Sultana's Dream

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Sultana's Dream
May 2011


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Shame is something that affects everyone cutting across gender, age, socio-economic background, culture, religion and nationality. Shame is a regulator of social behaviour , and a necessary part of education. However, it can also be negatively restrictive with far- reaching repercussions as Durkhanai Ayubi explains in her article below.

The Invisible Hand Of Shame

It’s not often talked about. We can't see it, hear it, touch it, smell it or taste it. But, at some point in our lives, we all feel it - or rather, are made to feel it. Shame.

The invisible hand of shame may elude our five senses but is so deeply ingrained within our psyche - both individual and collective - that it shapes the way we function in our private lives and as a society. When used as a tool for control, its effects on individuals and communities are devastating.

Throughout history, and indeed to this very day, it is a woman’s actions that are most closely scrutinised for evidence of shame. Women are forced to carry out an impossible balancing act, walking the tightrope of psychological, social and cultural expectations that form the basis of what constitutes shame. These are a set of expectations which conflict with one another and paint an unrealistic picture of the way a woman must behave. In many cultures and communities, when a woman is perceived to have shamed herself, this is inextricably linked to the entire family’s honour. The consequences of not meeting these expectations can be devastating.

But what exactly is shame and how has it become such a powerful tool?  How is it able to control the actions of women by often overriding what is just, from a religious and legal perspective?

Dr Brene Brown, an American researcher on shame and empathy, from the University of Houston, and author of The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, (2010 ), has spent almost a decade on understanding shame and its effect on the human spirit.  After interviewing hundreds of people and through years of research and analysis, she defines shame as “ the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed, and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging”. She elaborates on this explanation, saying “women often experience shame when they are entangled in a web of layered, conflicting and competing social-community expectations. Shame leaves women feeling trapped, powerless and isolated”.  

Shame and guilt are two concepts that are often confused with one another; they are connected—but they are different. Shame is more damaging than guilt; it refers to feelings of “I am bad”, whereas guilt connects to the feeling of “I did something bad”.  Shame is more difficult to overcome as it is built on an individual’s belief that they themselves are bad, while guilt, on the other hand, separates the individual from the action and may be easier to rectify.

When an individual is made to feel shamed, they also become open to manipulation and control; the shamed individual becomes coerced into silence and obedience. For instance, in cases of rape, shame becomes attached to the victim, rather than to the rapist. A woman needing to seek psychological counseling often becomes mute, ashamed to seek professional assistance or take legal action against the perpetrator.

Similarly, many women in abusive marriages dare not leave their husbands for fear of bringing shame to the family, or becoming socially isolated and branded as shameless. They believe that the culturally right and honourable thing to do is to stay in the marriage and accept the abuse that comes with this decision. This creates cycles of abuse that may be passed down through generations.

This not only happens in war-torn countries overseas, but also right on our doorstep; for shame is pervasive, transcending culture, location and time. A confidential study, carried out by the Islamic Women’s Welfare Council in Victoria in 2008, reported that some local imams needed to display more sensitivity over domestic violence matters, when approached by women seeking assistance. Often the desire to avoid ‘shame’ took precedence over the religious and legal rights of women.

I suggest that this is where the real shame lies, and that our communities must recognise shame for the negative force it becomes when used as a tool for manipulation and control. Its power is entrenched to the extent that self-respect and honour is maintained, not by choosing right from wrong, or just from unjust, but by choosing what society expects.    

Shame is powerful because it is a difficult feeling to admit internally. A woman who feels shamed becomes mute; her experience is shrouded in secrecy; she becomes isolated. Cries from the outside seem to drown out any whispers from within which might initiate positive change.  

Although an effective control agent, shame is not a meaningful change agent. Real change stems from self-worth, not by feeling powerless and trapped. Overcoming shame lies within the individual. It must be recognised and replaced with empathy. Dr Brown’s research highlights that the power to change our behaviour and take what we think to be the right course of action stems from empathy – that is, understanding how our actions will affect others. The more empathetic we are, the kinder we become to ourselves and the greater our positive self-regard which, in turn, leads us to be kinder to others.  

Eliminating shame as a tool for control begins at an individual level, with courageous women breaking the silence surrounding shame and many of the expectations laid down by socio-cultural traditions. Children who are not shamed into conformity today, who are taught that they need not be perfect, but are still worthy, will change the inner workings of how future generations operate.    

I’m imagining a future where shame is no longer used as a sledgehammer for control. I’m imagining a future where shame does not silence women into obedience and a life of unhappiness. I’m imagining a future where self-respect and dignity is maintained through choosing justice over injustice—a future where the invisible hand of shame is exposed and its power eliminated.
Durkhanai Ayubi