Monday, October 15, 2012

The Limits of Cultural Sensitivity?

I spent this weekend in Montreal as a presenter at Le Mood (otherwise known as Limmud when not in french speaking Quebec). Though I enjoyed many great classes perhaps my favorite one led by Amal Elsana-Alh'jooj, a Bedouin who was born and raised in one of the many unrecognized towns in the Negev.

From a young age, she helped create organizations to advance the plight of women for Bedouins. Seriously, the list of her accomplishments is really, really long and you can find them all here.

One of the points she stressed repeatedly was how she, as a woman, was oppressed twice--first by the patriarchally structured Bedouin society and then by the Israelis, who claiming cultural sensitivity, would at times not deal with her or ask to speak to a male representative from her tribe instead. That she had grassroots support from her community should've been enough for the Israelis to give her support and recognize the legitimacy of her position. (They eventually did.)

This claim of "cultural sensitivity" especially when it comes to matters of gender and equality has always rankled me. If you (personally and as a society) espouse values of equality and justice then you have to at least be willing to acknowledge trespasses when they're right in front of your face. The argument--"This what they believe," or "this is the way they live" should not be the end of the discussion. This is an excuse I've often heard brought up when discussing the organization of Haredi communities and it drives me nuts. If I believe that egalitarianism is an imperative, why would I then be accepting of it in certain circumstances?

While I'm not suggesting that we force communities to change their ways--i.e. invasions--I also don't think that we should shrug and simply say, "This is their way of life." Misogyny should not be tolerated in the name of "cultural sensitivity," whether we encounter it in an Islamic, Jewish or Christian community. And if there are women from those communities agitating for rights and opportunities at the grassroots, we should not turn away from them because we don't want to offend the patriarchal powers victimizing them. Is it truly our goal to be sensitive to the oppressors? What does that make us?

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