Throughout our travels one of the things that has been hardest for me to deal with is the place of women in the various countries we’ve visited. In part, this is because it affects me directly. In many countries where women are less equal, I am the direct object of offensive and/or oppressive behavior and social norms. (I find that traveling highlights gender inequality like nothing else – almost everywhere a woman must negotiate social norms that are gender specific in a way that men never have to – at least no where that I am familiar with.)
Often, when I express frustration with the local status of women, people justify it with cultural relativist arguments. But all too often, these are unfounded, obscuring the problem with accusations of insensitivity and ignorance. And all too often they are rooted in skewed, opportunistic, or self-serving interpretations of religious doctrine, as Nicholas Kristof points out in his recent column.
Especially after my recent experiences as a woman in India, and to a lesser extent in some places in Africa, Kristof’s column resonated deeply for me. Unfortunately, in a brief op-ed piece he was only able to scratch the surface of a massive global problem. Though it may seem irrelevant to many Westerners who (incorrectly) believe that their societies have achieved complete gender equality, it is certainly worth a read.