A love affair & fallout with culture: a lesson from my students

A blind man plays an instrument & begs for moneyLike 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,
– Karo

Abandoning shade, becoming sun: shedding taboos on path to truth


And if sun comes
How shall we greet him?
Shall we not dread him,
Shall we not fear him
After so lengthy a
Session with shade?

This is the opening stanza of a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks, and in my mind it paves the way for the discussion of releasing taboos and breaking stereotypes. The “sun” is the “Truth,” which is also the title of the poem and it opposes the untruth, the lies, and the unawareness.  Continue reading »

Visiting the grey space of taboos

shades of gray :)

Imagine you’re 10 years old and you’ve just got your first slippers from a social worker. Not because your family could not afford them, not because you cannot walk, but because you are blind.

My first reaction when I heard the story many years ago was, “wait, did I hear this right? What does blindness have to do with walking?” Yes, it turns out I did not mishear anything. It turns out that in many countries in the world, especially in villages, people who’re blind are hidden from the society’s view. They stay home, often tacked in bed, with no educational opportunities, with no outlet for social development.

The reasons for this state of affairs are complex. Partially, the parents of blind children are afraid for their safety. But partially, they’re afraid of being stigmatized by the community they live in.

When I was taking classes for my PhD, I wanted to describe this situation and started looking for English-language articles in so-called scientific literature. Can you image my disappointment and sadness when I did not find a single article on the topic? Because the studies would usually look at rehabilitation programs for people with disabilities, which means that the people or “subjects” of the study were already out and about in their community. Or the studies would focus on blind/low vision children who received a mainstream education. Again, these kids have already moved on on their path of growth.

What really bothers me is that there are topics that are super important, that affect people’s lives, and yet, they’re not widely discussed. They’re neither examined by academic institutions, nor are they the topics that the media clammer to pick up. They’re there, in the grey space between existence and non-acknowledgment. So I’m hoping to spread the word. Just because an issue is not talked about does not diminish or erase its existence, right? So let’s talk! 🙂

Hubby and I were recently interviewed by EyesonSuccess about our experiences of teaching in Southeast Asia and India. Please listen to the podcast if you’d like to find out hear our impressions and adventures: