Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Coming Out as a Cultural Relativist

Five years ago, at the age of 20, I found myself sitting on a plane, travelling to a foreign country by myself for the first time in my life. To say that I was a little nervous would be an understatement. Mostly, though, I was really excited. I was going to Jordan to participate in my first excavation! I could potentially find something that a bona fide archaeologist might write a paper about. My hands would be the first human hands in thousands of years to come into contact with the objects I would find. I do not know if I can describe the excitement that stirred in me, still stirs in me. I was practically buzzing the entire flight.

When I got off the plane I was immediately struck by two things: the heat, and the number of women in headscarves. Since high school I have been a very vocal feminist. Like any ‘good’ feminist I thought I knew that the headscarf was a symbol of the oppression of women in the Middle East; it indicated how distant true gender equality in the Middle East was. There was no doubt in my mind. It should be done away with entirely. So when I got off that plane my first thought was, “They still have a long way to go.” I didn’t even realize how ethnocentric I was being.

See, even though I was a hardcore feminist, I was (and still am) also a cultural relativist. As an archaeologist, the only way for me to understand a foreign culture is for to try to view it as objectively as possible. That means I have to leave my own culturally informed ideas about how the world works at the door, and attempt to understand foreign cultures on their own terms. If I do not, my own preconceptions could hinder my ability to fully understand a culture I am studying.

Along the same lines, I am a moral relativist. I believe that terms like, “right,” and “wrong” do not encompass universal truths. What I perceive to be “right,” could be completely different to what you (the reader) perceive to be “right,” and each “right” is equally valid. So, when two cultures disagree about what is “good” and “evil,” they are both speaking from their own cultural norms, and neither of them is more correct than the other. Morality can only be judged by examining it through the lens of a specific culture.

And yet, when I first arrived in Jordan my cultural and moral relativist ideas left me. For some reason I was unable to realize that I was doing exactly what my education had taught me not to do: I was imposing my own moral and cultural values onto another culture. Luckily, I am not as daft as I might seem. Eventually, I realized that before I decided that headscarves were intrinsically bad, I had to look at those headscarves in their cultural context. And seeing as I was in a country where many women wore headscarves, I figured I should start talking to people.

It is perhaps obvious, but although all the women I met who wore the headscarf were Muslim, not all of the women I met without a headscarf were non-Muslim. Jordan has a large Christian population, compared to the rest of the region, and so it might be easy to assume that all the women who aren’t wearing headscarves are Christian. However, that is not the case. In Jordan, there are no laws regarding the headscarf, and so there are Muslim women who don’t wear it.

Anyway, all of the women I talked to wore headscarves by choice. It served as an indicator of their religion, a statement of fashion, and a symbol of modesty all in one. On a more practical note, headscarves protected their heads and necks from the sun and wind. And let me tell you, the sun and wind can be brutal in Jordan. By the end of my six weeks there, I was wearing a headscarf whenever I went outside. That’s right; I, a ‘good’ feminist, was wearing a headscarf regularly. Imagine my mother’s surprise when I walked off the plane returning from Jordan without much of a tan, and with a headscarf covering my hair.


On the last day I was in Jordan, I was taking a taxi from a hotel to the airport and the taxi driver pointed at a woman on the street and said, “She is not Jordanian.” I was a bit surprised by this comment, but I looked at the woman and saw that she was completely covered in black clothing, with only her eyes showing from a slit in her veil. The woman’s clothing was styled in a way that is more common in countries on the Arabian Peninsula, and I thought that perhaps he might be commenting on that. However, he continued to explain that Jordanian women don’t cover their faces like that. Now whether that is true or not is a question I can’t answer. I don’t have any statistics on how many Jordanian women wear a face-covering veil.

However, what I find important and most interesting was the way the taxi driver reacted to seeing it. In the west we tend to assume that all Muslim men would prefer it if all women were to walk around completely covered. Yet, from what this taxi driver was telling me, that’s an incorrect assumption, made by yet again viewing the Middle East through a western cultural lens. For this taxi driver, good Jordanian Muslim women did not cover their faces. In fact, maybe only part of how the taxi driver interpreted the headscarf had to do with gender at all.

Jordanians are fiercely proud of their national identity, or at least, the Jordanians I met were. I assume that part of what the taxi driver was saying was meant to differentiate Jordanian identity from other Arab nationalities. He was effectively saying, ‘that is not who we are.’ In a sense, his comment had more to do with national identity than it did with gender. Perhaps, for this man, seeing a woman wear a headscarf in a particular way wasn’t just about religion or fashion. Perhaps he also viewed it as a statement of national identity, akin to wearing a small American flag pinned onto a jacket.

Something that is rarely discussed is the fact that Arab men, including Jordanian men, wear headscarves too. They’re just very different looking, symbolize different things, and have a different name (keffiya). In Jordan, the practice probably started as a way to protect a man’s hair and face from the sun and wind. And, as I already mentioned, it’s certainly effective in doing all those things. However, keffiyas have also taken on another meaning entirely.

A keffiya is a symbol of national identity, and the colour and style is very important for that identity. In Jordan, for example, keffiyas have a red and white checker pattern and have tassels on the sides. They can be worn long and draped over the shoulders, or wrapped tight around a man’s head, and sometimes around the neck too. And though it is true that in Islam, it is highly recommended that men cover their heads, keffiyas represent national, not religious, identity. So for my taxi driver, perhaps seeing a woman in a bright headscarf wrapped around her head and neck was a symbol of national identity first and religious identity second.


I’ll be honest, where my moral relativism falls apart is when I come up against someone inflicting pain (physical or emotional) on other people. To me, the ‘golden rule’ is perhaps the closest thing you can come to any absolute moral truth. Yet, even when my moral relativism falters, I am still culturally relativistic. More often than not, the reason someone is inflicting harm on another person can be explained by examining the culture in which it is happening. Unless we’re talking about psychopaths, violence and pain, particularly when it’s institutionalized, are often tools used to accomplish something else entirely.

Every country is not as free-thinking about the headscarf as Jordan. There are countries (such as Iran and Saudi Arabia) that enforce the use of the headscarf and will punish women who do not wear it ‘correctly.’ However, this is usually indicative of a culture that is using the headscarf as more than just a way to enforce modesty. They are often doing it as a way to force the religious laws the headscarf represents on the population. It might sound obvious to say it, but in places where headscarves are mandatory, men are being oppressed too. Mandatory headscarves are only one aspect of this oppression. The enforcement of the use of the headscarf has become a tool used to push a religious and political agenda onto a country.

So even when discussing mandatory headscarves, we still need to consider cultural (not moral) relativism. We can’t take our own culture and values and plant them onto Iran (or any other oppressive society). To do so would be as oppressive as the policy of mandatory headscarves we were trying to overturn. This would be akin to what France has recently attempted to do.

A couple years ago, France tried to ban wearing headscarves in public spaces, such as courtrooms or even public transportation. I’m not sure whether this was done out of fear of suspected terrorists, or whether this was a case of trying to protect Muslim women from the perceived oppression of their society. My guess was that it was a little of both. Either way it indicates a fundamental lack of understanding about the cultural norms surrounding the headscarf. It’s another kind of oppression to ban the headscarf, and it’s just as bad as making it mandatory.


Perhaps it is most difficult to keep a culturally and morally relativistic perspective when discussing your own culture. We are all socialized from such an early age and to such a great extent that it can be very hard to separate what is cultural from what is biological. Plus, we know so much about human biology and evolution we can now often examine a specific cultural or behavioural attribute and point to a biological cause.

However, we can also make false cause-effect correlations. The ‘obvious’ answer is often simply the answer that you come up with because of the culture you are part of. For example, for many westerners the most ‘obvious’ answer to the question “What are the different genders called,” is: men and women. However, if I were to ask 10 people from 10 different cultures that question, I would get at least 4-5 different answers. None of those answers would be the most correct or “right.” All of those answers would be based on their own culturally specific ideas of what constitutes a different gender.

That exercise could be extended to include any aspect of gender. Something as seemingly obvious as the oppression of wearing a headscarf can be greatly misunderstood if viewed without an understanding of an individual culture. As has often been discussed, gender is not strictly biological; it is culturally informed. So when we examine gender roles, like I did with my experiences in Jordan, we should take a look at the meaning behind the traditions of the culture we are discussing before we draw any conclusions.

A longer version was originally published at the Good Men Project.

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