Yawning Bread. July 2006

Honour and the control of others




The biggest news of the FIFA World Cup 2006 was Zinédine Zidane head-butting Marco Materazzi in the final match. Zidane earned himself a red card, was sent off the field, and France, one man short during the penalty kicks, lost to Italy.

Reuters filed a story that said,

Zinedine Zidane said on Wednesday that Italian defender Marco Materazzi insulted his mother and his sister during the World Cup final against Italy.

The French captain reacted to the insult by head-butting Materazzi's chest in the second period of extra time of the match. He was sent off.

"He (Materazzi) pronounced very tough words about my mother and my sister. I tried not to listen to him but he kept repeating them," Zidane said in a live interview on French television channel Canal Plus. 

-- Reuters, 12 July 2006

Commentators have said it's not uncharacteristic of Materazzi to have done something like that. He would have known how to provoke his opponents. He might have known that being Algerian in origin, Zidane would be easily upset by any slurs on the honour of his family's womenfolk, thus disrupting his concentration on the game.

As it turned out, Zidane's reaction was more than that.

Other commentators have described Zidane's attitudes as "quaint". While that is somewhat condescending, it is nevertheless true that the notion of men feeling acutely  responsible for the honour of their mothers and sisters is rather out of date. It suggests a degree of sexism that is considered incompatible with modern notions of equality for women, since it is impossible to separate the idea that men are responsible for, and should protect the honour of their women, from the idea that the women belong to the men.

Once we accept that women are equal and autonomous, what they get up to should be as much their own business as what men get up to are men's. To think that the family, particularly its male members, are disgraced by the misdeeds of the females -- and we usually think of sexual misdeeds -- implies that the men ought to have control over the choices, actions and sexuality of the women; that women's "failure" is primarily a failure of control by the men.

In turn, this ties in with the idea that women are weak, not just physically, but also weak-willed, and thus need control, and for this reason should rightly be subordinate to the allegedly stronger sex.

You'd be surprised how many people, even in so-called modern societies, still go around with attitudes like that, even if they may not be aware of them. At least one may be working for the Straits Times.

* * * * *

Earlier this month, Lim Ah Seng was found guilty of manslaughter ("culpable homicide") for killing his wife. It occurred as a result of considerable provocation and a fight.

She had gone home to tell her estranged husband of her plan to take their eight-year-old daughter back to Jakarta. Her husband disagreed and a fight followed.

After calming down, Ms Riana Agustina asked her delivery driver husband Lim Ah Seng for sex. The latter agreed. Afterwards, she threatened to report him for rape if he refused to let her take their daughter away.

In the ensuing argument, Ms Riana, 26, slapped her husband and tried to strangle him. Lim retaliated by squeezing her neck. Moments later, his Indonesian wife was dead.

-- 'Today' newspaper, 8 July 2006, 
2 1/2 years' jail for killing wife

The reason the court gave a light sentence of only two and a half years was because the marriage had a history of abuse [1].

The court heard Ms Riana's temper took a "downward spiral" in 2003 after an abortion. She became abusive towards her family, hitting them many times and causing Lim to lose his hearing in one ear. Lim later sent his children to live with his mother. Ms Riana continued to beat him, hounded him for money and even took another man home. The psychiatric report showed Lim was a meek man who feared his wife.

- ibid

In connection with this case, the Sunday Times (the Sunday edition of the Straits Times) had this on its front page of 16 July 2006: "How can a man be such a mouse?"

What exactly the Sunday Times was trying to suggest with a headline like that was not clear to me. The article itself was relatively plodding, about the fact that, contrary to popular belief, battered husbands do exist.

But by itself, the headline  appeared to say that men should feel ashamed, emasculated even, to be meek. Some less discerning readers might find their views that men should be hitting back at abusive wives, reaffirmed. That would be a tragedy.

In any case, it's hard enough for men to seek professional help, what with the widespread notion that men should be "strong", "in control" and so forth. Headlines that ridicule a victimised man as a "mouse" can't be making things any easier.

Sexist ideas hurt men as much as women, and it was irresponsible of the Sunday Times to be perpetuating them.

* * * * *

Homophobia is associated with ideas of male superiority. Homosexual males, especially if they're also effeminate, are often seen as traitors to the male sex. Swishy males are felt to bring ridicule to the power and status of "proper" males.

Lesbian females are seen as usurpers of male privilege and competitors to men's right to the sexual use of women.

When these ideas are mixed with beliefs that patriarchs are responsible for and have controlling rights over their families -- an idea not different from Zidane's proprietary attitudes over women -- families are one step away from disaster [2].

This week from Taiwan comes a story about a university student, Su Ming-che, who claimed that he was drugged and committed to a psychiatric hospital by his own father. The father had been unhappy that his son was gay.

According to Su, he was having breakfast with his parents at a Taipei coffee shop in April this year when he left the table to use the toilet. On his return, he noticed some white powder on the rim of his coffee cup but, thinking nothing of it, drank his coffee.

Shortly after, he said, he passed out and was taken to Shin Kong Hospital.

The young man said that as he regained consciousness he heard a doctor telling him "Your father put drugs in your coffee but it is all for your own good."

Shin Kong hospital did not come to any diagnosis, but still prescribed him pills. "I read from my case report that my parents were demanding that I be hospitalised," Su said.

After discharge, he managed to get himself tested by 3 other hospitals. All said he was psychologically normal. Su then filed a lawsuit against his father, accusing him of domestic violence in relation to the alleged poisoning, and one against Shin Kong Hospital, for violating the Mental Health Act's procedures on hospitalising psychiatric patients [3].

Su's father told the Chinese-language newspaper, Apple Daily, "I can't forgive him for suing a family member. Can he say that he is not sick after he has accused his family?"

That was interesting. As far as the father was concerned, proof of mental illness lay in the fact that the son would defy his father. You see here the notion that senior males have proprietary rights over family members, an idea that is similar to the belief that men are responsible for "their" women, that turned out to be Zidane's Achilles' heel.

* * * * *

Such abuse is not confined to family discord. State and society have a tendency to implement ideas held by Establishment males. This group of elites has, throughout history, had a disproportionate hold on the levers of state, and their ideas are often effected through the coercive powers of law and convention.

Take the case of Alan Turing (1912 – 1954), a mathematician who was instrumental in breaking the secret codes that Nazi Germany used to communicate with its military forces.

The codes were generated by a typewriter-sized machine called 'Enigma' [4], of which there were various versions introduced from time to time. It has been said that the machine was capable of encoding a message in 150 million million million ways.

At the beginning of the Second World War, German forces were far superior to British forces. In the first 9 months, German submarines ("U-boats") sank 701 Allied ships with 2.3 million tons of vital cargo, most of it from America. Britain could not long survive if the sea-lanes were not made safer.

Turing's arrival at ultra-secret Bletchley Park made the difference. Applying mathematical principles, he began seeking out "probable words" common to all secret messages and very quickly made breakthroughs. The Germans however changed their code settings monthly, but Turing's invention, a machine he called Bombe, automated the process of searching for patterns in the intercepted, encrypted messages, then working backwards to reveal the Enigma settings. Once the settings for the month were found, it was possible to decode other intercepted messages. Bletchley Park went from decoding a trickle of 50 Enigma messages a week in 1940 to 3,000 per day in 1943.

Being able to read German communications made all the difference to the militarily weaker Britain. That Britain (later joined by the US) prevailed in the war, and that we are today not living under Nazism and (in Asia) Japanese fascism is a debt we owe in large part to Alan Turing.

However, on 11 February 1952, he was arrested in Manchester for "gross indecency" with a 19-year old guy. This was the same draconian 1885 ordinance used to imprison Oscar Wilde in 1895 [5], and which is equivalent to Singapore's Section 377A of our Penal Code.

In lieu of two years in prison, Turing agreed to a course of "organo-therapy" -- chemical castration with female hormones, then thought to be a cure for male lust, now regarded as a poison for males when dosed the way it was. Thinking was evidently very confused then, with lust, sin, homosexuality and mental illness all mixed up. Turing wrote to a friend: "It is supposed to reduce sexual urges whilst it goes on, but one is supposed to return to normal when it is over. I hope they’re right."

They were wrong. He grew breasts instead. Utterly humiliated, what more with his government security clearance removed and his reputation in tatters, Turing committed suicide with a cyanide pill on 7 June 1954. He was only 42.

© Yawning Bread 



  1. The prosecutor, however, has since appealed the sentence; the outcome is now pending.
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  2. See also the article Sodom in Pakistan where a tribal council ordered a family to surrender a daughter to rape by another family as compensation for a violation of social honour. An example of how women are seen as property of the family.
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  3. See media reports of this case in Student claims father poisoned him.
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  4. For an exhaustive story of the breaking of the Enigma codes, see
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  5. This UK law was repealed in 1967.
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