On honour

I should be clear that when I use the term honour, it is in accordance with its positive meaning, as commonly understood in the English language, i.e. the quality of knowing and doing what is morally right.

As for notions of family honour, I find that there’s rarely anything honourable in what is done to enforce these notions. Usually there is a lot of hypocrisy at play, with different rules (in practice) for male and female. A man’s honour, it seems, is only his, whereas a woman’s is seen to affect the whole family or even community.

In my family, growing up, there were clear expectations of chastity prior to marriage — in common with most practising Christians. So clearly was this understood that even in my atheist and agnostic phases I continued to I observe these principles scrupulously. The difference between this and notions of family honour was that we understood it to apply to us all equally, male and female.

My eldest brother met his wife-to-be while still at school, while they were both in the sixth-form studying A-Levels. I understand that he first proposed to her as soon as he turned eighteen. In the end, though, he would have to wait six years for her to say yes — after he had qualified as a solicitor. But she was from a practising Christian family too, so there was no question of sleeping or living together prior to marriage. He would just have to be patient.

That would be a model we would all follow to some degree, although in my case I decided to skip the half a decade of dating and just got on with it. We all knew what was expected of us and operated within that framework. There was no need for threats of violence to enforce these mores, for we all lived in fear of my father’s scowl. I did, anyway.

But by contrast, even in families where the perennial threat of violence hangs over a young woman’s head — and the back of any young man who might so much as glance at her — so often we encounter stark double-standards. Over and over, we encounter families turning a blind eye to the behaviour of their sons, while maintaining the strictest codes for their daughters or sisters.

Indeed, sometimes it even goes beyond the family, with men appointing themselves protectors of women and girls not even related to them — though this only seems to apply to those of a similar background, while young women of the cultural other are fair game. Men, we often find, grant themselves the freedom to operate autonomously, pursuing whatever they desire, whilst simultaneously restricting the freedoms of others. The hypocrisy is often palpable.

Family honour is not a notion I subscribe to — not as it tends to be practiced, anyway. What I do hold to: the ideal that men and women strive equally to live honourable, upright lives. I don’t believe anyone should be compelled to live that way, I just consider doing so to be beneficial to individuals and society at large. I am completely opposed to compulsion in matters of the heart, for or against. Everyone should be able and allowed to freely choose their life partner and soulmate.

To live with kindness and mercy with another: this to me is honour. To care for another, and hold them in affection: this too is honour. To give them their due and to support them is honourable conduct. Conversely, to coerce through threats and intimidation: to me, this is dishonourable behaviour. To force someone to marry against their will: there’s no honour here. As for so-called honour violence: that’s an oxymoron, deployed by morons.

If I should say, “Behave with honour,” I mean behave with dignity. If I say, “Be honourable,” I mean be fair and just and true. Do what is morally right; don’t be a hypocrite. Be one who acts with integrity, held in high esteem, respected by all who encounter you. In short, be as the term’s true meaning connotes.

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