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The dynamics of “IZZAT” in South Asian societies

By Ishtiaq Ahmed

The notion of  Izzat (honour) is extremely strong within the South Asian societies, for instance, Pakistan, Kashmir, India, Bangladesh,  but also with some important variants and caveats throughout the other Muslim societies.
The word Izzat is broadly understood to mean ‘honour’, an interface of a complex set of social and cultural norms, dynamics and undercurrents which impact on family, personal and community relations.

It is also intrinsically linked to perceptions around class status and privilege, located in the misplaced belief that certain bloodlines are inherently higher in pegging than others in lineage and status i.e. ‘martial’ classes in relation to others.
This notion plays at two extremes with a great deal of ‘grayness’ in between: at one end , it is about upholding the good name of the family by way of caring for and protecting family members, contributing to the welfare of  the wider family and the community through charity and philanthropy.

At the other end, it is played out to control, manage and manipulate family members to keep them in line for serving family egos and perceived privilege which comes from a deep rooted sense being of a nobler dynastic lineage.

Any threat to these from within or from out invoke violent rebuttal and reprisals. The dynamics of both of these extremes are very much there to be seen and experienced.
In the more immediate family context, ‘Izzat’  is about upholding and safeguarding the reputation of the family at any cost even at cost to personal well-being.

Any departure from this by a member of the family is viewed as a serious breach of trust and betrayal of the expected loyalty to the family name, dignity, integrity and the family’s standing in the community.

Such digressions from family norms often incur punitive measures against individuals resulting in confiscation of certain freedoms, being ostracized, physical violence or in extreme cases even being killed, depending on the nature and the extent of breach.

In traditional patriarchal societies which tend to be the case in most traditional Muslim societies -for example, Pakistan, Bangladesh- although out of sync with the actual teaching of faith, men are regarded as the ultimate custodians of family Izzat. They set the rules, dictated the standards and became enforcers.

Women are expected to accept, obey and live within these rules and expectations. This is generally because men are expected to inherit and succeed in these roles and therefore are afforded a certain degree of leeway and flexibility.

Violations of certain norms by them are overlooked for being the natural manly behavior, befitting of those who would inherit and take charge for preserving the family Izzat and valour. In comparison, no or very little leeway is afforded to women.

Therefore, women who are held to be in breach of family expectations, for them serious consequences follow.

Family loyalty is demanded at all cost and compliance is enforced stringently such as social and cultural prism for constructing family and community relationships often in defiance of our faith teachings.

Although some of these norms are changing as families are being exposed to other societies, education and awareness is increasing amongst third/ fourth generations. This also helped by young women increasingly taking up education and professional roles.

We are seeing a shift but it is only a relatively slight change.


About Author: 

The author is a Pakistani expat settled in Bradford, England. He is a humanist and most of his work is around equality disparities. He is co-author of two research reports and a book.

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