The role of honour and personal biases in disputes

In a recent meeting on faith related disputes, the discussion turned toward various situations in the Middle East and the place that honour takes at the core of these disputes.

Since times eternal, we know there were disputes and long before our human rights and international law, or mediation for that matter, tribes, cities, communities all had some kind of system for resolving disputes. We find some of these examples in some of the holy books. The wisdom of King Solomon of old and his ability to solve disputes was highlighted in the story of the two women who each had a new-born child. One of the babies had died and each mother claimed the one alive was hers. He then offered to cut the baby in half and give them half each, which one of them refused, not wanting the baby to die. King Solomon concluded that she was the real mother because she cared about the baby’s life. In reality, there were many different types of customs in place in different areas of the world. Perhaps to do with the type of problems; in some regions, it was about cattle theft, others, the place and behaviour of women. Women were, of old, treated as property, and when there was war, women were sequestered and considered as prizes, as were cattle and gold. Much of this was centred around the victor and the defeated and thus the respected and who were the weak, and had lost their honour. It was very much about how others viewed the individual, tribe or whatever may be the case.

Nowadays, the question of “honour” is often heard relating to Islamic cultures, and it is, I believe, an issue in that context. However, my experience in Lebanon, widened this “label”, if we can call it such. I wonder if the issue is not more related to the evolution of that particular society and the bias it imprints in our minds (conscious or unconscious).

Some years back when I was working in the prisons in Lebanon, I came across a situation that I found challenging which served to deepen my understanding of the topic. I was endeavouring to help one of the prisoners who had a long sentence with this family situation. He was a Maronite Christian- I am mentioning this because there, religion is a part of the person’s identity as is the village or area they are from (although you would NEVER ask someone what religion they are- instead you ask where they are from). Their identity is directly linked to the land, where their fathers and fathers’ fathers are buried.

Back to our prisoner, he seemed fairly open minded and he was having some problems with his wife. She had 3 children to care for, and was left to be cared for by the man’s brothers. They gave her measly hand outs to the man’s wife, angry at their brother for his crime, for bringing dishonour to the family, and they were resentful of needing to take care of their brother’s wife and children. As a result, the small family was suffering.

The brave woman decided she had to find some work, so her children would have what they needed. Her husband decided to divorce her because she wanted to get a job. I have to admit, I had not trained as a mediator then, and my initial reaction was that of a normal westerner! (I was livid).

I suppose I would have been less angry if it had come from a staunch Shi’a family, but I was honestly dumbfounded that it was coming from a Christian whose culture I thought I understood.

Nabil explained to me that it was not appropriate for his wife to be out and about, working for a man outside of the family, while he was in prison. I knew it was like that in Muslim communities, where women typically cannot leave the house without a chaperone, but I had no idea it was as much a cultural issue as a religious one as was the case there. Honour, it was obvious, was at the core.

A schoolroom of Christian teenagers, also in Beirut, taught me a thing or two about their culture as well. We discussed many topics, of course gender would often come into play as well as the notion of “shame on the family” which is the reverse side of the “honour” medallion. I was quite surprised to note that very similar cultural boundaries applied to them as to the Muslim kids, on the other side of Beirut.

Cultural boundaries up until then applied to the Muslim world, so I was really surprised to find similar expectations among my young students, such a girls needing to be chaperoned, for their protection but also to not bring “shame on the family”. A 15 year old girl in my class said:” I can’t go out at night unless my bother comes with me. My mother trusts me, but she doesn’t want people talking about me”. Again, protecting the honour.

I understood then how closely linked the honour is to the societal make up, with small village mentality, where everyone knows everything about everyone else. It is ingrained in you – you must not shame your family- because it incurs the loss of status.

I have come to understand since then, the place of our unconscious biais and how it affects our expectations when we are raised in certain circumstances. I have great empathy for second generation immigrants to any western countries. Their struggles are real and the stronger the cultural differences, the deeper the rift and the more difficult it becomes to build a bridge. This often leads to either the submission of the young person(s) or the break up of the family, leaving the young person without a support network. This young person’s yearning to belong is very strong and there is an inevitable tug-of-war for every young person, and a choice between the need to conform to the outside society or to their family or ethnic community.

This issue of honour extends through some communities like the tentacles of an octopus. It touches the gender roles, role of the boy in the family being expected to provide for, and protect the women (mother, sisters), the role of the girl, which often seems to be to “not shame the family”. This includes the responsibility placed on the male children to be custodians of this honour in absence of the father.

As mediators this is all very important, for us to be aware of our own unconscious bais and values. Remaining impartial with the new awareness and a more open attitude toward cultures different from our own, can be a key. Parties in any dispute need to feel heard and understood by the mediator before they can move on, and this applies to any cultural mediation all the more so. Honour may be at the centre of the dispute, and as such be key to a mutually honourable solution.