"Comfort, comfort my people" says our God
As a conference on "Sexual abuse in a North African context" approaches, a BMS World Mission worker who will be speaking at the conference, explains some of the troubles that women in North Africa face due to its culture and concept of family 'honour and shame':
Next week I fly to Cairo to speak at a conference on "Sexual abuse in a North African context". The attendees will all be North African women who are involved in some degree with women's work.
I remember right back at the beginning of our time in North Africa I asked a female worker, who had been here for about 15 years, "What would you say is your greatest cultural observation regarding women from this country?" She replied, "North African women lack comfort".
As I have mulled this over, I have come to the conclusion that if I were speaking to a Western audience I would probably not be feeling so daunted.
Universal human needs
I have spent a number of years working with people in different countries and situations and I have come to the conclusion that despite having different world-views and cultures, we are all actually incredibly similar.
"North African women lack comfort."
Human beings cannot live without food, water and shelter - these are essential for a body to survive. We have other essential needs too including fellowship, love, touch, acceptance and belonging.
Without these things a body will function for a time but eventually will break down mentally, physically, spiritually and emotionally - we were created by a relational God for a relational life.
Honour and shame
In North Africa, many countries are more shaped by the religious and cultural 'honour and shame' principles.
Family honour and name are of extreme importance. Shame must be avoided at all cost - to bring shame upon your family name is a very serious thing indeed.
Appearance is everything. The perception of other people is of the highest value. Many of the houses in North Africa are surrounded by high walls and regardless of what happens within those high walls, the outside world must only see the best.
If there is a gross injustice by a family member, the important factor will generally be preserving the 'good name' of the family, rather than taking legal or public action and risk causing shame.
The separation of women
The woman's world is in the home; men are more likely to socialise in the myriad of cafes. Men and women don't often socialise together; they will often eat separately and sit separately at joint events like weddings.
Girls are not generally allowed to play outside and will not be playing at home as much as learning to copy mothers and other female relatives in house duties and providing the daily meals. It would be extremely rare for the men to take any role in child rearing or housework.
The value of women
I have spent time with both men and women trying to convince me of how the country's religion promotes the value of women.
There are things that pain my heart, for example, violence towards women is widespread and a 'fact of life'. Laws do exist but the reality is that they are rarely enforced.
Violence towards women
I have come across countless situations where young girls and women have been viciously raped and mercilessly beaten, but they feel they have no voice and are silenced by the more dominant family members.
There is one small hostel for battered women in the capital city, but only a few ever make it there. Those that do are usually cast out from their families for causing shame.
I have spoken to other women who have asked me the question, "How often does your husband beat you?" When I reply: "He has never beaten me", they will often respond with, "Well, he obviously doesn't think of you at all then".
Many North African women feel completely invisible in the eyes of their men - except for providing sex, children and food. If they are beaten it means that they at least have some attention and their menfolk notice them.
"He has never beaten me"
"Well, he obviously doesn't think of you at all then".
The taboo of sexual abuse
I know from my research that, unlike in the UK, the subject of sexual abuse here is mainly taboo. As Westerners, we would most likely vocalise that sexual abuse is unacceptable and should be quickly and seriously dealt with for the safety of the person being affected.
However, the sexual abuse of females is prevalent and happens in shockingly high numbers here - yet it is extremely rare for prosecutions to take place or for the girls to feel able to speak out, due to fear and the honour/shame principles.
Generally, if a girl becomes pregnant outside of marriage, regardless of the circumstances, she will be the object of blame and shame, and the men are rarely prosecuted or suffer consequences.
As objects of shame they are often thrown out of their homes. If they stay at home they will be in serious danger of extreme mental and physical abuse or, in the worse cases, victims of 'honour killing'.
Family is everything
There are a couple of shelters for unmarried mothers but to enter into one of these places will usually mean never returning to the family home town, village or community.
In these societies where family name and 'belonging' is everything, to be cast out from your family is to literally lose everything - your identity, your support structures, your ability to get married etc, as in the eyes of society you are an outcast - an object of shame.
In the Arab world your full name will usually be something like "Ahlem bin Ali Saiid" meaning: Ahlem (first name) bin (daughter of) Ali Saiid (the fathers name).
So, when it is said here, "You are no longer my daughter", it literally means losing your family line and all that comes with it. Who can you marry? Who do you celebrate the religious dates with? Who will employ you? Who will look at you as someone with worth and dignity? You are unloveable, "Haaram" (forbidden).
This is when the door of prostitution swings open - it is often perceived as the only way to survive.
Not all of these things are unique to North African culture. I have worked in other countries, including the UK and seen similar things. But, from my cultural world-view and my understanding of values and rights, there are many things I find difficult about the issue of abuse in this particular context.
So for the conference next week, I am not looking to address the issue of "Sexual abuse in a North African culture" as I feel this is better done by a North African person who can speak from their own cultural context. Instead I will talk about the value of people in God's eyes - "men and women: He created them in his image".
I want to ask, "How do we listen to one another?" and "How would we like to be listened to?" I will present a case study on a woman sharing her story with one response being critical and judgmental, offering counsel instead of comfort, and the second demonstrating someone offering comfort, compassion and good listening.
I am also going to talk about how to make someone feel 'safe to share' and look at some practical responses and resources available in the country.
In essence, I would like to try and encourage the participants in becoming "people of comfort" and maybe even receive comfort themselves during the conference.