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Incomprehensible Horror

February 9th, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

I can’t take it anymore. Every time I hear one of these stories it lodges itself in my brain and refuses to let go. Whenever my mind isn’t otherwise occupied it goes straight to the image of the horrific scene as though searching in vain for some kind of new perspective that will alleviate the sick feeling it gives me for reasons I don’t quite understand. What’s it to me anyway? Why does the story of a horrible thing happening to a girl on the other side of the world—a girl I’ve never met and know nothing about—affect me so much? Is there something wrong me? Am I insane, or is the culture that allows such things to happen insane?

It must be insane. How else to describe a culture that puts rape victims to torture? This is something I just don’t understand. I can’t wrap my head around it. I just can’t comprehend how any culture, any human being can tolerate this, let alone think it’s right.

Before going any further I just want to note that this is not a typical blog entry for me. I’m writing this purely out of psychological necessity, to get the thoughts and feelings I’ve been wrestling with for the past two days out of my head and into words, just as I did when writing about Aisha late last year. My only purpose in writing this is to put these feelings into words and post them online so they’re not spinning around in my mind alone. Just knowing that a handful of others might read this will serve greatly to lighten the load.

This past Sunday I stopped by the office of the language school I work for to use the internet there because it’s currently down where I live. I was scanning the headlines at the Huffington Post and one near the bottom caught my eye. It said “Bangladeshi Girl Lashed To Death After Being Raped By Cousin”.

I immediately closed the web browser and left the office, not wanting to hear any of the details, hoping that I could just shut it out of my mind and go about the rest of my day without thinking about it, but the damage was done. For reasons I’ll get to in a moment, this kind of thing disturbs me more deeply than any other thing that happens in the world. From that point on, whenever my mind was not occupied with something else it would immediately go back to that headline, wondering about that girl and the circumstances surrounding her death. What was her name? Who gave her that terrible sentence? Is there any chance whatsoever that he and the man who raped her will ever be put to justice?

Yesterday I gave up trying not to think about it and searched for the story when I was back at the office. It was a link to an article from a newspaper called The Daily Star, and unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately for me) it gave very few details about the incident itself.

The girl’s name was Hena, and she was 14 years old.  After being raped by a 40-year-old relative of hers named Mahbub there was a “fatwa” issued against her at a village arbitration. The local authorities sentenced her to 100 lashes, and she fell unconscious after 80. She was rushed to the hospital but succumbed to her injuries and she died.


The article focused mostly on an order issued by the High Court to the local authorities to explain why they didn’t protect her. Apparently such kinds of “extrajudicial punishment” are illegal in Bangladesh. Confused, I looked up Bangladesh on Wikipedia and was surprised to find that it’s actually a fairly secular, modernized society. This isn’t Somalia or Afghanistan—this kind of thing isn’t supposed to happen there. Yet somehow, some villages still insist on imposing the most brutal interpretation of Shariah law on women.

Hopefully these local officials and the rapist himself will be put to some kind of justice, but no matter what punishment they receive it won’t be nearly harsh enough in my mind. They should all be raped and lashed to death themselves—and even then they would still not have experienced the kind of unimaginable pain and horror that only a young girl would.

This profoundly disturbs me on two levels, and the first is just the idea of the incident itself. Imagining what must have been going through Hena’s mind as she underwent eighty consecutive lashes. Eighty. It’s a wonder and a tragedy that she remained conscious for that long. As I wrote in my Aisha post, whenever I hear about things like this I always try to find an “at least” in the situation. When terrible tragedies befall adults I can think “at least they were old enough to endure it” but there’s usually no “at least” when it comes to children. The only “at least” in this situation is the fact that Hena was not actually sentenced to death (this was supposedly an unintended consequence of the sentence) so she presumably did not have to endure the unspeakable terror of the certainty of impending death. But what else was in her mind at the time? Did she feel that what was happening to her was wrong, or was she also so imbued in the culture of fundamentalist Islam that she actually felt shame—that she deserved this?

That’s the other, deeper level this disturbs me on, and it’s one of the main reasons that stories of so-called “honor killings” upset me more than anything else in the world. I get deeply upset whenever I hear about bad things happening to young girls, probably because growing up I was the kind of boy who was far more comfortable in the company of girls. With only one exception, every best friend I ever had before college was a girl and I remain deeply fond of young girls to this day. I want them all to be safe and happy and loved, and I can’t understand anyone who doesn’t share those feelings. I can understand why others might not feel the same level of compassion towards them as I do, but it just makes no sense at all to me how some people in some cultures can feel no compassion at all.

Isn’t compassion a basic element of human nature? Unless someone suffers from the kind of mental illness that prevents them from experiencing empathy, doesn’t everyone feel a sense of pain when confronted with the pain of others? When we see a suffering child, doesn’t every mentally healthy human being suffer a little at the sight?

So unless these local officials are all sociopaths, I just don’t understand how after hearing about this poor girl getting raped by her 40-year-old cousin they would decide that the girl must be punished. Why don’t their hearts go out to her the same way that mine and those of most other people on the planet do? How twisted does one’s sense of morality have to be to punish the victim, and to order a punishment as unbelievably brutal as 100 lashes?

Seriously—if anyone can offer any insight into the mind-set of these people I’d really like to hear it. Perhaps if I understood it better I’d have an easier time coping with it.

Do they really think it’s the girl’s fault? Do they think that she deliberately tempted her cousin out of some evil desire to be raped by him? Was the 40-year-old cousin just so overwhelmed by the desire she instilled in him that he couldn’t possibly have resisted his urge? If that’s really the case, then these kinds of Muslims must think that all men are incredibly weak and helpless. What about the rest of us who somehow, some way, actually do manage to resist our desires when they are directed towards someone they shouldn’t be? Are we all super-human?

What kind of monster looks at a rape victim and decides that justice can only be served by putting that victim to torture? What kind of twisted creature looks at the rapist and says, “I’m so sorry you had to endure that. She should never have tempted you into taking an action that could taint your soul that way. Don’t worry, we’ll make her suffer until your honor is restored.”

The answer may be clear—the only kind of monster who could do such a thing is one convinced of the infallibility of his religion—but that almost feels too simple. Most religious people, including Muslims, do not think that justice is served by punishing the victim and most feel the same kind of moral outrage I do. But there’s very little doubt that no atheist would draw such a backwards ethical conclusion. Divorced from religious doctrine, an action is usually considered moral insofar as it increases happiness and decreases suffering, and an action is immoral insofar as it causes suffering. The rapist is clearly, obviously the morally condemnable party. It’s so obvious that I can hardly believe I’m spelling it out like this, but apparently there are people in the world (far too many people) who don’t think that way. They abandon all semblance of basic rationality in favor of whatever twisted moral code they were indoctrinated with by their parents or religious leaders.

And in the end, I suppose that’s what troubles me most of all. The fact that natural human compassion can be so easily overridden by religious conviction, and the fact that it is just so horribly common. Did those officials—or any other judges who pass such sentences throughout the Muslim word—feel any sympathy for the girl whatsoever, or were their minds so twisted by religious fervor that they really only looked at her as a wicked sinner deserving of punishment? Did the man who cracked the whip against her back eighty consecutive times even wince as she cried out in pain? Did the people watching feel any compassion at all, or were they so convinced of the rightness of their beliefs that it all seemed entirely appropriate to them?

This kind of thing has got to stop, but I don’t know how to stop it. It’s been going on for centuries and it’s spread throughout the world. There is no clear solution. And in the past I might have even believed that it’s not our place to fix it. After all, it’s not our culture so what right do we have to interfere?

But moral relativism is bullshit in these cases. Certain aspects of certain cultures are just plain wrong, and while we may not share a common nationality or ethnicity, we are all human beings and we have a right to try and change the way our brothers and sisters look at things when it’s clear that they’re looking at them in a severely distorted way that causes unspeakable suffering.

For the longest time I believed that it really wasn’t my place to try and do anything about this. I’m not Muslim. I’m not even female. But if I’m this strongly affected by this issue then perhaps it is my place to try and get involved.

I like to think of humanity as one great collective consciousness, a macrocosm of an individual human mind. Some individuals represent humanity’s conscience with regard to certain issues. Just as one individual might struggle with the morality of eating meat, vegetarians and vegans represent the guilt of humanity as a whole with regard to our treatment of animals. And if my mind harbors some of humanity’s conscience with regard to the problem of honor killings, whatever the psychological reason may be, then perhaps it’s appropriate for me to act on that feeling.

On the other hand, I may actually be too sensitive to this stuff. After searching online for some organizations that fight to stop honor killings I quickly realized that I could never actually join one of them. I’d constantly receive newsletters with the same kind of horrifying headline that provoked this severely negative emotional response in me this week. I can’t just file these stories away in the corner of my mind and not let them affect me. I can’t be happy when I’m constantly thinking about murdered girls. To join one of these groups would be to doom myself to a state of near-permanent depression and despair.

At the very least, I can make donations from time to time. I just gave some money to the International Campaign Against Honor Killings. If anyone who reads this feels even half as strongly about this as I do, hopefully they’ll do the same, and this blog entry will have served a much greater purpose than just making me feel better.

If I could have, I would have gladly traded places with Hena or Aisha or any of the thousands of other girls who are put to death each year for things that are no fault of their own. But from where I am now, this is the best I can do. If writing about this issue inspires anyone to donate to ICAHK or any other anti-honor killing organization and if just one girl’s life is saved as a result, I’ll be able to rest a little easier.

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