Danielle Capalbo’s Blog

Thinking again

Posted in Cultural differences by Quiet Giant on May 7, 2009

It’s inevitable:  we’re overwhelmingly inclined to interpret new experiences through a lens colored by the past. But so much gets lost in translation that way. More than anything so far, this trip has encouraged me to loosen up the straps of my Western goggles when it comes to anything from accepting Cairo’s constant clamor of honking cars to understanding Islamic conventions.

It’s easier to accept the honking, naturally.

The other night, Katie and I realized we barely hear it anymore. When we do, it’s sort of charming. But that won’t make a honking horn in Boston any nicer – because interpretation relies on an evaluation of intent, and Bostonians will still be honking out of aggravation. Meanwhile, Dennis told us that Egyptians honk to say, “Hello.” It’s a stress-free exercise. A sonic head nod. Considering the national contempt for traffic laws, it’s hard to imagine they’d honk for any reason except to save themselves the trouble of cleaning your body off the street. But, nope! The honking has little to do with how close they’ve come to committing vehicular manslaughter. Just saying hey.

When it comes to heavier issues, it’s harder to accept the Egyptian status quo. As an American, I immediately view double standards as discriminatory, in this case, the different rules for Islamic men and women. Burkas seem oppressive. It’s insulting that women have to perform prostrations behind men in mosques. (Men and women alike kneel on the floor in deference to Allaah, and facing the direction of Mecca.)

Yesterday, on a walking tour of Islamic Cairo’s historical mosques (more on this later), Iman Abdulfattah reasoned the latter in a totally different context than I’d ever considered:  A woman wouldn’t feel comfortable kneeling with a man behind her, she said.

I struggled to reconcile this apparently sensible notion with my own principles. Muslim women live lives of modesty, so perhaps their religion should operate with their comfort in mind. Maybe the constrasting laws the govern men and women are practical and thoughtful, not suffocating. But Nick articulated the roots of my apprehension.

“[It’s OK] when it’s a personal choice, but not when it becomes a rule – that a woman has to be embarrassed about her body, but a man doesn’t,” he said. “If the modesty went both ways, I’d understand, but it doesn’t, which makes a woman subservient.”

Ultimately, I can’t condone any law that puts one man or woman behind, above, below or before another. But at least I’m learning – I hope – to suspend judgment when perceiving these cultural differences.

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  1. Aubrey said, on May 7, 2009 at 5:26 pm

    “[It’s OK] when it’s a personal choice, but not when it becomes a rule – that a woman has to be embarrassed about her body, but a man doesn’t,” he said. “If the modesty went both ways, I’d understand, but it doesn’t, which makes a woman subservient.”

    Why does the motivation behind the rule have to necessarily be a negative one, i.e. that the women should be embarrassed about her body?

    This is a topic that comes up frequently when groups come to visit the more religious neighborhoods in Jerusalem (where I live). Meah Shearim is an especially sensitive place for some to visit, because there are signs before you enter the neighborhood, asking that women should please be modestly dressed upon entering. A common reaction (especially from us Americans) is a frustrated one: is it really possible that in this day and age, women are still looked down upon, still made lesser-than, still oppressed?

    But what we don’t realize is, like you said, we are viewing the situation with our “Western goggles.” We immediately assume that any differences distinguished between men and women are unfair, because we come from a culture of blanket equality and tolerance. We assume the women are unhappy, because *we* would be unhappy. But they live in a different reality than the Western world does. And this is merely a cultural observation, something I’ve become very familiar with living in a similar world for nearly two years, and why that almost reflexive feeling of discomfort and injustice I got initially on my very first (and brief) visit to Israel, is just a memory now.

    I can’t comment on Islam because I don’t know very much about it or about how Muslims view modesty ideologically or in practice (aside from your factoid about kneeling, so I got to learn something new today!), but I can take your comment about viewing a different culture but through the lens of the one in which you were raised, and offer another look at the purpose of modesty and why it doesn’t mean women are seen as less than men, or should be embarrassed by their bodies.

    I think a big part of it is a sensitization issue. In the Orthodox Jewish world, and I imagine this is the same if not very similar in the Islamic world, men and women do not interact socially. They don’t date casually, they don’t have physical contact. The men avoid looking at billboards, magazine covers, they don’t watch films or TV, and the women that they do see do not wear clothing that draws special attention to provocative areas. The women dress with the philosophy of “I want to be attractive, but not attractING.” They view it as a source of self-respect and a form of self-expression, whereas Western culture has a different definition of self-expression through clothing. Men here are not repeatedly exposed to a woman’s body to the point of feeling nothing. They never get to the point where looking at a woman in a tank top and short-shorts would be comfortable. It comes from a place of deep respect for the woman, and a deep respect of the woman for herself. She says, “I want you to see *me*.”

    Perhaps sometimes seemingly extreme practices of modesty are meant to do the opposite than make the women subservient. They can be empowering in the right context. And I think it may be another Western perception to think that men and women should be treated exactly the same way in all situations. We aren’t the same. That doesn’t mean one is better than the other – this view of ‘inequality’ does not mean that at all – it means we are made differently, we think differently, function differently, and therefore have different weaknesses, strengths, etc. (as a whole, not on an individualized level, I am not saying all men or all women fit under one category). Men, generally, react when seeing a woman’s body. Women do not generally objectify men in the same way. We see that reflected all the time in American culture too: look at marketing/billboards, magazine covers, casting choices in films. Inequality has a different definition here, and it is not necessarily a bad one. I can’t speak for societies that have taken these ideas and warped them; unfortunately, there are people who hold up the banner of modesty and religion, and do horrible things and treat women horribly, and it is objectively wrong, no matter how politically correct anyone wants to be. But this is a general observation and statement.

    Thanks for thinking again. You got me to think again, too!

  2. […] in Cultural differences by daniprobably on May 24, 2009 As I gratuitously pointed out already, in one of my first posts from Cairo, you can’t help but see everything – at least initially – with the […]

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