I often hear certain individuals declaring it to be imperialistic to try and help improve women's status in countries where women's rights are in a bad state. They say that imposing Western values ideals of what a woman should be on Afghan or Congolese women is destructive. How can it be destructive, when women in these countries are confined to their homes, raped, considered minors, denied an education or denied the right to work? There is a lot of chatter about how Western women are oppressed by the patriarchy, but surely their experience pales in comparison to that of an Afghan girl who gets acid thrown in her face for daring to go to school. Sure, we can't just run in, emancipation guns blazing - when we intervene in any way, we need to take into account local cultures and values and views, and best adapt our aid and intervention so as to minimize harm to the women involved while still providing them with what they feel they need (since such help must obviously be on a voluntary basis). So what exactly are we supposed to do? I get the feeling we're supposed to take the position that education, the opportunity to work, and bodily safety from harm and abuse are just Western conceits that we give our women to blind them to the patriarchy, and that they don't actually do anything to improve women's status. This just seems terribly wrong, and positively supportive of women's oppression. What kind of logic lies behind these people's arguments, then?

I think the point is that we should not expect people to behave exactly the same everywhere, so that in some countries women behave in ways which are culturally appropriate, and look oppressed from the perspective of other countries. Take the head scarf for example. Many interpret this as a sign of oppression, but many women in particular do not, and have no difficulty in both covering themselves to some degree and also believing in equal treatment with men. In Islam both men and women are supposed to dress modestly, and if that is taken to mean that women should cover their hair, and men also dress in certain ways, then there seems to be nothing unduly oppressive about that. Or at least no more oppressive than the feeling that women in any country will probably be expected to dress in a certain way. I think that is the logic that is operating here.

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