If speaking the truth is offensive, let us offend

On July 15, Aruna Papp, author of a recently released report, “Culturally-driven violence against women: A growing problem in Canada’s immigrant communities” published by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy’s study, wrote in an editorial in the Vancouver Sun:

Problematically, most advocates and activists for female victims of abuse shy away from challenging the immigrant communities to examine their own traditions and cultural values in explaining the violence in their homes.

The ideology of multiculturalism, even among the most well-meaning advocates for female equality, tends to preclude any discussion of cultural values and traditions. Such advocates are afraid of being seen as “colonialist” and try to avoid a perceived “racialization” of an entire ethnic community.

Papp writes in the aftermath of the sentencing last month to life imprisonment of Muhammad Parvez and Waqas Parvez, for the murder of 16-year-old Aqsa Parvez in Mississauga, Ontario. Aqsa was killed on December 10, 2007 – Human Rights Day incidentally for a sad twist of irony – by her father and brother, who strangled her to death in her bedroom early one morning, after grabbing her from the bus stop where she waited to go to school. Their motive? Aqsa didn’t want to wear a veil, wanted to wear jeans, to have a part-time job, and the freedom to have a social life outside her family.

Papp ventured into dangerous territory and put a name to a problem we more often prefer to leave unnamed. She emphasized the danger of culturally-sanctioned abuse against women, its prevalence in Canada, and its tacit acceptance among many women and men in South Asian immigrant communities. In the light of the tragedy and the injustice of Aqsa’s honour killing, and all the warning signs that preceded it, these trends warrant serious and open examination.

Yet in Canada, we are gripped in fear of offending other cultures and so we carefully tiptoe around confronting the cultural or tribal roots of injustices, like the brutal murder of the teenage Aqsa. It is to the great detriment of true justice in our society, and it fails the victims of these crimes, which find religious and cultural sanction. It is this characteristic – religious or cultural sanction – that makes us plead silence, and Papp rightly makes the association with the fear of being perceived as colonialist should we dare to criticize the harmful practices of minorities.

This fear is something that has deep roots in Canadian culture, perpetuated through academic institutions, the media, even the peace movement. It has long been fashionable in the halls of western arts faculties to view all the world through the lens of post-colonialism. In classrooms across the country students of political science, anthropology, literature and other disciplines learn to see the developing world as unflinchingly hostile to foreign interference, as the wounds of conquest by imperial powers continue to heal. Through this lens, universal values do not exist. Young Canadians are taught to challenge their own western perceptions and to be culturally sensitive. Buzzwords like “ethnocentrism” abound, and all kinds of activities take on the metaphor of colonialism, whether international development projects or scientific research.

There is nothing wrong with seeking intercultural competence, except when our desire to be tolerant erodes our instincts that tell us when something is simply wrong. In romanticizing societies outside our own, we can more easily pretend that poverty, inequity and a denial of basic human rights are quaint tribal characteristics that make the world a more colourful place, as opposed to blatant human rights abuses. Anthropologists, for instance, have made the case that abusive practices against women such as female genital mutilation or widow burning (‘sati’) are cultural rituals that have their rightful, “contextually appropriate” place in those societies

In reflecting on differences between our culture and others, we often drown out the voices from those cultures that tell us, inconveniently, ‘I want the very same things as you do’. This was Aqsa’s voice – she had wanted freedom of mobility, of dress, of work. By not speaking out against her murder, and more importantly, against the reason for her murder, we are hearing only the voices of those who – like her murderers – tell us to mind our business, that culture is inviolable, sacred and relative.

As a Canadian activist who has worked to defend the rights of Afghan women over the past 14 years, I’ve heard those words, “mind your own business”, more times than I can count. But a pattern in who speaks them was rapidly apparent: it was never Afghan women who said this to me – it was usually Canadians. Very often it was white men, like the man who told me during a workshop about Canada in Afghanistan last year at Simon Fraser University’s Harbour Centre in downtown Vancouver: “it’s none of our business how they choose to treat their women.” He was referring to the Taliban and why Canada should “stay out” of Afghanistan. It’s a notion prevalent in the anti-war movement, which has come to stand for pacifism at any cost, and which has forgotten that there once was a time when people who called themselves peace activists actually stood against totalitarianism, the denial of human rights anywhere in the world, and the terrorism of innocents by regimes bent on seeing the spread of fascism.

Today, culture trumps the idea of universal rights. But not in the minds of many of the women we as Canadians have belittled by listening too seriously to the claim that abuses and misogyny in other cultures are somehow acceptable. In April 2009, an Afghan woman wrote an editorial in the Globe & Mail that said:

When I came to Canada, I found freedom, and perhaps more importantly, hope. I was free to pursue an education, free to plan and dream. I adjusted to my new home. But I still have not adjusted to the support I have found among Canadians for the Taliban state of mind. It made me sad to see that in a free and modern society, there remain those who excuse an ideology based on the hatred of women, by citing multiculturalism. And they are not Afghans, or even immigrants, but those born in Canada who somehow think that the abuse of women and a fundamentalist view of the world, are acceptable among Afghans, and so no intervention is required. But remember that among Afghans, women can also be found. Have you remembered to ask whether the Taliban represent their culture?

She wrote under a pseudonym, for her own protection from attacks from her ethnic community. She lives not in Kandahar or Tehran, but in a suburb of Vancouver, in western Canada.

We can duly recognize the legacy of colonialism without it disabling any kind of intervention to protect the basic human rights we are all entitled to, wherever we come from. We can similarly celebrate the multitude of cultures in the world while acknowledging that they are all united by the genetic coding all humans have to reject pain and suffering, and to mourn the pain and suffering of others – even when we deny that we do.

We must do a better job of listening to that human instinct within us that makes our stomachs churn when we pick up a newspaper article and read of how a young woman gave her last breaths of air, blood dripping down her nose, when police found her on her bed after her brother pushed down on her neck, making sure she would die within a few hours of her suffering. Rather than push aside the disgust we feel in reaction and veil it with some thinly disguised cultural relativism, or excuse it away as just another case of “ordinary” domestic violence, we must question, criticize and speak out against the tribal, cultural or religious sanction of any crime.

Aqsa’s family buried her in unmarked grave, refusing donations for a headstone. Let the end of her life, at least, be marked by the beginnings of a turning point in Canadian culture, where we shed our reluctance to offend cultural communities that perpetuate the hatred and subjugation of women and girls. If speaking the truth is offensive, so let us offend.

About the Author

Lauryn Oates is a Canadian human rights activist, gender and education specialist. She is currently Projects Director for Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, and a doctoral student in literacy education at the University of British Columbia.

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