Which place is more sexist, the Middle East or Brazil?


Lisa Wade argues a pure TOK point on this issue regarding perspective and cultural bias in her piece “Defining Women’s Oppression: The Burka vs the Bikini” on The Society Pages website …

“Many believe that the U.S. is at the pinnacle of social and political evolution. One of the consequences of this belief is the tendency to define whatever holds in the U.S. as ideal and, insofar as other countries deviate from that, define them as problematic. For example, many believe that women in the U.S. are the most liberated in the world. Insofar as women in other societies live differently, they are assumed to be oppressed. Of course, women are oppressed elsewhere, but it is a mistake to assume that “they” are oppressed and “we” are liberated. This false binary makes invisible ways in which women elsewhere are not 100% subordinated and women here also suffer from gendered oppression.”

This week Lourdes Garcia-Navarro has written an interesting piece for NPR in the US. After living in Cairo and Baghdad for years she was initially relieved to be posted to Brazil. She had never become accustomed to dressing modestly in Muslim countries and relaxed back into wearing what she wanted in the more ‘liberal’ Latin America. In her essay she asks which system / country is the most sexist? In which do women flourish more?

It is easy if you use the permitted dress code of either ‘system’ as an indicator, to immediately suggest that Islam is the most oppressive. But consider this: In Brazil a women is murdered on average every two hours. It is true that Brazil has a female President and women are well represented in the nations work force at all levels, clearly this is not Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia where women as disallowed from driving! Having said that there is a pervasive sexualization of women according to Garcia-Navarro and a Psychoanalyst that she quotes. The country also has a disproportionately high level of cosmetic surgery among women, as they try to conform to the country’s normative pressures and the desires of men.

Burqa cartoon

As the cartoon (above) suggests, the question is not so clear cut and is a matter of perspective and cultural relativism. In his talk on The Moral Landscape Sam Harris says that for human beings to flourish we need to find a “median path” between the two extremes illustrated in this humorous cartoon.

“Now, to say this is not to say that we have got the perfect solution in our own society. For instance, this is what it’s like to go to a newsstand almost anywhere in the civilized world.  But if we are in a reflective mood, we can ask, “Is this the perfect expression of psychological balance with respect to variables like youth and beauty and women’s bodies?” I mean, is this the optimal environment in which to raise our children? Probably not. OK, so perhaps there’s some place on the spectrum between these two extremes that represents a place of better balance. Perhaps there are many such places”


Key questions

  • Which place is more sexist, the Middle East or Latin America and how can we know?
  • Is there any objective and universal way of determining how gender politics play out to the benefit of all?
  • How do we avoid cultural bias?
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