Headscarves and Men Holding Hands: Coming Out as a Cultural Relativist

What cultural and moral relativism means for a discussion of gender roles.

Five years ago, at the age of 20, I found myself sitting on a plane, travelling to a foreign country by myself for the first time in my life. To say that I was a little nervous would be an understatement. Mostly, though, I was really excited. I was going to Jordan to participate in my first excavation! I could potentially find something that a bona fide archaeologist might write a paper about. My hands would be the first human hands in thousands of years to come into contact with the objects I would find. I do not know if I can describe the excitement that stirred in me, still stirs in me. I was practically buzzing the entire flight.

When I got off the plane I was immediately struck by two things: the heat, and the number of women in headscarves. Since high school I have been a very vocal feminist. Like any ‘good’ feminist I thought I knew that the headscarf was a symbol of the oppression of women in the Middle East; it indicated how distant true gender equality in the Middle East was. There was no doubt in my mind,  It should be done away with entirely. So when I got off that plane my first thought was, “They still have a long way to go.” I didn’t even realize how ethnocentric I was being.

See, even though I was a hardcore feminist, I was (and still am) also a cultural relativist. As an archaeologist, the only way for me to understand a foreign culture is for to try to view it as objectively as possible. That means I have to leave my own culturally informed ideas about how the world works at the door, and attempt to understand foreign cultures on their own terms. If I do not, my own preconceptions could hinder my ability to fully understand a culture I am studying.

Along the same lines, I am a moral relativist. I believe that terms like, “right,” and “wrong” do not encompass universal truths. What I perceive to be “right,” could be completely different to what you (the reader) perceive to be “right,” and each “right” is equally valid. So, when two cultures disagree about what is “good” and “evil,” they are both speaking from their own cultural norms, and neither of them is more correct than the other. Morality can only be judged by examining it through the lens of a specific culture.

And yet, when I first arrived in Jordan my cultural and moral relativist ideas left me. For some reason I was unable to realize that I was doing exactly what my training as an archaeologist had taught me not to do: I was imposing my own moral and cultural values onto another culture. Luckily, I am not as daft as I might seem. Eventually, I realized that before I decided that headscarves were intrinsically bad, I had to look at those headscarves in their cultural context. And seeing as I was in a country where many women wore headscarves, I figured I should start talking to people.

It is perhaps obvious, but although all the women I met who wore the headscarf were Muslim, not all of the women I met without a headscarf were non-Muslim. Jordan has a very large Christian population, and so it might be easy to assume that all the women who aren’t wearing headscarves are Christian. However, that is not the case. In Jordan, there are no laws regarding the headscarf, and so there are Muslim women who don’t wear it.

Anyway, all of the women I talked to wore headscarves by choice. It served as an indicator of their religion, a statement of fashion, and a symbol of modesty all in one. On a more practical note, headscarves protected their heads and necks from the sun and wind. And let me tell you, the sun and wind can be brutal in Jordan. By the end of my six weeks there, I was wearing a headscarf whenever I went outside. That’s right; I, a ‘good’ feminist, was wearing a headscarf regularly. Imagine my mother’s surprise when I walked off the plane returning from Jordan without much of a tan, and with a headscarf covering my hair.


On the masculine side, there was another shock I had when I first arrived in Jordan. After getting over my irrational hatred of the headscarf, I realized something about the men in Jordan: they all held hands. Though, to say that they held hands would be something of an understatement. It’d be more accurate to say that men walked down the street arm in arm, or with their arms along the shoulders of their friends. They would greet each other with a kiss on the cheek and a hug. In Jordan there was no social stigma associated with physical contact between men.

My first reaction to this was that it was brilliant. I was a liberal university student coming from New York City, so no my reaction was predictable. Yet, it was also far too simplistic and clouded by my own cultural perspective. Of course, being surrounded by a bunch of archaeologists (and cultural relativists) while I was in Jordan, my ethnocentric view didn’t last very long.

Archaeologists are notorious for spending their evenings on an excavation drinking and smoking, but occasionally we actually discuss the culture that we are visiting…usually while drinking and smoking. So we talked about the food and the clothing (and drank), and eventually discussed how Jordanian men expressed their friendships through physical contact with other men. Eventually we all came to a few conclusions.

Firstly, although physical contact between men is the norm, virtually no one engages in public displays of affection between men and women. You won’t catch a teenage couple making out in a restaurant any time soon. Physical contact and romantic intentions are two separate things in Jordan. When two men greet each other with a hug, they aren’t behaving in a way that is similar to heterosexual couples. So their behaviour isn’t interpreted as homosexual.

Which brings me to the second realization: public physical contact between men was not connected to social ideas of femininity. In the west, we often interpret men showing affection toward each other as effeminate. So when I saw two men walking arm-in-arm in Jordan, I assumed there was a greater tolerance toward effeminate behaviour. However, like much of Europe, Jordanians just have a different concept of personal space. They haven’t come up with different rules regarding personal space for different genders. Even if Jordan were to engage in some 1950s America-type reinforcing of gender roles, I don’t think this issue would come up. It’s just not seen as a gendered issue.

So then, are Jordanians more enlightened when it comes to showing affection between men? I’d have to say no. Their attitude toward personal space doesn’t indicate that they are more accepting to feminine or gay men, because they don’t view it as feminine or gay. It’s a completely separate issue, that isn’t really an issue at all. It just is. So if you’re a man and you travel to Jordan, or any other Middle Eastern country, don’t be surprised if you see two men walking arm in arm. But also don’t be surprised to learn that they are very much heterosexual and masculine, and chances are they’d be quite insulted if you implied otherwise.


I wish I could tell you even more about Jordanian men and how they view gender roles. Though I didn’t have a lot of conversations with Jordanian men,  one of the few I did have happened to be about gender.

Gender roles are quite strict in Jordan, despite what the rest of this article might imply. Women make up half the university population, but almost all of them marry and have children instead of starting a career. Men might walk arm-in-arm, but that doesn’t mean that the pressure to be a good provider and worker is any less than in a traditional western society. And although I had discussions with women about wearing the headscarf, it would have been quite awkward to have had similar discussions with men. I can, however, provide you with a few observations of my own. Of course, keep in mind these might be as clouded by my own cultural perspective as my first assumptions about headscarves and affectionate men.

On the last day I was in Jordan, I was taking a taxi from a hotel to the airport and the taxi driver pointed at a woman on the street and said, “She is not Jordanian.” I was a bit surprised by this comment, but I looked at the woman and saw that she was completely covered in black clothing, with only her eyes showing from a slit in her veil. The woman’s clothing was styled in a way that is more common in countries on the Arabian Peninsula, and I thought that perhaps he might be commenting on that. However, he continued to explain that Jordanian women don’t cover their faces like that. Now whether that is true or not is a question I can’t answer. I don’t have any statistics on how many Jordanian women wear a face-covering veil.

However, what I find important and most interesting was the way the taxi driver reacted to seeing it. In the west we tend to assume that all Muslim men would prefer it if all women were to walk around completely covered. Yet, from what this taxi driver was telling me, that’s an incorrect assumption, made by yet again viewing the Middle East through a western cultural lens. For this taxi driver, good Jordanian Muslim women did not cover their faces. In fact, maybe only part of how the taxi driver interpreted the headscarf had to do with gender at all.

Jordanians are fiercely proud of their national identity, or at least, the Jordanians I met were. I assume that part of what the taxi driver was saying was meant to differentiate Jordanian identity from other Arab nationalities. He was effectively saying, ‘that is not who we are.’ In a sense, his comment had more to do with national identity than it did with gender. Perhaps, for this man, seeing a woman wear a headscarf in a particular way wasn’t just about religion or fashion. Perhaps he also viewed it as a statement of national identity, akin to wearing a small American flag pinned onto a jacket.

Something that is rarely discussed is the fact that Arab men, including Jordanian men, wear headscarves too. They’re just very different looking, symbolize different things, and have a different name (keffiya). In Jordan, the practice probably started as a way to protect a man’s hair and face from the sun and wind. And, as I already mentioned, it’s certainly effective in doing all those things. However, keffiyas have also taken on another meaning entirely.

A keffiya is a symbol of national identity, and the colour and style is very important for that identity. In Jordan, for example, keffiyas have a red and white checker pattern and have tassels on the sides. They can be worn long and draped over the shoulders, or wrapped tight around a man’s head, and sometimes around the neck too. And though it is true that in Islam, it is highly recommended that men cover their heads, keffiyas represent national, not religious, identity. So for my taxi driver, perhaps seeing a woman in a bright headscarf wrapped around her head and neck was a symbol of national identity first and religious identity second.


I’ll be honest, where my moral relativism falls apart is when I come up against someone inflicting pain (physical or emotional) on other people. To me, the ‘golden rule’ is perhaps the closest thing you can come to any absolute moral truth. Yet, even when my moral relativism falters, I am still culturally relativistic. More often than not, the reason someone is inflicting harm on another person can be explained by examining the culture in which it is happening. Unless we’re talking about psychopaths, violence and pain, particularly when it’s institutionalized, are often tools used to accomplish something else entirely.

Every country is not as free-thinking about the headscarf as Jordan. There are countries (such as Iran and Saudi Arabia) that enforce the use of the headscarf and will punish women who do not wear it ‘correctly.’ However, this is usually indicative of a culture that is using the headscarf as more than just a way to enforce modesty. They are often doing it as a way to force the religious laws the headscarf represents on the population. It might sound obvious to say it, but in places where headscarves are mandatory, men are being oppressed too. Mandatory headscarves are only one aspect of this oppression. The enforcement of the use of the headscarf has become a tool used to push a religious and political agenda onto a country.

So even when discussing mandatory headscarves, we still need to consider cultural (not moral) relativism. We can’t take our own culture and values and plant them onto Iran (or any other oppressive society). To do so would be as oppressive as the policy of mandatory headscarves we were trying to overturn. This would be akin to what France has recently attempted to do.

A couple years ago, France tried to ban wearing headscarves in public spaces, such as courtrooms or even public transportation. I’m not sure whether this was done out of fear of suspected terrorists, or whether this was a case of trying to protect Muslim women from the perceived oppression of their society. My guess was that it was a little of both. Either way it indicates a fundamental lack of understanding about the cultural norms surrounding the headscarf. It’s another kind of oppression to ban the headscarf, and it’s just as bad as making it mandatory.


Perhaps it is most difficult to keep a culturally and morally relativistic perspective when discussing your own culture. We are all socialized from such an early age and to such a great extent that it can be very hard to separate what is cultural from what is biological. Plus, we know so much about human biology and evolution we can now often examine a specific cultural or behavioural attribute and point to a biological cause.

However, we can also make false cause-effect correlations. The ‘obvious’ answer is often simply the answer that you come up with because of the culture you are part of. For example, for many westerners the most ‘obvious’ answer to the question “What are the different genders called,” is: men and women. However, if I were to ask 10 people from 10 different cultures that question, I would get at least 4-5 different answers. None of those answers would be the most correct or “right.” All of those answers would be based on their own culturally specific ideas of what constitutes a different gender.

That exercise could be extended to include any aspect of gender. Something as seemingly obvious as physical contact between men, or the oppression of wearing a headscarf, can be greatly misunderstood if viewed without an understanding of an individual culture. As has often been discussed, gender is not strictly biological; it is culturally informed. So when we examine gender roles, like I did with my experiences in Jordan, we should take a look at the meaning behind the traditions of the culture we are discussing before we draw any conclusions.

About HeatherN

Heather N. is a Californian living in the United Kingdom. In order to survive, she has developed a keen appreciation for the color grey, rain, and sausage rolls. She spends far too much time reading, writing, blogging, and gaming. You can also find her saying witty things on Twitter.


  1. Jordan actually has quite a small Christian population (2-6% of total population) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-15239529

    Interesting article btw. I’m a muslim woman (raised in the UK) and I was similarly shocked by the hands-on friendship between Arab men in Jordan 🙂

    • By large I probably should have clarified that I meant it in relation to other predominantly Muslim countries. I think Lebanon is the only mostly Muslim country in the Middle East that has a higher Christian population. Also, my perception of the number of Christians in Jordan is probably a bit skewed by the fact that I spent most of my time in Madaba (which started out as a Christian city). So thanks for the actual stats though. 🙂

      Anywho…what you’re saying about men holding hands is really interesting. So in your experience, do Arab men who move to western countries drop a lot of their holding hands, etc?

      • Or well…Madaba was originally a Neolithic settlement…but I mean that it was a Christian city in the past and continues to have a strong Christian presence.

  2. One thing interesting perspective that I didn’t see mentioned in the article or the comments is what many of my Muslim female friends have told me about their views towards wearing the hijab. Drastically unlike our perception in the United States, my friends from Pakistan, Somalia, and Bangladesh have all told me that for them they feel MORE FREEDOM when wearing the hijab.

    Granted they come from countries where wearing the hijab is not mandated by law, so for all of them wearing the hijab is a choice, one they say is empowering to them on two levels:
    1) It asserts their connection to God (Allah) and identifies them as followers of God, and
    2) they feel as though covering their hair makes them less likely to be objectified and seen as sexual object; as my friend, Daniya, explained it: hair makes a difference to a woman’s attractiveness, the hijab hides this and now a woman’s looks are no longer a driving force of the interaction between a woman and a man, allowing a woman to interact in society as an equal.

    It’s the complete opposite perspective of how I once perceived the hijab coming from the United States mentality.

    • Thanks for sharing this perspective! I’ve heard this as well, though none of the women I spoke to in Jordan mentioned this.

      It’s interesting – the first time I heard the idea that the hijab was freeing in that it allowed for men and women to interact equally, without the worry of being seen as a sexual object, I was a bit pissed off. What the heck about hair is sexual? But then I realized…well hey why in the west do women have to cover their chests but men don’t? Breasts aren’t sexual organs, after all. It’s also so that women and men can interact without women being seen as sexual objects.

      However, I still have problems with viewing either of these practices as something that makes it so women can be treated equally. Only because, both seem to suggest to me that for some reason, men are unable to control their sexual urges. It’s a bit insulting to men, really. – but that’s my own perspective.

      • Heather,

        I can see how you would have that perspective [about it implying that men are unable to control their sexual urges], and I think again we are taking it in the lens of our western perspective.

        From my perspective, and I could always be wrong, it has less to do with some idea that men can’t control themselves and really a more straightforward and egalitarian approach (I am hetero-normalizing this since most of the conversations with my friends have been in this regard):*

        1. Men find women’s bodies attractive.
        2. Women find men’s bodies attractive.
        3. Even though men and women are capable of controlling themselves, it can still be distracting for men to have an attractive woman in their presence and distracting for women to have an attractive man in their presence.

        From this perspective the wearing of modest clothing serves to eliminate the distraction on both sides. Do recall that the urging of people to wear modest clothing is not reserved strictly for women; men are supposed to wear modest clothing and head coverings as well. From a spiritual sense eliminating the distraction allows the faithful to put a greater focus on God. From a practical sense, eliminating the distraction allows my friends to interact with men in a more civilized way free of the potential distraction that may come purely from their appearance. I don’t have many male muslim friends so I don’t have any first person perspectives on their dress.

        Yemeni Nobel Prize lauriet Tawakkul Karman defended her wearing of a hijab when a journalist told her that her decisions to wear the hijab was not proportionate with her level of intellect with this statement:

        “Man in the early times was almost naked, and as his intellect evolved he started wearing clothes. What I am today and what I’m wearing represents the highest level of thought and civilization that man has achieved, and is not regressive. It’s the removal of clothes again that is regressive back to ancient times”

        • What you are saying is true…and I would argue that it suggests that both men and women are somehow controlled by their sexual urges. I mean, there are plenty of communities where men and women both wear very little clothing, and everyone isn’t constantly distracted by sex.

          The quote you gave me, while I understand what she is saying (and I know plenty of western men and women that would agree with her) is problematic. For one thing it assumes that early humans had no clothes, which isn’t true. Plus, it suggests that a culture that is more modest is somehow more civilized…which is a bit ethnocentric on her part.

          But anyway…yeah I’m talking about this from my perspective…in the west and the near east we assume women will cover up more than men. It’s not that straight women and gay men don’t find a man’s well muscled chest attractive. It’s that for some reason we have sexualized breasts and not a man’s chest (or at least, not in the same way). Same with women’s hair in the near east, I suppose. Yes men often wear clothing that covers their heads – but there is no emphasis on covering their hair. And yet for women their is.

          I want to be clear here – I’m not suggesting that western and near eastern societies change this. I’m not even suggesting this aspect of modesty is oppressive in any way. I’m just saying there seems to be more of an emphasis on women’s modesty than men’s.

          For example, in all the Middle Eastern countries I’ve been to, yeah men and women both dress modestly. Even when men are wearing ‘western’ clothing, they’re still wearing long pants and probably a long-sleeved shirt. But when I was in Egypt, there was a real problem with men sexually harassing women…not just women who were wearing skimpy clothing either. Women in hijabs got hollered at too. And part of the explanation for that was an assumption that in such a sexually repressed society, men would have to vent their sexual frustration in some way. It was assumed that men would have a higher libido and would be less able to control it. And I think that does men a disservice.

  3. Great read and conversation!

    Relativism should be more like a tool and less like a thing. A tool of cognition used to explore diversity, open doors, and get to where you’re going. That some rub shoulders while others shake arms are artifacts of a common need to greet. That’s a fairly benign cognitive relativism. That some forbid greetings all together is a different kind of cognitive relativism – and the harm threshold sits not just at the level that causes pain, but at any level that stifles/impedes the expressions of human diversity, or benign relativism. It feels a bit like sucking and blowing at the same time.

    • You know it’s interesting you mention using cultural relativism as a tool…that’s initially what Franz Boas conceived it as. It was a methodology used to more fully understand the cultures he was studying. There are problems with Boasian anthropology, to be sure…but the basic idea still holds pretty well I think.

      And yeah, I agree that impeding human diversity also fits under the ‘harmful’ category. I sort of include that in the “emotional pain” I mentioned.

  4. Wonderful article, Heather, thank you. I move between the USA and India, and spend a lot of time puzzling over my own reactions to gender issues. Even for someone who lives in both countries, and (mostly) understands (at least portions of) both cultures, these issues are complicated. Nice to read your honest, thoughtful take on how we process such encounters.

    As a brown-skinned American-Hindu who does interfaith work, I am often involved in conversations about other faiths/cultures. I admire the patience and clarity in your responses to comments/questions from other readers. Great discussion.

    • Thank you for your comment and your compliment. 🙂 I am always interested in the perspective of someone who inhabits two different national cultures. Because whenever I look at any culture except mainstream U.S. culture I am always looking at it as an outsider. But what do you do if you are apart of two cultures that have conflicting ideas…particularly with regards to gender?

      • Well, I think we’re all part of multiple cultures. The family culture we’re raised in might be different from the culture of our peers, workplace, school, etc. etc. so we all have to negotiate internal contradictions and complexities. That being said, I consider myself trans-cultural, a natural anthropologist, if you will. 😉 I don’t fully fit in any culture, because I am always one step removed.

        For example, when it comes to the gender issues of modesty/veiling in Muslim communities, I always tell my American friends that we can talk about that just as soon as we finish a discussion about why I, as a woman, can’t take my shirt off and walk down the beach in the USA. It’s a very similar issue, except for some reason it does not seem to trouble many people. I look forward to anthropologists from other countries coming here and studying our culture!

        Most of us don’t take a step back from their (gender) culture and really SEE it. When you leave for awhile, or inhabit another cultural system, then you start to see that all this stuff is constructed by human beings and there is no “normal.” It’s freeing, because you realize how possible it is to make choices about how to view gender. It’s possible to make choices about how we’re going to live.

        • “Well, I think we’re all part of multiple cultures.” – so very true. Thanks for pointing that out. Probably would have been better if I’d said something like…”when I look at any national culture besides mainstream U.S. national cultures…” 🙂

          And what you say about really seeing our own culture (particularly with regards to gender) only after we leave it for an extended period…that is SO true!

        • “My American friends that we can talk about that just as soon as we finish a discussion about why I, as a woman, can’t take my shirt off and walk down the beach in the USA.”

          There are several movements working to change this and a few cities that already have. Personally, I grew up in art studios so I really don’t see nudity as being a big deal at all. From a practical standpoint, if I were a woman I don’t think I’d want to go topless, I think I’d appreciate the support granted by a bra, of course considering I’ve never been in this situation I wouldn’t really know.

          To add the cultural perspective perspective to the mix: many other countries I have visited are very open to toplessness, like Tahiti and many places in Europe where women generally sunbathe topless.

          At the same time, I have a hard time buying the “breasts are not a sexual organs” argument. While I understand the perspective, I have a large group of male friends who get very excited over women’s breasts. Even my guy friends from places that are more culturally comfortable with toplessness, where seeing a woman sunbathing topless should be “no big deal” will point at, talk about, and oggle a topless women’s breasts.

  5. Richard Aubrey says:

    Heather. Same same Egypt and Libya. Islamists coming up. Ditto the only population of refugees living in concrete buildings, the Palestinians. The nation or culture doesn’t have to be identical. It just has to vote itself the same as some other nation. Maybe the differences are not relevant to the question of what they will do with the vote. Hard to tell how the vote would go in Lebanon.

    • Except no…the politics and the rhetoric of the political Muslims in one country (say Iraq) aren’t the same to the rhetoric of the political Muslims in another country (like say Libya). Just like…the political rhetoric of the right-wing in the U.K. is different to the rhetoric of the right-wing the U.S. There are similarities, of course…but they aren’t the same. And the reason they aren’t the same is because they are shaped by the society and culture in which they came from.

      Which goes back to my article….we see that a Muslim government is forming and we make all sorts of assumptions about it. But a lot of those assumptions are based on our cultural perspective, not on what those Muslim governments are actually saying or doing. (Now I want to be clear…I’m not saying a Muslim government is better or worse than a secular government in these countries. I’m just saying we can’t make any assumptions until we take a look at what is actually be said and done in each individual country).

    • Peter Houlihan says:

      Dubai has an Islamic government, but it has very little in common with Iran, who’s government is also based on Islam.

      • Heck man, as far as I’m aware, Dubai doesn’t have much in common with the rest of the UAE. Apparently Abu Dhabi (where Dubai is located) is the most ‘liberal’ emirate, while the area right next door is the most conservative in the UAE. (Though that’s based on discussions I had years ago. Could be different now).

        Anyway I just bring that up to point out that even within a country, it’s by no means homogeneous.

        • Peter Houlihan says:

          I gather its a slightly more lax place alright. Its still pretty harsh though: I gather the death penalty goes for drug smugglers as well as murderers. Also, they do amputate the hand of proven thieves, but they at least do it in a hospital, with anaesthetic, rather than in the marketplace with a cleaver.

          They also have areas where shariah law doesn’t apply in terms of clothing or alcahol.

  6. Richard Aubrey says:

    You’ll note that the US provided the security for the election. After that, it was up to the Iraqis. Not at all like do it our way. Not at all. The folks even voted for Islam to be the official religion and the guide for their laws.
    Which is a good lesson. Given the free choice, the Muslims do…. We should keep that in mind. Think of Iraq as a lab. Without the brutal dictators as an excuse, Muslims vote for….Islamism.

    • We can’t think of one country as a “lab” or as a litmus test for an entire region. Firstly, it’s ignoring the diversity within the country. But more importantly, it’s ignoring the diversity within the region. The Muslims in Iraq are historically, and ethnically different than the Muslims in other areas of the region. Like, let’s take Iran…yeah so they both have a Shia majority…but Iranians are Persian and Iraqis are Arab. And then we could take two Arab countries….like say Iraq and Jordan…Iraq is Shia but Jordan is predominantly Sunni. And that’s just taking two categories, ethnicity and dominant religion.

      That’s like taking the U.K. as a litmus test for a ‘Christian’ nation and comparing it to Armenia. They’re both Christian…so surely they’ll both have the same voting record.

      No two countries (or cultures) are the same.

    • Peter Houlihan says:

      “The folks even voted for Islam to be the official religion and the guide for their laws.”

      You mean like americans all respect the separisation of church and state? 😉 Its a bit like using the WBC to argue that americans are all homophobic fundamentalists.

  7. You make some interesting points Heather.

    I remember SNL and some other slap-stick shows making fun of the (from one view) the over-the-top affection between Frodo and Samwise in the Lord of the rings trilogy.

    I kind of resented that. After all, the idea was that they were going through a very traumatic time with only each other to depend on.

    It seems to me in the case of Jordan that if your likelihood of dying was several dozens to several hundreds time greater than in this country (and you probably have less television and internet too for entertainment) then you would need something better than a sterilized (don’t invade my personal space!) life that would make life worth living (if death lurks around every other corner).

    I can see physical affection between hetero men being ramped up in such an environment. If you even look at older 50’s shows like Leave it to Beaver I see a lot more male physical affection between the brothers or between the sons and dad than I do in modern media. It can be argued that art is not imitating life and men are as connected as ever, but I don’t think that is the reality. I get the feeling that a lot of men are less connected than they were in the past. I also believe this breeds a lot of dysfunctionality in young men.

    • That’s an interesting idea, what you’re saying about Jordan…except that danger isn’t around every corner in Jordan. As for access to media…well that depends on whether we’re talking about people in cities or not. I think we tend to perceive the Near East as being like this place full of terrorists and suicide bombs and political unrest…but most of the time in most of the area, it’s not really like that. Also, I don’t see it so much as physical affection being ramped up over there, so much as it’s being chomped down over here.

      But okay…I’ll take Egypt as an example. This was four years ago…but whenever my friend would mention that she was from Chicago to Egyptians, they’d be like “oooh yeah, the mob.” She had to explain that actually it’s not as dangerous as is might seem in movies. I had a couple of people ask me how I could walk around outside in the US, knowing that everyone had a gun. People get shot all the time…or at least that was the perception. Which, I don’t have any statistics with me at the moment that could point to what country has more violent deaths…but my point is that what we perceive as a dangerous and violent situation (or country) might not be.

      • So yeah according to this: http://violentdeathproject.com/ you’re actually more likely to die violently in the states than in Jordan. I don’t know how accurate that website is…but there ya go.

      • Peter Houlihan says:

        “I had a couple of people ask me how I could walk around outside in the US, knowing that everyone had a gun. People get shot all the time…or at least that was the perception.”

        I remember going on a tour of Carcasonne with and english woman and two germans. Someone let off a firecracker and I jumped. The english woman asked if it was from all the bombing back home (I’m from Dublin).

        No wonder Irish tourism is suffering! They think we’re a warzone.

  8. Richard Aubrey says:

    Heather. Not too many years ago, the Jordanian parliament visited the possibility of making the sentence for honor killing the same as for other murders. They declined, leaving it considerably less severe due to issues of “religious” freedom.
    As I said above, we frequently find writers on GMP lamenting one or another thing done in our society as being culturally conditioned. The implication is that it’s oppressive and assholish, despite the poor chumps thinking it’s a good idea and maybe even that they thought of it themselves. Apply that to various issues in Jordanian culture–since we’re being relativist which means applying the same objective processes in understanding.
    Taking the long view of changing Afghan society, if we decide to do it, accedes to a large number of victims before any of our effort takes hold. The short view might mean destroying the society altogether, so intertwined is the assholish nature of the society and culture.
    When I was doing anthro in college, there was a tendency to look at a social activity, see that it functioned more or less effectively, decide that meant it “worked” and….starry -eyed undergrads thought it was the bestest thing ever. An example close to home is the wedding and baby shower. A lot of interested parties such as relatives and friends, self-tax from time to time, every couple of years maybe, in order to, cumulatively, provide various necessities the happy couple would have hard time managing themselves. It works! Isn’t that terrific! Like a gear iin a machine, it works. Fine. Probably a good idea. But that a society and culture include a number of functions that “work” ignores the question of purpose. Works to what end? Can’t ask that. It would be culturally chauvinistic.

    • With regards to Jordan and honor killings….in my article I wasn’t talking about honor killings, I was talking about headscarves. I was using one very specific aspect of Jordanian culture (Muslim women wearing headscarves) to discuss cultural relativism. It would be remiss of me to then suggest that Jordanian culture is superior to our own, or to suggest it doesn’t have it’s problems. All cultures (whether we’re talking about a national culture, or a sub-culture, counter-culture, whatever)…all of them have bits that are oppressive. All of them have certain aspects of values that cause harm to someone. But in order to understand those oppressive, harmful aspects, we need to understand the culture. And as a cultural relativist, I believe that the best way to understand the culture is to do so as objectively as possible.

      With regards to Aghanistan…this is where we get into the very delicate and complicated issue of whether we (the west) have a right to police other countries. And we can’t just say – well cultural relativism, so no we can’t. But equally we can’t just say – well they’re killing people so yes we can. We kill people too. The U.S. has the death penalty, but the U.K. doesn’t….and yet the U.K. doesn’t invade us to force us to stop. It’s all about weighing consequences…if we invade, we’ll end up killing a bunch of people. Yet we’re killing people, in order to save people. If we force our own culture onto another in order to stop oppression, we might save lives. But we might also give fuel to a rebellion, and later we’ll end up with even more deaths.

      International relations are really freaking complicated. I’m not suggesting we just apply cultural relativism to everything and all the world’s problems gets solved. I’m saying we should take the time to understand the variety of cultures that exist in every country. Whether we then make a judgement about it or not is more to do with moral relativism (rather than cultural relativism).

      Ah and what you’re talking about, in terms of looking at a society and seeing if it ‘works,’ is an outdated way of looking at things. What we ask now (at least in archaeology), was “what were they trying to do? what was the point?” And then also, “what were the unintended consequences?” So like with my burials…I’m not asking whether their burial practices adequately provided a space for the deceased. I’m asking why they used the rituals and objects that they did. What was the purpose? What were they saying about the dead?

    • Richard,
      A while back I made a joke to a co-worker about our occupation of Iraq.

      Specifically, I found the concept that we were going to teach Iraqi’s to be free………..at the point of a gun.

      I painted this funny visual of a soldier holding a gun pointed at an Iraqi and saying” Okay, BE FREE! I’m going to be watching you, and make sure you do it RIGHT.”

      The point is, I am sure those in Islam could point to cases like Mary Winkler (or any of the dozens of mothers who got treatment sentences for killing their kids) or OJ Simpson and say how effed up we are too (or the large disparity in the ability of the wealthy to buy justice (or injustices) in this country).

      Somebody is ALWAYS getting a sentencing discount in every country and typically, it’s for totally bs reasons.

      • Peter Houlihan says:

        “The point is, I am sure those in Islam could point to cases like Mary Winkler (or any of the dozens of mothers who got treatment sentences for killing their kids) or OJ Simpson and say how effed up we are too (or the large disparity in the ability of the wealthy to buy justice (or injustices) in this country).”


  9. Richard Aubrey says:

    TGMP is occasionally, or frequently, blessed with lamentations about what we do or think, as a matter of cultural conditioning. Apparently, even if it’s not particularly harmful, that whatever it is is a matter of cultural conditioning renders it suspicious or even un-nice.
    I note that, given recent events, Afghan society will riot at the burning of Korans, but not at the acid disfiguring of young women or girls who want to go to school. So we can say that Afghan society puts considerably more import on burning of the Koran by infidels than the disfigurement of girls. Which is a pretty awful thing for a society to be. Now, if I worked really, really hard, I could get to the bottom of what assholeishness causes this. Then what?

    • It’s like the difference between popping a diet pill to lose weight, and changing your lifestyle to be healthier. I mean that’s a really simplistic view…but it’s the same idea.

      We could all rail against the way that Afghanistan has placed the Quran in such high regard, but not afforded the same sentiments toward young women at school. But what would that fix? Probably nothing. Chances are that mainstream society in Afghanistan would just condemn us for judging them. That would be the diet pill – quick and dirty.

      But if we understand all the cultural systems in place which have created a society in which a certain subset of people think it’s alright to throw acid on school girls, but it’s not okay to burn the Quran…then we are in a better place to help effect real change. Not to go in and force change, by the way…because no one appreciates being told “we know better than you do.” But then we can actually help people in Afghanistan who want to take their society in a different direction to do so…and hopefully we can avoid imposing our own moral and cultural values on them. This would be the diet & exercise plan – it takes a long time, and it isn’t easy, but it creates a lasting change.

      Or…in the case of Jordan…we can realize that what we thought was oppressive and assholish actually wasn’t either of those things. And we end up knowing more about our fellow human beings. (Obviously the case of acid and Afghanistan it is oppressive and harmful and quite dickish).

    • Peter Houlihan says:

      “Now, if I worked really, really hard, I could get to the bottom of what assholeishness causes this. Then what?”

      Is it that hard to guess?

      To many Afghanis Islam has become a symbol of everything thats good in their world and America has become a symbol of evil. I doubt its true of all Afghanis, but its at least true for some.

      In that context American troops burning a Koran is a symbol for absolute good being attacked by absolute evil. The riots aren’t surprising.

      As for the violence against women seeking education, don’t forget that poor cultures are more dependent on gender roles and will therefore protect them more fiercely. I suspect its another case of symbolism: women entering eductation is something which happens in america, which as we’ve established above is pure evil. On top of that there’s the question of a member of one gender acting out the role of the opposite gender. When a society is highly dependant on gender roles that kind of behaviour can easily be understood to be threatening. Once those girls tried to go to school, they became non-girls and a symbol of western decadence.

      Now none of this excuses those actions, but it might suggest a more effective solution than just calling them assholes.

  10. This article actually demonstrates the number one reason I question cultural/moral relativism.

    Consider these statements:
    “There are countries (such as Iran and Saudi Arabia) that enforce the use of the headscarf and will punish women who do not wear it ‘correctly.’ However, this is usually indicative of a culture that is using the headscarf as more than just a way to enforce modesty,”

    Here the author seems to be very clearly projecting a Western idea onto the cultures of Iran and Saudi Arabia. She rejects the stated objective of the headscarf policy and instead assumes a hidden agenda on the part of the foreign culture. There is no real reason given why the word of a Saudi or Persian on headscarf policy is rejected as a mere facade, while the statements of Jordanians are taken at face value.

    Note, I am not saying the author is wrong, I am just giving an example of why cultural relativism doesn’t seem to work: you either draw arbitrary lines (I’ll accept it when someone says it in Jordan, but not in Iran), or you end up accepting everything.

    “A couple years ago, France tried to ban wearing headscarves in public spaces, such as courtrooms or even public transportation. I’m not sure whether this was done out of fear of suspected terrorists, or whether this was a case of trying to protect Muslim women from the perceived oppression of their society. My guess was that it was a little of both. Either way it indicates a fundamental lack of understanding about the cultural norms surrounding the headscarf”

    These statements indicate the exact same problem. The author admits she doesn’t know the reasoning behind the headscarf ban, but then labels it as a “fundamental lack of understanding” on the part of French politicians.

    Yet the author could have a fundamental lack of understanding about French culture itself, resulting in the entire analysis falling apart. Indeed, looking at public debate surrounding the ban, multiple politicians (notably president Sarkozy) argued that a ban was necessary to preserve French culture. In that view, there is little difference between the cab driver stating that a woman with a face-covering is “not Jordanian” and a French politician stating that a headscarf has no place in France.

    • Peter Houlihan says:

      I can’t speak for the author, but theres some problems with your arguments:

      First point: She made it clear that her arbitrary line is when suffering is being inflicted. She’s willing to accept that theres more to the headscarf in Jordan because its not being legally enforced and because people there told her that theres more to it. Coversely she identifies the hijab in saudi arabia and iran as oppressive because its enforced by criminal law on a population against at least some of their will with various penalties up to, and including, public lashing.

      Second point: Again, suffering being inflicted. If there were a general cultural taboo in France against covering one’s face in public then that would be absolutely worth exploring. But what she’s criticising is a legal restriction, the arguments for which are well published and examined in the media. She doesn’t have to go digging to form an opinion on whether its ok or not, all she has to do is read the politician’s arguments in the paper. Equally, if the Jordanian headscarf was something that had been introduced by statute only a few years ago then the effort required in order to form an opinion on the subject would be considerably less. As it stands its a cultural idea dating back centuries, I’d argue that because of this the quality of research required before concluding “this is oppressive” is a little higher.

    • Again Peter has pretty much taken the words right out of my mouth (Thanks Peter. 🙂 ) But I will add a couple things:

      “Yet the author could have a fundamental lack of understanding about French culture itself, resulting in the entire analysis falling apart.”

      If I were trying to discuss, in depth, the rationale behind why France tried to make this ban, then yes I would have to look further in to the French culture. Did Sarkozy say that as a way to appeal to the public? I mean look at how often the argument is made that something shouldn’t change in the U.S. because to do so would be to make it so it’s no longer “the America we all know and love.” Was that a political ploy, or a real sentiment? I don’t know.

      But my article was not focusing on _why_ the French tried to bring about that ban…it was focusing on the fact that doing so showed a failure to understand why Muslim women were wearing the headscarf in the first place. This ‘lack of understanding’ was shown by all the press statements made about the potential ban. Not once was anyone who was for the ban willing to admit that women are wearing the headscarf voluntarily, and that they are doing so without any nefarious purpose. (Or at least, I never saw anyone mention this.)

      You do bring up a very interesting point with regards to two clashing cultures. When two cultures collide who should win out? And my own personal opinion, is that space should be made for both of them. For as long as people have been around, cultures have met and melded and fought…and eventually changed. I think trying to ban a foreign (or sub-culture’s) practices as a way to preserve your own is wrong-headed…because no culture is preserved. They all change. (Again I’ll point out that for me, that doesn’t work when you’re talking about causing harm. Then culture doesn’t really mater – we shouldn’t cause harm). But that is my own personal opinion…just because I’m a cultural relativist doesn’t mean I’ve rejected everything from my own culture.

  11. I am not a cultural or a moral relativist. I also don’t really believe in the modern paradigm of Boasian antropology. Rather I believe in what I would call Universal Anthropology. I think some cultures are inferior to others. As are some moralities. And I think humans are humans are humans. We are far more a like than different even across cultures. Biology trumps society and culture. I think the direction of modern Anthropology is a big mistake. Instead of studying the differences they should be studying the universals that are invariant across cultures.

    I also think cultural relativists privilege culture way way too much. Many people in a culture are alienated by it, don’t understand it and question it. This idea of culture/society as this inescapable human environment is wrong. Many reject the values of their culture, their society and find society alienating and inhuman.

    • Peter Houlihan says:

      “I also think cultural relativists privilege culture way way too much. Many people in a culture are alienated by it, don’t understand it and question it. This idea of culture/society as this inescapable human environment is wrong. Many reject the values of their culture, their society and find society alienating and inhuman.”

      Right, but would you agree that they’re in a better position to take this stand than you, given that they’re more aware of the cultural context in which these values exist? You’re quite correct to say that culture isn’t absolute, we’re all individuals, but culture varies quite alot (even within any one nation state) and its more than a little arrogant to assume that you “get it” with just a superficial glance.

      If muslim women were campaigning against the veil in any serious numbers or advocating a law abolishing it, then those laws might be justified. As it stands they’re campaigning for the right to wear the veil and against laws abolishing it.

    • So I will again point to Peter’s comment as my own reply…and again I’ll add a bit to that. 🙂

      With regards to thinking some morals and cultures are inferior to others: that treads dangerously close to social evolution, and colonialist rationalizations.

      When it comes to whether biology trumps culture, or whether people are more alike or different: Well that’s where we get into opinions. We can’t _prove_ it one way or the other, really. I mean I fully admit there are plenty of ways in which all humans are similar (obviously…we’re part of the same species). I just think in order to understand people we need to take a look at the differences.

      I also don’t think culture is an “inescapable human environment.” Elsewhere I gave the example of punk rock as a reaction to Thatcher’s England…but pretty much what I was saying was that the way to understand people who reject their society’s values is by first understanding what that society’s values are. What is it these people are rejecting? Why? Well the way to answer those questions is to first look at the norms of the culture…and I still think the best way to do that is to _try_ to be as objective as possible. We can’t be completely objective, as I mentioned. But we can try.

      Also, what I find really interesting, is how when a group of people all reject a certain cultural value and create their own, they are essentially creating their own culture. (Or sub-culture, counter-culture, etc).

  12. http://www.jcu.edu/philosophy/gensler/et/et-01-00.htm

    Dr Martin Luther King claimed that racism was objectively wrong. He thought that racism would be wrong even if no society recognized that it was wrong. In saying this, King disagreed with the norms of his society. He appealed to a higher truth about right and wrong, one that wasn’t dependent on human thinking or feeling.

    Would Ima Relativist have agreed with King on this?

    { 1 } – Yes
    { 2 } – No

    Cultural relativism (CR) says that good and bad are relative to culture. What is “good” is what is “socially approved” in a given culture. Our moral principles describe social conventions and must be based on the norms of our society.

    Cultural relativism basics

    Cultural relativism holds that “good” means what is “socially approved” by the majority in a given culture. Infanticide, for example, isn’t good or bad objectively; rather it’s good in a society that approves of it but bad in one that disapproves of it.

    Cultural relativists see morality as a product of culture. They think that societies disagree widely about morality and that we have no clear way to resolve the differences. They conclude that there are no objective values. Cultural relativists view themselves as tolerant; they see other cultures, not as “wrong,” but as “different.”

    Despite its initial plausibility, CR has many problems. For example, CR makes it impossible to disagree with the values of our society. We all at times want to say that something is socially approved but not good. But this is self-contradictory if CR is true.

    In addition, CR entails that intolerance and racism would be good if society approved of them. And it leads us to accept the norms of our society in an uncritical way.

    Cultural relativism attacks the idea of objective values. But these attacks fall apart if we examine them carefully.

    Social science

    Many social scientists oppose CR. The psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, for example, claimed that people of all cultures go through the same stages of moral thinking. CR represents a relatively low stage in which we simply conform to society. At more advanced stages, we reject CR; we become critical of accepted norms and think for ourselves about moral issues.

    Answer: 2 – No – is correct

    • There are differences between cultures that do not tread into the realm of morality, and there are those that do. I am not a cultural relativist because I cannot accept culturally-sanctioned practices that cause bodily harm to anyone. FGM, child marriage, honor killings, widow burnings, etc. are not things that any sane person can excuse in the name of culture or tradition.

      I have no problem with Muslim women wearing headscarves if that is what they choose; the cultural practice in consideration needs to be judged according to basic objective criteria, ie. does this practice cause bodily harm? etc.

      There will always be certain gray area, but I fear that cultural relativism has the potential to go too far and end up making sacrificial lambs of vulnerable populations. I get rather annoyed when feminists go out of their way to defend the subjugation in foreign countries, yet pick on minor points of gender issues in Western countries.

      I have been told I was “anti-feminist” by a women’s studies professor because I wore make-up (seriously, I am from LA; I WEAR MAKE-UP!) This same professor defended Latina women who are housewives, claiming that their culture puts family above personal ambition. I consider feminism to be about personal choice and female well-being, not arbitrary accessories!

      • “There are differences between cultures that do not tread into the realm of morality, and there are those that do.”

        I’m curious which and where are these cultures, that you speak of? And if there are definitely cultures that “do not tread into the realm of morality” and those that do —- then which is “better” for society?

        Should we accept the status quo, or strive for conformity, for the sake of being like everyone else (I think Hitler attempted this), and give up the ambition to morally evolve? Everything that is wrong and destructive in this world boils down to our morality. Morality is closely associated with empathy. So a moral evolution is needed for the survival of our species.

        • I think what he was saying is that sometimes the different aspects of different cultures aren’t moral ones. i.e. a style of clothing…it can be culturally specific, but have no bearing on morality. Religion is another one…whether you believe in many gods or one god, doesn’t necessarily reflect morality.

          And then sometimes different aspect of cultures are with regards to morality…..like whether it’s acceptable to have more than one wife.

      • “I am not a cultural relativist because I cannot accept culturally-sanctioned practices that cause bodily harm to anyone.”

        I cannot accept those things either…and I’m still a cultural relativist. Because I still believe that the best way to understand why a society/culture condones bodily harm is to look at that culture objectively. (Or at least, as objectively as possible).

        It’s _moral_ relativism that suggests that you can’t judge a culture’s morals or values except through the lens of that culture. And again…I do believe that for the most part. The one universal, I think, is when it comes to causing harm.

        You can disagree with my opinions, of course…but those definitions are the ones used by all the archaeologists and anthropologists I know.

    • Peter Houlihan says:

      You’re confusing cultural relativism with moral relativism (at least as defined by the article). The author clearly stated that she felt moral relativism no longer applied when suffering was being caused.

      Like it or not, our view of the world and our culture is highly symbolic. And these semiotics vary from culture to culture. What might *appear* to be racism or sexism to us might be something completely different entirely. Equally, something we hold to be an enlightened moral value might, in fact, be oppressive.

      These possibilities make it well worth making the effort to step outside of our cultural context from time to time and look at some other ones with fresh eyes. It doesn’t mean that all non-western cultural values are enlightened and unoppressive, just that some of them might be.

    • So with regards to this…I’ll point to what Peter Houlihan said as a response. I’ll also add a couple things:

      A cultural relativist outlook doesn’t mean I think that everyone conforms to their society. Obviously that’s not true (I personally rebel against western society in many ways). What it does mean, is that the CONTEXT for my rebellion is still western society. So in order to understand how I _don’t_ conform to my culture, we must first understand what my culture is.

      And I want to be clear, here. When I say ‘culture,’ I am not just talking about national or regional cultures. Something like the punk culture of the 1980s in the UK would count. And in order to understand that culture we would need to look at its history, and examine the ways in which it was different from the other cultures surrounding it. We could do this by looking at the customs, and artifacts from that culture. So for the punk culture it’d be about the style of music, political ideals, and style of dress. It’s a rebellion against Thatcher’s England…and in that rebellion they created their own culture.

      But the way to understand all of that is to put my own cultural biases aside. I can’t allow my own opinions on punk music, or Margaret Thatcher get in the way. That is what I mean by cultural relativism.

  13. Richard Aubrey says:

    So if a culture which enforces the headscarf also oppresses men…. Then what? We have an oppressive culture. Now that we know that, can we call it an oppressive culture?
    DId I hear Heather saying that if we understand why people oppress others as a matter of cultural conditioning, it’s not so bad? FGM? Ninety percent of Egyptian women. Iran is about to execute an apostate who converted to Christianity. If we understand the cultural conditioning which leads to that, it’s not so bad?
    Not so long ago, even all but the dirtiest work was done by men wearing ties. Dirty, old, misshapen ties, but ties none the less. What does that mean? Nothing important.
    IMO, France was taking a leaf from Ataturk. If the women chose not to wear coverings, because the law didn’t require it, there was still the problem of the old bastards back in the hood who’d beat the hell out of them. By not giving the women a choice, they were less likely to suffer for it.

    The laws against wearing masks in public predate any presumed oppression of Muslim women.

    IMO, you don’t get to pat yourself on the back for tolerating the tolerable. Anybody can do that. To get real toleration creds, you have to tolerate the intolerable. One of the major characteristics of cultures which get the most ostentatious toleration from the tolerant is…victims. Women, gays, slaves, guest workers, ethnic minorities, religious minorities. You have to have some really, really serious tolerance to blow that off, but you get the max points, too.

    • Goodness there’s a lot of sarcasm in there. But I will try to refrain from responding with sarcasm of my own. So:

      In my article, I mention that where my own moral relativism comes crashing down is when someone is inflicting pain (emotional or physical) on another person. So oppressive countries/cultures are still oppressive, yes. That is not good. Harming another human being is not good. It is sometimes necessary, and our own cultural perspective tells us when that it necessary. I am from the U.S., so my cultural perspective is that FGM (and MGM) are unnecessarily harming another human being. I also believe that executing someone for changing their religion is also not acceptable.

      I can be a cultural relativist (seek to understand _why_ a culture is doing something, without letting my own culture hinder my ability to understand them), without being a moral relativist (agree not to pass judgement on it). And, as I mentioned…when it comes to harming people, I am not a moral relativist. With everything else that doesn’t cause harm, I am a moral relativist.

      With regards to headscarves – there are countries in which it is not legally mandaged, and yet there are social punishments associated with not wearing a headscarf. While there are families like this in Jordan, I am sure…the vast majority of the people I spoke to were not like this. Women wore headscarves because they wanted to. No one forced them.

      With regards to laws about covering your face – when I was in school we had a policy that you couldn’t wear a hat, except for religious purposes. We, in the U.S., allow many exceptions to policies and norms for religious reasons (so long as you aren’t hurting anyone by doing it).

    • Peter Houlihan says:

      Understanding why the Iranians are executing that man (and many others) doesn’t mean that we have to accept it. Surely you can see that understanding the root causes of a problem (and questioning whether its a problem or not) will help with the solution.

      In the case of executing gays and apostates… I can’t think of a reasonable justification, but I can think of several ways in which it might appear justified to someone else.

      • Peter Houlihan says:

        “By not giving the women a choice, they were less likely to suffer for it.”

        That whole idea of setting out to “save” people from their cultures is problematic, especially if you’re not willing to examine their culture with an open mind.

        The fact that many women are protesting this action suggests that the legislators are out of touch with the needs and desires of their supposed damsels in distress.

        The same tendancy to base decisions on culturally ingrained assumptions has lead to a problem based response to prostitution which victimises the prostitutes it’s intended to help.

  14. It might sound obvious to say it, but in places where headscarves are mandatory, men are being oppressed too.
    Sadly I don’t think that’s obvious. It seems that a part of the “image” of eastern cultures here in the west is that “women are oppressed and men are not”, not just a part but a defining feature. Which makes Spidaman’s comment all the more vital. We can’t just going into looking at these cultures with the conclusion that we already know everything about the.

    • So very true, thanks Danny. There are a lot of assumptions we make about foreign cultures, especially when it comes to gender roles. Heck…we’re still making assumptions about our own culture’s gender roles…so of course we can’t just assume we know everything about a different culture.

  15. Heather, I thought this was very insightful. It was a lesson I learned not too long ago in South Korea, seeing how comfortable men were with casual physical contact – holding hands, arms across shoulders, getting someone’s attention by touching him – and how my own cultural perspective on effeminate behavior didn’t bring me any closer to understanding WHY Korean men did this.

    • Yeah…it’s that attempt to understand _why_ that’s often so difficult. And usually when I think about it, I’ll end up asking myself why doesn’t my culture do whatever it is that the foreign culture is doing. So like, why don’t western women cover their hair? Why don’t western men walk arm-in-arm? That usually provides some insight as well.

      Thanks for commenting 🙂

    • Peter Houlihan says:

      Yeah, I remember reading a few articles on here awhile back where the author argued chinese society was superior because men embraced the feminine more. Except that the stuff he identified as feminine (hugging, holding hands) probably wasn’t.

  16. I am not sure why you are describing your position under moral or cultural relativism? And I’m not talking about your admission about the golden rule. If you think that we *should* take cultural variation into consideration before judging other people or that there are good moral reasons to be tolerant – then you don’t seem to be ascribing to any kind of moral relativism. If you think that we need to take our bias into account and avoid a superficial analysis of cultural customs – but that someone can offer a ‘better’ or ‘worse’ assessment (i.e. you can do this better than me) then the use of the term ‘cultural relativism’ also seems a bit strained. I agree that we need to evaluate actions within a particular context but context sensitive assessments and relativism are two very different beasts. I think drawing out exactly what is meant by ‘cultural relativism’ is important since we need to have a clear handle when dealing with difficult issues like how to weigh the value of tolerance against other values. This is a pretty rough and basic outline of how I understand the term ‘relativism’ and I would be interested in understanding how you think these terms operate. [Sorry if this comment posted twice – my internet cut out and rebooted while I was writing]

    • Sorry if my definitions of cultural and moral relativism weren’t quite clear. I was trying really hard not to make it into some discussion about the finer points of those terms. 🙂

      Anyway, cultural relativism is the idea that the only way to understand a person’s beliefs/actions is by placing them in that person’s cultural context. And in order to understand that cultural context, we have to do what we can to recognize and ignore our own cultural influences. Ideally we would be completely 100% objective in our study of a foreign culture, and then that would produce the “best” understanding of that culture. Realistically, of course, we are all influenced by our own cultures, but the point is to attempt to understand a culture on it’s own terms.

      Moral relativism comes in a variety of flavors, but the one I’m discussing is the idea that there is no absolute good or evil. Our ideas of good and evil stem from our own cultures, and so I personally don’t think anyone’s morals are more or less valid than mine. Now, because I am from the west, and from a particular cultural perspective…I do have my own set of morals that I ascribe to. But that doesn’t mean that someone else’s morals aren’t equally valid.

      You can be a cultural relativist and not a moral relativist. You can attempt to set your own culture aside in order to understand a foreign culture on it’s own terms….then later apply your own set of morals on that culture. So with the headscarves…I could attempt to set my own culture aside and understand the use of headscarves in Jordan as objectively as possible. But after I understand it, I could still judge it based on my own morals, if I wasn’t a moral relativist.

      I really hope that explained things better. If not, just ask and I’ll try explaining it again. 🙂

      • I’m following up mostly because I think that it is interesting when different fields use the same terms but in slightly different ways (I’m coming from philosophy). In philosophical circles, “moral relativism” is a theory that entails that if you think “We should be tolerant of other people” and I think “We should bomb the sh*t out of everyone that we feel like” then we can both right and so there is nothing that can settle the difference. Moral relativism doesn’t require any sort of policy on tolerance since anyone can simply chose to value tolerance or not and furthermore there can’t be any reasons for preferring one set of value claims to another (except maybe “my value claims are better because they are mine”). But once we take on board the very plausible claim that “I can give you good reasons for being more tolerant” then we have already taken on board a pretty significant ethical stance. Your use of the term “cultural relativism” might just be a case where the same word is used to mean two completely different concepts. Again, no matter what the subject matter, philosophers generally think that something is ‘relative’ if and only if a) two agents can disagree about some fact about the world b) mean the same thing and c) there is nothing that would settle the matter. In the case of cultural norms, I’m not sure why this would hold. If you tell me that “In India, women wear red to wedding ceremonies to signify wealth” and I say “In India, women wear red to wedding ceremonies to signify harlotry”, I would probably be the one in the wrong and an anthropologist who actually did some research could give me some good reasons for this assessment. I don’t think this is how you are using the term ‘relativism’. Sorry for the long post, but if you have a chance to explain what the alternative position is in anthropology – ie. what someone who claims not to be a “cultural relativist” is claiming – I’d love to hear about it.

        • Sorry – I get lost following the comments in the threads that are nested and this point was already taken up below. Cheers.

          • Ah yeah…I hope my explanations helped clear some things up. 🙂 My understanding of moral relativism, as a philosophy, is that there are a few different versions of it. So I’ve sort of picked a more lefty tolerance friendly version. But then…it’s really not my area so my understanding of it is really as a layman.

            But yeah it’s really interesting how one term, like ‘relativism’ can have a bunch of different meanings. Thanks for your comments! 🙂

    • Ah I also just re-read your comment…and I think part of the problem is that the terms “cultural relativism” and “moral relativism” are established terms that are similar to, but separate, from the definition of “relativism” by itself.

  17. Peter Houlihan says:

    “For example, for many westerners the most ‘obvious’ answer to the question “What are the different genders called,” is: men and women. However, if I were to ask 10 people from 10 different cultures that question, I would get at least 4-5 different answers. None of those answers would be the most correct or “right.” All of those answers would be based on their own culturally specific ideas of what constitutes a different gender.”

    Could you elaborate on that? I’d be really interested to know.

    Great article, and I couldn’t agree more. The banning face coverings in France (and the Netherlands) was justified on the basis of security. But as far as I’m aware muslim women haven’t presented a serious threat so it seems a little spurious. Personally I put it down to good ‘ol xenophobia. I can understand a little: I actually do find the black shawls with the eye-slits a bit frightening. But I have the good sense to recognise that that isn’t a rational fear. Headscarfs I take no issue with, I actually think they’re quite fetching. I had a few Iranian and UAE friends in school and they all wore them.

    Theres also another, somewhat older, ruling in french national schools requiring pupils not to wear religious symbols, the idea being to promote school as a secular, inclusive space and to eradicate as many divisions as possible. Trouble is, some people see their religious beliefs as something they can’t very well hang up at the door and it seems a little insensitive to their beliefs to ask them to do so.

    • Well with regards to different genders: In the west alone we could label transmen and transwomen as different than bio-men and bio-women. And then there’s queergender – people who don’t fit into the binary system. And then there’s the Native American and Canadian First Nation two-spirits. Here’s a wikipedia article about that: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Two-Spirit. And then even within that, the definition of what is a man and what is a woman isn’t a strictly biological one. We have all sorts of cultural baggage associated with each gender (i.e. men are viewed as unemotional). And other cultures have their own baggage that isn’t the same as ours.

      Well banning face coverings as a security measure is a bit silly, I think. It’s not as if any potential terrorist is suddenly going to go ‘oh wait nevermind, I won’t blow this building up if I can’t wear my traditional clothing while I do it.’ And as for banning it in school…I don’t think that promotes school as an inclusive space. Quite the opposite. It makes school a completely homogenized space where nothing is tolerated except modern western ideas.

      • @Heather

        “Well banning face coverings as a security measure is a bit silly.”

        Cultural relativism is a very good topic to discuss, but in practice it is very difficult to observe. Face coverings are a security hazard and it should not be allowed in public space. People who do not want to show show their faces to strangers should remain indoor.

        • Okay, I’m asking you this because I’d like for you to elaborate: how is covering your face a security hazard?

          • Why do you think terrorists and robbers wear mask while doing their criminal activities. Even commando units cover their faces while in action. Covering face hides the identity of the person and he/she can just escape into the crowd.

            • But then, by that same logic we should ban charcoal suits in the financial district in cities. If I wanted to hide in a crowd in a city, I wouldn’t wear a veil. I’d wear a suit and tie. Or we should ban baseball hats at baseball games. Again, if I wanted to hide at a baseball game, I’d don a baseball cap and keep my head low. Or let’s ban ski masks at ski resorts. Too bad that it’s wicked cold…what if you’re a terrorist? Oh another one…let’s ban oversized shirts and pants. Gangsters wear them, and it’s easy to hide a gun.

              The truth is that the vast majority of women who wear a veil aren’t terrorists. To ban them wouldn’t actually keep the world safer…it would just play into the fears the west has regarding Muslims. We make assumption, like if you’re covering your face you’re trying to hide your identity…and then we get scared. But those assumptions are made based on our own cultural biases.

              • Charcoal suits, and baseball caps do not hide the face. People recognize one another with facial features. Try getting into airport or bank with face mask, and you will get a lesson for the life time. You say vast majority of Muslim women are not terrorists. May I ask you how do you know that: Is it cultural relativist bias.

                • “You say vast majority of Muslim women are not terrorists. May I ask you how do you know that: Is it cultural relativist bias.”

                  Oh for goodness sake…I’m actually trying to have a conversation with you, here. And then you say something like this as an attempt to throw my words back at me. Come on, now. So fine, I’ll play that game. How do I know that? Oh, how about because if the majority of Muslim women were terrorists, my trip to Israel would have been much more eventful. Or how about, if the majority of Muslim women were terrorists, I wouldn’t have had the warm welcome I did in Jordan (being an oppressive westerner, as I am).

                  Try getting into a Jordanian airport with a veil…oh wait you don’t. They have sectioned off areas where a woman can be searched in private by another woman. Once that’s done she can put the veil back on and go about her business. Because actually they take security at airports extremely seriously.

                  Snarkiness over…you are assuming intent based on your own cultural bias. If I were to wear a ski mask and go into a bank, it is a cultural symbol for bank robbery. But it’s not _just_ covering my face that makes you think I would be robbing the bank…it’s what I used to cover it…a ski mask. Western culture has associated ski masks with bank robberies.

                  You were talking about security risks with regards to crowds, and I was pointing out that actually, in a crowd in the west, wearing a veil makes you stand out. We do recognize people by their faces…but we also recognize people based on other things, like clothing, height, weight, etc. And if I were to walk around a western city wearing a veil, I’d get noticed…it’d actually be more difficult for me to hide.

                  And I’m betting we’re not going to get much further on this topic.

                  • You probably do not know or ignore the fact that several veiled Muslim women actively take part in terrorist activities as couriers or human bombs. I am assured that if I show you 10 people in burqa from a distance of 10 feet you would never be able to tell whether the person is male or female. As for recognizing people with clothing (can be changed), height (ever heard of high heel footwear) and weight (add few pounds of pad) is futile. A person in veil gets noticed, but if their are few more people in veil, how can you tell them apart???

                    P.S. Israel knows how to deal with terrorists with iron hand.

                    • Allllllrighty. I know that some veiled women do take part in terrorist activities (of course some white men are terrorists too…hello Ted Kazczynski). Unfortunately this conversation is being completely derailed away from cultural relativism and into political opinions regarding terrorism. So I’m calling a halt to it.

                      As a side note, for an interesting tv series about terrorism…go watch Sleeper Cell.

                    • Peter Houlihan says:

                      “The truth is that the vast majority of women who wear a veil aren’t terrorists.”

                      I’m sure theres a few operatives out there, but I’ve never heard of any being brough to trial, not recently anyway. This could be attributed to anti-male bias but I don’t think the security arm of western governments are really all that forgiving.

                    • Peter Houlihan says:

                      Basicly, if theres a practical reason for the measure, its not in the papers.

      • Peter Houlihan says:

        Thats interesting regarding the gender thing. Thanks. I think theres something similar in India too come to think of it.

        Regarding suicide bombers etc. I think the argument was more people abusing the veil to evade arrest, as far as I know suicide bombers tend to wear whatever the locals do (as you pointed out).

        As for the school thing, I can see the argument. They want to create a space where children have the room to develop their own identity. But in practice it just ends up being cultural imperialism. I’d rather have diversity. Like I said, there were girls in headscarfs in my school, I never had any issue mixing with them.

        • Oo and then there’s eunuchs. They weren’t exactly men…but they weren’t women either. (Just to add to the spice of life. 😉 )

        • In the school were I studied, all students wore school uniform, I hope you would not call it any form of cultural imperialism. In public spaces, discipline comes first and everything else afterwards.

          • Well that brings up a whole host of other questions. Is it okay to force children to all wear the same clothing? If kids are wearing a uniform, do you allow exceptions for religious clothing? I personally fall on the side of not making kids wear uniforms. I had to do it for my elementary school and I hated it.

            However…the important distinction between uniforms and simply banning headscarves, is that with a uniform you are effectively forcing everyone to conform. It’s not cultural imperialism, in that you aren’t placing one set of cultural values higher than any other. It is placing the school’s idea of appropriate clothing above any individual or cultural custom.

            As for the discipline coming first in public spaces…I’d have to say I disagree with that. The way people negotiate public space is by placing discipline, freedom of expression, emotions, and culturally approved behaviours all at different levels at different times. If I’m in a public space and I get a phone call that my mother died, screw discipline…I’m going to burst into tears and probably make a scene.

            • Nobody is forcing anybody. People are given list of do’s and dont’s at the gate, if they want to comply with it and if they don’t want to comply with it, they can leave.

              • It’s not always that simple though. The only school in my area required we wear uniforms, and it is legally required for children to attend school. My parents couldn’t home-school me. I had no choice but to attend a school that required uniforms.

  18. The women’s “headscarf” is not just any headscarf…it resembles a nun’s habit. Their whole attire is much like a nun’s uniform…that’s the only way I can describe it. And nuns are known to devote their lives to God/church…these women seem no different.

    Do they know that wearing black attracts sun and heat? I mean it’s the worst shade/colour to wear in a hot country; this contradicts their reasoning for wearing it…just sayin’. Occasionally, I see women who wear this garb in around my city and the fabric they shroud themselves with, look very heavy and uncomfortable on a hot day. To each their own! 😀

    • Actually, the majority of women in Jordan wearing a headscarf are wearing something that looks exactly like any other scarf, only it’s a bit bigger so it covers the whole head. Very few women in Jordan wear the ‘nun-like’ habit you are referring to.

      Even then, whether it’s too hot or not is very subjective. When I was in Egypt, in winter the temperature never dropped below 55 degrees fahrenheit, and yet kids walked around bundled up almost like it was freezing. And I was freaking cold there too, after having spent all summer and autumn there in such hot weather. I was longing for my winter coat, but I hadn’t packed it. So I just wore a couple of sweatshirts instead.

      And whether the material is hot or not depends on what it’s made out of. The man-made materials are probably pretty hot, regardless of color, because I bet they don’t breathe much. But actually, wearing draped light cotton fabric is quite cooling, as it breathes and isn’t too stuck against your skin. It’s also better to cover up, rather than show a lot of skin, when in hot and sunny areas.

      As for women who do wear the entire body-covering garment…they aren’t like nuns. That’s the whole point of this article. You can’t place your own cultural bias onto another culture. You have to take all your assumptions and toss them out in order to actually understand what is going on.

      • “As for women who do wear the entire body-covering garment…they aren’t like nuns. That’s the whole point of this article. You can’t place your own cultural bias onto another culture. You have to take all your assumptions and toss them out in order to actually understand what is going on.”

        Basically I regurgitate/recalling stuff that I’ve seen journalists write….maybe they have cultural biases 😉

        Yeah my parents come from a hot country…I know what they wear…my mother still wears light, loose clothing…so doesn’t get stuck to skin, resembling pajamas during the summertime. Even though it’s a very hot country like 40 degrees, during their winter…they still need sweaters. I’ve been there on vacation…some places are dusty, so some wear a surgical-mask like cloth over their mouths while on mopeds…and there are women there concern with turning too dark, so they cover from head to toe when they’re out…but regular clothing and they wear hats or helmets (on mopeds). If they wear t-shirts, they put on long gloves that pull up to their entire arms, they wear socks with sandals. They don’t bother with sunblock…because it’s hot and sunny almost all year…but they don’t bother with sunglasses. Since most women don’t take extra care, they turn very dark…while some others covet their lighter skin…never exposing their skin to sunlight. Tanned skin is common, so they like to lighten their skin — we do the opposite here, we like to go tanning.

        • I like Indian women’s clothing/saris — they’re more sensible for hot weather and much more fashionable. But they reveal the arm — too sexy! :O

          • Peter Houlihan says:

            “But they reveal the arm — too sexy! :O”
            Sexy, or prone to skin cancer, your call.

            If you examine the countries where women are required to cover their arms and shoulders, generally men do to. I’m guessing the cultural bias came out of practical neccessity.

            In anglo/hiberno cultures we tend to be pretty averse to nudity, I’m pretty sure that was at least initially due to the climate.

            • “Sexy, or prone to skin cancer, your call.”

              Skin cancer is a western misconception of dark skinned people. I think you forget that darker skin persons have more melanin/pigment, therefore less prone to skin cancer and rarely burn. Practically all third world countries have dark skinned inhabitants; none of them wear sunscreens or sunglasses (SHOCKER?); and Africans are often times half exposed, while tribal groups wear basically a loin cloth — these people rarely or never get skin cancer due to their dark melanin. Somehow geographically, people along the equator and in third world countries have developed resistance to extreme hot climates, by way of higher melanin, so they have acclimated to the weather.

              Based on the above info., darker skinned people, due to their high melanin and resistance to skin cancer, really have no need to cover themselves all up. Now those that do cover up, do so, for two reasons which I have observed:
              1) they don’t want to get darker (covet lighter skin)
              2) their clothing is part of their religion/culture and so they must conform

              • “Somehow geographically, people along the equator and in third world countries have developed resistance to extreme hot climates, by way of higher melanin, so they have acclimated to the weather.”

                Other way around. If the Out-of-Africa hypothesis is correct, it’s more accurate to say that when humans moved into less-sunny climates, their skin tone became lighter in order to absorb more vitamin D.

                Anyway…here’s the thing…the Arabs I’ve seen aren’t so dark that they don’t burn. So yeah, skin cancer is a risk. Also…it is actually cooler to cover yourself in a hot area than to leave your skin exposed. You just need really light cloth.

              • Peter Houlihan says:

                So why are loose fitting clothes that cover the whole body a feature of most middle eastern cultures for both males and females? I’m not talking about bourkas here, just normal head and body coverings in those countries. By any account these customs long predate the spread of Islam.

                I don’t misconceive skin-cancer as being associated with dark skinned people. If anything the opposite. But semetic, turkic and indo-european peoples don’t typically have very dark skin, I would guess that cancer is still a consideration.

                On top of that, having fair skin is a status symbol in a huge number of human cultures where manual labour is still a number one occupation, especially for women. I’ve seen 17th century screens used by upper class Irish ladies to avoid being tanned by sitting in front of the fire. If Irish people were worrying about a tan then I can only imagine what the Persians were thinking 😉

                • Peter Houlihan says:

                  Sorry, just noticed you mentioned that last reason. Its kind of funny to think of given that tanned skin is now considered fashionable.

        • “Basically I regurgitate/recalling stuff that I’ve seen journalists write….maybe they have cultural biases.”

          Hehehe…yeah journalists are probably some of the worst at letting their cultural biases get in the way of their reporting.

          As for what you were saying about how your family comes from a hot country. Well yeah…exactly. The fact that _some_ of the hijabs are black doesn’t make them stifling to wear. Though, like I said, I imagine wearing one made from synthetic fabric must be quite stifling.

  19. With non-Western cultures, you really have to humble yourself and drop a western centric view to at least understand them. Most people don’t know about the different sects of Islam, that Iranians and countries east don’t consider themselves to be Arabs (Persian is Indo-European, like English is Germanic). Lot’s of women as you have shown really do like to wear hijabs. I once saw two women hop out the front seat and into the back. They waited for the driver’s husband after that and they were ok with it.

    • Totally agreed, though I think it applies the other way around to. If a non-western person wants to understand a western culture, they need to drop their own cultural views as well. And if we’re trying to answer questions about our own culture, then I think the best way to do that is to try to look at it from the outside…or at least as close to the outside as we can get. 🙂

    • Peter Houlihan says:

      “Persian is Indo-European, like English is Germanic”

      More like Persian is Indo-European as English is Indo-European 😉

      • I meant in the sense that people probably don’t think of Persian being Indo-European (they wouldn’t think Persian was more related to English than it is to Arabic), like a lot of people think of English as being Latin based (when it is in fact Teutonic)

        • This is slightly off topic – but I bet it’s in part to do with the script used to write it. The majority of people in the west don’t know either Arabic or Persian, but they see that the writing looks the same and assume that they must be similar languages.


  1. […] longer version was originally published at the Good Men Project. Share My Stuff:EmailTwitterTumblrFacebookRedditStumbleUponLinkedInPinterestDiggLike this:LikeBe […]

Speak Your Mind