Sunday, October 9, 2011

Crosshairs of Cultural Sexism

Where do the cross hairs of culture and blatant sexism lie? When does tolerance end and sticking your head in the sand begin? Questions for the ages I know; I realize that people have been trying to answer this question for years—inside and out of academia.

It’s not just a question for academics and Stanley Fish (we’ll come back to him later) rather it’s a practical question that has a daily bearing on our lives. Personally, I feel very close to this issue right now as I’m currently living in South Korea for a year teaching English. First things first, I’m loving South Korea (just in case you wanted to know) the food is excellent and the people are really nice, especially to foreigners, it’s easy to see that they’re excited to have us in their country (hence a small amount of guilt for this post, but I still feel like it needs to be said). Needless to say, you’ll probably be hearing a lot about South Korea from me over the next year.

However, South Korea, like many Asian countries, is still based on a patriarchal system. While things are getting better for women out here, there is still a lot of repression going on. Women rarely hold positions of power, the way women look is intensely important (femininity is key) and men are DEFINITELY still seen as the head of the household. Here is an example, this is sort of an odd story, but I think it helps to show my point: a few friends of mine, one man and two women, were in a taxi (a gloriously cheap mode of transportation here) and they needed some information off the man’s cellphone to give to the taxi driver. The man tried to hand it back to one of the two women with him since one of the women knew how to get the information. The taxi driver protested, he kept insisting that the man not give the cellphone to the woman, for some reason, this taxi driver felt that the man should have the information, should find it, and should be the one to communicate with him.

Seems small and silly, right? But this drives me crazy! That a woman should not be able to access information because a man is in the room and could find it better is pretty blatant, early sexism.

Similarly, I was attending church one Sunday and during many of the lessons I’ve been told that it is a man’s job to provide for his family and that a man should be a wise father and a woman should be a loving mother (since this augments their divine characteristics). Men should make sure to spend time alone with their children so that they can better instruct them in the ways of patience and wisdom. One man told a story about feeling like he needed to sell his house and so he told his wife to put the house on the market and since she’s OBEDIENT (translators exact words) she did it.

Now, I just usually sit there and smile and nod, because, well I’m a guest in their country. These people have been nice and generous to me, offering rides and help with whatever I may need. Similarly, this is a part of their culture, a culture that has been around for thousands of years. As westerners, we believe that the diversity stemming from other cultures is a positive thing; we value tolerance and understanding and the preservation of those cultures.

So this is my dilemma for the day, how do we, as feminists (and therefore implicitly humanists) handle these kinds of situations? Should I politely start to point out to the Korean women and men that I interact with that maybe some of their ideas about women and society aren’t entirely appropriate? Do I merely set an example of independence and feminism (but is that enough)? Do I pass out copies of the feminine mystique as Christmas presents? Or do I continue to bite my tongue and nod at doctrines and attitudes that I personally believe to be destructive and damaging?

Now, in regards to the “big” stuff, I definitely think we should be pushy; child brides in India and the abuse of women in Iraq, Afghanistan (and other countries) should definitely be eradicated, but what about the small, cultural stuff? It’s still not good, but these women are loved by their husbands and if they decide to drive no one will beat them up when they get home.

I don’t want to be the pushy Western imperialist and gleefully romp all over someone’s country and culture, that just doesn’t seem right, but neither do I want to be a party to the continued repression of my fellow sisters.

Stanley Fish once stated that, in reality, we are all only “boutique multiculturalists,” meaning of course that we profess to love and accept other cultures, but that eventually we encounter something we can not support; obviously in that moment we’re no longer truly multiculturalists.

Honestly, I have to believe that Stanley Fish might be right, I feel like I can’t support the behaviors of repression (or oppression as the case may be) no matter the long-standing cultural beliefs they come out of or even the apparent silliness of the example (i.e. the taxi story).

Therefore, I am your intolerant imperialist signing off…..

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