First World Ignorance

Do we excuse some human rights abuses because we think they are exotic?

One of the clichés traded by so-called Africa specialists (who are usually not African) is that the women in a fascinating African ethnic group "are the real bosses." "You should see them driving a hard bargain as they stand at their market stalls," I've heard Western (usually male) academics exclaim in admiration. Or, "The guys may think they're in charge, but at home the women rule with an iron fist."

This type of view is usually offered to counter suggestions that many women and girls in the developing world struggle against long-established rules favoring men, especially in traditional, rural, conservative societies.

Dispiriting data on the continuing prevalence of child marriage, maternal mortality, and female genital mutilation (FGM) are shrugged off by "experts" who breathlessly recount the exotic ceremonial customs of a certain obscure ethnic group that allows women to preside at rites-of-passage occasions, for instance.

As if this compensates for being forced to marry and have sex with an old man when you are nine years old. As if this balances the risk of bearing children before your body is mature enough, resulting in infection, fistula, or bleeding to death. As if dictating where the cooking pot is kept in your hut makes up for being denied an education, being kept illiterate and unaware of your rights.

The Centers for Disease Control is this week releasing new figures on the extent of FGM in the USA (more than half a million women and girls living with FGM, since you ask). This should prompt us to reflect on the way in which we excuse harmful traditions and customs in an effort to seem politically correct.

In addition, we should query the implied stereotyping of Africans as exotic and "other," not subject to the requirements of universal human rights, even though their leaders sign international treaties and conventions committing their governments to such rights. How different is it from Edward Said's observations about "Orientalism"?

Perhaps we should also ask a simple question about the rights of a woman in any given society: can she determine when she has children, and how many of them she will have? If she cannot, then what use are her supposed positions of honor or status? But come to think of it, shouldn't that right extend to women in the so-called developed first world, too?