Two recent events have encouraged me to explore the idea of shame. No, this article is not boasting to be in the league of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, Eudemian Ethics, and Rhetoric—the three texts where the Greek philosopher discusses shame. Instead, it is a pamphlet encouraging women to embrace mature shamelessness.
We just have to look at the stream of visuals coming in from Iran and, closer home, Chandigarh to understand how potent a weapon shame can become. Women are out in the open protesting against this very weaponisation of an emotion that, according to historian Peter N Stearns, "emphasizes self-abasement". Stearns writes in his important book titled Shame, "The shamed person tends to shrink, characteristically seeks to hide, because of the emotional dilemma involved".
And that's what the dominant culture of patriarchy wants: to hide women out of sight.
Noted psychiatrist Carl Jung defines shame as "a soul eating emotion". And it is this appetite that allows this emotion to be weaponised. Especially against women.
The Big Shame
It is being speculated that objectionable videos of about 60 girls in the hostel bathroom of Chandigarh University were leaked on the internet. There was an instantaneous reaction in the form of not only protests but also alleged attempts at suicide by girls who suspected their videos were available online.
There were rumours, later quashed, that some girl students died by suicide. That's precisely the point for me when this event of internet abuse became a point of enquiry for the emotion called shame. Is any emotion bigger than one's life? Can it ever be? If yes, what or who makes it so?
The short answer is—the enemy.
Who is the enemy here?
Let's take a look at the viral visuals from Iran of protests erupting everywhere in the aftermath of the murder of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, by the official Islamic vice squad police agencies. 22 years old Amini was arrested for wearing an improper headscarf and was beaten up in custody. The Islamic agencies, also known as the "morality police" are infamous for heckling, attacking, and arresting women who 'shame' themselves, their families, their country, and their religion by being inadequately covered.
Social systems that aim at subjugating women are the enemy in Chandigarh, in Iran, in the rest of the world.
Chandigarh to Iran—Seeing Women as the Enemy
It is no surprise that patriarchal social systems see women, especially the ones that challenge the imposed mores of society, as enemy. Such women need to be defeated, thrown out of the game. So a fool proof trap is laid. Heighten a society or individual's sense of 'honour' and then easily make a move to shatter it. Even the strongest general couldn't survive such a move.
Sun Tzu writes in the Art of War that "a delicacy of honour which is sensitive to shame" is one of the "five dangerous faults which may affect a general". This delicacy of honour is not only insidiously imposed on women, they are held hostage to it.
And what better way to make this sense of honour indelibly imprinted on the body of a woman! Battles are fought over and about it. Ideas of national pride and shame are woven around it.
In Chandigarh, young women reacted to what they saw as an assault on their honour. They suspected that their uncovered bodies were up for public consumption in the form of pornographic content. Privacy issues aside, one needs to examine this response a bit more critically. Have we not, as a society, forced them to believe that everyone's sense of honour—including their own—resides in their body? And that sense of honour is worth more than everything else?
Is Iran Seeing an Historical Uprising?
In Iran, on the other hand, protests are happening against the forced act of covering up of the female body and everything that represents. Again, national honour is made to reside in the shape and form of the headscarf. Any deviation from the prescribed manner brings shame. Iranian women have been saying NO to this for a while and now their collective voice seems to be reaching crescendo.
Women of Iran are out in the streets shunning shame. This time, many men are also participating in this exercise. Women are realising that being conditioned or coerced into covering or uncovering their bodies violates the basic principle of choice. Morality that seeks to thrive on inequality is immoral. The unprecedented scenes of unarmed protestors—men and women—clashing with the State agencies are a manifestation of this understanding.
Salman Rushdie, another of Iranian establishment's enemies, has this to say: "Shame is like everything else; live with it for long enough and it becomes part of the furniture."
Iran might just be witnessing a historical turn of events. Women have had enough of the shame and its repercussions.
As Saadi Shirazi, one of Iran's most celebrated poets, says,
"Not everyone who possesses strength of arm and office
In the sultanate may with impunity plunder the people.
A hard bone may be made to pass down the throat
But it will tear the belly when it sticks in the navel."
The hard bone of coercion has been pushed too further down the throats of women of Iran.
Shame is Bad, Shun It
One might want to argue that shamelessness can unleash anarchy and is not all that desirable in a civilised society. Here, it is important to make a distinction between the function and degree of shame. Shame may not be essentially dangerous, what it might aim at—subjugation, inequality, debasement—certainly is.
Philosopher Owen Flanagan's latest book, How to Do Things with Emotions: The Morality of Anger and Shame Across Cultures merits a close reading. Flanagan says, "If the values that shame enacts or protects are bad, the shame is bad."
Shame around women's bodies is bad. It is time women shunned it, once and for all.