Mahmoud Sadri and Alireza Ghandriz*

December 10, 2019 — Urban legends abound on both sides of the Iran-Iraq border. A salient trope in these stories is sexual transgression and honorable revenge.

Women pilgrims entering Karbala in Iraq

Here is a story bandied about in the region’s electronic media:

“In the Imam Bazaar in the city of Ahvaz (southern Iran), an Iraqi citizen approaches a local youth: “I have come from Iraq for fun and games, I will pay all your expenses including food, alcohol, and will pay you 100.000 Tomans each day if you can procure me a pretty Iranian woman … The “honorable” local youth apparently agrees and takes the Iraqi Arab to his grandmother’s abandoned house, and after a good beating cuts off his [private parts] with a box cutter and places it in his Arabic gown. He then leaves him in front of a hospital with this message: if you survive this, return to your country immediately and tell your compatriots that Iranians are “honorable” and will do this to any other Iraqi who is tempted to sully our collective feminine integrity.”

This anecdote is accompanied by a grisly picture as visual “evidence.” Plenty of other lurid tales about Iraqi pilgrims prowling the back alleys of Qum and Mashhad as sex tourists and Iranian religious “hikers” negotiating “temporary marriages” with turbaned procurers in the Bazaars of Najaf and Karbala are making the rounds. Some of these anecdotes have even been reported in prominent local newspapers. “Ashargh AL-awsat,” for example, featured a story entitled: “[Iran’s] Mobilization Corps are in town celebrating [the religious occasion] of ‘Arba’in.’ The United Nation Warns about Illegal Pregnancies in Karbala.” The article caused such moral panic that the United Nation’s World Health Organization (WHO) was obliged to issue an official denial. (Nov. 20, 2017). [1]

Beyond the reality of illicit sex work in these cities, which is hardly surprising in tourist and pilgrimage towns, these tales reveal two overlooked realities: ancient ethno-religious machismo and proxy psychological warfare.

Machismo, Middle Eastern Style

The Arabic, Persian and Turkish words: “Gheyrah,” “Hammiyah” and “Namus” (like other unique cultural phenomena) have no equivalents in Western languages. The Spanish (and recently English) expression: “Machismo” barely conveys the bundle of emotions entwined in this sentiment. However, “machismo” has an accusatory ring, whereas the above cultural expressions smack of masculine duty, honor and chivalry. [2]

The (oxymoronic) term “Righteous Machismo” may be a closer approximation. Social scientists have coined the phrase: “corporate sense of shame and honor” to describe the emotional depths of this sentiment. Simply put, Middle Eastern men find their masculine integrity implicated in the behavior of their womenfolk. These emotions run so deep that the Middle Eastern individual is simply bewildered by their absence in the West, just as a Westerner encountering them is astonished by their ever-presence. These ancient sentiments can even lead to ‘honor killings’ in extreme cases among Western Asians, Northern Africans, and immigrant communities that hail from those regions.

Despite its pious pretenses, ‘Righteous Machismo’ has little to do with religiosity: Christianity and Islam, “salvation religions” through and through, place moral responsibility squarely at the doorstep of the individual. No one is held responsible for the behavior of another. Nevertheless, not only Islamic but Christian communities of the Middle East (Copts in Egypt, Maronites in Lebanon and Assyrians in Iraq) are steeped in righteous machismo.

Of course, not only religion but the modern legal canon condemns crimes committed in the name of redressing collective shame and recovering corporate honor. Every Middle Eastern country with a modern legal system censures collective crimes of passion, based on the notions of “Gheyrah” and “Hammiyah.”

Psychological Warfare

The classic war strategist, Sun Tzu’s lesson: “supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fight” seems to inform the psychological proxy wars in the Middle East.

These days, the most salient example of the above encounters can be witnessed in the multi-ethnic post-Ba’thist Iraq. Its constitutional separation of religion and state (approved by pluralistic authorities like Ayatollah Sistani) at once challenges the Shi’ite Clerocracy of Iran and the Sunni Puritanism of Saudis. It offers an alternative to the neighboring autocratic regimes and promises peaceful coexistence of religious and ethnic groups.

Opponents of such a historic Arab-Iranian convergence are trying to stoke the fires of mistrust by citing –among other things- the threat of ritual pollution of native women by lascivious pilgrims. Iraqis and Iranians alike, are taunted for their lack of “Righteous Machismo,” and the transformation of their holy cities into an“Islamic Thailand,” to quote the accusers.

Although mostly benign, the region’s sentiments of masculine protection can turn murderous. It is high time for Arabs, Turks and Iranians alike, to acknowledge that “Righteous Machismo” is a double edged sword crafted and sharpened in their cultural infancy and nomadic militancy. The time has come for the rusty and bloody blade to be sheathed. The “corporate sense of shame and honor”will have to be supplanted by respect for moral autonomy, inviolability and dignity of the individual.

*Mahmoud Sadri is a professor of sociology and Alireza Ghandriz is a geo-political analyst.

  1. A slightly different (and shorter) version of this article is available in Persian, on BBC-Persian site’s Commentary page.

[1] https://www.bbc.com/arabic/middleeast-38045632

[2] Another suggestion: “protective jealousy” has the same defect. Natives do not equate these sentiments as jealousy, a sentiment for which they have other words.

‏Zamaneh Media is a Persian language media organization based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. READ MORE: https://en.radiozamaneh.com/about/