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Musings: Protect Women’s Rights or Their Culture?

On September 19, 1893, New Zealand was the first country to grant women voting rights. For the women around the world still lobbying for equality, New Zealand’s ruling gave them hope and added fuel to their brightly-burning calls for change.  By 1911, International Women’s Day became a global institution which nearly 100 years later still serves as a strong vehicle for women’s rights.

On the heels of the March 8th International Women’s Day celebration and recent Black History Month festivities, I can’t help but reflect on my own life as a woman of color in America.  I know what it’s like — especially in my technology-based industry — to be the only woman or person of color in the room. I know what it’s like to struggle to establish and maintain a position of respect in such an environment.  But, as a child of the 70’s and 80’s, I can also thankfully say that the struggles of my mother and grandmother were not my own.  I was raised to stand beside (not behind) my counterparts as an independent thinker, decision-maker and risk-taker.

For the intestinal fortitude that has resulted, I am eternally grateful.  But, I wonder sometimes if these uber-American ideals of free thought and independent action have made it difficult for me to relate to the experiences of women in other parts of the world. Just last week, I was patting myself on the back for having an open-hearted spirit towards people from other cultures, particularly my friendship with local Korean restaurant owners.  But, while reflecting today on the significance of Women’s History Month globally, I discovered an uncomfortable truth.

Though I take full advantage of America’s religious, cultural and communication liberties, I struggle to maintain an open mind about some cultural practices in the world, especially those that appear to oppress women. You see, I want every woman to experience the same freedoms that I have experienced. Not to say that life for all American women is ideal, but I can say what I want, go where I want, do what I want, wear what I want, become who I want. So, it makes me angry when I see women trapped in cultural contexts that limit their potential. It makes me even angrier when I realize how prolific such practices are around the globe and how little has changed in my lifetime to ameliorate these issues. I recognize that there’s a fine line between protecting an individual’s rights and respecting (and thus protecting) a culture and its practices, and I often find myself questioning that line.

Maybe in the case of female genital mutilation in Africa and the Middle East, the answer (and our collective responsibility) is clearer. As a rite of passage, it is barbaric and often leaves young women with a string of life-endangering complications and emotional scars that never heal. The same might be said for the sex trade industry which has enslaved an innumerable prepubescent girls or infanticide in regions where boy children are esteemed over girls. These are obvious examples calling for us to question the cultural and social norms reinforcing these practices.

But, what about the myriad of cultures that for centuries have utilized strength and agility testing battles, hunting treks, or other equally life-threatening hurdles for young men to attain adulthood? Do I have the right to tell the Maasai Warriors that male circumcision without anesthesia or lion-hunting exercises are wrong? Do I move to Tanzania to help young warriors-in-the-making escape from the danger they face? Somehow, that sounds absurd. Such practices seem inextricably intertwined with their culture and existence as the Maasai, and despite the dangerous nature of their rites-of-passage, the world perceives them as majestic nomads. If male circumcision among the Maasai is majestic, how come I can’t muster the same sense of respect for female circumcision rites practiced elsewhere on the same continent? And, why do I feel a similar blood-boiling frustration with the cultural systems that require women to wear burkhas.

It’s not the religious undergirdings behind the system or practice of covering up that anger me. I understand that it was designed to protect a woman’s virtue and the sanctity of marriage — both reasonable and respectable intentions. However, when it’s 95 degrees outside and I see a woman covered in heavy black cloth, while her husband and young children stroll comfortably in shorts, tees and sandals, I see nothing but the inequities of the system. Aren’t there fairer, more uplifting ways to uphold virtue?

Though my burkha-wearing sister may not even perceive an injustice, I can’t help but ponder her life beneath the dark veil and wonder if she’s happy.  The marked difference between her attire and that of her family seems unacceptable and I wonder if she feels pride or shame inside the burkha. My heart breaks when I think of her little girl skipping alongside her without a care in the world and I wonder what emotional and psychological processes she will endure as she marches towards puberty and her own inevitable future beneath the cloth.

I sometimes dream about the things I can do to help the women of the world. I assume that advocacy groups around the world have come to terms with the nefarious line and establish a place where women’s rights work and culture can co-exist. But before intervening personally, I feel the need to first resolve my inner conflict. I must understand whether my desire to protect them from their cultural context is altruistic or simply elitism and misunderstanding operating at its best. Is my anger grounded in the ideals of equality and opportunity or am I merely imposing my my own Western, Judeo-Christian, independence-is-king upbringing on my international sisters?  Is pulling the “culture card” an appropriate consideration before taking action or a convenient cop-out in which my inaction takes solace?

Instead of finding answers, it seems, I have only succeeded in uncovering more questions, but I find comfort in 3 things:

  • According to Llewellyn D. Howell in a 1995 article about the state of women’s rights, “Anthropologists have agreed that culture is learned, rather than genetically endowed behavior. If so, such behavior can be unlearned and certainly altered.”
  • Love transcends culture.
  • The journey to understanding begins with an open mind and an open dialogue.

This is the beginning of my story. What’s yours? If you have any experiences, insights or ideas on the matter, please join me in the conversation.  Post your thoughts in the comments section below.

  1. […] Grappling with these realities, has influenced the work of BrownGirlsFly.  Not only do we want to encourage brown girls in the Western world to exercise their travel wings, we want to spend time understanding and aiding, where possible, the lives of brown girls globally.   […]

  2. […] means, in part, that we’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on our role in the global society. But, we’ve also been “rocking out” to songs celebrating our collective strength, […]

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by BrownGirls Fly and others. BrownGirls Fly said: Protecting #Women Globally: Should travelers respect "harmful" practices as culture? or challenge them? http://goo.gl/fb/Cdqo […]

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