A good friend of mine recently returned to the States after two years of living in Sweden, followed by several months of traveling in Mali. When I asked her about her adventures and experiences exploring these countries, she painted this mental picture of two places so vastly different from each other that one wonders how they fit onto the same planet.
Sweden borders on socialism. It’s taboo to ask what someone does for a living, and gender equality is extremely important. There are virtually no homeless people in Sweden because everyone works in order to provide each other with a decent standard of living (income taxes run as high as 56% for the wealthiest). Healthcare is free, education is free, sex change operations are sponsored by the government. If you lose a job, the government pays your rent until you find a new one. A huge proportion of Swedes don’t believe in marriage, because the government automatically treats a couple as an economic unit if they live together. Men receive paternity leave if the mothers want to keep working, women feel insulted if men offer to buy their drinks.
By stark contrast, Mali is extremely religiously and politically conservative. Women are considered to be inherently sexually dangerous and transgressive. As an African-American woman traveling with her Swedish boyfriend, Connie was shocked at the way she was treated. While the locals went out of their way to show respect for her boyfriend, they assumed she was a prostitute and, on one occasion, actually pelted rocks at her.
Most of the young girls (about 94%) in Mali must undergo female circumcision at some point to ensure that they never enjoy sex, and they must bleed on their wedding night to prove their virginity or face being beaten or killed. Men use these sexually oppressive traditions to control the women, and the women live in constant fear of being physically punished or branded a “whore” for displaying any kind of sexuality. Connie couldn’t even stand to look at young girls in Mali, knowing what they had been through and what they would likely be enduring in the years to come.
In the wake of our conversation, I read this article from Slate entitled “The Beauty of Artificial Virginity ,” which describes a fake hymen kit that produces blood so that women in these extremely culturally conservative communities can appear virginal on their wedding nights. This kit offers a cheaper alternative to “hymenoplasty,” a surgical procedure that reattaches the hymen for the same purpose.
Egyptian lawmakers are outraged and have threatened to punish and even “exile” anyone who threatens to import or use this kit because the product “encourages illicit sexual relations” that Islam strictly forbids (Associated Press). “If this thing enters Egypt, the country is going to go to waste. God protect us,” commented a reader on the Web site of Egyptian newspaper Al-Youm Al-Sabie.
To this comment, Slate writer William Saletan responds:
Pause for a moment to consider what these men are asking God to protect them from: a cheap, mass-produced insert that releases fake blood. It’s the technical equivalent of a Halloween gag. But to them, it is no gag. It’s an offense against God.
In this way, the artificial hymen serves as a useful test of religious idiocy. If a $30 item that leaks fake blood violates your faith so profoundly that you must ban it, then what you have isn’t really a faith. It’s a fetish. And your fetish won’t survive globalization.
While I agree with Saletan about the fact that some of these faith-based, “virginity-preserving” practices are absolutely barbaric and abusive, I don’t think that tactlessly insulting an entire religion or community of people is the most effective way to enact change. These Egyptian officials are not going to read that Slate article and think, you know what? He’s right, we are idiots! Thank Allah someone told us!
Americans have this uncanny way of imposing our values on the rest of the world as if ours is the only reasonable perspective, and an approach like that is only going to anger and alienate. Extreme religious beliefs are often fear-based, and thus very deep-seated. I may be naive, but I really think the only way to begin to petition for change is from a stance of tolerance– not tolerance of physical abuse and gender oppression, but of the cultural differences that enable that sort of behavior. From there we can attempt to negotiate.
Americans don’t understand the way things are done in Sweden any more than we understand extremist Muslim practices in Mali (and if you disagree, refer to articles on widespread outrage over and fear of Obama’s alleged “socialist” agenda, which doesn’t even come close to the working socialism in Sweden). We are all products of different environments, different cultures, different educations, different religions and different economies– without taking all those factors into account before passing judgments on another major population of people, we’re never going get anywhere.