Monday, May 14, 2007

Complicated Questions: A Look at Cultural Relativism

On March 31st of this year, Eritrea became one of several African nations to enact a ban on female circumcision, presenting a statement to its people that the physical harm of women for the sake of cultural normativity was unacceptable in the eyes of the law. Eritrea now joins Ghana, the Cote D’Ivoire, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Tanzania, and Tago as a nation vowing to challenge customs for the sake of protecting a significant portion of its population: women and girls.

While the case against female circumcision as a common practice seems strong, bearing in mind that it inflicts physical harm on the women who undergo the procedure, some by force and some by choice, there are those who find laws that ban such practices to be a violation of their rights to express traditions that have a long history in their respective ethnic and/or religious groups. There are others, still, who suggest that the act of interfering with such cultural practices is a direct result of Westernization. They consider criticizing such practices to involve viewing them through a colonial lens. On an even deeper level, some accuse opponents of female circumcision of asserting white, Christian, upper class concepts of morality on nations full of the pigmented, “pagan” poor and of assuming that the women and girls at the center of the debate are all victims.

Clearly there are challenges in attempting to serve as a referee between cultural relativism and rights. One feels obligated to help one group without stepping on the toes of another, and in the meantime must take on the weighty task of finding the very line that divides them. As of late, the American press has been taking on the job for us, gradually designating predominately Muslim countries as target zones. “Look at the women! They are oppressed!” screams almost every headline and accompanying photograph regarding nations like Iran, Saudia Arabia, Indonesia, and prior to September 11, 2001, Afghanistan under Taliban rule. Ironically enough, many such public notices of the conditions of women of color on a global level precede wars with the countries in question that further jeopardize their livelihood, and are so common that they bombard us with ideas of oppression elsewhere, but make us ignore our own status levels domestically.

In a recent article in the New York Times entitled "Enforcing a Single Hue for Islamic Fashion in Iran: Black," which focused on Iran’s “fashion police" (who dole out warnings to women who do not wear their hijab tightly enough to cover all of their hair or whose coats dangerously border immodesty), the reader was encouraged to question the fairness of such policies, particularly as women are presently its only targets. Yet as an American audience read with eyes wide and mouths agape that one could be fined for wearing eyeliner or pants that grazed the ankles, it was temporarily distracted from the freak show known as Hollywood, where an extra pound could mean the end of a career or the circus known as Capitol Hill, where a wrinkle or a bad haircut makes front page news as opposed to ones voting record.

Exactly what is it about the cultural “other” that makes them susceptible to criticism that we hardly apply to ourselves? It is as if our national vanity has grown to such a degree that we assume that women in other countries, particularly those that are more socially conservative, to be jealous of our exposed, heavily criticized, overly adorned American sense of physical self. To turn the tables, however, women who must cover their bodies are not plagued with the same fear of cellulite. Women who wear head-covering may not share our shame from a bad hair day. If anything the modesty achieved in the covering of ones body could potentially leave room for the exposure of ones intellect, an affinity for interesting discussion, and give new meaning to the term “body language” as it would depend on less obvious gesturing for success.

However, to make such a basic, people-are-different-but-that’s-ok! statement and simultaneously consider the form of rule in nations that resort to violence and oppression of women along with restriction of dress, movement, and speech seems na├»ve. In the United States, the adherence to Islamic principles of modesty before God are accompanied by voting rights, freedom of speech, and other civil liberties that come with citizenship, so the act of wearing the hijab or a chador (covering for the entire body) is a choice, one viewed by law with the same weight as wearing a mini-skirt or skinny jeans. In Saudia Arabia and Iran, however, as a result of theocratic rule, what one wears and how one is to behave are set by not only the law of the nation, but the law of God according to the Prophet Mohammed, making its legitimacy much more difficult to challenge not only within the country, but especially from an external perspective. How can one judge the conditions of women in such nations without, in turn, judging a belief system and its practices?

While what one is allowed to wear or say is entirely petty when analyzed alongside bodily harm (like female circumcision), both issues give way to complicated questions about how to navigate the struggle for women’s rights on a global level. It’s going to be a process that involves baby steps, but it’s not entirely impossible to challenge social norms for the sake of equal rights. The abolition of slavery and the subsequent struggle for civil rights provide a perfect example as they both forced people to think and exist far from their comfort level, especially in instances when hatred, enslavement, and segregation were legitimized by religious leaders and their teachings. Even with the budding amenities in oil rich regions and access to Western education, women in Saudia Arabia exist in a separated and unequal environment where they are relegated to a status that is not indicative of the progress before their eyes. That is not, however, to say that Saudi women live unfulfilled, sad, or worthless lives, but the very idea that one group of people in any society should have limited access to what is within their reach based solely on how they look or their gender seems to run counter to principles so many of us cherish, and puts a dent in using cultural relativism as an excuse to not become involved in struggles for equality.

-Wendi Muse

3 comments:

Wayetu Moore said...

Wendi,

This is a good piece. These line of thoughts encourage re-evaluation and examination of one's own ideals. I was actually having a discussion with one of my advisors the other day about this same thing. I am interested in the work against FGM (female genital mutilation), and he was trying to convince me that perhaps I was suffering from a mentality of total Westernization. His stance was interesting and it was something that I seriously considered and explored. My sentiments came from an interview of Waris Dirie, the former model, with Global Woman Magazine's Angela Peabody, (who is featured in the next issue of the Coup). Dirie's struggles with FGM were painful to read, and unimaginably cruel. The things that most of those women (young girls) go through are unfortunate, and in my opinion, it needs to stop. The Waris Dirie Foundation, along with Global Woman Magazine, are now working towards raising money to get FGM outlawed. Would the support from the West be based solely on Western ideals? Maybe. The challenge however, is that with Western morals and standards aside, even if sanitation and sterility are the only concerns, and hospitals could obtain the proper environments through funding to execute the procedures.... how would those hospitals be funded in countries whose needs are as abundant as they are austere? How can such a (seemingly) small hand be acknowledged in a sea of bloodied fists of illiteracy, famine, genocide, and AIDS? Waris Dirie was able to put slight pressure on the European Union through the UN to threaten the funding of some of those countries, if they continued to perform the rituals. She now wants America's attention.... because we all know that if it's America's problem, it's EVERYONE's problem. The issues that a lot of organizations and lobbyists against FGM face however, are that there are no alternatives to steer the impression that the movement is based on ethnocentrism. As sincere and poignant as Dirie's plea is, Big Brother, who seems to be the Solomon of our time, needs to be convinced by more than her that his intentions won't be questioned as Bias, Bigoted, and a Selfish result of hegemony. In order to do that, an enormous amount of money would have to be raised to fund alternatives, programs in foreign hospitals, where like male circumcision, female circumcisions could be performed also.

For more information on FGM and Waris Dirie's fight, visit www.waris-dirie-foundation.com

Wendi Muse said...

comments made to the post by way of a link elsewhere:

Sewere said...
Hi Wendi,

I came here by way of racialicious and wanted to say this is a great post. I also wanted to add that one of the major issues that needs to be tacked in this discussion is the position actors fill re:cultural relativism. One of the questions I often ask is who the "outsiders" and "insiders" are, and also how are they raising the issues? If you remember, in the run up to the war in Afghanistan Laura Bush suddenly became a vocal proponent of "saving these women from hijabs and being stone" by supporting the war. Never mind that organizations such as RAWA (Afghani Women’s Group) and other women's group indigenous to the country have been saying this for forever AND they opposed the way the war was being promoted in their names.

The other part of this question is why are people here are not taking their cues from the women from these communities who have already been clamoring for equality and against sexism in their communities? Why is it that only citizens of the minority world (North America and Europe) feel that they have a duty (which always reads as Manifest Destiny) to promote freedom of women, children people in the majority world (Africa, South and East Asia and the Middle East)?

7:18 PM
Wendi Muse said...
thanks for your compliment and comment. i agree with you 100%. it's incredibly frustrating when western feminists organizations, just as one example, take on issues that women in developing nations face without looking to those women for their opinions or point of view. i think a similar example of such treatment of "their" issues is evident in the recent press coverage on hip hop. the people from whom hip hop originated (read: blacks and latinos) have been wondering for years what happened to the music that once served a primary goal of societal critique and that now, in its mainstream form, has become a self-denigrating genre, and openly criticizing this regression, but with little coverage. once the issues become twice removed from the primary source, the motivation changes and, unfortunately in most cases, loses focus.

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