Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Why We Remain Silent -- and Shouldn't

My wife recently called my attention to this insightful article, in which the Egyptian-American author speaks out about the war against women in the Middle East. The article is worth the time it takes to read it, so take a moment and do so now before continuing to read my thoughts on it.

Mona Eltahawy raises a strong and clear voice against the abuse and oppression of women in the Middle East. Why, she asks, does the world – do Arab women themselves – tolerate this kind of abuse. She mentions a key reason: fear of cultural or religious offense.

"Name me an Arab country, and I'll recite a litany of abuses fueled by a toxic mix of culture and religion that few seem willing or able to disentangle lest they blaspheme or offend."

The Western world has become afraid of criticizing Islam because of the strongly negative reaction any such criticism brings, up to and including riots and death threats. What's more, we don't want to push any of these governments to allow change within their societies because that might destablize them, which would threaten our oil supply. We're afraid of the economic impact that standing up for women would have on our own lifestyle.

Eltahawy also mentions cultural relativism, the idea that each culture has its own values and outsiders are wrong to seek change in those values. Interestingly, I think we use this argument when it suits us to not intervene, because in fact human society has recognized that certain values supercede culture. For example, although slavery is still tolerated in certain societies, it is considered reprehensible and unallowable globally and no one discounts those who advocate against and work to end modern slavery. But when it comes to the rights and dignity of women, we fall into silence and claims of cultural relativism.

It disturbs me that we as a culture continue to remain silent on these abuses that half the human population faces. In fact it angers me. But I am angered still more by the silence of those who call themselves by the name of Jesus. We who should be advocates of human dignity, of liberation and redemption, continue to allow the oppression and abuse of our sisters. We are just as guilty if not more so of accepting the arguments of cultural relativism, although we claim to be ambassadors of a Kingdom that supercedes the boundaries of any single culture. Where are the disciples of Christ standing up both in the West and in the Arab lands for the dignity of women? Where are the followers of Jesus who actively advocate for the equality of our sisters?

I think that we fail to do this, at least to the level that we could and should, because we don't truly believe in that equality ourselves. We are not going to advocate for the dignity of women, we are not going to encourage our Arab and other Muslim-background brothers to place women in positions of leadership and responsibility when we ourselves are unwilling to do so in our own churches. I have seen young fellowships of Jesus-followers in Muslim cultures and in most cases I see the perpetuation of cultural systems of oppression, marginalization and exclusion. I see old wine in new wineskins. I see sisters whose dignity continues to be trodden upon by their supposed brothers-in-Christ, who unfortunately continue to see the women in their communities with the same eyes they always have. Yes, change takes time. But it won't happen if we are not modeling and advocating for it ourselves. I have felt and argued for some time that if all we offer to Muslim women is a change in which rules they have to follow, then they might as well stay in their former situations. If the message of the Gospel does not offer true freedom and restoration of their full dignity as children of God, equal to the men around them, then we really have very little to offer them.

I'm thankful for the exceptions I've seen to this pattern, but unfortunately they remain just that – exceptions. Perhaps I'm dreaming, since in so many of our churches here in the US we continue to put our sisters in a second-class position. But I believe we can change our own attitudes, beliefs and practices. And I believe that we should not be silent about the situation of women in the Arab world, and everywhere that they face the destruction of their dignity in any form.

What is to be done, asks Eltahawy. I affirm her strong statement:

"First we stop pretending. Call out the hate for what it is. Resist cultural relativism and know that in countries undergoing revolutions and uprisings, women will remain the cheapest bargaining chips. You – the outside world – will be told that it's 'our' culture and 'religion' to do X, Y, or Z to women. Understand that whoever deemed it as such was never a woman.”

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