Everything you wanted to know about male supremacy and were too oppressed to ask
Why did ancient cultures only ban homosexuality among men and see abortion as a crime against males? Dr. Zvi Triger examines how ancient laws and social norms have promoted patriarchy.
Literary scholar Dr. Zvi Triger recounts these pseudo-medical recommendations in the course “Crimes against patriarchy: adultery, abortions and homosexuality from antiquity to today,” which he is currently teaching on Army Radio’s “University on the Air” show on Mondays at 8:30 P.M. The lectures will also come out in book form next year, in the “University on the Air” series published (in Hebrew ) by Modan.
Triger sees expression of a phenomenon that recurs in quite a few ancient cultures in Keikavus’ text: Just as in ancient Greece, there is no sweeping prohibition of sexual relations between men in the “Qabus nama.” Still, the apparently accepted norm is that an adult male is entitled to sleep with women and adolescent boys, but not with other adult males.
“On the face of it, Keikavus’ words express sexual fluidity and a great deal of openness,” Triger says, during a conversation in Tel Aviv. “But, in actuality, we see that patriarchal values are reflected in them, in the manner of representation of the woman’s body and of the adolescent boy’s. The advice is being given to an adult male … It is a wholly masculine point of view, and there are no parallel recommendations for a woman about when and with whom she ought to sleep.”
In his talks, the scholar presents the diverse ways in which laws and social norms have served the male heterosexual position throughout history. He examines the attitude toward sex and sexuality in antiquity, and explains why certain actions – such as adultery and abortion – were primarily forbidden, whereas others – such as homosexual relations – were banned only for men.
The birth of the horns
According to Triger, for the purpose of preserving its existence, the patriarchal social order, under which certain men dominate women and other men, had to define “gendered crimes.” In other words, crimes that apply only to one sex, and as such should be viewed as crimes against the patriarchy. The lecturer provides plenty of examples from ancient Greece, Rome and other countries and eras, and also underscores the way adultery, abortion and homosexuality are treated in Hebrew law, as well as in contemporary Israeli law. Additionally, Triger analyzes the punitive measures against those who committed these offenses in the light of feminist and queer theory.
Triger, 40, is vice dean of the Haim Striks School of Law at the College of Management Academic Studies in Rishon Letzion, and also teaches law at Tel Aviv University; his specialties are family law, contract law and the interface between law and culture. Along with his work as a jurist, he has published a novel, “In Case of Emergency” (Hargol Publishing, 2005 ). He also cowrote (with Haaretz writer Amalia Rosenblum ) the book “Speechless – How Contemporary Israeli Culture is Reflected in Language” (Dvir, 2007 ).
In one of the first lectures in his radio course (which Dr. Hagai Boas edits ), Triger relates that in 711 C.E., a new legal procedure was enacted vis-a-vis incidents of adultery in the Byzantine Empire. Until then, it had been permissible for a man to kill his wife in the event that she had cheated on him, as well as the man with whom she had committed adultery. However, Emperor Justinian II then enacted new laws: From now on, a husband who killed a man for engaging in intercourse with his wife on a single occasion would be put on trial for murder and did not have immunity from prosecution, as had been the custom.
“Under the new laws of Justinian,” Triger explains, “the cuckolded husband had to send his wife’s lover three warning letters demanding that he stop seeing her. Only afterward, if the lover had not obeyed the letters, could he kill him and enjoy immunity from prosecution. This dictate aroused the scorn of the legal sages, who composed a parody of a letter in which a husband with the generic name Martinus Cornelius (playing on the Latin word cornutus – having horns ) urges his wife’s lover to stop seeing her. This humorous letter is the source of the expression ‘made him grow horns,’ which refers to an adulterous wife who has publicly humiliated her husband.”
Throughout history, social attitudes toward adultery reflected fear of female sexuality, Triger continues: “Originally [adultery] was an offense within the family unit, in which the father asserted his authority over his daughters and wives in an attempt to supervise their sexuality. In the ancient world, women were always perceived as suspects; as naive and therefore vulnerable to seduction; and mainly as irrational creatures who could not be relied upon. When adultery became a crime, this apparently expressed an attempt by the governing regime to weaken the family institution [because it took the supervision out of the father's hands].”
The unyielding attitude toward both the adulterous wife and the man with whom she cheated did not disappear. Indeed, it still resonates in the Israeli criminal justice system. Triger points out that the current penal code contains the “provocation defense,” which allows a murderer’s guilt to be diminished, and his crime commuted from murder to manslaughter if there was some provocation that led him to act as he did.
“Actually, the origin of this offense is in Roman law, which was understanding in cases when a husband catches his wife ‘red-handed’ in the arms of another man and kills them both on the spot,” the scholar explains.
“In Israel, a well-known Supreme Court verdict from the 1990s – the [Maurice] Azuelos case – was lenient on a man who had murdered his wife and a neighbor, whom he suspected of being his wife’s lover. Justice Aharon Barak ruled at the time that, ‘the blood of the average Israeli [male] and average Israeli [female] might boil, when they see the female spouse or male spouse cheating.’ Even though Barak’s wording is gender-neutral, historically the ‘provocation defense’ was tailor-made for men, and experience shows that women generally do not murder husbands who have cheated in similar cases.”
Moreover, because of the Orthodox monopoly on domestic relations in Israeli law, a woman cannot marry a man with whom she had committed adultery prior to her divorce. Adultery can also lead to loss of child-support payments to the ex-wife and of the sum the husband undertook to pay her in the ketubah. And if a married woman becomes pregnant from a man who is not her husband, her children will be designated bastards.
“All these restrictions are imposed only on women,” Triger emphasizes. “A married man who has cheated on his wife and ‘made her grow horns’ will not suffer from them.”
A national womb
As with adultery, abortion was always historically deemed an offense, the punishment for which reflected man’s control over a woman’s body. In contrast to Christian thinking – which completely banned abortion and viewed it as killing the living being developing in a woman’s womb – in ancient Greece and Rome, abortion itself was not considered an offense: The rights of the fetus were not an issue there, rather the rights of the father. If the husband of the woman seeking to abort her fetus agreed to it, the abortion was legal.
Triger: “The most important thing was the consent of the man from whose seed the child was conceived, since the wife was perceived as someone who merely warmed the seed in her womb and enabled it to develop. She had no rights over the fetus, no right to decide about an abortion.
“If she had the abortion done on her own, she violated the husband’s ownership. The wife and her womb were his property. Even when a forbidden abortion was performed, the punishment was imposed on the person who carried it out (for example, whoever gave the wife a drug or potion meant to cause a miscarriage ) and not on the woman in whose body it was performed.”
He adds that in view of the birthrate crisis in ancient Rome, the campaign against abortion was designed, among other things, to compel men to get married. The laws banning abortion were also related to a demographic issue: the state’s interest in the birth of boys, who would become soldiers and fight in its service. This phenomenon, which viewed a woman’s womb as a “national womb,” recurred in modern regimes as well: In fascist Italy, abortion was deemed a “crime against the race.”
There are still people today who wish to deprive a woman of the right to decide about her own body, as evident in the widespread debate over abortion in the United States, where the issue is a highly sensitive political matter. In October the issue also made headlines in Israel, in the wake of the tragic death of teenager Raz Atias. He was shot dead by police after he threatened to kill his pregnant girlfriend and then commit suicide. The boy’s family claims the girl decided not to get an abortion after activists for the Efrat organization allegedly pressured her against it. The group, which works to encourage the Jewish birthrate, offers aid to women who are contemplating having an abortion, and tries to persuade them to change their minds.
Triger believes that, “similarly to the activity of the evangelical right in the United States, the activity of Efrat and other entities in Israel is sustained by the presumption that a woman is not mistress of her own body and that she absolutely must not have an abortion. In the case of Israel, there is the added demographic aspect – in other words, the perception that women must be encouraged to use their wombs to give birth to Jewish children as part of the demographic battle against the Arabs.”
In his lectures, Triger also discusses a so-called offense that relates only to men: homosexuality, and describes the incarnations of “the love that dare not speak its name,” as it was expressed in Greece and Rome, and Hebrew law. He also explains why homosexual relations were in some societies severely looked down upon, whereas lesbian relations were not generally perceived to be a serious threat per se.
Triger contends that the historic reason why sexual relations between members of the same sex were perceived as an offense that only men can commit stems from the patriarchal concept, according to which it is appropriate to punish a man who allows another man to treat him as one treats a woman – i.e., a man who waives the privileges granted to him by the power of his being a man and thus “degrades” himself.
“Inherent in this is potential that threatens the patriarchal order, which is based on a strict division between ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ roles, and on the supremacy of the ‘masculine’ roles,” Triger says.
In his opinion, one of the aspects that the three phenomena he discusses have in common is the violation of male honor: “A married woman who sleeps with a man who is not her husband, and also that same man with whom she sleeps – both violate the husband’s honor, because they disrupt his dominion over his family; a married woman who has an abortion likewise violates her husband’s honor, because she aborts a fetus that does not belong to her but rather was merely placed in her care by the husband; and a man who has sex with another man violates male honor in general, by his sheer waiving of ‘manly’ conduct.”
Alongside this, Triger stresses that the attitude toward the three offenses entails a silencing of the female voice and a near-sweeping neglect of women’s needs and wishes, which are viewed as inferior in the social hierarchy.
In his final lecture, Triger discusses the influence of patriarchal perceptions in our own day. He shows that the gendered offenses have not disappeared from the world, despite the great advances made in the 20th century in the status of women and gays. He bases his argument on the claims of the American theoreticians Carol Gilligan and David A.J. Richards, who have drawn a connection between the progress in women’s status and the rise of religious fundamentalism – Christian, Islamic and Jewish.
“The growing power of religion in the public domain over the last two decades is seen by Gilligan and Richards as a counterreaction to the retreat that occurred in patriarchal power in certain areas,” Triger says. “They hold that the religious radicalization – which is reflected, among other things, in the strengthening of the anti-abortion campaign in the United States, or the lengthening of head and body coverings for women in Islamic nations – is a sort of ‘corrective’ that patriarchal systems are applying in response to the spread of the human-rights culture in general and women’s rights in particular.
“What all types of religious fundamentalism have in common is the attempt to regain control over a woman’s sexuality,” he continues. “The crimes the patriarchal order created in an effort to protect its basic principles exist and are enforced to this day, despite all the improvements that have been achieved. Not only women but men too are suffering from them, because the patriarchal world forces both sexes to obey norms of conduct that are dictated in advance, and to live according to norms of ‘femininity’ or ‘masculinity’ they have no say in, and which they are able to rebel against only if they are willing to pay a high personal price.
“To do away with the crimes against patriarchy,” he concludes, “we must do away with patriarchy itself. We must exchange it for a genuinely democratic social order, free of hierarchy, in which both men and women have an equal voice and an equal right to shape their personal version of masculinity, femininity – or any combination of these they can think of – without being perceived as criminals.”