After a joyous couple of months, during which I was captured by surf and Sri Lankan chill, I had the warmest of receptions in Lowlands Country by both my dear friends Rick and Louis and the weather. Having spent last summer in Central America, experiencing long summer days, with sunsets after 10 pm, which used to be so normal once, have become something to marvel at.
Drive, Baby, Drive
While enjoying a fabulous spring and beginning of summer in western Europe, a country at the bottom of my ‘wanna-go list’ came in the news, as it attempts to catch up with modern times. Saudi Arabia has lifted the ban on female motorists. It made me think of cultural relativism and the absoluteness of good and evil. As part of social liberalism and political correctness- there might be a fine line between the two- one is not to judge other people’s practices and beliefs based on one’s own culture. It is considered ethnocentric and just not terribly sophisticated in the eyes of many intellectually inclined lefties.
Travel vs. Residency: the Dark Fairy Experience
During my time at the African Med, a bit more than eight years ago, I realised that experiencing a culture while travelling, is something completely different than doing so while actually living in said culture. I absolutely loved my first time in Egypt. I was based in Umm ad-dunya, my beloved Cairo, for a few weeks. It was Ramadan, which is a very festive time, a bit like Christmas in this part of the world, just with no alcohol and better weather. Life was tame during the day, but after sunset and iftar, the evening meal to break the fast, the city was captured by a festival atmosphere, which was a true joy to experience. During Eid I travelled to the oasis of Siwa in the west of the country, near the Libyan border, where life in the desert seemed peaceful and almost idyllic.
About 18 months later, when I had been living in the country for about six months as part of my academic year abroad, I realised I was far less open-minded towards other cultures than I had previously assumed. Being used to undertake stuff on my own, I found it hard to discover that, women, who want to do stuff solo are rather vulnerable in Egypt, and one needs the ‘protection’ of a man. Ideally your husband or father, otherwise a brother. As a foreigner you need to rely on a male friend, who will always be from a wealthier family, well-travelled and used to friendships between men and women. It’s not that I found my own culture superior, it’s just that I really didn’t dig that aspect of Egyptian culture.
Relative to Culture or Universal Good
Many of us have been raised in a culture of relativism: there is no such thing as absolute good or evil. What is considered okay in one culture is seriously frowned upon in another (sex before marriage, alcohol consumption, female circumcision.) Although I have been conditioned not to judge a foreign culture based on my own experiences, beliefs and practices, I am reconsidering the relativity of good and evil. I do believe there is absolute evil. How relative can shit be when it comes to the act of rape or child molestation?
To bring this back to the lifting of the ban on women drivers, I wonder why I should have considered this ban part of culture. Something that is not intrinsically good or bad, rather than an infringement of the universal human right of freedom of movement in a vehicle of one’s choosing?
There is something weighty and almost sacred about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which, as the name says, entails universal values. Where then, do we draw the line between universal good and evil and culture differences that are ‘just’ relative? I am not saying I have the answer. I don’t know who exactly would decide on the universality of good and evil in practice. I am well aware it is not as black and white as portrayed in fairy tales and cartoons, but maybe our culture of relativism is a cop out that is just too easy.