When understanding the East means losing the West

Posted: Jan 21, 2003 12:00 AM
Breaking news from Saudi Arabia: "U.S. women interact with local populace." According to the Arab News, actual "female" Americans of the Saudi-American Exchange Program met with a bona fide Saudi "female date farmer." The reason? "To promote understanding and encourage dialogue between the two sides," Arab News reports. It was a success, naturally. Understanding was busting out all over Ye Olde Saudi Date Ranch, while dialogue also occurred -- at least with the state-controlled press. "The portrayal in the Western media and culture is that Muslim women, especially in Saudi Arabia, are oppressed and subservient," said one American participant. "Many Americans believed that women here were forced to wear the traditional abaya and veil. However, I have come to learn that the women here wear the veil by choice." While a Saudi censor couldn't have said it better, this quotation is attributed to Lorna Hadley, a student at Yale University School of Public Health. And, judging by the comments of fellow student Amelia Shaw, a fine choice wearing the veil is: "I thought women, by wearing the veil, would be silenced, and that symbolized not being allowed any verbal expression. However, when I did wear it, I felt free from being looked at as a sexual object." What a relief. Thanks to Saudi-American exchange, it now becomes clear that, all this time, while Western women were junking their corsets, bobbing their hair, lifting their hemlines, donning slacks, burning bras and discovering the easy cling of stretch denim, they really should have been shopping for the perfect abaya. And why not? As Maryvonne Van Der Bauwede, a "jewelry designer from France," told the Arab News, "It's very comfortable and beautifies the eyes." Me, I'll take Maybelline. Not that it matters. In fact, maybe we should leave the exchange students to their continuing adventures -- "The Preppy Handbook" meets "Let's Go Mecca and Medina" -- and consider the more serious import of this kind of cross-cultural "understanding." It's one thing to learn about Muslim dress -- which, despite all the "understanding" this program has managed to promote, is about as voluntary a choice for your average Saudi gal as her religion. It's quite another when presumably liberty-loving American women become apologists for a sartorial brand of servitude that, of course, is just one oppressive fact of life for women living under Islamic sharia law as legal, professional and social nonentities. And another thing: A woman may not look like a "sex object" when she dresses up like a haystack, but she still looks like an object, period -- one wholly devoid of a recognizable human shape. Or maybe that's my Western bias showing. It slips through now and again, particularly as cross-cultural "understanding" catches on to a potentially dangerous point. I refer not just to the fashion non-sense of grad students on a junket. While it's easy to poke fun at such exploitable naivete, the impulse to understand is no laughing matter when it requires drastic compromises on principles of life and liberty. When cultures really clash, outreach becomes less a tool of coexistence than of transformation. Such attempts, in other words, may end up undermining the basic precepts of the Free World. This becomes more obviously apparent in the alarming effort in the West to understand, perhaps even accommodate, what may be best described as a cult of death found in regions to the East. Maybe it's just a feeling that comes from observing the shocked-no-more responses to the latest suicide-bombing in Israel, or from reading the smooth reportage of a New York Times article on Sri Lanka's "masters" of suicide bombing and their territory ("a place steeped in the notion of self-sacrifice"), but it does seem that suicide bombers aren't quite the pariahs they once were. British enthusiasm over a recent conference on Palestinian Authority reform only intensifies the queasiness. Among other things, the PA agreed to a "cease-fire" against "pre-1967" Israel. This means that citizens of post-1967 Israel -- namely, the West Bank, Gaza Strip and eastern Jerusalem -- remain what Palestinians consider fair game. Of course, the cease-fire expires after Israeli elections this month, and then it's back to suicide-bombings as usual throughout Israel -- post-1967, pre-1967, A.D., B.C., whatever. In Great Britain today, this counts as progress. Is it? Jan. 7 was "Palestinian Martyrs' Day," an occasion marked by PA memorials to Palestinians killed in the intifada, including those praised by one government speaker as "the most noble among us" -- the shahidim, or suicide bombers. According to The Media Line (www.themedialine.org), festivities included a government TV special "featuring pictures of dead babies with uncovered faces" and exhortations to Palestinians "to follow in (the suicide bombers') path." Such a death cult seems largely incomprehensible to Westerners. The only way to understand it is to renounce all respect for human life, a measure that still remains beyond our understanding -- one hopes.