Honor and Chastity

13 Sep

Yesterday a motorcycle taxi driver lectured me on the importance of chastity. I must be vigilant in protecting myself, he said, and be wary of the dangerous Beninese men. I should have only girls as friends, or maybe married men, because male friends will inevitably try to trick me into sleeping with them.

That evening, one of my host sisters echoed his sentiments. The Beninese men are very dangerous and not to be trusted, she warned (and not for the first time). They have their objectives and they will say and do anything to attain them. They are very tricky. We Beninese women, we grew up here so we know, but you don’t know how deceitful they can be. You can never trust them.  They will date you for years just to get you in bed, if that’s what it takes.

For a while I wondered what was wrong with these Beninese men, that they were all so scheming and dishonest. But I am beginning to appreciate the context. Female chastity is a matter of honor here, and honor is a very big deal.  A woman who gives in easily to a man’s sexual advances is not respectable, and so when a man asks her out, the proper behavior is to refuse him for at least the first few times, if not more. Plenty of married women will tell stories of their husbands chasing after them for years before they finally relented and accepted. 

Well in the U.S. we would call that harassment, if not just plain stalking. 

The male pursuit of sex at all costs is seen as natural, so that sexual harassment is often written off as with a “boys will be boys” attitude. Even when married men stray, no one is ever surprised. Maybe it’s wrong, but it is also normal.

The burden of responsibility for maintaining chastity and honor are therefore placed on the woman, which she is regarded as more capable of controlling.  She is expected to conform to societal and family dictates regarding what she wears and where she goes, with whom and when, in order to avoid being sexually harassed or violated.  So if she is victimized, she must not have been following the rules.  The advice I received was to help me understand those rules and maintain my dignity. (I think this is also the justification for my 8M curfew).

That’s not to say we’re doing so much better in the U.S…. http://yesmeansyesblog.wordpress.com/2011/12/16/girl-on-girl-victim-blaming-action-or-the-most-terrible-time-of-the-year/.  Same problem, different norms.

This is an idea that has preoccupied me recently. When the Beninese discuss sexuality, men are described as less capable of controlling sexual desires. I recently participated in a sexual harassment awareness event at a middle school, and the presenters actually said, “Men are animals who cannot control themselves when they see a woman…,” then urged the girls to stop wearing short skirts. This is a flawed approach to dealing with sexual harassment because society expects women to submit to men, to elders, and to authority, while simultaneously expecting them to control the sexuality of men who are both older and in positions of authority over them.  Even girls who follow the rules, who dress conservatively and do not flirt with their teachers, can be harassed.

I hope that my research on the subject will contribute to finding more effective ways of addressing the issue.  No woman, whether she is American or Beninese, whether she is following the rules or not, deserves to be victimized.

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