Sunday, October 5, 2014

Trouble with the Western Mind

Rwanda village - Panaramio

(in Rwanda) "... we've had a lot of trouble with Western mental health workers, especially the ones who came right after the genocide."

"What kind of trouble did you have?"

"Well, they would do this bizarre thing," he explained. "They didn't take people out in the sunshine where you begin to feel better. They didn't include drumming or music to get people's blood going. They didn't involve the whole community. They didn't externalize the depression as an invasive spirit. Instead what they did was they took people one at a time into dingy little rooms and had them talk for an hour about bad things that had happened to them."(Laughter) (Applause)

He said, "We had to ask them to leave the country." (Laughter)
~ A Rwandan describes post-genocide assistance efforts; from the transcript of Andrew Solomon's TED Talk on Depression, the Secret We Share.

Dragging a Western mind into a non-western culture can be entertaining and perhaps unsettling, to say the least.  It's likely to disassemble much of our thinking.

Whose viewpoint is correct?  Is there clarity between what's right and what's just different?

What's right? Principles of right and wrong, generally universal (fortunately), the standard by which behavior is judged; e.g., stealing is wrong everywhere.

What's different?  There are standards of behavior within a given culture or social grouping; e.g., uncovering a woman's face in public is inappropriate (in some places and social groupings).

Bikini vs Burka:   Consider the tension.  The burka and bikini themselves are simply pieces of cloth, nothing more.

OK, we could have used a picture with a bikini ...
  • Is the bikini an expression of the woman's personal freedom, or is it the imposed style of a male-dominated social norm?
  • Is the burka an expression of the woman's personal choice of modesty, or is it the oppressive burden imposed by a male-dominated social norm?
    To both questions, the answer is yes and sometimes, yes.

    From an illuminating article on
     hijab tutorialCHOICE
    "Many women choose burka freely, as well as lesser variations such as hijab or ridah. ... My own wife wears ridah full-time, even to medical school, though I was initially against the idea. But I supported her in her desire to achieve her modesty, and the result has been astonishing. But the benefits she derives from wearing ridah are a topic for some other time."
    "Contrast the Qur’anic prescription of modest dress with the tribal custom of imposing oppressive dress on women. It’s not exaggeration to say that Islam, Judaism, and Christianity brought the first concepts of equality between genders to tribal peoples who at the time had decidedly primitive notions of gender roles. 
    Afghan Taliban beating woman in Kabul
    To take one self-aimed example, pre-Islamic customs of burying first-born daughters alive was stridently condemned by Muhammad SAW. Yet these practices still persist in modern times – for example in Nigeria, where a woman was sentenced to death by stoning for adultery. Also recently a woman was sentenced to be buried up to her neck in sand and again stoned, for having a child out of wedlock.

    Violence against women fueled by patriarchal social values, lack of adequate laws and enforcement.  From UNICEF, the percentage of women aged 15–49 who think that a husband is justified in hitting or beating his wife under certain circumstances is as high as:

    90% in Afghanistan and Jordan,
    87% in Mali,
    86% in Guinea and Timor-Leste,
    81% in Laos, and
    80% in the Central African Republic.[UNICEF

    A 2010 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that stoning as a punishment for adultery was supported by: 

    82% of respondents in Egypt and Pakistan,
    70% in Jordan,
    56% Nigeria,
    42% in Indonesia.[PEW Research]
    "These kind of barbaric decisions are always made in remote villages by a band of grizzled elder men, who invariably call themselves an 'Islamic court'. The truth is that these are immoral primitive tribal customs, which are used by the tribal elders as a power play of enforcing their authority. They are wrapped in poorly-argued Islamic reasoning, often bundled with some selective out-of-context Qur’anic verse, so that no one dares argue. But this is not Islamic, it’s purely a primitive cultural practice, with its sole aim as a power play of I-have-control-over-you."

    "These tribal impulses of control are the root cause of the Saudi burka, and the absurd punishments in Nigeria and Pakistan, and the concept of honor killings. They also, to a lesser degree, are the underlying philosophy behind the bikini, which is the real subject of this essay."
    "I am not saying that the woman wearing a bikini is immoral, though that opinion is shared by many, not just Muslims. We can leave that open to debate. But for the purposes of this essay, the manifestation of men’s control over women, is what I am labeling immoral. I am careful to only use the word “immoral” in the context of forcing women to wear burka, or the power play which makes (some) women (sometimes) want to wear a bikini to please men. The burka and bikini themselves are simply pieces of cloth, nothing more."       
    ~ see the original Article

    Crossing cultural lines can be a bit of a minefield excursion, but there is much understanding that can come with doing so.  With understanding comes some clarity about right and wrong.