THE BLOG
10/21/2010 03:37 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Honor Code and the Arab Gulf

Princeton philosophy professor Kwame Anthony Appiah's new book takes on a topic most other writers in the US would shun: honor. The word makes Americans wary, in expectation of syrupy movies and fire-breathing politics. But in The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen, Appiah reclaims the concept and reincarnates the word.

I discovered this book as I was reading the Human Rights Watch report, released on October 6th, "Walls at Every Turn", a survey of the dismal treatment of domestic workers in Kuwait, where I lived for five years. I came to feel at home in Kuwait, and to care about the country's successes and failures, especially in the area of human rights. So as I read the stories and statistics in the HRW report, despair threatened. Appiah's book hit me like a tonic.

His theme is this: a nation's concern for its honor -- the way it's seen in the eyes of the world -- can make fundamental changes in the way it conducts itself. With bracing eloquence and a good ear for a story, he tells of three moral revolutions of this kind: how dueling ended in the Western world; how the Chinese came to see footbinding, customary for a millennium, as a cruel and brutish practice; and how the British outlawed slavery even against its own critical economic interests.

Appiah establishes a compelling case for what a national sense of honor can accomplish. His own target in this book is the so-called "honor killings" common in Pakistan, the Middle East, and in many places throughout the world. He quotes Asma Jahangir, a leading Pakistani lawyer and human rights advocate: "What sort of honor is it to open fire on an unarmed woman?" Along with many other activists in Pakistan, she's working to inspire a moral revolution there. The goal: to awaken a sense of real honor, Pakistan's honor as a nation.

My own mind shot to the Arab Gulf states and the starkly deficient conditions there for migrant workers. Could Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, the two worst offenders in the region, undergo a moral revolution? Could they overhaul their attitudes toward the workers who outnumber them in their own countries? In Kuwait, 90% of the work force is made up of migrant workers. Could they open adequate shelters and offer counseling to abused workers? Institute far-reaching labor laws -- and enforce them?

Pie in the sky. So was the abolition of slavery in 1823, when a handful of English Quakers organized the first anti-slavery society. Slavery was deeply intertwined with the economy of England's vast empire, and the vibrant young nation across the Atlantic was becoming dependent upon it too. The chance to end slavery seemed perishingly small. But working people in England empathized with slaves, for good reason, and they turned out against slavery by the thousands across England, forcing change in the cushy and complacent upper classes. It took just ten years for the British to pass the Slavery Abolition Act, a remarkably short time for such a great, nationwide change of heart.

Footbinding in China began in the misty past, perhaps as early as the late 900's. By the 1300's, aristocratic families felt compelled to bind their young daughters' feet, however painful for these mere sprites of three or four years old. Appiah writes, "An honorable man married a foot-bound woman; a foot-bound woman would not be married to a man without honor." The practice became so ingrained that the tiny, deformed stump it produced, almost unrecognizable as a foot, was charged with erotic power.

Not until the 1800's when Christian missionaries infiltrated the country, did the Chinese begin to broaden their "honor world" as Appiah calls it, meaning, "a group of people who acknowledge the same codes." Missionaries were horrified by foot-binding, spoke out vociferously against it, and established anti-footbinding societies beginning in the 1870's. A change of attitude among the Chinese began, and before the turn of the century, China's honor world, "included the Japanese, Europeans, and Americans whose critical evaluations undermined China's claim to respect," Appiah writes, and in 1898 a Chinese intellectual would write a memo to the Imperial Palace saying, "There is nothing which makes us objects of ridicule so much as footbinding." In a matter of years, it had disappeared.

As Appiah shows, honor practices such as dueling and "honor killing" haven't been affected much by law; and religion's impact is nebulous. Dueling had been illegal by common law in England for decades and banned by religious standards for centuries before it was eradicated. In Pakistan, according to Appiah, "there is almost universal agreement... that honor killing is un-Islamic." It's also illegal, yet it claims more than a thousand Pakistani women a year, maybe many more.

Could a moral revolution happen in Pakistan? Its own citizens are rising up in protest of honor killing, a hopeful sign. In the Arab Gulf, there's reason for hope, too. A small number of Arabs, many of them young people who grew up on the Internet and consider themselves citizens of the world, are awake to the issues of their region. Even though the "honor world" in which they live doesn't yet recognize universal human rights, they do, and they can change that world.

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