holdin’ it up

Slate reviewed Sheryl WuDunn and Nikolas Kristoff’s new book Half the Sky. This book looks like it could ramp up the political discourse about the myriad atrocities women face in the developing world (Katie posted about the NYT magazine article this team of writers wrote a few weeks ago, which was an excerpt of the book) One of the best parts of this review highlights the authors’ response to an argument I heard a lot when I was in college: we shouldn’t force our culture and morals on other countries (aka cultural relativism). At its most extreme, the argument makes sense. When the US pushes the agenda of the Christian right (no condoms in Africa), or if it were pushing the agenda of the far left, I could see an argument that we were shoving western culture down the throats of those who are doing just fine on their own. But in this case, we are talking about basic morality. These paragraphs from the review really sum it up:

[The cultural relativism argument] is historically illiterate. Cultures can change. It was the “culture” of Massachusetts to burn witches once; it was the “culture” of Alabama to enslave black people. A century ago, China was the worst place in the world to be a woman. Your feet would be bound into gnarled, bloody stumps. Often, you weren’t even given a name, just called “Daughter No. 4.” For all its flaws, China has left these bloody bandages far behind it. “If culture were immutable,” the authors say bluntly, “Sheryl would be stumbling along on three inch feet.”

This argument collapses even further into The Chasm of Lousy Excuses for Inaction when you speak to the women themselves. It wasn’t Shahnaz’s [a woman whose husband threw acid in her face for trying to learn about poetry and science] culture to have her face burned off or Mukhtar’s to be gang raped. No—it was the culture of their oppressors. Slaves do not love their chains; women do not love to be subordinated. There is a conflict within these cultures—and we must now pick a side or sit out the great civil rights battle of our time.

I can’t imagine any reason why anyone from anywhere on the political spectrum wouldn’t support empowering women in the developing world. It is just so completely moral.

1 Response to “holdin’ it up”

  1. 1 katie
    September 16, 2009 at 6:58 pm

    didn’t realize this book was already out. we’ll have to put it on our list. if we ever finish womam in berlin..which reminds me…

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