A good friend and hunting buddy of mine, Omer, is an observant Muslim whose family emigrated to Canada from Pakistan. Omer is an educated man as is the rest of his family. He is someone I have known several years and with whom I have enjoyed many in-depth discussions, learning about his faith and the culture in which he grew up before coming to Canada. He tells me that family honour and shame are taken very seriously by some elements of Pakistani society. The phenomenon of honour killing is a reality for these elements of Pakistani society, particularly in the rural and tribal regions. Family honour is taken so seriously in this culture that if a family member (typically a girl or young woman) brings shame on the family the whole family suffers. They become untouchables; they are deemed unfit to associate with and most certainly are not welcome to marry into other families. The only way family honour can be restored in such a case is in killing the family member who brought the shame onto the family. This understanding of family honour is bound up in religion (Islam) and a culture in which men dominate. He certainly does not approve of this behaviour. He recognizes it as a problem that Pakistani society must address.
Lest you think this essay is a diatribe against Muslims, think again. Calling names, accusations of anti-Islamic sentiment and racism directed against those who point to this phenomenon and condemn it does not change the reality: it exists and is a problem that a reasonable person opposes and wants to see ended. It is unfortunate that some people emigrating from rural and tribal Pakistan and like societies to the West insist on bringing this custom with them. There have been instances of honour killing (Aqsa Parvez and the Shafia family murders) and the perpetrators prosecuted, convicted of murder and imprisoned for life. Killing to overcome shame and restore family honour is extreme to say the least, but you can be sure family honour is important (though not seen as worth killing for) in societies outside of rural Pakistan. In this context, Paul G. Hiebert defines shame as “… a reaction to other people’s criticism, an acute personal chagrin at our failure to live up to our obligations and the expectations others have of us. In true shame oriented cultures, every person has a place and a duty in the society. One maintains self-respect, not by choosing what is good rather than what is evil, but by choosing what is expected of one.”
Growing up gay in a society where the expectation is you will marry a person of the opposite sex puts a great strain on one’s sense of self and self-respect. Though I grew up in a family who were nominally religious, Roman Catholic, I remember in my younger days, at times, feeling the weight of accumulated Catholic guilt borne by the generations of my Catholic ancestors bearing down on me. I felt the pressure to conform to the expectations of society in taking a wife and having a family and lived with the prospect of carrying the shame of failure to live up to our obligations and the expectations others have of us. Family honour, or honour of the family as an institution, is a concern for religious and social conservatives in Western societies. Their continuing opposition to gay rights and same sex marriage is rooted in an understanding of and firmly held convictions concerning family honour. Mika and I are a family and part of extended families who accept us; they know and respect that we are a couple. We have the same rights and privileges guaranteed in Canadian law as heterosexual couples. The fact remains, however, that living arrangements, such as the one Mika and I have, are seen as an affront to the understanding of family honour valued by religious and social conservatives.
Ben Shapiro, a conservative pundit, sums up their opposition rather eloquently in asserting: “Marriage [one can infer he means by this family life] is implicitly about the relationship between man and woman. Marriage is codification of the idea that a man and a woman in a committed and sexual union make each other and the surrounding society better.” (as cited in Creators.com). He adds “a marital relationship between a man and a woman provides spiritual enrichment for each. The union between a single man and a single woman is, as the liturgy says, blessed. That this blessed union produces the blessing of children demonstrates the Divine origin of such unions. Children are not merely the product of traditional marriage and the beneficiaries of it; they are Divine confirmation that the union of man and woman is special and good.” (as cited in Creators.com). While gay rights, notably marriage rights are guaranteed in law in Canadian society, this is still largely not the case in the United States. There remains vehement opposition to same sex marriage from religious and social conservatives in U.S. society. I discussed this issue in greater deal in an essay I published earlier.
It is worth noting here that family honour is not something to scoff at. Most people alive, including Mika and I, are mindful of their standing in society and dignity and would not willfully try to bring shame on themselves and their families. It is sad that some gay people find themselves shunned, excommunicated, ostracized or otherwise cut off from their families, particularly those who are part of close-knit religious cultures such as are found in the U.S. Bible Belt, in an effort to burden them with the shame of failure to live up to our obligations and the expectations of the religious culture into which they were born. Mika and I are blessed to come from families who accept us for who we are and our relationship. We fully appreciate this is not the case for other couples. To such couples and those seeking to set up household together without the approval of your extended families, we can say it is most important to be true to yourselves, live quietly with pride and pursue your own happiness.
Posted by Geoffrey