Thursday, April 29, 2010

The power and importance of culture

Two stories in today's media caught my attention, as they captured for me the importance of and controversy too often associated with culture.

The first report was from the BBC, which highlighted a growing number of Islamic women who are opting to undergo surgery to make them appear to be virgins upon marriage. The second story comes from Belgium, where one house of Parliament has moved forward with a new law aimed at preventing burqa-style clothing in public.

The underlying theme to these reports, in my opinion, is the expectations the West has for Islamic women.

One need not be well-versed in Islam or Middle East culture (and I do not call myself an expert on either topic) to know that women are viewed in that part of the world in a different context than they are in the United States and throughout the West. It is easy for us to say that women are repressed and denied the chance to be anything more than a wife and mother (and perhaps without the respect that women who hold those titles in the West often enjoy) in a culture that appears to expect them to be nothing else. (If you've not had a chance to read Greg Mortenson's "Three Cups of Tea" that discusses the challenges he faced to build public schools for girls in Afghanistan, please do so. It will help to explain the point of education and females quite well.)

The aforementioned stories from the BBC and the AP allow that Western cultural bias to be reinforced -- women who are not virgins at marriage can be ostracized or worse in the culture of the Middle East, while women in the West need not prove (and let's face it, there is no other applicable word) their sexual status to their husbands. Moreover, women need not cover almost every inch of their bodies in the West in order for them to appear virtuous.

So, reading the BBC and AP reports "proves" to many people that the Middle East is akin to a Third World society -- politically, socially and/or economically bereft.

But what would a Middle Eastern news source (al-Jazeera comes to mind) report about the women having surgeries and a government preventing the wearing of a burqa in public? In the context of the Middle East, the women in the first story could be seen as acknowledging their past sexual activity was wrong and they are therefore seeking forgiveness for what they have done.

Nonsense we would say. But I would ask you to consider this -- do you know any American woman who might consider asking her God for forgiveness for anything she might have done, as she prepares to enter the sacred covenant of marriage?

Moreover, al-Jazeera could report that the Belgian government is doing little to respect the clothing traditions of the Middle East. Bizarre, we are likely to conclude.

Perhaps, but aren't there boundaries of taste associated with women's clothes in this country? How mini do we as a society really want that mini-skirt to be?

Now, before you start concluding that I'm bashing Western culture and endorsing Middle East culture, please stop and think. My point is simply this -- we are guilty, for lack of a better term, of interpreting news stories through the cultural norms we accept, regardless of whether we are living in a country that espouses those norms. (That being said, we are far more likely to vocally indicate our support for those norms if we know the society around us will support our position.)

Therefore, we are quick to conclude that the women highlighted in the BBC report are acting out of fear, while the Belgian government is not. Is there no other possible interpretation to these stories?

No comments: