Friday, 21 March 2008

sexism or cultural expression?

in listening to josie bullock and margaret mutu on radio nz this morning, i've been finding it really hard to figure out where i stand on this issue. for those who may have forgotten, ms bullock was the woman working in the dept of correction who refused to move from the front row during a departmental powhiri.

the human rights review tribunal has decided that the treatment was sexist, but it has refused to reward damages, because her dismissal was not deemed to be so. the two interviews this morning were a clear case of cultures colliding, as they seem to do much more regularly now that maori have started to reclaim their culture. maori are no longer in a framework where they have to feel cultural cringe, as was the case for much of the twentieth century. the development of maori media and maori political activism has meant that there are many voices in the public domain which can present the maori point of view in a coherent way. we, the public, are no longer getting such a one-sided story.

so who is right and who is wrong in this case? the personalities tend to cloud the issues somewhat. i found myself to be quite sympathetic to ms mutu's assertion that ms bullock had not taken the trouble to learn about and understand maori culture, nor had she chosen to engage with maori on this issue. certainly, ms bullock's responses to kathryn ryan gave the impression of someone who was never interested in negotiation or compromise, and didn't much care about causing offence. mostly because she herself was so busy feeling offended.

i could identify with the issue of cultural imperialism, of ms bullock viewing the whole situation through her own cultural lens, and not being prepared to accept that there might be another way to view the same set of circumstances. on the other hand, i can also identify with the view that culture is never an excuse for misogyny or inequality. in order to change cultures that are inherently misogynistic, one has to challenge them.

i have had to deal with this problem in another context. having grown up in nz, i find that my own views of the world often clash with women who have been brought up overseas. i look at the lives of some of the ethnic women i know, and find it appalling [i emphasise "some" - there are many ethnic women who don't live in this way]. i just don't think it's right. i don't believe that women were put on this planet to serve men. i hate it when i see these women refusing to make a decision but deferring to their husbands. in every way, their manner of living offends me.

on the other hand, by any measure, these women are much happier with their lives than i am with mine. they are confident, sure of their own identities, sure of their own place in the world, and love the life they're living. if i should challenge them, they would tell me in no uncertain terms about how they are right and i am wrong. some of their arguments would be religious, some would be cultural.

is it for me to say, then, that they need to be liberated? what would liberation mean for them? a likely divorce, leading to a life of poverty as they struggle to bring up children on their own, and find that they now have to do things they never had to bother with before - like paying the bills for example, or taking the car to a mechanic, or any number of small tasks that their husbands currently do for them. they would have face loneliness and exculsion. and to what end? maybe they would be free, but they certainly wouldn't be happy.

the question is: am i viewing their lives through my own cultural prism and making judgements that are arrogant (in that i'm assuming my way of thinking is better than theirs)? let me make it clear that the women i'm talking about don't suffer any abuse - no physical violence, no mental torture, no constant putdowns. they just live in a patriarchal framework where the man is the head of the house, and the household revolves around him.

i remember very vividly a conversation i had with an ethnic woman a few years ago. she said "you know, i fell into all that liberation bullshit. i accepted it, and left my husband. i had a really difficult time. and all those women who would spend all day talking about women's rights and equal opportunity, none of them wanted to know me after 5pm. none of them ever came to help me when i was struggling, they just didn't care."

trying to achieve cultural change is never an easy thing. one thing i do accept is that the change has to come from within the community, ie the people within the situation have to want to change, otherwise it's a waste of time. i remember watching an interview with some saudi women last year, who basically said "we need the rest of the world to leave us alone, and to let us work out our own solution. we don't want western feminism imposed on us. let us find our own way to deal with the current situation, and find solutions that we feel comfortable with."

i also believe that challenging the current status quo is not always helpful. because it puts people in a defensive position, and when they're defensive, they're not ready to listen and they're not prepared to consider change. sometimes, by being challenging, you actually entrench the status quo. it's better to build up a strong relationship, build up trust, and achieve change through dialogue and encouragement.

so was josie bullock right to do what she did? on balance, i think it wasn't. it just hasn't helped anyone, and if anything, has been pretty divisive. i understand her point of view, but i don't agree with her approach. was the human rights review tribunal right in its decision, basically saying the powhiri was sexist? at this stage, i just can't say. i'm just glad that it wasn't me who had to make the decision.

whew, that was a long post. it's going to have keep you guys going for a few days, cos i am having a break over easter! hope you all have a good break too.

1 comment:

Dorothy said...

so it's ok to be sexist if you are from a different culture?
in this case the problem is not people having a practice which is objectively sexist - as you say, if they freely chose that, it's their funeral - but expecting outsiders to comply, which is patently unreasonable