Opinion: recent controversies show that seemingly old-fashioned ideas around honour and gender have persisted into the present

Honour is a term that is used very widely in a range of circumstances and is a concept with a very long history. It usually means integrity, decency, trustworthiness and honesty. Anthony Kwame Appiah argues that it is associated with the protection of the vulnerable and the imperative to alleviate suffering. He writes that "a person of honor cares first of all not about being respected but about being worthy of respect", so that they feel shame if they fail to live up to their own standards.

Clearly, honour has a public or social element too, and is about the individual’s good name or reputation. To be regarded as honourable, the person’s public behaviour and speech has to reflect the values we associate with honour. This is the role of the ‘honour group’. The anthropologist F.H. Stewart explains that the honour group establishes the rules and standards of honourable behaviour.

Honour can be won or lost. While the honour of respectability, a "good name", can generally only be maintained or lost, "competitive honour" can be won by individual acts of bravery or prowess in battle, conflict or on the sporting field. Reflexive honour is the kind that must be violently defended if it is impugned, as seen in dueling or, perhaps in its debased form, in street violence and domestic violence where the perpetrator claims he or she was "disrespected". 

The honour of the complainant in a rape case becomes a point of contention because she is the chief witness for the prosecution and so her reliability and truthfulness is vitally important

Historically, honour has been understood differently for men and women. Women’s honour and the honour of their families has been associated with chastity outside of marriage and fidelity within it. Of course, chastity has always been regarded as honourable for men too, but usually with greater leniency for peccadilloes.

This seems very old fashioned, and not in keeping with contemporary western attitudes towards human sexuality. Very few people in Ireland today would argue that young women should be virgins on their wedding day. Yet the recent trial of Paddy Jackson, Stuart Olding, Rory Harrison and Blaine McIlroy and its aftermath raises questions about honour and illustrates how some, seemingly old-fashioned, ideas have persisted into the present.

There were two distinct strategies used to invoke the idea of honour during the trial. The first was to emphasise the honour of the defendants and the second was to cast doubt on the honour of the complainant. This case was an unusually public one because of the identities of the defendants, and because rape trials are open to the public in Northern Ireland, so the reporting was very detailed. Many people responded angrily to the treatment of the complainant but, in fact, the line of questioning was not unusual.

From RTÉ Radio One's News At One, Amanda Ferguson reports om how rugby players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding have agreed to pay legal costs for the BBC of £20,000 after a privacy case they took against the broadcaster was disposed of by consent in the High Court in Belfast

The honour of the complainant in a rape case becomes a point of contention because she is the chief witness for the prosecution and so her reliability and truthfulness – her honour – is vitally important. In this case, the defence barristers sought to raise questions about the young woman’s sexuality thereby linking honour with chaste behaviour, to accuse her of lying. Tom Inglis and Carol MacKeogh have argued that rape cases can reveal the conflicting demands placed upon women in traditional and contemporary Ireland where women are expected to satisfy two contradictory sets of values.

This seems to have happened here. On one hand, few people would be shocked by the idea of a young woman drinking alcohol, being out at night and perhaps being sexually active. Yet it seems that there is a residual sense of shame attached to women’s sexuality. In court, the defence relied on evidence that the young woman had been drinking and was stumbling as she left the club at closing time, and CCTV footage that showed her "grabbing Will Grigg, touching Kyle Lafferty and stroking the face of the Northern Ireland team doctor who bought her a drink" in the words of Brendan Kelly, Jackson’s barrister.

Kelly suggested that this was evidence that she was indeed "very forward, tactile and flirtatious". The fact that she had voluntarily entered Jackson’s bedroom and that they had kissed was presented in a way to infer that she would therefore consent to group sex. The underlying implications of many of the defence barristers’ questions was that honourable (read: virtuous, chaste, truthful) young women do not get drunk, flirt or enter men’s bedrooms.

From RTÉ Radio One's News At One, a report on Paddy Jackson issuing an apology and saying public criticism after the trial was "justified"

The defendants’ status as honourable men was defended by their records at school. At least two of the four had attended a highly regarded Belfast grammar school with a reputation for training young men and women for the professions. The school also has an excellent reputation for rugby. Then the men’s sporting careers were invoked as evidence of their physical prowess and discipline, their commitment to serving their province and country, their hard work.

All of this suggests that the accused possess the honourable qualities of reliability, industry and honestly earned success. The only evidence that undermined this was in the men’s WhatsApp messages to each other, which did not suggest protection of the vulnerable or respect for others. Only Harrison’s behaviour fits that definition of honourable, in that he escorted the distressed young woman home.

The controversy highlights some of the problems associated with gendered conceptions of honour 

It is an interesting development that the defendants were acquitted by the jury, but were held responsible by a wider public for the disrespect they expressed for young women. To play for one’s province or country is not only evidence of honour, but is also an honour in itself. Many people expressed the opinion on social media and at demonstrations that the attitudes expressed by the young men towards women made them unworthy of this honour.

The controversy also highlights some of the problems associated with these gendered conceptions of honour and with the sexual double-standard they support. The aggressive questioning of the young woman over days, and the attempts to impugn her good name, highlighted the gap between traditional and contemporary attitudes to women’s honour, as it relates to sexuality and sexual behaviour.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ