Honour and shame (Anthropology)

The gender-based system of honour and shame has been seen as the quintessential moral code of the Mediterranean. Indeed, it has been seen as a defining feature of the region (Gilmore 1987).

Honour defines prestige or reputation, and so the honour and shame system is linked to the political system of patrons and clients. It defines people’s – usually men’s – trustworthiness, and therefore their status as good and reliable patrons or clients. Honour is not simply related to the social standing of individual men, however, but also to the standing of the social groups in which they live (Pitt-Rivers 1965: 35). It is in some degree hereditary, and is therefore centred around the Mediterranean’s predominantly patrilineal kinship unit, the household.

The honour of a household is inextricably linked to the reputation of the women who live there. Their reputation in turn is sealed by the public display of shame. Shame is an index of female reputation, just as honour is an index of male. It is related to the notion of female chastity, and the dual importance of ensuring that men marry virgins, and preventing them from being cuckolded once they do. Having shame involves having, or displaying, the requisite reticence in public places, and particularly avoiding situations where it could be considered that women are engaging in extra-marital sex. Shame is therefore connected to women’s association with the domestic domain of the house itself, and sometimes involves almost complete female seclusion.

Individual women’s reputation for shame is managed through the collective sanction of local gossip. This means that the honour and shame complex links the individual to wider society. Shame is directly related to honour, in that a reduction of the shame of a household’s women becomes a direct reflection on the honour of its men. The man whose wife is adulterous, or who fails to demonstrate the virginity of his new bride, is dishonoured.

For example, in Julian Pitt-Rivers’s (1961) study of the Spanish village of Alcala, he observed the phenomenon of vergiienza, which he glossed as shame. The mechanism by which it operated amounted to maintaining a moral reputation in the face of the community. It was therefore related not necessarily to female activity per se, but to it being publicly exposed through gossip (1961: 113).

To maintain vergiienza, women had to avoid the suggestion of sexual impropriety. Men were considered inherently shameless, but to possess a form of honour through their inherent manliness, and the vergiienza of their female kin, particularly their wife. Thus, whereas a man’s sexual adventures were largely ignored, his wife’s were censured, because they disrupted the moral unity of the family (1961: 115). They made the man a cuckold, a cabron or billy-goat, whose ‘lack of manliness has allowed … [an]other to replace him’ (1961: 116). In short, they dishonoured him.

Anton Blok (1981) has related the symbolism of the billy-goat to a general theory of the honour and shame system. This in turn relates it to the broader issue of masculinity in the Mediterranean. He argued that the use of the billy-goat as a symbol for a cuckold contrasts with the use of the ram as a symbol for an honourable man. The persuasiveness of these symbols lies in the actual reproductive practices of rams and billy-goats. For where the ram has only one sexual partner throughout his life, and jealously guards her, the billy-goat has many. Thus the Mediterranean cuckold is habitually associated with the goat. However, Blok’s argument goes further than defining a Mediterranean moral system. This symbolic structure used to be common to the whole of Europe, he suggested, but now only survives in the relatively marginal Mediterranean.

This picture of a pan-Mediterranean honour and shame system, that is a survival of some more pervasive moral code, has been criticized. "Michael Herzfeld (1987) saw the image of the honour and shame system as one of a number of mechanisms whereby anthropologists from Northern Europe and the United States have marginalized and stereotyped the Mediterranean. He argued that although these scholars acknowledged their roots in the Mediterranean — and particularly Greece — there was still an enduring assumption that the region was somehow backward. The honour and shame system, therefore, was part of a hegemonic discipline of ‘Mediterraneanism’, akin to Edward Said’s Orientalism, which marginalized and exoticized the Mediterranean.

The stereotype of Mediterranean morality has also been criticized from a feminist perspective, for portraying only an official version of gender ideology, and thereby supporting the patriarchal status quo (Lindisfarne 1994: 83). The version of honour and shame outlined above implies a passivity of women not born out in ethnographic evidence. In the real Mediterranean, women have a much more active role in the creation of society and morality, it is argued (Dubisch 1991). Similarly, in the real Mediterranean, men do not simply re-enact the timeless moral structure. Just as women subvert the ideology of a chaste woman who possesses shame, by concealing sexual activity (Lindisfarne 1994: 89—90), so men can be seen manipulating the notion of a good, honourable man (1994: 85).

In the real Mediterranean, particularly the urban Mediterranean (Goddard 1987), a variety of different gender identities and roles co-exist. One of these, perhaps the official one, relates to honour and shame. However, to state that this is the single and defining moral code amounts to the reification of a stereotype to the level of an analytic tool. Rather than defining gender roles, and the behaviour of men and women, honour and shame should be seen as a dominant version of gender roles, or an ideological gloss on the multiplicity of gender identities.

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