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Obedience and Freedom of Movement for Women

In my opinion, one’s cultural climate affects women’s autonomy because freedom of movement, for example, may only be exercised within the boundaries of the concepts of honor and shame. In patriarchal societies, for instance, which includes Egypt, women are often considered as a form of property. Their honor, and by extension, the honor of their family – depends in great measure on their virginity and good conduct. On the part of the man of the family, the concept of honor and shame requires vigilance because they are responsible for guarding a woman’s sexual honor – this, I believe is the reason for man’s control over women.

Lila Abu-Lughod’s Honor and Shame depicts these notions and I believe that indeed, women’s choices affect their every aspect of life. They may choose that which will bring her and her family honor or that which may not. There seems to be some confusion as to women’s freedom when it comes to living in patriarchal societies – particularly when it comes to the concept of male control over the whereabouts of female members of the family.

Women’s freedom from the threat of violence and women’s freedom of movement are the believed to be restrained so much but this, I believe, should be placed within the context of preoccupation of preserving family honor. Moreover, Abu-Odeh (1996) coined the terms “biological and social hymens” – which women should protect. Social hymen refers to appropriate gender relations and separateness of public and private spheres. The norm of shame and honor is only one inhibitor of female freedom of mobility. Another equally forceful depressant is the notion of obedience (ta’ah) of wives.

Bayt-al-ta’ah (house of obedience) is not originated from or related to the Qur’an or Sunna (the practice of the Prophet), yet it is law. Under this law a husband is obligated to provide maintenance to his wife. In return a man has the right to demand obedience from his wife. The origin of bayt-al-ta’ah is the notion that a wife should remain in the conjugal home and obey her husband in exchange for his financial support. I believe that women are not supposed to leave the matrimonial home without their husbands’ permission.

However, leaving the home for lawful work does not constitute disobedience so long as the wife does not abuse this right, it is not contrary to the interests of her family, and her husband has not explicitly asked her to refrain from working. Abu-Lughod’s (1986) research on Bedouin women suggested that women’s obedience must be seen as a choice. Abu-Lughod (1986) argued “… people pity a woman who seems to obey her husband because she has no choice,” (p. 105) because of poverty, for instance, because she has no male kin to protect her.

Although women advise each other to uphold obedience, and admonish those who do not, they appreciate “willful” women. These are not women who openly challenge cultural values but get around them through self-assertion. It is also interesting to note that although man’s honor comes from woman’s obedience, this obedience should be given freely (Abu-Lughod, 1986). Nevertheless I believe that the concept of honor and shame, as well as obedience, affects various dimensions of autonomy of women because working women do not necessarily have freedom of movement to go places as they wish.

When women have to or want to go to places other than their work place, they still ask permission from their husbands. Thus, if this is the case, then mobility does not grant them freedom of movement outside the work place. They have freedom of movement only because it is a prerequisite for working. I believe the concept of shame and honor as well as obedience does not only shape women’s freedom of movement, rather they influence other aspects of autonomy such as freedom from the threat of violence and ability to make family decisions.

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