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September 10, 2017


In a time when expediency often takes precedence over morality, we overlook how much of our daily activity is based on trust. A simple act like driving on the road is based on assurance that another driver will not drive into one’s car. We assume the doctor we visit has not lied about his specialisation degree. From childhood, trust is a cornerstone of our lives. A child has to trust his parents, later his teachers and his friends, the authors of books and the pilot of a plane. One cannot function without the basis of trust. Yet trust is also a complex, nuanced relationship the importance of which needs to be constantly reinforced.

Erik Erikson, the developmental psychologist, marks eight stages of life that pivot around certain fundamental conflicts starting with Trust vs Mistrust and ending with Integrity vs Despair. The first stage requires trusting others, but is gradually internalised: at some stage in our lives, we become aware of the need for self-belief, for living up to our own expectations.

We are trained to develop high self-expectations through children’s stories; primary school teachers who give us stars for neat handwriting; parents who give us a special treat when we do well in our studies. And then it all becomes a bit muddy and unclear, presumably as relationships become unmanaged encounters with acquaintances or strangers, who come with their own values.

Declarations of trust have now to be made and are no longer assumed. Oaths have to be taken in courts of law, doctors take the Hippocratic Oath, countries exact an oath of loyalty when giving citizenship, and when appointing members of parliament or presidents. Marriage is a vow — to some an oath of fidelity to others a civil legal contract.

Vitae idiandae cullorundam fuga. Namusandunt quas adit et atur re eate nonse venducipsum que pro eliqui te derovitat que est derovitat que est derovitat que est

These personal vows are called honour when expanded into the social domain. In Pakistan, honour has come to be seen with suspicion with the association of the phrase with “honour killing.” In this sense, honour is distinctly a male privilege. There are a surprising, or maybe not so surprising, number of related words in Urdu: izzat, ghairat, abroo, waqaar, tazeem, taqaddus, ehteraam to name a few, that apply to both genders as well as age groups.

Iqbal’s eulogy in Bang-i-Dara for the teenage Fatima Bint Abdullah, who was martyred in Tripoli during the anti-colonial uprisings of the early 20th century: “Fatima! Tu Abroo-i-Ummat-i-Marhoom Hai” acknowledges a heroism that is usually reserved for men in battle.

The English word “honour” is a much louder word. A glory to be achieved or bestowed upon by one’s peers through actions in the public realm of war or governance , often gaining legendary status through oral and written traditions. Chivalry is an honourable behaviour recognised rather than bestowed. In 11th and 12th centuries, European chivalry was greatly influenced by ancient Arabian chivalry (Al-Furúsiyyah Al-Arabiya). Today knighthoods are awarded for services to science, academics and sports rather than in recognition of character. Perhaps sports remains the only arena where duels are fought or champions take on champions.

One of the proposed reasons that honour ceased to be integral to society, is the development of the modern liberal democratic state, where the laws of the state take over the role of determining and, if necessary, punishing right and wrong.

There is, however, a renewed interest in the concept of honour. In Honour in the Modern World edited by Dan Demetriou and Laurie Johnson, the writers examine the notions of honour in different cultures and times. “After a century-long hiatus, honour is back. Academics, pundits, and everyday citizens alike are rediscovering the importance of this ancient and powerful human motive.” Society needs something bigger than itself to believe in.

Honour in the battlefield has been replaced by honourable behaviour in the social sphere: such as the selflessness of Abdul Sattar Edhi and Dr Ruth Pfau. Honour can also be a private internal quality. One must be honourable in one’s own eyes, do the right thing even when no one is looking. As the Hadith says, if you cannot correct a wrong, then recognise it as wrong; or, the correct manner of charity in both Christianity and Islam, “let not your left hand know the good deed of your right hand.”

Personal honour was once an important quality. If reputation is how others see you, honour is how you see yourself. Namak Harami or betrayal of a person whose salt one had eaten was a horrifying thought. A king asked a famous musician to perform the raag, Mian ki Todi. He refused, despite the fear of incensing the king, saying he had pledged to not perform that raag until he had repaid a loan. It was common to present a hair from one’s moustache as an act of good faith. To give one’s word or shake hands on an agreement was as good as signing on the dotted line before two witnesses. To face dishonour, “Pagri uchhaalna” was a huge loss of face. It is difficult to imagine such values today.

However, we can see personal integrity, honesty and courage to stand for what is right, returning in the many mass protests across the world, especially amongst younger people faced with racial and religious prejudice in their societies, whether in Trump’s America or Pakistan’s battle with extremism.

Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist and heads the department of visual studies at the University of Karachi

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 10th, 2017