You Do Uterus: Cultural relativism isn’t considered in US politics

Kylie Cheung | Daily Trojan

So, here’s a sort of embarrassing confession: It wasn’t until the eighth grade that I realized Thanksgiving was only celebrated in the United States. I realize that should have been obvious — why would any other country or culture celebrate a holiday meant to commemorate the settlement of pilgrims and emergence of the first U.S. colonies? I’m not about to dole out excuses for my own ignorance, but I will say this: In America, we’re taught that the world revolves around us, around our culture, our values, our traditions.

In my case, this prevalent, national egocentrism led me to believe families around the world congregated for a hearty meal of turkey and mashed potatoes just because I did. But among many of our right-leaning politicians, this egocentrism has had a different sort of effect: It’s produced inflated, often racially charged notions of moral superiority, and ignorance about the basics of cultural relativism that we should all be educated about.

Last week, an attorney representing Roy Moore, an Alabama Senate candidate who is accused of sexual misconduct with minors, told MSNBC host Ali Velshi that Velshi’s “background” should help him understand the concept of child marriage and parental consent for relationships. Velshi is of Indian descent and was born in Kenya, but raised in the United States. Moore’s attorney Trenton Garmon seemed to be suggesting that Moore’s relationships with underage teenage girls were totally acceptable, considering the arranged child marriages common in eastern cultures. As Velshi was visibly not white, Garmon took it upon himself to sweepingly cast him as a representative of Eastern culture.

It’s important to recognize that Garmon’s words come from a pervasive, systemic problem in right-wing politics. When conservative politicians are confronted about the abject harm of their policies and stances on American women — or, really, whenever they’re criticized for a moral failure that they can’t reasonably defend — suddenly, and only then, do human rights violations (real or imagined) in the Middle East, Africa, Asia or Latin America become relevant.

Recall the Democratic National Convention in 2016. Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the parents of a fallen American soldier, took the stage to criticize then-Republican nominee Donald Trump for his verbal attacks on Muslims. Trump then suggested that the reason only Khizr spoke, and not his wife, was that Ghazala had not been “allowed to have anything to say.”

His response to the grieving parents of a Muslim American who had died for his country was to otherize them and suggest that Islam is inherently misogynistic — all while, himself, supporting policies that would allow the state to force American women to give birth, and just months before he would go on to threaten women accusing him of sexual assault.

Ultimately, here is the inescapable truth: There are women’s rights abuses in every society. It seems the common thread that connects international civilizations is varying levels of disrespect for women’s rights.

A survey conducted by the European Commission in 2016 found 27 percent of European men think rape is excusable. And here in America, in conjunction with restrictions on abortion and rates of violence toward abortion providers and those seeking them, rates of maternal death have steadily been on the rise, particularly in states where abortion is more difficult to access. Human trafficking continues to exist across Europe and in the United States as well.

In other countries, gruesome realities such as female genital mutilation, child marriage, sex slavery and severe limits on women’s access to education exist and should not be trivialized. But nor should they be used as a shield by Western politicians who have their own gruesome, inhumane beliefs about women’s human rights.

Notably, this summer, two Muslim women wrote an op-ed in The New York Times criticizing female Democratic senators like Sen. Kamala Harris for not asking them questions in a Senate hearing about the “dangers” of “political Islam.” They made an important point that Western feminists and progressives can sometimes have blind spots for the different experiences of women of color, and yet, Harris and her peers didn’t refuse to question activists Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Asra Q. Nomani because they don’t support their rights — but because they do. Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee invited Ali, a survivor of female genital mutilation, child marriage and a host of other abuses, and Nomani, who had been shunned by her society for having a child out of marriage, solely to stigmatize Islam and draw more support for Trump’s travel ban.

The takeaway here is not that women like Nomani and Ali should be silenced, nor that the tragic human rights abuses and misogyny of non-Western societies should be dismissed. Rather, it’s that every society in the world has work to do when it comes to women’s rights. Demonizing non-western societies or using the human rights abuses of other countries to somehow make those happening in America seem less awful is not only counterproductive, but also deeply deceitful.

Kylie Cheung is a sophomore majoring in journalism and political science. She is also the editorial director of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “You Do Uterus,” typically runs Thursdays.

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