Tuesday, April 20, 2010

East and West, clash of civilisations or plain prejudice?

When I started reading this article, my first sentiments were of outrage and anger: how can a man beat up a woman? Then I kept on reading and felt something was unavoidably drifting towards the wrong direction. The piece was written by an aspiring journalist, Katherine, who has spent her junior year of college in Amman, Jordan, and it's the vivid account of when she was attacked by a taxi driver.

The violence of a human being against another human being is always despicable, no matter where, when and by whom is carried out.

As Katherine continues with her account, it inevitably ends up into cultural matters: "This wasn’t America, and we were nowhere near equal. What’s more: The majority of the population seemed to accept this, even expect it."

What did I miss? From being attacked by a taxi driver to the allegations of living in a society where women are considered next to nothing?

The first year I lived in London, women were terrified when booking a black cab because there was a taxi driver who had raped or attacked I can't remember who many women before getting caught. It was disgraceful, but the criminal was a single man, not all men in the UK, and this was the way it was reported in the UK media: a criminal act happening in London.

When I lived in Rome, my friend and I were walking down a very popular road downtown when, suddenly, out of nowhere, a guy showed up, punched my friend right on her face and walked away as if nothing had happened. It was early in the morning, we were heading to college, the neighbourhood was slowly waking up and the road was empty, so it didn't occur to us to scream. We were both shocked, my friend making sure she didn't have anything broken, myself trying to see if she needed to be brought to the hospital. It never crossed our mind that this was Italy's national attitude.

When a random act of violence happens in Europe or the US, it is reported as such: a random criminal incident. If the same episode occurs in any  Middle Eastern country, the first Western reaction is to condemn the entire society. This is not fair and doesn't benefit anybody, both in the West and in the East.

True is that as citizens in Western countries have a distorted idea of Eastern societies, the same applies to many citizens of Eastern countries regarding their general opinion on Western women.

Although our media are swift in defending women's rights and condemning any distorted ideas foreign societies can hold on Western women, very little they do in order to prevent this misconception from happening. I had written a post on my travel blog about the abuse of women's body in the Italian media: a quick glimpse is enough to understand that Italian tv is pure pornography, and pornography is a violation of women's dignity. Despite much criticism, this poor quality and constantly offensive content is what Italian national tv (private *and* public) broadcast, ignoring the fact that most women are uncomfortable with that.

The image of women as sexual objects, and the primary role that media, from cinema to tv to glossy magazines, give to seduction, justifying and encouraging its use for social empowerment, have undoubtedly led citizens of Eastern societies to think that this is what women are in the West. And it's wrong.

Western women are nowhere near the distorted image that our media give, we have nothing in common with Britney Spears or Paris Hilton, we don't envy them and we don't emulate them. They are fake, we are real. Western women are not well represented by Western media, as simple as that.

Similarly, by saying:

A woman, her face covered and her head down, came up to my translator as I waited at the police station for a medical exam. She said something in Arabic. My translator turned to me and said flatly, “She wants to know if your husband is beating you too, 

Katherine seems implying that women's abuse is a common routine in Jordan or Arab countries, and that Arab women accept and expect to be considered inferior. This is not true: the Arab women I met are nowhere near downtrodden and constantly humiliated, and the Arab men I know are nowhere near violent. Generalisation is never useful.

Probably due to the young age of the writer, the article is incredibly naive, lacking of any social and geopolitical context, which is always necessary in order to understand what cultural patterns we are talking about. Unfortunately, many Westerners, consciously or unconsciously, adopt the "our-culture-is-the-best" attitude.

This is why statements such as:

Coming home—first to Wisconsin and then back to school in Los Angeles—I was suddenly surrounded by things that had been taboo—short skirts, tank tops, male friends, individuality, and an expectation that I was an independent woman capable of having a job, a voice, and my own life plan. I felt like I was handed every social freedom for which those women in Jordan fought every day, but for the first time in my life I could fully appreciate them all

reek of an overstated national identity and don't do justice to a society as complex as the Jordanian one, and much of the Middle East countries that can rightly boast thousands of years of culture and scientific discoveries we are all still drawing from.

The biggest mistake we, Westerners, make when judging other cultures is that we do it using our cultural standards, making no effort in trying to understand the others, their complexities and imperceptible nuances. This pattern, it must be said, is widely encouraged by media propaganda and our governments.

Just because in Europe or the US we wear mini-skirts  and don't wear the hijab (which has somehow become the symbol of the abuse), it doesn't mean that we don't face discrimination, at work and in the society.

There's no culture better than another, there are human beings. Like it or not, we all share the same planet, and like it or not, we all have to acquire awareness of it. Katherine happened to be "granted awareness" in Jordan, I was granted awareness by living in Rome, Dublin and London. Especially the latter, where nobody can afford to be naive for too long, to avoid being sucked by the jungle.

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