WASHINGTON -- After the British army conquered the Sindh region of what is now modern-day Pakistan in the 1840s, Gen. Charles Napier enforced a ban on the practice of Sati -- the burning of widows alive on the funeral pyres of their husbands. A delegation of Hindu leaders approached Napier to complain that their ancient traditions were being violated. The general is said to have replied: "You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. ... You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours."
The incident can hardly be commended as a model of cross-cultural relations, but it clarifies a tension. Conflict can arise between respect for other cultures and respect for universal human rights.
This is particularly true when it comes to the rights of women. Traditional societies can be deeply admirable -- conservative, family-oriented, stable, wise about human nature and human society. But they can also be highly patriarchal, evidenced by such practices as Sati, foot-binding, widow inheritance and female circumcision. This is not to say that modern, rights-based societies are without their own faults and failures; it is only to recognize that multiculturalism and human rights can sometimes clash.
For the most part, these tensions no longer emerge through colonialism but through migration, which can transplant a traditional culture smack in the middle of an aggressively liberal one. The most visible areas of difference -- say in dress -- can spark controversy, just as the wearing of the burqa is now doing in Europe.
Belgium is moving toward a total ban on face-covering veils in public. Italian police recently fined a woman for wearing a burqa. In France, a law banning garments "designed to hide the face" is likely to be introduced in July. "The burqa is not a sign of religion," says French President Nicolas Sarkozy, "it is a sign of subservience. It will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic."