Whenever we are challenged by the enemy (excluding Taliban and al Qaeda) we feel an upsurge of ghairat. These days, it is America which is arousing it. It is a magic word: the arousal it causes should lead to war.
Honour is a tribal characteristic. Feudal societies are also based on honour because of their strong tribal memory. Urbanised and literate societies don’t function on the basis of honour. Tribal Pathans and the Baloch often refer to the ‘dishonourable’ Punjabi because he is more urbanised.
Honour cannot exist without the condition of requital. When hurt is received to pride, it must be avenged. An ‘honourable’ person will never be a slave. He will be independent and will guard this independence by disagreeing, if agreeing threatens it.
‘Ghairat’ is the word which is used in honour killing in Pakistan, not ‘izzat’. Therefore, ‘ghairat’ is a special word. It can be linked to a just war, respect cannot. Why is honour killing a characteristic of the primitive?
Why are the educated without ‘ghairat’? What did the word actually mean when it began its rather strange journey?
Societies that develop towards commerce leave ‘ghairat’ behind because peace is the irreducible condition of commerce. One has to overlook matters of honour to secure one’s investment and trade routes.
Islam, like democracies of today, ordains fighting only defensively.
‘Ghair’ means ‘strange’ in Arabic. In a tribal society, an outsider could be a target of hatred. In many societies, ‘ghair’ is the ‘other’ that must be eliminated for the sake of survival. In Urdu ‘ghazal ghair’ is the rival in love: ‘the other man’.
This could obviously explain how ‘ghairat’ became the bogey word that leads to the killing of women by males that prize their honour in Pakistan. But what does etymology say?
We all know that in Arabic ‘taghayyur’ means ‘change’. Change is not compatible with honour and ‘ghairat’. A dishonourable person is the one who changes. A ‘ghairatmand’ person stands firm and opposes those who shift loyalties.
The Quran talks of ‘ghairat’ in totally different terms. It definitely does not sanction the kind of revenge-based tradition we are following in Pakistan. Tragically, the word has come from a physical function. The Quranic meaning is ‘adjustment’, the very opposite of revenge-killing.
The physical action it has come from is related not surprisingly to the camel. When a camel carries its load, its motion tends to make the division of the load on both sides of its back unequal. You have to correct the balance again and again. That is called ‘ghairat’!
Today, the term ‘bayghairat’ is the most insulting term you can apply to a person in Urdu. Strangely it has a subtext explaining a man’s inability to avenge his wife’s tendency to disloyalty. Pakistanis admire Iran for standing up to America; they call their own country ‘bayghairat’.
We use the word ‘ghairat’ for honour while it means something that is simply its opposite: changeability and adjustment and accommodation! Islam is more in favour of wisdom (‘hikmat’) than ‘ghairat’. ‘Hikmat’ denotes survival while ‘ghairat’ aspires to martyrdom.
English ‘revenge’ is from Latin ‘vindex’ which began by meaning ‘a claim’. This indicates that the beginning of the fight of honour was really a plaint which later got complicated and became vendetta, which is closer to the origin, ‘vindex’.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 20th, 2011.