Tuesday, September 27, 2005

This is kind of interesting.


Karen P. Hughes, a senior Bush administration official acting under the Secretary of State, was sent as an envoy to Saudi Arabia, in part to raise awareness about American ideals and women's rights in the Muslim world. On Tuesday she spoke to a group of approximately 500 Muslim women at a Saudi Arabian university. Many of the women in attendance were university faculty members and professionals, and they challenged several of Ms. Hughes' premises in the discussion session following her address. Several of the women, one of them a doctor, told Hughes that they resented the Western presumption that Muslim women were generally unhappy. Some women stated that despite their inability to vote or to drive cars, they felt that they were treated with less chauvinism in Saudi Arabia than in Europe or America. The women argued that many traditional aspects of their society (which restrict women from such actions as voting or driving cars) were embraced by both men and women, and each gender was recognized as having its own role to play within the Muslim culture.
I found this article interesting. The idea of having a society where women (or any subsection of a society, for that matter) are respected in some ways but limited in others is kind of wierd. On the one hand, my sense of cultural relativism tells me that maybe its wrong for us to impose our belief system on these people if their women are truly happy. If women as a collective subset of Muslim society decide that it's okay to give away some of their freedoms in exchange for preserving their cultural heritage, who am I to say that this decision is wrong? Maybe Muslim women, as a group, need to know that their role in Muslim society is clearly defined and respected by the law. Maybe giving up certain rights doesn't indicate a state of inequality to Muslim women. Maybe they just don't see things that way. Is that possible?
On the other hand, I believe that the Muslims in this discussion were missing at least one key point which was poorly explained by Ms. Hughes. The western concept of personal civil liberties is supposed to guarantee that any single person who wants to vote or drive or live in equality with the opposite sex has the right to do so. We're not just about civil liberties for women as a group (because women, or any subgroup, may internally become tyrannical toward its own members). We want civil liberties to be available to any member of the society which wants to enjoy them. If some women within the group wish to choose a traditional lifestyle, that should be fine for them to pursue, but the choice of traditional women to surrender their rights should not preclude other (perhaps less traditional) women from taking advantage of their civil liberties if they so choose. American freedom is supposed to be about majority rule, but with certain inalienable protections for the minority (those basic freedoms coming in the form of civil rights).
So basically what I'm saying is that if even one Muslim woman wants to be able to vote or drive or take advantage of any other right that men have, then equality should guarantee her that right, even in the face of a majority who claim that they are happy with a more traditional set of values. Some Muslim women may be happy with the status quo, but that fact shouldn't restrict the civil liberties of other women who are left watching men take advantage of freedoms which they do not possess (by right of nothing more than birth). If we want to recognize the fundamentally equal value of all human beings (a belief in true human equality), than we have to legislate civil rights for all people. What each person chooses to do with his rights is up to the individual.
Man, am I gettin' silly. It's late. Did you really read all of this?

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