Like a mother or Mather Earth, Culture can be nurturing. We are born into a given culture and don’t even realize, until later, how much immersed we are in our native customs, beliefs, and ways of communication. There is nothing wrong with this scenario so long as we follow the “harmless” traditions, such as cooking certain foods or performing certain dances. But what do we do when the culture is harming people? E.g. by imposing the female genital mutilation (FGM) on women or humiliating people with disabilities?
In my MLA and then the PhD program, I had a love affair with any cultural anthropology/ ethnography class that came my way. I was in a trance when I listened to lectures or took part in the discussions about the origins of traditions, rituals, ways of perceiving the world. With my enchantment, however, came reverence–all cultures were untouchable, not to be critiqued, tiptoed around so as not to influence or offend them.
However, there came the day when I was asked to co-teach a course about breaking socio-cultural taboos to a groups of students from all over the world. The topic was fascinating, but could I tiptoe around the issues I was not comfortable touching? Would it be fair to the students to not tackle the FGM, the discrimination of people with disabilities, the discrimination of women, of people of color? And on a personal level, how could I talk to them about breaking taboos when I could not break free from my own beliefs?
As I was pondering these questions, I leafed through an anthropology magazine and came across an article written by a woman anthropologist who was doing her fieldwork in India. She described an incident in which she was beaten for trying to expose an issue that some members of an ethic group she had been studying, did not want her to expose.
This ended my pondering and I resolved that no matter how the students would react (and they could be offended that their culture was being criticized), I would speak out against the mistreatment of anyone on the planet, regardless of the cultural norms he/she was born into.
To my relief and joy, most people, especially women, became very engaged in the class discussions and did not shy away from looking with the critical eye at their own cultures. They later said it was life-changing for them to do that.
My students taught me a valuable lesson: to not be deterred to critique something we find disturbing, for we might change someone’s life around for the better. And I thought the time has come to pass this lesson along to all of you, my Readers!
Sending love and peace,