America’s cultural tradition has come to include the concept that all people deserve equal rights. However, women in many nations (including the United States) are subject to injustices that range from lower wages to spousal abuse, rape, lashing, and stoning. Understandably, among many Americans there is an outcry to intervene in the most extreme cases, and awareness-raising techniques ranging from TV shows and magazine articles to e-mail campaigns have brought some cases to the forefront of our consciousness.
A problem arises, however, when we fail to understand the cultures in which many brutalities take place, and we verge on cultural imperialism when we insist on implementing our beliefs on people who, in many cases, are acting in accordance with the laws of their god. Perhaps better than imposing of our laws on people who would rightfully resent such subjugation, humanity would be better served with a general agreement that such actions are inherently wrong.
This type of concurrence could be reached through an open dialogue, and the first step toward this end is for westerners to understand some of the traditions, laws, and dogma that provoke people to act in ways that we deem abhorrent. Armed with this understanding, we could earn the respect (and trust) of people who in many cases are leery of our motivations, and explain the benefits of religious and governmental moderation.
Of course, a problem with this method is the time that it would take to implement and the lives that are at stake right now – a recent NY Times Magazine article mentions that 300 women a year are murdered by family members in so-called honor killings.) Another problem is the vastness of the task; there are a lot of different cultures and a lot of injustices. Which ones do we focus on and why?
Since America has embarked upon the “War on Terror,” a brighter light has been shone on the treatment of women in Muslim nations. The image of oppressed women in Afghanistan who were excluded from western-style education and forced to wear burkas was shocking to Americans. In fact, (if you remember your ancient history) the liberation of Afghani women became a secondary rallying cry for the Bush administration’s war rhetoric.
However, the fact that to many Afghani women, the Taliban was a welcome change from years of lawlessness and civil war was excluded from the dialogue. We, through our cultural vantage point, wrongly assumed that no woman would voluntarily submit to practices that we deem sexist.
An important point to remember is that our understanding of acceptable behavior toward women was born out of a greater American cultural revolution that was not part of the political or cultural landscape of most nations. Therefore, to assume that our views are applicable to all women of all cultures is not only incorrect, but also ethnocentric.
The uncomfortable reality may be that our laws and cultural expectations are not suitable for people who have realities that diverge so completely from our own.
American concern for women in Muslim nations also turned its gaze to Nigeria, which is one of a few countries to have full Shariah (or Muslim law) in place. Shariah, as defined by Susie Steiner of The Guardian, is “a religious code for living, in the same way that the Bible offers a moral system for Christians.” The difference however, is that America, for example, which bases its moral codes largely on the Judeo-Christian ethic, does not hold its citizens legally accountable for abiding by all ten Commandments. Conversely, under Nigerian law adultery is a crime punishable by death.
One of the West’s best examples of self-rightousness is that we assume that the people of a nation like Nigeria would be spared such brutal treatment if only they lived in a democracy. Among the problems with this logic is, of course, that Nigeria is democratic; the people voted Shariah into place. So, how do we prevent the people of Nigeria from abiding by the laws of their god and government? We can’t.
Or can we? (Is that Oprah I see on the horizon?)
Amina Lawal, a Nigerian woman, who was the subject of an episode of Big O’s show, was convicted of adultery, and sentenced to death by stoning. However, the program on Amina’s plight generated an international e-mailing frenzy that ultimately led to her salvation.
Oprah’s concern for the health of women throughout the world is understandable. However, when she aired a program about four American women who were murdered by their husbands at a U.S. military base, she did not ask for the same type of grass-roots support for changing American laws or for intervening with the culture of American marriages. Perhaps this is because we live in a culture that asks us to divert our eyes from things that we consider to be other people’s business, and domestic matters clearly fall under this category.
Indeed, violence against women in America is epidemic. In fact, our culture of violence toward women is shameful compared to most Muslim nations. So why are the rights of women in other societies a “human rights issue” and the rights of battered American women not? Perhaps because we assume that American women have the resources to acquire help. Concurrently, we assume that women of other cultures do not have adequate support systems in place. Therefore, we believe that it is our role to implement the support for women around the world that may otherwise be left in a lurch.
But obviously, the American system of protecting women is not as encompassing as we like to think. We ask for the government to protect us from “evils” ranging from aggressive pan-handlers to illegal immigrants, but we insist that they stay out of our personal affairs.
Because of our disparity in views toward violence in reference to American
and non-American women, there is an ease at which we write e-mails in response to “human rights” violations on the other side of the globe. The weight of a pen, however, seems unbearable when writing in reflection of our own communities.
Though the task of changing the cultures of foreign nations is daunting, it is perhaps less daunting than changing our own. Especially since we live in a culture that does not permit us to take responsibility for our neighbor’s actions. So please, the next time you hear a woman screaming next door, just turn up the TV, and be rest assured that we U.S. Americans are much kinder and gentler than those crazed, brown Muslims in that weird county over there.