Not wrong, just different

5 May 2010

Written by: Lawrie Zion

I was always taught that it’s important to respect other people’s cultures and ways of life, even if we don’t fully understand them. That great biblical phrase says it all – ‘don’t judge others lest you be judged yourself’. And with the percentage of foreign-born Australian residents rising steadily, there has never been a more important time to be respectful and understanding of foreign cultures. But it got me thinking – where do we draw the line?

In parts of the Eastern world, it is normal to clean one’s backside with the left hand and a splash of water as opposed to the toilet-paper method favoured by citizens of ‘the west’. While the idea of cleaning one’s backside with an uncovered hand isn’t all that enticing to me, I certainly don’t feel compelled to label the method’s users as filthy or uncivilised. In fact, the concept is cause for great curiosity – has this method been proven to be any less hygienic than using toilet paper? How do proponents of the hand-and-water method view us toilet paper users?

In much the same way, seeing footage of a Tibetan sky burial doesn’t invoke feelings of outrage or disgust, merely curiosity. I’ll admit, the idea of being torn apart by vultures upon death does seem quite alien, but it also makes quite a bit of sense.  Burying bodies in Tibet is a virtual impossibility given the lack of soft soil in the upper Himalayas. Furthermore, Buddhist teachings rather convincingly suggest that the body becomes an ‘empty vessel’ from the moment of death – the time at which the soul leaves the body. By feeding the unneeded body to waiting vultures the energy that was on loan to the individual while living is returned to nature in the form of sustenance for the Gyps Fulvus.

But before I suffocate in a cloud of my own self-righteous congratulation, let’s tackle some cases where cultural understanding might not come as easily.

One of the criticisms that is most commonly levelled at Islamic society is that its religious teachings call for the systematic oppression of women. Verse 34 of Surah an-Nisa – the fourth chapter of the Qur’an, reads ‘Men have superiority over women because God has made the one superior to the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them. Good women are obedient.’

To a lot of people in ‘the west’, this view would seem to clash quite significantly with the notion of gender equality and the advances made by the women’s rights movements of the past century. The office of French president Nicolas Sarkozy recently said that the face-covering niqab is an ‘attack on women’s dignity, and it is not acceptable to French society.’ Consequently, Mr Sarkozy is pushing to ban French women from wearing the niqab in public, much to the disgust of some commentators.

While it’s not completely unreasonable to argue that Islam does promote the systematic oppression of women, there is also a reasonable counter-argument to consider.

In August of 2008, Andrew Denton’s sublime interview program, Enough Rope, featured the brilliant Waleed Aly and his wife Susan Carland. Ms Carland converted to Islam as an adult and on the program she described the frustration of being a Western woman wearing the hijab.

‘Imagine if pretty much every day someone said to you “So Andrew, you know a lot people find that shirt oppressive…Does your wife make you dress like that?”’

As an obviously-intelligent and well-spoken woman, isn’t Ms. Carland able todecide what items of clothing she wears? Isn’t it also possible that she might even enjoy wearing the hijab? Are we really in a position to start telling Muslim women that we know better than them?

But even if we respect a Muslim woman’s right to wear the hijab, there must surely be a point at which our respect for foreign culture must stop. Would we be as willing to respect the process known as ‘Female Genital Cutting’ (FGC), for example?

FGC is common in parts of Africa and in some parts of the Middle East and, according to the World Health Organisastion (WHO), ‘comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.’

Sure, I can understand that FGC is an ancient tradition that, according to its adherents, ensures a young girl will be wholly pure at the time of marriage and her subsequent defloration. However, I can also understand that it is an excruciatingly painful ‘procedure’ that usually happens without the use of anaesthetic and which renders the unwilling participant unable to urinate, walk, stand or even sit without extreme pain.

Is it even possible to construct an argument which holds FGC as a cultural practice worthy of respect or even understanding? And if FGC is indeed a blatant example of humans rights abuse, as WHO argues it is, where do we draw the line? At what point do we have the right to say ‘I do not respect your way of life’?

You see, there’s nothing black and white when it comes to cultural relativism. How are we supposed to measure the objective ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of various cultures? What makes the practices of one culture ‘right’ and the practices of another, ‘wrong’?

Having said that, there are some cases in which finding cultural truth might not be that difficult.

According to seismologists, a number of the earth’s tectonic plates happen to meet under the country we now know as Iran. This phenomenon has resulted in a number of deadly earthquakes in recent times, not least  the 2003 quake that killed 25,000 in the ancient city of Bam.

According to one Iranian cleric, Hojjat ol-eslam Kazem Sediqi, Iran’s relationship with earthquakes is not due to the country’s proximity to various fault lines, rather it is the direct result of Allah’s disapproval of immodestly dressed women in Iran.

‘Many women who do not dress modestly lead young men astray and spread adultery in society which increases earthquakes’, he said.

Leaving aside the extremely questionable suggestion that it is a woman’s fault if a man acts inappropriately, are we really to believe that Allah would kill thousands of people just because women decide not to cover their arms? What kind of loving God would do that?

While I respect Mr Sediqi’s right to believe that Allah kills thousands in the name of modesty, this particular culture clash might be rather simply solved – either it’s true that earthquakes are caused by immodest dress, or it’s not.

Prove to me that a causal link between a lack of clothing and the movement of tectonic plates exists Mr. Sediqi, and then I’ll try to be understanding. Until then, you will have to forgive me if I’m a little hesitant…

Matt de Neef is co-editor of upstart, and about to complete his Graduate Diploma of Journalism at La Trobe University. This piece first appeared on his blog, A Cursory Glance…