Book feature: Unworthy Creature: A Punjabi Daughter’s Memoir of Honour, Shame and Love
It’s a practice that most North Americans can’t begin to fathom: Punishing or even murdering a female family member — mother, daughter or sister — for the sake of preserving the family’s good name. In honour-based cultures of South Asia, however, a family’s reputation and social standing are dependent on the sexual purity of its girls and women, and culturally sanctioned violence against women is deeply engrained in society.
In Canada, honour-motivated killing recently made headlines when three teenage girls from Montreal, along with their father’s first wife, were found dead in a canal in eastern Ontario. The girls’ father, mother, and brother — Mohammad Shafia, Tooba Mohammad Shafia and Hamed Shafia — were convicted of their murders. The motive, according to prosecutors, was that the women, by their modest bids for social autonomy, had defiled the family’s honour.
Activist Aruna Papp understands all too well what it means to be raised in the patriarchal culture of honour and shame. She was born in the Punjab province of India, and honour culture dictated her behavior in everyday life — as it did the lives of everyone she knew. She understands what if feels like to be born the “wrong sex” in a society where boys are lavished with adoration, and to be an “unworthy creature” — words that were repeated to her time and again, even by her mother and grandmother.
Hence the title of her riveting memoir, Unworthy Creature: A Punjabi Daughter’s Memoir of Honour, Shame and Love, written with National Post columnist Barbara Kay.
In the book Papp relives the enduring fear of her childhood, even from earliest youth. “I knew that my life was expendable,” she writes, “if I did not meet the Draconian standards for chastity that would ensure my marriageable status, because marriage and motherhood, hopefully of sons, was all I was good for.”
It was an understandable worry. When Papp was only fourteen-years-old, she looked on as a neighbour was set on fire and burned to death by her brothers. After being awakened by a horrifying scream, Papp recounts, “I saw a young woman engulfed in flames, radiantly aglow in a glittering red bridal sari. Her glossy black hair, crowned with a garland of white flowers, was pulled into a neat bun Head thrown back, wrists bound with thick rope. Her arms, sparkling with glass and metal bangles, reached up beseechingly to the stars.”
The woman’s crime? She had allegedly refused to marry a wealthy man twice her age, the same man who had promised to help her brothers in a business venture. After the incident, Papp recalls being shocked and dismayed that no one, not even the women she knew, seemed to have any sympathy for the murdered girl.
Contrary to what westerners may think, this type of socially condoned violence isn’t limited to men — women in these cultures also tend to perpetuate it. Nor is it limited to one religion, but practiced among a number of faiths, including Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism and Christianity. (Papp is, in fact, a Christian.)
And as is the case for many South Asian women who, along with their families, come to North America for a new life, the honour culture followed Papp to this country. Trapped in a loveless and arranged marriage, she slowly became aware of the rights and protections afforded to Canadian women. The book chronicles her lonely journey — from ‘unworthiness’ — to liberate herself physically, emotionally and intellectually. It was a decision fraught with danger, and left her estranged and isolated from much of her family and community.
Papp eventually started South Asian Foundation Services, a Toronto-based organization dedicated to helping South Asian families in crisis as they deal with the conflict between honour-based culture and Canadian principles of gender equality. Despite recent cases of honour killings, they are still rare in this country — but she says the practice continues to exist in immigrant communities, even into the second and third generation. By writing her memoir, she hopes to help westerners understand more about honour culture and to help break the cycle of abuse.
“I hope that my book will encourage community leaders from all countries where gendered inequities flourish to break the silence on, and the cycle of, honour-motivated abuse,” Papp said at her book launch, where she was joined by the Honourable Rona Ambrose, Minister for Status of Women Canada.
“Our Government is committed to protecting women, girls and other vulnerable persons from all forms of violence, and holding offenders accountable for their acts,” Minister Ambrose said. “I commend Aruna Papp and Barbara Kay for drawing attention to these acts of violence committed in the name of ‘honour’ with their new book.”
Co-author Barbara Kay has long advocated for more awareness of honour-based culture and its implications for Canadian society. Too often, she says, honour-based violence is viewed by the west as a typical case of domestic violence, when in reality the issue is far more complex and deeply entrenched.
“We owe it to the thousands of girls and women suffering oppression in silence in our midst to inform ourselves about the problem,” Kay told 50PLUS in an interview before the book was published. (Read the full Q&A here.)
Unworthy Creature is an important book that should be read by anyone who cares about understanding — and ultimately holding offenders accountable for — the often untold stories of oppression, injustices and acts of violence against women that are being committed within our society. Not unlike ageism and elder abuse — issues that have aroused the interest of many Zoomers — harmful acts in the name of honour are happening, quietly, right under our noses.
Watch Barbara Kay’s ideacity talk on the role of honour in culture:
Find out more about Unworthy Creature: A Punjabi Daughter’s Memoir of Honour, Shame and Love.