Thursday, July 30, 2009

Drawing a line between apartheid and local culture?

I wrote this post in response to an interesting thread on the RH Reality Check blog about French President Nicolas Sarkozy's move to ban the wearing of the very conservative Muslim burqa in France. A user named John posted a comment as described below, and my response follows.

John, I appreciate your points, as well as your open-minded stance in reminding us that there are many cultures, and many different norms and mores.

However, there is clearly a global double-standard when it comes to human rights being denied to women, as a particular group.

You said,
"Because our culture has grown to embrace new values, and rid ourselves of old taboos, does not give us the right to interfere with those who believe in and adhere to old values."

I agree, but I think that it does not trump the more important concept that human rights exist, and that one actual right is the right to defend those rights, whether in one's own case, or in another's. Some might even say we have a moral duty to defend those rights, but that may be a separate argument.

Think back to the Apartheid struggle in South Africa. Half the world was "interfering" in that country's society, through various external pressures, to make sure black citizens got their rights. Nobody rational said, "hey, that's their culture. Maybe that's just how they are and how they live. Let them evolve at their own pace."

And thank God they didn't, or millions of South Africans might still be languishing without fundamental human freedoms to this day.

So why is it that when the oppressed demographic simply happens not to include males, that it is suddenly just their culture, and so on?

Why, when men and women are oppressed, as in South Africa, is it unequivocal oppression, but when just women are oppressed, as in beatings of people not wearing a burqa, is it "culture?"

Why was the South African governmental system of denying one demographic group (blacks) the vote considered to be an illegal, rights-abrogating Apartheid worthy of American sanctions, but the Saudi Arabian governmental system of denying one demographic group (women) the vote is considered to be legitimate culture that in no way should infringe upon American business relations with that nation?

People in France who don't wear a burqa, whether they be Muslim, Afghan, Swedish, American, Christian, Arab, or whatever... people who don't wear a burqa in all likelihood don't wear it because they don't wish to wear it. And that should be all that is needed for civilized people to know that it is wrong for anyone to be forced to wear a burqa, or be punished for not wearing one.

Imagine that a new law in the U.S. required all women to wear hats and attend a particular Christian denomination's services two times weekly, and that the law's apologists claimed the new law simply represented what millions of American women already, or recently, practiced. Regardless of its truth, that defense would be particularly spurious since the fact would remain that the law would represent behavior entirely unwanted by, and unfamiliar to, most American women, regardless of the several million who might indeed already follow such practices.

I don't believe that cultural relativism needs to be appeased. Nevertheless, let's point out that this burqa-wearing and/or total covering-up, and the "house-binding" of women is actually not a recent part of culture for many of the women to whom it is now happening. Go back and look at photos of Iranian women pre-1979. They are wearing the same fashions as American women here were wearing then (tee-shirts, calf-length skirts, same hairstyles, no head covering, or loose scarf, or hijab, as they chose). In pre-Taliban Afghanistan, for heaven's sake, about half of lawyers and doctors were female, many women wore no head covering, and few city women wore a burqa.

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