B A L A N C E of C U L T U R E
Fitting for this month--"Dachshund UN" just opened to coincide with the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland, which began just a few days ago.
Today marks International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). It's hard to believe that such a barbaric practice still exists today in our world, but the tradition remains widely practiced in regions--mainly Africa and the Middle East--where gender inequality remains high.
Thankfully, progress continues. According to UNICEF Egypt, 91% of females aged 15-49 have undergone FGM procedures in that country--but Egypt's Population National Council will hold a press conference tomorrow "to discuss means of countering the practice." And Uganda has recently joined Kenya in its efforts to eradicate FGM, stating that "unless the two countries worked together, the practice would not be wiped out."
But FGM isn't confined to the countries where the ritual originates anymore. With globalization comes diaspora, and many females that live in Western nations are still potentially at risk--as unfathomable as this sounds. According to a recent survey conducted in Ireland, immigrant families are still often under pressure to inflict FGM on their daughters. For these girls, the context is completely different yet the lack of knowledge on the dangers of the practice remain ignorantly high.
The culture must shift in order to provide circumstances that do not consider this a "normal" action. There are zero benefits to this crude and outdated practice. It is simply a way to control women and maintain their status as mere property throughout the world.
Although this Saudi cleric's fatwa was suggested on a television interview several months ago, the mainstream public is now reeling about the idea of forcing female babies to wear full burkas as a deterrent from sexual abuse.
Sheikh Dauod's statement is in full accord with the sensibilities of societies that harbor deep gaps in gender equality--it's the victim who needs to prevent the wrongdoing. But where is any accountability for actual perpetrators? Females are traditionally not required to wear burkas until they reach puberty, so this idea clearly shows an inherently tunnel-visioned bias towards hiding the criminal actions of sick individuals. This reminds me of a popular sentiment in the protests following India's recent horrific gang rape that swept the world.
Furthermore, even if putting burkas on baby girls does somehow prevent sexual abuse, it does nothing for male children (just ask Cardinal Mahoney and his "holy" cohorts if a piece of cloth would have stopped their heinous actions).
Wearing burkas may be a cultural choice for many women, but this perennial cover-up of an established global "boys club" is ultimately a scary thing for both genders no matter where you live on the planet.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948), often known as Mahatma Gandhi, was assassinated by a Hindu nationalist 65 years ago today. Here's the very first filmed interview of Gandhi, taken at his home in Borsad:
The underprivileged lives of North Koreans are hardly a secret to those who bother to read the news once in a while, but sometimes the details are (understandably) lost in the spectacle of the country's rural poverty. John Everard recently shared some of his own experiences with Pyongyang's elite class and their infatuation with Hollywood and South Korea while he served as Britain's ambassador to the DPRK:
I was often asked for medicines, but not as often as I was asked for DVDs of television soap operas, usually but not always from South Korea. These portrayed a world of which North Koreans can only dream--of people who eat well in smart restaurants, have their own cars and live in flats where the heating always works--and my contacts devoured them ravenously. I once lent one set of DVDs of Desperate Housewives and met the same person the next day with big rings under their eyes. They had sat up all night and watched the entire series in one setting.
While detractors may dismiss a story like this as evidence of a lack of a severe humanitarian crisis, let's remember that this is a country with millions of people--many of whom still barely exist due to the most recent "hidden famine."
Sometimes, waiting for a government to step up just takes too long.
One encouraging development in the aftermath of the Delhi public transport gang rape/murder is the growing popularity of Cabs for Women by Women. Though a bit more expensive than hailing traditional male-driven cabs, this seven cab business is targeted towards middle class women who may need the flexibility that a public bus can't offer (and, in some cases, the additional comfort that only a trained German Shepherd can yield).
Back in 2009, India tried to balance the inherent sexist environments in their public transportation by introducing eight women-only trains called "Ladies' Specials." This concept is not new, and perhaps most recognizable to those familiar with the context of Japan's own uneasy subway culture.
Countries in several regions offer similar services for women today: Egypt, Iran, Taiwan, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Dubai. A good look for private-public enterprise responding to social lewdness--not so much a good look for those in power who have clearly failed to implement policies that provide safe environments to half of their citizens. Makes me wonder if these kinds of services will proliferate before the problems that prompted them in the first place begin to improve at all.
"Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law--for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well."
Though this statement isn't necessarily a specific foreign policy implication, it's a message that certainly provokes signals of progression, compassion, and reason to observers and citizens in regions that still severely stigmatize and punish homosexuality, such as the Middle East and most of Africa.
If timing is everything, then Russian President Vladimir Putin's three-year soft power initiative is right on schedule. The plan, which Putin ordered last July, involves the usual checklist for improving a nation's image abroad: building new (and modernizing currently existing) science and cultural centers, hosting youth festivals, and promoting the Russian language.
So back to the timing of this…last summer Putin began stressing the importance of soft power, lamenting that Russia's image abroad was "lopsided" and thus needed attention by government officials.
But did this frame of mind just pop out of nowhere? It's difficult not to notice that Putin's July appeal for aggressively pursuing soft power conveniently occurred within four months of the arrests of feminist punk band Pussy Riot for their "hooliganism"--a case that produced perhaps the biggest media frenzy surrounding Russia in years.
Putin has publicly discussed the subject of his country's image abroad in the past, but before states look to exercise soft power in order to counter unattractive domestic cases they might want to consider some self reflection.
Without acknowledging or dealing with the Russian Orthodox Church's exorbitant influence on not only Pussy Riot's criminal investigation but also their internal propaganda to their trusting citizens, Moscow's self-promotion of "youth," "culture," or even "science" abroad probably won't be received as very organic or even very trustworthy--at least not to most Western audiences who enjoy freedom of speech without a backlash from their local church, and so forth. According to polls by Levada Center, public opinion in Russia veered heavily with the Orthodoxy and even considered the global reactions to the arrests and harsh sentences as "unfair" and "hysterical."
Ironically, despite Moscow's good intentions, Pussy Riot is the real winner from this situation. There are very few speedier ways to reveal a progressive sensibility in an unlikely setting than by getting arrested and jail time for playing a punk song that challenges conservative society. In this case, the soft power of the "unlikely setting" will probably get a lot less traction than anticipated simply because Pussy Riot's philosophy is already the status quo in many parts of the world.