Three cheers for western cultural imperialism


Last week, the ABC 7.30 Report carried a story about Talaal Adree, a Kuwaiti born, Australian citizen who is being held by the Kuwaiti authorities on suspicion of terrorism.
The story featured his family eloquently pleading for the Australian Government to intervene on behalf of its citizen. Some members of the family also alleged (on rather flimsy evidence, it seemed to me) that Australian officials might have been present when the man was beaten.
Important stuff, I grant you, but, rightly or wrongly, it wasn’t Mr Adree’s plight that caught my attention.

I kept being distracted by the female members of his family who also spoke passionately on his behalf. Whenever their images appeared on screen, I found myself almost giddy with claustrophobia. The two women featured, his mother and his wife, were so completely covered by their black chadors that their eyes were mere glitters in a slit, even their hands were covered with beige leather gloves. They were speaking Arabic, but I was so distracted by their appearance, I failed to listen to the interpreter, so had no idea what they were saying.

Occasionally there were shots of some of Mr Adree’s children, including a delightful curly haired little girl, whose fate, I assumed, was to grow up and hide herself as utterly from the world as her mother and grandmother had done.

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

When the story had finished I had to go outside and take a couple of deep breaths of cool night air.

A few years earlier, like many of us, I saw the footage of the woman in a burkha being executed with a casual yet efficient bullet to the head, in the infamous Kabul football stadium where the Taliban carried out such executions.

It is a terrible thing to watch any human being executed, but to die like that, wrapped up like an anonymous parcel from head to foot, without so much as a defiant item of clothing to register your precious and soon to be lost individuality, gave me an even worse case of the horrors. I know it is common human behaviour to mask those we are about to kill (cowards that we are), but to live and then to die so masked seemed to obliterate the woman’s humanity.

Some condemn my horror at the chador and the burkha and the position of women in many Islamic countries as western cultural imperialism. It is often claimed, sometimes by the women concerned, that they freely choose this mode of dress, and my negative feelings about it are merely my attempt to impose my cultural norms on theirs.
I have thought about this long and hard and I find myself unable to agree.

Such oppression of women, and I cannot see it as anything else, may well be cultural, but that does not make it right. I cannot agree that my natural physical shape and appearance is either something so provocative or so shameful that it must be hidden from sight, any more than I could agree that the natural colour of someone’s skin entitles them automatically to less rights and opportunities.
Worse, it seems to me that we only easily justify such cultural oppression when it affects women.

It was probably cultural for the Boers to oppress black people, but we came to so oppose such oppression that we demonstrated against South African businesses and sporting teams until the world imposed economic and cultural sanctions and helped make apartheid unviable. Anti-Semitism was cultural in Christian Europe for many centuries, and we all know, to our shame, how that turned out. The Confederate States in America went to war to defend what they claimed was their cultural right to own slaves. It is only recently that the last legal vestiges of official racism in the American South have disappeared.

Throughout history we have stepped in and changed cultural practices that we disagreed with. Not always rightly, much harm has been done. But has anyone ever seriously argued that the outlawing of human sacrifice or cannibalism was cultural imperialism? Occasionally, we have even stepped in to protect women, banning suttee, for example. Female circumcision is thankfully illegal in most western countries. The interesting thing is that as women in the west have slowly gained more human rights, the trappings of oppression have fallen away, almost of their own accord. In my youth, black garbed nuns were common sights, now they have completely disappeared.

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

Yet, while we can get very hot under the collar about the black person’s right to vote in South Africa, it seems we do not extend the same righteous indignation to women.

It has always seemed to me that a woman who asks for asylum from a country that refuses her not only the right to vote, but also the right to an education, to dress as she pleases, and to walk the street without being accompanied by an adult male, should be regarded as a refugee. Some nations have enshrined in law punishments of stoning for adultery, honour killings are, if not actually accepted, then turned a blind eye to, and a woman’s legal worth is considered to be a third of a man’s. If there were places that treated men in such a way, I suspect we would accept them as political refugees.

Not so for women, perhaps because we define their oppression as cultural rather than political.
And therein lies the rub. The liberation of women (yes, I am going to use that currently unfashionable phrase) is seen as almost a family affair, personal and private. And that is precisely why it is so hard to achieve.

While blacks in South Africa battled whites for their human rights and Jews battled gentiles and Northerners battled Southerners, women must battle their husbands, their fathers, their brothers and, worst of all, their sons.
Which may be one of the reasons so many women turn away from the task of liberating themselves, and accept their cultural trappings with such apparent equanimity. Perhaps it is easier to bury yourself in a chador and collapse, as Carmen Bin Ladin puts it, into bovine passivity, than to accept that the men in your culture, your life and your family, neither love you nor value you as an equal.

The 7.30 Report, ABC TV, May 17, 2005

‘A New Counterterrorism Strategy: Feminism.’ Barbara Ehrenreich, Independent Media Institute , May 10, 2005

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.