Rethinking Cultural Colonialism

Yesterday, a friend of mine asked me, “What would you do if you were in a class and you felt as if the environment of the classroom was uncomfortably male-dominated?” I asked what she meant, and she went on, “For example, when we present our research proposals, I feel as if the only students shooting down my ideas are my male peers. When we debate and critique each other’s ideas, of the people speaking up, it’s 100% male. And furthermore, sometimes the male students make mildly sexist jokes while we female students look at each other awkwardly…it makes me uncomfortable but I feel like I don’t even know what to say when the professor doesn’t seem to be bothered by the kind of humor that makes half of our class uncomfortable”.

I stared blankly back at her. I remember thinking that I didn’t really know where to begin, because the first thing I thought was, if I were in that class, it would never occur to me to hesitate to speak up and constructively criticize a peer’s ideas if I disagreed. I’m rarely left with nothing to say. And the people debating would definitely not be 100% male.

Eventually I said something along the lines of, “on the part about assertiveness in criticizing ideas, I think maybe it might help to remember that if someone criticizes your idea, that doesn’t mean they’re criticizing you. And why not point out loopholes in their argument right back? On the part about feeling awkward with sexist jokes, maybe you should go to your professor’s office and talk to him. If it helps, you could even bring along a few other classmates who feel this way”.

Here I am in a spirited debate with a retired professor.

Oddly enough, I was so caught up trying to say something helpful, I completely forgot about a moment in one of my classes.

A few weeks ago, we were discussing a study in Zambia about intra-household bargaining and excess fertility (Ashraf et al, 2010). Married women were randomly assigned to two groups: one would receive a voucher for access to contraceptives alone, the other would receive a coucher with her husband present. The critical finding: women who received the voucher alone were 23% more likely to visit a family planning nurse and 28% more likely to receive a concealable form of contraception, leading to a 57% reduction in unwanted births. Our discussion posed the question: is it ethical to provide a woman with contraceptives without her husband present?

One student in my class immediately said no. He said, “It’s not fair. Her husband should have a say in whether she uses birth control or not because he may want a child.”Another student chimed in, “It seems dishonest that these researchers are purposely sneaking in when they know the husband will not be at home.”

Then someone else said it was fine: “mothers carry most of the burden of raising the child, so they should have a greater say in use of contraceptives”. A few more people agreed, saying mothers should have the right to access contraceptives, if a husband were present, he might take the voucher and she would never have the option of knowing where to go if she wanted to access them. I mentioned that just because a mother had the voucher doesn’t mean that she would have to use it so it’s essentially a question of access to information or not, not necessarily whether to use it or not.

Then another student spoke up in favor of requiring the presence of a husband. He said, “It seems pretty ‘the-West-knows-best’ to me, like these researchers are trying to impose their Western values on these women and disrespecting their traditions”.

The class fell silent.

How could we argue with that? He was essentially accusing those of us who cared about a woman’s right to information about contraceptives of being cultural colonialists.

To break the awkward silence, the professor said something like, “interesting discussion, we’re a little behind, so let’s continue with the lecture”, and the class moved on.

I didn’t. I knew something was wrong in that argument. It only came to me about 7-8 minutes later, and then I raised my hand.

“Sorry, professor, I have an issue with a statement made earlier. A student said that to give women vouchers for contraceptives in the absence of her husband is imposing Western values on these women and disrespecting their traditions. But on page 6 of the paper, it says:

With respect to spousal discordance over fertility, in data from a nationally representative 2002 survey of men’s family planning attitudes, on average Zambian men want 0.8 more children than their wives (Salem, 2004). Correspondingly, data from our baseline survey indicate that a high fraction of women hide contraceptive use from their husbands: among the 23% of men who claim they are currently not doing anything to prevent pregnancy”, 59% have wives who separately report using some method of birth control, including 18% who are on the pill and 12% who are using injectables.

I continued, “So clearly, before these researchers conducted their study, women wanted fewer children than their husbands did. It may be tradition in this culture to not use contraceptives, but it is a tradition that has been established by those in power who have systematically oppresses the voices and preferences of women. This is a tradition established by men, it is not a tradition that reflects what the entire community wants. In this case, because there is proof that the preferences of the women in this community are consistent with the individual treatment in the study, to disregard a tradition established by men is not imposing Western values, it is demonstrating that sometimes, traditions need to be altered to better reflect the preferences of women.”

My thinking is, if my friend wants to call someone out for being sexist, the best way to do it is not to just say, “that’s sexist!”, the best way to do it is to explain, “that’s sexist, you’re wrong, and here’s why.” You may ruffle a few feathers, but you’ll make your point a lot more convincing.

There are many traditions this thinking could apply to, and yet, many it could not. There are places to draw the line. I would never condone and I doubt I could ever in my lifetime understand honor killings, acid attacks, witch killings, FGM, or trafficking minors…for the most part, these traditions are also in societies that historically oppress women.

But for some traditions, the line between imposing values and fighting for equality is fuzzy. It’s important to remember this while traveling. When I was living in India last summer and even sometimes in the US, I heard Western women comment about how “restricted” Muslim women must feel wearing a hijab. But for my friends who are Muslim, wearing a hijab is something they are proud to do because it reflects their culture. If someone said that they must feel “restricted” to them, they would consider it imposing Western values. I also remember, when I was a junior in high school, I was talking to one of my classmates in the library, and at one point, she told me about how her parents are planning an arranged marriage for her. I was horrified, and remember saying, “That’s so unfair! How can they do that to you?” But she said it was a part of her religion and part of her family’s tradition, that it was what she wanted, that she trusted her parents to help her make the right decision. Her parents did not force her into it, they did not even ask her. There was no law in her country requiring her to have an arranged marriage, it was entirely her decision. In this case, the family tradition reflected her preferences.

For once, I was left with nothing to say.

One Response to “Rethinking Cultural Colonialism”
  1. Ryan says:


    might be the case or not, but it’s rather highfalutin for many programs in U.S. colleges to emphasize criticizing other countries in this world when the U.S. clearly isn’t perfect

    would be interesting to have an “improve our own first, criticize others .0001% later” curriculum

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