The great ghairat debate

Published: May 15, 2012

In the subcontinent, people generally are quite touchy about their ghairat and can kill someone who defiles it. PHOTO:REUTERS/FILE

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 necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • mani qadir

    Hmmm… Although I too ,like The writer, do not approve of the conspiracy mongering news anchors , I believe that taking aid is actually destroying the country , until or unless we are without any aid at all , revenue collection won’t rise as the government would have to increase collection or even the corrupt will suffer , we have too.become a self subsisting nation meaning we must limit aid. Oh and by the way Mr.Abdul majeed allowing another country to treat us in such a manner as America does in exchange for money does not qualify as aid ! That is practically selling ourselves !Recommend

  • Parvez

    Brilliant. I like the way you have simplified the debate to make it more understandable and easier to come to a decision on both aspects of ghairat.
    For me it is simple. Taking a life under any circumstance is criminal, punishable and wrong. As for the other aspect, a nation that perpetually begs does not have the luxury to chose.Recommend

  • BlackJack

    Well said. Additionally, the entire debate went into a loop over whether Germany/ Japan were tribal societies or modern ones instead of focusing on the hollow nature of ghairat in Pakistan – although the (mis)use of Prof Hoodbhoy’s article certainly worked in exciting the dormant ghairatmands on this forum into yet another self-mortifying chest-thump. As I had mentioned in my comment yesterday, both Germany and Japan spoke of being the master races that were meant to rule, and thus were entitled to resources of the countries that they attacked. While in industrial terms these nations may have been highly advanced, the use of race and ethnicity as a basis to define one’s entitlement (as well as the use of aggression to acheive one’s purpose) is very much a tribal concept – and fits with your explanation of ghairat as well.Recommend

  • sultan mirza

    Miss Maria Waqar should pick up books of history and read on what basis Nazi industries flourished and what was their downfall.Recommend

  • BlackJack

    @mani qadir:
    My friend, without aid Pakistan will descend into further anarchy and your people will starve; now your funny idea of ghairat is likely to reply, let them starve, it is better than living under the terms set by the US – you refuse examine why you are in this unenviable position in the first place. Why not take a leaf out of your better half at birth – now Bangladesh. They had enough ghairat to ensure that they wouldn’t remain at the boot heels of West Pakistanis and suffer a second-class citizen-like existence. They became independent, limited their defence expenditure (despite some uneasy times with India), spent more of their budget on women’s education, reduced the TFR, improved primary education access and delivery of healthcare, and are keeping their hardliners in check. Today Hillary Clinton does not go and harangue them during her visits as she does you guys – how is it that they have managed to grasp this elusive concept that you have missed? Pointless monologue, I know.Recommend

  • S

    frankly! instead of stating the obvious, we should focus on eradicating the root causes of this “problem” of distorted thinking called in the name of ghairat. firstly, nationalism even if fake should be voiced. in a country that has more guided missiles than guided youth this is all we get! what other option does a youth have? are there organisations working for guiding the youth? making them economically and intellectually independent? No. that money is going to tv channels/media supporting different agendas!

    How a society behaves depends alot on how it is feeling in the environment. A society like Pakistan that has been under constant stress since its birth, bw wars, partitions, and imposed democratic/dictatorial/religious oppression and economic suppression is now used to being disturbed and full of anxiety, and so it will act like mad people with in Pakistan.

    Pakistanis abroad may not be as much so because their environment and priorities are different. As per history all socio-economic disturbances affect human rationality and distort linguistic meanings into personal dispositions whichever the culture may be! we are all humans and we all make wrong judgments instead of self mutilating and self loathing, we should eradicate the root cause of this injustice whether in the name of a forced Taliban version of religion, social judicial AND / OR economic justice in the name of capitalist democracies.Recommend

  • faraz

    Nazis inherited one of the finest war machines in history and German industry was which 2nd largest in the world. While our army had to release from jail the head of a sectarian terrorist party because he negotiated with terrorists (linked to his party!) who had besieged GHQ. And our economy runs of aid, remittances and loans.

    To quote Hassan Nisar: instead of a lion, Pakistanis should idolize donkey who works very hard all day, eats whatever he is fed, fights with no body and never complains. Recommend

  • imran

    So according to Dr Hoodbhoy’s logic USA is the most beghairat nation with not national ghairat at all. Say this to Americans and get your answers.Recommend

  • Sahar Farooq

    thanks for calling gairat brigade as Great, they are really great as they are better in ethics in social norms in character in intellectuality and in everything they are superb, whereas bey-gairat needs no specifications they are what they are, bey gairat.Recommend

  • Tipukhan

    I can’t understand why these tribune writers are indulging in such low arguments. Ghairat is a term that every Muslim and Pakistani is fond of. Self Respect, dignity, honor, all comes under the word ghairat. Now why would any sane man proudly negate this concept? Unless ofcourse, he actually is an undignified, “behuda” person who has no self respect or morals.
    The point is that you are just trying to confuse people even more. I would rather be a poor honorable man than a rich dishonorable and immoral man. Recommend

  • Checkmate

    Morality of States is different than individual morality. Similarly the concept of strong state could not be compared to a strong individual. The strength of the state depend on the size of population, natural resources, technological development, glorious history, geography, etc, and more importantly states’ foreign policy is guided by the supreme national interests. So talking of Ghairat in the context of international relations only reveals poor understanding on the part of pakistani masses and intelleginsia in respect of the interaction among states. The irony is that the so-called intellectualls are asking the advanced state of the age to comply with ethical standards observed in thier society, which is regretably still living the pre-modern era. Recommend

  • Imran Con

    Honor is one part of the world is not the same as honor in another part of the world. One society’s honor could be seen as dishonorable to another.
    It’s more about how evolved a society’s moral evolution has progressed. Pakistan is somewhere at the bottom.Recommend

  • Pollack

    Being tribal is a social and philosophical condition of the human mind. It’s not related to technological advancement. Tribal societies can be technologically advanced. But anyways that’s not the main point the Prof was making. Recommend

  • jawad

    Ms. Maria, really really needs some introspection and obviously self reflection. I believe she argued just for the hell of it, or because, well she hates Dr. Hooobouy.Recommend

  • Cynical

    @Abdul Mazeed

    Well done.Keep the good work going.I like the way you kept it simple.Recommend

  • A.Bajwa

    Patriotism is the last refuge of every scoundrel.Recommend

  • madiha.saeed

    The comments by Rex Minor and sultan mirza have been deleted.
    Thank you,