02 August 2009

Lubna Ahmed al-Hussein

This post has the potential to be controversial. It covers cultural anthropology, world affairs, and human rights.

In case you don't want to read it, aren't in the mood, etc., here's a pretty picture to serve as a buffer:

For those of you who haven't yet heard about this, you can read about it here. The basic gist is that Ms. al-Hussein went to Sudan, where it is illegal for women to wear "indecent clothing." She was caught in public wearing trousers, which has traditionally been defined as "indecent" for a woman. She now faces a punishment of public flogging (40 lashes). She could have avoided it by claiming diplomatic immunity, but she instead chose to resign her position with the U.N., presumably to shed light on these issues.

I've been turning this issue over and over in my mind for a few days now, and no matter which way I come at it, I remain truly ambivalent about it. It's a complex issue, and I'm going to try to explain my thoughts about it in an articulate manner. So, stick with me here. Or at least try to!

In the U.S., women can wear trousers. It isn't considered indecent. However, in Sudan it is. In the U.S. what we can and can not wear isn't codified. However, in Sudan it (apparently) is. While these differences surprise me, I don't find them appalling. I find them to be cultural differences. And I'm OKAY with that. I don't find anything there to be all up in arms about.

I find it extremely difficult for one country (ANY country) to dictate to another what is RIGHT. "We do things THIS way, so it MUST be the RIGHT way. Therefore, YOU must do it this way, too."

My friend Kristi and I had discussions along this line when she was working on her KAA dissertation some years back. I was bemoaning the fact that there were so many Chinese baby girls being adopted and aborted because of the population cap and how that should be changed. And she said that she was uncomfortable with us (meaning Western culture) dictating to another country how they should run their country. They HAVE over-crowding. Who are WE to tell them how to solve the problem? If their culture dictates that men are valued more, then that's THEIR culture. I learned that afternoon that there exists a delicate balance between human rights and cultural rights.

And that's where I find myself again.

Sudan has laws about what women can wear. She broke the laws. Some people may find the laws "archaic" or "old-fashioned," but that IS their law. When people visit our country, we expect them to abide by our laws; they have a right to expect the same by visitors to their country.

Now, the next issue: some people find the punishment "too much" or "humiliating." Talk to me about that one again when the U.S. gets rid of chain gangs and the death penalty.


  1. I think I mostly agree with you, but I retain my opinion that the punishment is ridiculously harsh, which is similar to my opinion on chain gangs and the death penalty here.

  2. I have trouble accepting misogynistic "cultural" differences. I think that is why I have issues that led me to pretty much reject my Japanese heritage until after Angie was born.