In Pakistan it is normal to refer to older men who have some status in the community as ‘shahib’ after using their name. This term denotes respect and a certain amount of deference, and is completely normal in conversational and professional contexts. It is important to note that there is no similar term used for women.
Recently as part of the four country International Finance Corporation (World Bank Group) project that I am currently Project Director for, my colleagues and I were in Pakistan training a group of mixed professionals as mediators.
During a session discussing fairness of process, particularly in relation to gender equality, the group engaged in a fascinating discussion which brought into focus the difficulties in balancing cultural and social norms with maintaining a fair and neutral process in contemporary mediation. This discussion is where I encountered the word ‘shahib’, and was introduced to its meaning, use and how the participants understood the term.
Most participants in the course thought that the mediator addressing certain male participants in this way presented no problems in relations to their neutrality, and could actually assist rapport-building. Contrastingly, a number of the women in the group raised the point that use of the phrase in other professional contexts came across as exclusionary, serving to place women involved in a less powerful position. Accordingly, the fear was that the mediator could unwittingly lose neutrality by use of such terms for males while not showing the same amount of respect to a female participant.
The discussion was a candid and respectful one, with all views listened to and acknowledged, and with thought about how this might be handled in the Pakistani context. No final agreement was reached and it was left as something that mediators will need to work through themselves as they begin their mediating careers!