, I decided that I couldn’t let it just pass by. One of the things we find in Ki Tetze is this, in Deuteronomy 22:

13 If any man takes a wife, and goes in to her, and hates her,

14 and accuses her of shameful things, and brings up an evil name on her, and says, “I took this woman, and when I came near to her, I didn’t find in her the tokens of virginity;”

15 then shall the father of the young lady, and her mother, take and bring forth the tokens of the young lady’s virginity to the elders of the city in the gate;

16 and the young lady’s father shall tell the elders, “I gave my daughter to this man to wife, and he hates her;

17 and behold, he has accused her of shameful things, saying,’I didn’t find in your daughter the tokens of virginity;’ and yet these are the tokens of my daughter’s virginity.” They shall spread the cloth before the elders of the city.

18 The elders of that city shall take the man and chastise him;

19 and they shall fine him one hundred shekels of silver, and give them to the father of the young lady, because he has brought up an evil name on a virgin of Israel: and she shall be his wife; he may not put her away all his days.

20 But if this thing be true, that the tokens of virginity were not found in the young lady;

21 then they shall bring out the young lady to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death with stones, because she has done folly in Israel, to play the prostitute in her father’s house: so you shall put away the evil from the midst of you.

A few things to note: the story begins with a man who hates his wife and decides to bring a bad name upon her–not a more neutral case of virginity dispute. Thie guy has it in for her. If he’s found to be lying, he gets lashes (the above isn’t a great translation) and has to pay a fine. If she does not have a bloody sheet to produce–those are the tokens–whether because she didn’t bleed a notable amount upon the hymen breaking, whether her vindictive husband managed to get his hands on and burn the sheet, whether she (as is more common than is assumed) was born without a hymen, whether she was, I don’t know, raped by her father or brother and sworn to silence about it, something of the like–whatever the reason, if she’s not able to produce positive proof of this thing, she is stoned to death. (Pause for a moment and consider what that might be like–death by stoning).

I was discussing this passage with some people last night, and while there are plenty of things to say about disturbing, distressing Torah, one woman said what I figure is not the right answer: “Oh, but this is a record of a more barbaric ancient society, we don’t have such things in our culture now.”

Well. Honor killings are still a very widespread phenomenon in many parts of the world. Often, a woman doesn’t need to have actually done anything to “bring shame” upon the family–even the rumor that she’s been possibly secluded with a man is sometimes sufficient. Other reasons may be that she’s been raped, resists an arranged marriage, or tries to leave her abusive husband. In any case, family members often kill–often quite brutally–a woman who is thought to have violated the notion of female sexual purity.

It happens in many countries. Here’s a blurb on the Amnesty International report on honor killings in Pakistan:

Women in Pakistan live in fear. They face death by shooting, burning or killing with axes if they are deemed to have brought shame on the family. They are killed for supposed ‘illicit’ relationships, for marrying men of their choice, for divorcing abusive husbands. They are even murdered by their kin if they are raped as they are thereby deemed to have brought shame on their family. The truth of the suspicion does not matter — merely the allegation is enough to bring dishonour on the family and therefore justifies the slaying.
…If women begin to assert their rights, however tentatively, the response is harsh and immediate: the curve of honour killings has risen parallel to the rise in awareness of rights.

The isolation of women is completed by the almost total absence of anywhere to hide. There are few women’s shelters, and any woman attempting to travel on her own is a target for abuse by police, strangers or male relatives hunting for her. For some women suicide appears the only means of escape.

Often, honour killings are carried out on the flimsiest of grounds, such as by a man who said he had dreamt that his wife had betrayed him. State institutions — the law enforcement apparatus and the judiciary — deal with these crimes against women with extraordinary leniency and the law provides many loopholes for murderers in the name of honour to kill without punishment. As a result, the tradition remains unbroken.

The methods of honour killings vary. In Sindh, a kari (literally a ‘black woman’) and a karo (‘a black man’) are hacked to pieces by axe and hatchets, often with the complicity of the community. In Punjab, the killings, usually by shooting, are more often based on individual decisions and carried out in private. In most cases, husbands, fathers or brothers of the woman concerned commit the killings. In some cases, jirgas (tribal councils) decide that the woman should be killed and send men to carry out the deed.

Rana Husseini is a journalist who’s been reporting on honor killings in Jordan (which accounted for one third of the murders of women in Jordan in 1999) at no small personal risk to her own safety. She’s really a hero; read this interview with her from PBS.

The International Campaign Against Honor Killings has more information. And check this essay from the Brandeis Feminist Sexual Ethics Project.

The crux of the issue in the Torah and with contemporary honor killings is the importance placed on female sexual purity. There are several ways a culture can choose to deal with this: by policing its women, not letting them out un-chaperoned, and limiting their freedom and mobility in order to insure chastity and “honor,” and by punishing harshly those who do not comply with the social order; or by changing emphasis, deciding to let go of this need to possess and police female sexuality and allowing women the same liberties–and sexual standards–allowed to men.

It gives me heart that the Jewish legal tradition slowly inched its way towards some understanding of violence against women. For example, by the Mishnaic era, the primary penalty for a woman’s virginity status turning out to be not what was expected (i.e., no bloody sheet) was financial: she received less money when it was time to pay out her marriage contract. and the Talmud eventually compares rape to murder, ruling that just as one can’t murder even to save one’s own life, so too is one forbidden to rape–thus displaying an understanding the seriousness of its implications. And yet, things aren’t exactly perfect now in Judaism (a woman is still purchased in the traditional marriage ceremony, for example) and it’s not like there’s no violence against women in the Jewish community, or in Israel. (In fact, Israel has a robust institution of female sexual slavery, trafficking in women from Eastern European countries.)

In any case, we have an obligation to remember that the times in which we live now are very much like the era of the Torah in some respects–and that if reading about the murder of an accused woman in synagogue on Shabbat makes us uncomfortable, perhaps we might be able to do something to try to save the lives of those who are in grave danger now.

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