The great ghairat debate

Dr Hoodbhoy is closer to reality in calling out for a review of what we have gained from this false bravado.

Abdul Majeed May 15, 2012
In the past week, two articles have appeared in this very newspaper on the subject of ghairat. The first, penned by nuclear physicist and prominent progressive Dr. Parvez Hoodbhoy and the second by a journalist, Miss Maria Waqar.

Dr Hoodbhoy is of the view that ghairat (honour) and “fake nationalism” (the one that can be witnessed by our chest-thumping TV anchors and Baloongras on Twitter) was one of the cornerstones of fascist societies like Nazi Germany and that as societies moved from tribalism to modernism and now post-modernism, the notions of “ghairat” are anachronistic and will not do us much good.

Miss Maria Waqar, on the other hand, feels that Nazi Germany was not a tribal society by any means, rather a very modern and “civilised” one. She also mentions that just like we want to blame honour and “tribal values” for the crimes of Nazis, we should blame the notions of “liberty and freedom” for the destruction heaped upon Iraq and Afghanistan by the mighty United States.

In my humble opinion, Dr Hoodbhoy is closer to reality in calling out for a review of what we have gained (mostly we have lost) from this false bravado and where our “honour” lies according to other nations of the world. I would also like to present another facet of this issue that was not discussed.

Ghairat is an Urdu word that usually means honour or pride. But the problem with translation is that every word in a particular language has its own etymology and while translating, the word may lose its original meaning. There is no universal definition of ghairat, it roughly means the sense of belonging or entitlement to certain customs. If a person goes against those customs, he/she is considered to have defiled ghairat. This concept is a key element of a tribal society. In the subcontinent, people generally are quite touchy about their ghairat and can kill someone who defiles it. This usually leads to “honour-killings” and the victims in all cases are women.

Pakistani society, even after the move towards urbanisation in the last 30 years, remains a tribal and patriarchial society. In Pakistan, the honour of a man lies between the legs of women in his family (an Arabic expression). Any attempt to break the shackles of this system can lead to death. Thus, it is not surprising that the Human Rights Commission reported 675 women to have been killed in the name of honour in the the first nine months of 2011 while in 2010, the figure was 791.

It should also be considered that the Human Rights Commission has only accounted those women whose cases were reported and the actual numbers can be much higher than that. It is not clear if this number includes the 577 honour killings during 2011 that took place in the Sindh province alone. A modern democratic state is supposed to safeguard the rights of its citizens (both male and female) and the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 2004, which amended sections 299, 302 and 325 of the Pakistan Penal Code, specified the criminalisation of offences “committed in the name or on the pretext of honour” and mentions “karo-kari, siyah kari or similar other customs and practices” in this context.

The question, then, is how many arrests or prosecutions in courts of law have been made. This is where the state’s performance has been extremely poor.

Regarding the other ghairat, namely "qaumi ghairat" or “national honour” I would like to quote Sadiq Saleem, who echoed the exact sentiment that I have on this issue, in a local newspaper three years ago,
Every few years, Pakistanis go through angry phases of self-righteous indignation over the country’s dependence on foreign aid. The ghairat (national honour) lobby, led by Islamist political parties, retired generals and the newly empowered right-wing conspiracy theorists serving as television anchors have worked up the nation once again in the “honour is more important than aid” slogan mongering.

Notwithstanding the evolution of our indigenous defence capabilities, much of our military equipment still comes from the US or from China. Pakistan needs aid and no amount of hyper nationalist chest-thumping can change the fact that with huge and unavoidable defence expenditure, a growing unproductive population and a bloated government we have no option but to seek aid for development

The ghairat lobby, always eager to mobilise street protests of the “Go America Go” variety, never runs a campaign to get the nation to pay taxes. Ditto for the industrialists and traders that support the various factions of the Pakistan Muslim League and the landowners that are incharge of the Pakistan People’s Party. Few Pakistanis know we have a tax-to-GDP ratio of 8%, even below Ghana, which collects 15% of its GDP as revenue.

The debate about this issue  does not end here, and it shouldn’t. Introspection on this issue, both on the “honor killings” aspect and the “qaumi ghairat” aspect should continue until a consensus is developed. We need to make a decision if we want to live in a society where women are supposed to be killed due to our percieved notions or otherwise.

We need to decide if we want to continue chest-thumping over issues that we deem “dishonorable” and ignore reality like an ostrich. The choice is ours to make and the time is running out.

Read more by Majeed here, or follow him on Twitter @abdulmajeedabid
Abdul Majeed A final year medical student with interests in history, political economy and literature. He blogs at and tweets as @abdulmajeedabid
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.

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