Cultural Education

A friend recently gave me a book to read called “Half the Sky – Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide,” written by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn, the first married couple to win the Pulitzer Prize for journalism. Over 254 gut-wrenching and inspiring pages, “Half the Sky” provides historical, political, and cultural insight about, giving numerous real-life personal examples of, the three major abuses women and girls are facing today: sex trafficking and forced prostitution, gender-based violence including honor killings and mass rape, and maternal mortality, which needlessly claims one woman a minute.

This morning I came across a news item that an Iraqi immigrant in the US has been convicted in Arizona today of the second-degree murder of his 20-year-old daughter, and found guilty for aggravated assault on her boyfriend’s mother and leaving the scene of a crime back in October 2009. While his defense claimed he had intended to spit on the mother while driving when his car swerved and accidentally hit both women, the prosecution called it an honor killing. Sentencing is expected tomorrow, and the man faces between 17 and 44 years in jail.

A quick Google search brought up a similar case, where a 16-year-old Afghan girl was stabbed to death by her 23-year-old brother in Germany in 2008. Spiegel Online published a piece entitled “The High Price of Freedom” in which it gave a little background into the family’s history, explaining how the men in the family, or at least both father and brother, had a difficult time of adapting to life in Germany, never truly learning the language or finding fulfilling professions, while the girl wanted to be like her friends, wearing make-up and Western clothes.

I’m not sure if killing the women in your family because they have “brought shame” is legally and officially sanctioned in any country, but reality is that this rule is still widely accepted and practiced today. Including by women, as “Half the Sky” documents.

Wearing my cross-cultural training hat, my question is: where is the line between staying true to your own culture and adapting to the ways of the country you’re living in? Can we really expect Iraqi and Afghan immigrants to behave like Americans and Germans, effectively asking them to redefine their understanding and expression of family honor and values? Because if we do, then we have to expect Americans and Germans moving to Iraq or Afghanistan to start adhering to local customs, too, don’t we?

Maybe this example is too specific and we need to address a more basic question: which cultural norms and practices are acceptable for all mankind, and which need to be overhauled and brought into the 21st Century? Unfortunately, the question itself is flawed, as it is addressing the issue from a biased perspective. Humanity is supposed to be diverse, all cultures have developed over time ensuring the survival of the group, and no one person can say they know what’s better for the rest of us.

As I’m struggling to remain “fair” over this particular practice I have no hope of grasping the concept of, here’s what I can hope: let us do what we can, use including globalization, social media and technological advancements to help us become aware and learn more about our countries, our cultures, and each other. Ideally, education will promote cross-cultural understanding and appreciation. This in turn might give us a choice: our behavioral norms don’t have to remain the same as they were 5,000 years ago if we have examples of other people doing things differently, and successfully. At the very least, we have a voice, and I’m using mine to ask questions and encourage you to go out and get that book to find out more about the background, and how you can help and get involved if you so choose.

Written by Doris Fuellgrabe, Owner of Building the Life You Want LLC, a coaching practice dedicated to supporting people through international and life transition by raising cultural and self-awareness.

Image: Half the Sky book-cover, available at various outlets.

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About the Author

Doris Füllgrabe

Doris Füllgrabe

Hello! I have been an expat for nearly 20 years, I'm a certified MBTI® Master Practitioner, and also hold certifications in the Neuroscience of Personality, and the Berens CORE™ Approach. After a decade in executive coaching and training and volunteering at the ECA, I've decided to pursue more creative endeavors. I'm happy to keep in touch with this community and hear from new expat coaches, so feel free to contact me, or browse my archived blogs on www.buildingthelifeyouwant.com, and use the resources provided on this page. If you'd like to commission a unique piece or hand lettering or calligraphy, please visit www.dorisfullgrabe.com. Thanks for visiting and all the very best wishes! :-)

One Comment

  1. admin
    Posted February 25, 2011 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    Doris – you raise some very interesting points – cultural “norms” like these are what make moving to a new country that much tougher, when you have to live with “acceptable behavior” that is not acceptable to you. Thanks for information about the book as well.

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