On women’s issues this past week disappointed me. It began in my senior seminar on ethnic conflict, with a discussion of Samuel Huntington’s book The Clash of Civilization and ended with the presidential debate.
First I had a disappointing session in my class, when Huntington’s book provoked a discussion on American foreign policy. Some of the young men and women in this small class have been so angered by American intervention in Iraq, its killing of civilians in Afghanistan, and its continued support of oil-rich authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, that they failed to recognize what constitutes an outrageous abuse of women’s rights.
In his book Huntington theorized that because human beings are divided along cultural lines, in the post Cold War era, conflicts would erupt not between nation-states (or countries), but among civilizations, defined by him as the largest cultural groupings of the human species. He then identified seven or so civilizations, including a Western, Islamic, Hindu, Latin and so forth. Of these, the most wearisome for him was the Islamic one.
At the time of its publication in the early to mid 1990s, Huntington’s work was both praised and criticized. The criticism that made the most sense to me was the argument that the world could not be neatly divided into different civilizations, none of which was homogenous anyhow.
But then came 9/11, and many of Huntington’s followers evoked his work, arguing that the attack on the Twin Towers and what ensued was proof that his thesis was correct. His opponents maintained that one could not artificially identify a standardized Muslims culture.
That in turn provoked a discussion in my class on the recent video that insulted the prophet Muhammad and the violence that it incited in Muslim countries, and the debate on free speech it triggered in the West, providing the context for the exchange that upset me.
As we became engaged in a discussion on cultural and moral relativism, some students argued that the West in general and the US in particular have no right to criticize any customs or behavior in societies that are culturally different from them.
And what if such customs or behavior violate universal human rights? I asked.
Those practices are domestic matters that no outsider should criticize, the same students insisted.
What about honor killing or female genital mutilation, to mention but two examples that grossly violate the right of young girls and women, mostly in Islamic societies? I asked.
Just the same, the students argued. If that’s the local custom, and law does not protect them, let the women die—they actually said that--or be mutilated. Protest from other students, including females, was disappointedly muted.
The following day I was looking forward to the first presidential debate, hoping that the candidates will touch upon women’s issues. And what a disillusionment that was. That neither candidate mentioned women within the context of the economy or healthcare, disheartened me still more. Perhaps the coming week will see an improvement.
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