I haven’t read the current issue of Time Magazine featuring the women of Afghanistan, but I did read David Rothkopf’s piece on Foreign Policy this Tuesday on how the treatment of women in many Islamic countries is a challenge to our values. I expected a dispassionate, realpolitik-based argument as to why Time’s cover image is a manipulative and simplistic attempt to make the case for the West’s staying the course in Afghanistan. In fact, I was surprised by the course his argument took towards his conclusion, which I quote here:

“We can’t be a moral society and turn a blind eye to this. Nor can we call ourselves honorable and ally ourselves to those who tolerate or empower the abusers. Our geopolitical objectives in the Middle East are not greater than the rights of women everywhere. Fighting terror is not greater than our obligation to those women. And no religion, nor any government that acts “in the name of religious values” that promotes the abuse of anyone, is worthy of our tolerance.”

As Rothkopf himself notes, history has examples of how the West has responded (or ignored) the cultural practices of other countries which it deemed repugnant. I recall a history seminar I took once on the British Empire and how colonial administrators, missionaries and parliamentarians were outraged with cultural practices such as sutee in India and female circumcision in Africa. The ethical problem then, as now, is whether the West has the moral right to object to he internal religious and cultural practices of other countries. The question now is whether the West can move beyond the relativistic tolerance with which it has largely replaced institutional colonialism on the one hand and the limited engagement realpolitik abhorrence of nation-building on the other and find a coherent voice that recognizes the basic human rights of women wherever they may live? Rothkopf’s argument may be a starting point for that discussion, as well as food for thought for Canadians who want to end our engagement in Afghanistan.

0 Responses

  1. The subject of the treatment of women in Afghanistan and Islamic countries is certainly worthy of attention, and Time highlights that effectively. On that note, however, where is the comparable outrage over the lack of religious freedom in those places — a human liberty lacking not in the adversaries of NATO et al, but in their host nation allies?

  2. Abuse comes in all forms and in all cultures and we as a society must be ever vigilant. Otherwise how can we call ourselves civilized?

  3. I would suggest that while there are, indeed, moral questions about who has the right to challenge others' cultural (and legal) practices, there is also a serious set of *practical* questions. If a Western nation, or even several, or most of them, find a particular practice abhorrent or contrary to what we believe are basic human rights, how do we go about implementing that objection? What if the country is a crucial ally in a conflict–either a conflict that directly affects our own safety and security or one that involves our attempt to establish a different moral issue?

    Or, to make it even easier, what if we are wholly uninvolved with them? Do we go to war to secure human rights? Apart from occupying a country by force and remaking their society, how would we force a change? There is more than enough evidence that sanctions, embargoes, etc. have little or no effect except against countries (like South Africa) that desperately wish to remain engaged with the West. In a country like Sudan or Yemen, how can we possibly create change in strongly ingrained cultural practices (like FGM or the disenfranchisement of women or ethnic minorities)?