The cultural relativists can’t excuse evil
In November, when a group of unveiled girls was attacked by men on motorcycles who sprayed acid in their faces as they were walking to morning classes in Kandahar, Canadians were shocked.
They shouldn’t have been.
Every year, all over South Asia, hundreds of women have acid sprayed in their faces for committing the offence of going to school, or for going to work, or for merely walking down a street without covering their faces. In Bangladesh alone, an average of 228 women are subjected to such acid attacks every year.
But there is an important and very specific lesson to be learned from the Kandahar incident. More than a dozen of the young Kandahari women were seriously injured, two of them blinded, and the victims have all defiantly returned to their classes at the Mirwais Mena school. One of the girls who suffered severe eye injuries is 17-year-old Shamsia: “I will go to my school even if they kill me,” Shamsia said. “My message for the enemies is that if they do this 100 times, I am still going to continue my studies.”
The lesson here is that millions of brave Afghan schoolgirls are dedicated to pursuing their studies, in sometimes perilous and hostile circumstances, and their devotion is heartfelt, homegrown and hardy. It has not been “imposed” upon them by the “West.”
As Canadians, we should be proud and honoured that history has afforded our country a specific opportunity to help young Afghan women assert their fundamental right to education. Our focus should be on how we can do more, and better. Instead, a bizarre kind of cultural relativism has come to infect national debates about the Afghan mission, clouding our judgment and entirely obscuring the very meaning of universal human rights.
I first noticed it when I was in high school, in 1996, when I was circulating a petition to protest the Taliban’s brutal oppression of women. One of my teachers refused to sign the petition, saying, well, that’s their culture, and we have no right to interfere.
Two years ago I spoke on a panel organized by Carleton University’s Students Coalition Against War, in Ottawa. I was accused of exaggerating the suffering of Afghan women, but even if I had a point, it was an “internal cultural matter,” and certainly none of my business.
Human rights are culturally relative, the thinking goes, and the universality of human rights is some sort of western imperialist construction. It is as though girls have no right to read if their “culture” forbids it. It is a rarely scrutinized assumption, but it is ubiquitous in Canadian universities, and it reaches its most toxic concentrations in “anti-war” debates.
The result is that the once great cause of fulfilling the promise of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is rendered merely a “Eurocentric” enterprise, and necessarily something shabby.
Years from now, when our own children look back on us, what will they make of how Canada, one of the richest countries of the world, lived up to the promise of universal human rights? In Afghanistan, where those rights are only now being extended to the people, and are still just nominally available to the women of that country, did we uphold our commitment?
Did we not see in the Afghan people our shared humanity? Did we recognize death-cult misogyny for what it really is? Did we have the courage to call fascism by its proper name, or did we excuse ourselves and retreat into the comfortable, false virtues of pacifist isolationism and cultural relativism?
Afghanistan is not just a theatre of war in the conventional meaning of the term. It is also a battleground of values. But it is not a clash between “western” and “eastern” cultures. The Afghan people want their girls to go to school. The Afghan people do not want the Taliban. But in Canada, it has nonetheless become necessary to point this out, over and over, and also to point out what it is that the Taliban actually do want.
“They want what they had before 2001: an extremist, eccentric Islamic state where the sports stadium is used for public executions of dissenters, homosexuals and women accused of adultery,” Cheryl Benard of the Rand Corporation recently reminded us here in the “West.” What the Taliban want is a place apart from humanity, where “religious police roam the streets with sticks to beat anyone whose beard or chador is too short; and all education for girls is eliminated.”
The Taliban and their fellow travellers have not given up on this vision, and to achieve it they are happy to blow up civilians and their own in suicide bombings (an act condemned in Islam and in Afghan traditions, for any “yes, but” cultural relativists reading this). They kidnap journalists, hijack food-aid convoys, decapitate teachers, and slaughter unarmed women working for foreign aid organizations — the fate that recently befell the Canadian humanitarian workers Shirley Case and Jackie Kirk.
Yet to hear from some of the more prominent “troops out” voices in Canada, the Taliban are merely “dissidents” or “the resistance.” To listen to these voices, you could be forgiven for thinking that the Taliban were some quaint tribe, engaged in a noble fight against the power-hungry, capitalist West.
Once you strip away the misleading “explanations” offered up by the cultural relativists, all that remains is disgraceful excuse-making for an ideology that requires its adherents to pull women’s fingernails out for the crime of wearing nail polish. It is an ideology engaged in an open revolt against humanity, against the values shared by Afghans and Canadians alike, and against an entire international order founded in the aftermath of the Holocaust.
With a new year under way in our engagement in Afghanistan, let us do a better job of honouring the legacy on which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is based — in Afghanistan, and everywhere.
Lauryn Oates is a founding member of the Canada Afghanistan Solidarity Committee and project director of Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan’s Excel-erate Teacher Training Program. She has advocated for the rights of Afghan women and girls since the Taliban invasion in 1996 and travels frequently to Afghanistan.
By Lauryn Oates, The Ottawa Citizen
(Published January 28, 2009)