Sunday, 12 April 2009
Book review: Woman, die for my honour!
By Khaled Ahmed
Honour: Crimes, Paradigms, and Violence against Women
Edited by Lynn Welchman & Sara Hossain
OUP 2005; Pp384; price Rs 595
Honour Killing: Dilemma, Ritual, Understanding
By Amir H Jafri;
OUP 2008; Pp160; Price Rs 295
Two books have clarified the situation with regard to the social sense of honour in Pakistan, the first telling us how law has dealt with the crimes of honour, the second informing us how far the function of theorising on the issue has advanced. In the first book, Sohail Akbar Warraich in his paper Honour Killing and the Law in Pakistan says that in the year ending 2004 Pakistan had seen 4,000 killed for honour out of whom 2,774 were women, meaning that when honour was at stake women were sure to be killed.
Warraich also tells us that in 1994 the Lahore High Court established the norm of mitigating murder done under the spur of honour in the light of Hadith (p.90). Nazand Begikhani in her paper Honour-based Violence among the Kurds: the case of Iraqi Kurdistan writes that the Penal Code in Kurdistan says if a man kills his wife after finding her in a compromising position will be punished for no more than three years (p.212). Maria Gabriella Gettiga Boukerout, in her paper Crimes of Honour in the Italian Penal Code: an Analysis of History and Reform, says honour killing was mitigated under an old Rocco Code but that this mitigation was abolished in 1975 (p.239).
In the second book, author Amir H Jafri applies fascinating theory to the 1999 honour killing of a lady from the NWFP who was shot dead in the offices of the human rights lawyers Hina Jilani and Asma Jahangir, the murder prompted by her own mother because the girl wanted a divorce from her husband. The case became a cause célèbre and our Senate did not cover itself with glory when senators like Ilyas Bilour opposed a resolution of condemnation because it went against the Pashtun tradition of honour. Nothing happened to the killers and the two lawyers in whose office she was killed were condemned by agitators who came out in defence of honour killing.
Author Jafri says an understanding of the concept of ‘honour’ is vital for comprehending why men in certain societies address any real or perceived breach in their honour in such extreme fashion.
“The conception of honour used to rationalise killings is founded on the notion that a person’s honour depends on the behaviour of others and that behaviour, therefore, becomes a key component of one’s own self-esteem and community regard. It is important to note that this view is different from saying it should be the individual’s own behaviour which should be linked with his or her honour.”
Honour in terms of power should be understood as “the ideology of the power-holding group which struggles to define, enlarge, and protect its patrimony in a competitive area”. Apart from shoring up the identity of a group, honour defines the group’s social boundaries and defends against the claims of competing groups.
“Concern for honour arises when the definition of the group is problematic; when social boundaries are difficult to maintain, and internal loyalties are questionable”. In collective societies like Pakistan, definitions of the group encroachments of social boundaries and concepts such as loyalty among the kin are of central nature and are naturally linked with notions of honour.
Jafri writes: “Honour concepts are only another way of understanding the operation of patriarchy which is anchored in the assumption of male authority over women and male definition and expectation of ‘appropriate’ female behaviour”. (p.21) “Central to this theory of patriarchy is male sexual violence, a mechanism by which men maintain control over women. Patriarchal oppression, like other forms of oppression, may manifest itself in legal and economic discrimination, but like all oppressive structures, it is rooted in violence”.
This violence often results in ‘femicide’ as a form of capital punishment facilitating men in treating women as a sex class and maintaining the patriarchal status quo. Curiously enough, it is often the battered or the killed woman’s behaviour that is scrutinised and blamed when measured against men’s idealised constructions of femininity and standards of female behaviour.
Jafri adds: “This was apparent in Pakistan in Samia’s death. Senator Bilour, addressing an open session of the Pakistan senate, after establishing his family connection with and avuncular fondness for Samia, questioned her conduct and the fate of her killer rather than the other way around. And it is not unique to any part of the world. The male defence, for example, in case of a reported date rape or similar violence often has been a casual ‘She asked for it’.”
Once the family honour is tarnished, it becomes imperative on the male members to re-store the honour; blood must be shed (p.22). Anthropology literature is replete with connections of honour with family. Of the community norms, sexual purity of women is the most important reflection of a family’s reputation (p.22). ‘One’s honour is involved only in particularised relations in which each actor is a well-defined social persona. When the actors are anonymous, honour is not involved’. (p.23).
Montesquieu’s distinction between monarchy, whose operative principle is honour, and republic, whose operative principle is virtue, demonstrates the primal nature of honour and its archaic overtones. The fundamental notion of the difference between ‘honour’ and ‘virtue’ is important to note here: Honour is more entrenched, something not intellectually understood and transmitted over generations with subtle behaviours. It is acutely felt and reflexively responded to. The exigency around it is pointed and the immediacy personal, but it permeates the community; virtue has a bureaucratic ring to it, a civic function, something utilitarian, intellectually understood to be of ‘use’ for the larger good.
Virtues such as honesty can be adopted as matter of potentially profitable policy as the English so famously taught humanity. Honour, on the other hand, can never be a policy matter. Its drive is sparked from the marrow of one’s existence and thus its demands are non-negotiable. As Nietzsche puts it, ‘A man’s virtues are called good depending on their probable consequences, not for him but for us and society’ (p.24).
The idea of virtue is more modern than that of honour. “The idea of virtue is mythic, but in its utilitarian dimension it can be cognitively apprehended; honour and its loss can only be felt”. Since possession of virtue imbibes one with a rhetorical force, sophists would work to claim it for their arsenal; honour is more a Socratic deal. One could be virtuous in a certain matter and not quite so in another or virtuous at a certain time and not so at another.
On the other hand, one either has honour or does not have it. Unlike virtue, honour cannot be demonstrated selectively; it informs all conduct. Once lost it resists all claims to being recaptured. If virtuous behaviour can be learned in institutions, a sense of honour is imbibed only at the feet of elders, from the context of one’s lived life. Behaviour can be rationally demonstrated to be virtuous or otherwise. Honour incontestably belongs to the mythic realm. ‘Virtue is civilised behaviour, an achievement of culture; honour is mired in the primal, in nature’ (p.26). *