How Shame Shapes Society – A Tool For Exerting Control And Power

This week the BBC ran a series of articles that look at the phenomenon of shaming that is occurring around the world, particularly in Muslim majority societies. Across the Muslim world, from Morocco to Pakistan, tens of thousands of individuals, mainly women, are being attacked with private photos and videos designed to shame. By exposing privately shared photos and videos, predators are seeking to extort money from their victims in some cases, while others are focused (im)purely on disgracing the individual and their families, in the eyes of the wider community. There are truly horrific stories being reported such as rapes that have been videoed and then threats made against releasing the video to the family of the victim. Are we facing a shaming epidemic?

Religious Shame

Studies have consistently found that shame is more commonly felt within members of religious communities. This is partly explained by the reality that many religions, including the three Abrahamic faiths of which Islam is included, are commonly interpreted as having a concrete set of rules on which we should live; you “should do this” and you “definitely should not do that”. Ascribing to a religion makes us more vulnerable to both guilt and shame as many of us believe in an objective way in which we should live that is more explicit than simply saying you should live a “good” life, with good being understood as being subjective. This is in strong contrast with subjective morality in which what is deemed right and wrong is more fluid.

Cultural Shame

For many Muslims the presence of shame as a social force is heightened due to the regions that we hail from. The Middle East, East Asia and most parts of Africa are described by many theorists as being strongly collectivist cultures i.e. cultures in which its individual members are strongly encouraged (and expected) to live in a socially ascribed way, believed to be what is best for society as a whole. This contrasts with individualist cultures wherein individuals are encouraged to form their own unique identities, living, dressing and acting in a way that feels right to them. Psychologists have found that people from collectivist cultures are more likely to describe themselves in relation to others e.g. “I am a good daughter, sister or mother” whereas people from individualist cultures talk about their own personal traits, e.g. “I am a good athlete” or “I am funny”. While both collectivism and individualism have their strengths and weaknesses, the importance here is reminding ourselves that between our religion and our respective cultures, shame is a bigger issue to us than most.

Islam and the Importance of Compassion

It is an unfortunate reality that religiousness is now often strongly associated with judgmentalness. For both cultural and religious reasons, many young Muslims are growing up in an environment in which their actions and their missteps are heavily scrutinized. Scrutiny in itself can be an important phenomenon; scrutinising ourselves is an important way of comparing our behaviour to our ideal self i.e. the way in which we believe we should be behaving. The scrutiny of others is also crucial when administered at the right moment, in the right way. We are all guilty of being unaware of our faults, particularly in our youth.

However it is also crucial to give our youth (and ourselves) room to make mistakes without having the burden of socially driven shame that is all too often counter productive. I’m sure most of us have witnessed first hand how judgmental and close-minded our close-knit communities can be. We should ensure that we counter this at times. This can mean employing the adage of, “hating the sin but not the sinner”. This distinction can be crucial in ensuring that our communities are not places where individuals feel that their whole selves are defective and unbelonging. Every child of Adam will be flawed in their own way, there is a divine construction and wisdom in that, and we need to move away from being societies in which the flawed are driven away by excessive judgment and the shame that can ensue.

Modern Shaming

In his book, “So You’ve Been Shamed”, author Jon Ronson gives a fascinating account of shaming in the age of social media. Where once shaming occurred within local contexts, to individuals within their immediate communities, the nature of the internet now means that shaming can often occur on a global scale. Among the examples that Ronson explores in his book, most have involved people from all over the world knowing about, and contributing to, the shaming of individuals. The permanency of words, pictures and videos that are uploaded on the internet mean that sources of shame often never go away. Whatever is being used to shame an individual will always be accessible to anyone interested once it hits the internet; that embarrassing video can go on to shame an individual for their whole lives, forcing them to change their names, move countries or lose their jobs.

Misogynist Shaming

While it would be wrong to say that all shaming that is occurring in this epidemic is inflicted upon women by men, most of it seems to be following that pattern. Where once shaming might have been used to prevent individuals from engaging in behaviour that is harmful to themselves or to their communities, there is no doubt that we are now seeing shaming being employed as a tool to target, harass and terrorise women. This toxic reality is causing incredible amounts of distress for victims and quite often can lead to the development of depression, anxiety, and worse.

Umar Ibn Al Khattab

Sheikh Tim Winters (Abdal Hakim Murad) narrates a tale from among the stories within Muslim history books in which Umar Ibn al Khattab (the 2nd Caliph) is approached by a father whose daughter is about to get married. He reports to Umar that his daughter was not a virgin, because she had sex with someone outside of marriage, and he asks Umar; should he tell the family of the groom-to-be about this? While in many Muslim societies today this continues to be a huge deal, back in the 6th century, this would have been an enormous deal within the vast majority of all communities, regardless of religion.

The father was certainly not asking to shame his daughter. Nor was he trying to inflict a wrong against her. He was merely enquiring about whether or not the groom-to-be deserved to know something which was incredibly significant at that time. Umar’s reply was unequivocal; “By Allah, if you tell anybody about her story (her past), I shall inflict a punishment on you that would be feared even by the people of surrounding towns”. What would Umar do were he to witness men who were needlessly shaming women for no other purpose than to attack their honour, extort them or exercise control over them?

Conclusion

Threatening to upload intimate videos on to the Internet represents perhaps the most toxic form of shaming that is occurring today. But I think it would be wrong to say that we did not have a problem with shaming until the advent of the internet. Within the spectrum of shaming that occurs within our communities, this latest trend to torture individuals with threats of releasing videos is on the extreme end. Other acts related to shaming occur more often and are not as challenged such as the gossiping about people’s perceived missteps or spreading news about the private lives of others for no other reason than to attack their standing within the community.  

It is particularly in times as these that it becomes more important to stay true to our religious tradition. These are difficult times to hold fast to any religious tradition, but particularly one that is as comprehensive as Islam. Let us be sources of mercy and assistance for each other, rather than enemies who find the flaws of each other as sources of back biting. Our collectivist mentalities and tight-knit communities can be sources of strength or weakness, depending on the piety of the group; let us strive to ensure that our collectivist mentalities are healthy and nurturing.  

Written by Tamim Mobayed

Tamim Mobayed

Tamim is a 28 year old Dublin born Syrian who grew up in Belfast. He is working in the Media and studying for a Ph.D. in Psychology, part-time. He's a big fan of Liverpool Football Club and cats.