Honour and shame

Published: April 18, 2012
The writer is Director South Asian Media School, Lahore 

The writer is Director South Asian Media School, Lahore khaled.ahmed@tribune.com.pk

Pakistan is in the grip of honour and parliament has become its guardian. Only tragedy will follow. French statesman and political philosopher Montesquieu (1689-1755) preferred virtue to honour. The operatic principle of a coercive state is honour; the operatic principle of democracy is virtue. Honour is primal; virtue is civilised.

Francis Fukuyama in his book The End of History and the Last Man (1992) thinks the “last man” has now achieved his destiny because he no longer feels compelled to defend his honour in a liberal democracy. The “first man” that he located in Plato’s Republic died in order to defend his honour. Tragedy was created in this quest for honour.

Honour is felt by the state as sovereignty. This is where the primitive feeling of honour finally rests. If the state is internally weak, it can hardly defend its external sovereignty. In consequence, it feels dishonoured. Fukuyama in State Building: Governance and World Order in the Twenty-first Century (Profile Books 2004) writes:

“Weak governance undermines the principle of sovereignty of which the post-Westphalian international order has been built. It does so because the problems that weak states generate for themselves and for others vastly increase the likelihood that someone else in the international system will seek to intervene in their affairs against their wishes to forcibly fix the problem. Weak here means a lack of institutional capacity to implement and enforce policies, often driven by an underlying lack of legitimacy of the political system as a whole” (p.129).

Honour and shame are interlinked. Sometimes they are two sides of the same coin. In Urdu, ‘sharm’ (shame) can stand in for honour. The English word ‘honour’ has no known root but has come from Latin. In French, a derivative from honour, ‘honte’, can stand in for shame. But in English, ‘honesty’ is derived from honour.

Shame is taken to mean something negative, but in Urdu ‘sharm’ is actually ‘honour’. It is only when someone loses shame that he becomes dishonoured. The negative meaning is developed from the common usage of feeling ‘sharm’ or the sense of (lost) honour. Urdu ‘sharminda’ is negative and also means unclothed, as in ‘sharminda-e-maani’ (revealing the real meaning). Shame is also “nang”, which is close to nanga (naked) in Urdu. In English, shameless would indicate that ‘shame’ itself is not negative.

In Arabic the word ‘haya’ is ‘shame’, and honour is derived from it. Arabic etymology traces it from ‘hayy’ (to expand or contract). One of the names Allah is Hayy (He Who Gives Life). One sense is that whatever contracts to the touch is alive. Arabic ‘hayat’ is life but ‘hayyat’ is ‘snake’ because of its movement in contractions. When you feel shame, your muscles contract. In Hebrew, ‘khoot’ means muscle, but the word for shameless is ‘khootspah’. This has come into English as ‘chutzpah’ meaning a kind of brashness akin to courage.

‘Lajja’ (shame) in Sanskrit seems to be cognate with ‘lag’ (touch). It is possible that the feeling of shame was a muscular reaction to touching. The English expression ‘touching’ (causing emotion) carries the same implication. The plant touch-me-not is called ‘lajawanti’. It is quite possible that Sanskrit got its word for shame from physical sensation, just like Arabic.

Honour leads to extreme action. It seldom hurts the powerful but hurts the weak man who feels it. In the world of states, the weak state feels it more and expresses it through an obsession with sovereignty. As Montesquieu first found out, honour is the trait of the less civilised. Honour is embedded in irrationality; Montesquieu equated virtue with rationality.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 18th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (10)

  • Hanif Sadiq
    Apr 18, 2012 - 1:03AM

    There’s nothing honourable in honour killings. Those sections of our society where men who murder women are applauded have contributed to further perpetuating a warped sense of Ghairat and Izzat.
    One thing all men in our society need to clearly understand is that a man’s honour does not lie in between the legs of a woman.
    Stop punishing women for the dishonour you perceive for yourself. Women are not the repository of a man’s honour, there’s no need to put additional burden on women.Recommend

  • Balma
    Apr 18, 2012 - 1:33AM

    The Sanskirit word ‘lajja’ has given at least two words to Urdu: Lajjaahat and laaj, as in saying something ‘with lajjaahat’ and doing something ‘jiss nay laaj rakh lee’.

    Another word that I have heard from older relatives, but can’t imagine that burgarised people would have any interest, is ‘lajjaaee’….. (sharmeeli)….like saying ‘voh lajjaaee see lag rahee thee’….i.e. she looked ‘sharmeeli’.


  • BlackJack
    Apr 18, 2012 - 1:34AM

    An interesting hypothesis when we equate virtue with high moral standards alone, but one that needs to be explored further. For example, two of the classical virtues are supposed to be courage and justice (the others are temperance and prudence); these have a linear relationship with honor – for example, lack of courage can be cause for dishonor, as can miscarriage of justice (redressal of grievances through the justice system is most often to redeem one’s honor). From this perspective, there is nothing wrong with honor in the civilized world; it is when honor is mixed with racial, cultural and religious elements (or tribal if you will) that the combination becomes toxic.Recommend

  • Apr 18, 2012 - 1:55AM

    “Ghairat” has no word in english, or they dont have any, thats why no word in english


  • Hindi hain hum...
    Apr 18, 2012 - 2:44AM

    Pakistan finds itself frequently riled up to defend its ghairat in the face of violations of its sovereignty because it has lost the virtue of respect for law and order. With frequent intervention by the army in administrative affairs and foreign relations, Pakistan’s constitution has been weakened.

    Having lost the virtue of respect for its own constitution, the same security establisment has then turned to undermine its neighbors sovereignty by attempting to destabilize Afghanistan and India. This naturally invites the boot of stronger powers through drone strikes and incidents like the May 2 raid. Pakistan is too weak a state to build a credible deterrence since its defence is based on supply of US weapons (let’s face it: Chinese sells Pakistan rejected junk) and we hence have the international joke of ghairatmand Pakistanis threatening to shoot down US drones using US supplied F-16s and anti-aircraft missiles.

    Pakistan will never be able to defend its sovereignty unless it acquires the virtue of respecting its neighbors. This in turn cannot happen until the rule of law&order prevails and the army is firmly under civilian control. Prospects of this happening are bleak; More violations of sovereignty are foretold.


  • skeptic
    Apr 18, 2012 - 3:12AM

    Nice article. Always learnt something new @ Khaled Ahmed page.


  • Babloo
    Apr 18, 2012 - 4:22AM

    Loved this phrase.
    “Honour is primal; virtue is civilised.”


  • Ali
    Apr 18, 2012 - 10:52AM

    @Hanif Sadiq:
    Did you read the article? The concept has nothing to do with honour killing.. It is about the honour of states.


  • socialist
    Apr 18, 2012 - 1:01PM

    i cant help thinking about Galileo who compromised his honour in the perception of an ordinary man but in the long run contributed to the civilisation by virtue of his reason.had he kept himself mired inthe primitive morality the path of civilisation would have become longer!


  • PakistaniStrategist
    Apr 18, 2012 - 3:00PM

    So, can we say that Ejaz Haider is a man of honor, Khaled Ahmed a man of virtue? All of the ghairat brigade loves Ejaz Haider’s ‘strategic analyses’ but few show up on Khaled Ahmed’s pages where you have both real scholarship and virtue.


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