The West is always indignant. It’s what we do. Protestors are shot at in Bahrain; we send a strongly worded letter of complaint. War crimes are carried out in Syria; we tut and say it’s an internal affair. Women are told that to work is to be damned in Saudi Arabia; we write a postcard. We – the decadent rich, the indulged ones safe in our pampered lives – get very outraged, do very little, for the simple truth of the matter is that the options available are limited, our power is questionable, our moral authority is barely worth the spit it dribbles with and all things – but all things – are complicated. In Syria a repressive regime that murders its own people fights a rebellion that murders civilians and, increasingly, is manned by those who would impose strict Sharia law. Is this how its soldiers see themselves? Obviously not. No one stands up and says ‘yes, I believe in repressing human rights’ and ‘yes, I think it only fair that women should become little better than a material and sexual object’. Everyone is always the good guy, everyone is always right. What use is our indignation? Arguably: none whatsoever.
In the Maldives, a 15 year old girl, who it seems very likely was systematically raped by her step father, grew pregnant, and whose infant child was murdered at birth by her own family and buried in the front garden, has just been sentenced to 100 lashes for fornication. In Pakistan, a 14 year old girl was shot in the head for blogging about going to school; in India, women are being systematically targeted for unnecessary operations by doctors out to make a quick buck.
We who read about these things, from our comfortable computers far away, do not have the knowledge, the experience, the resources, the will, to act. We tut and we chide and we do very little, and there is a great deal of righteous anger at the comfortable middle class of this world chiding the actions of people far, far away. Are you going to give up all you have to go to a land you don’t know, where you’re not welcome, to see if you, somehow, ignorant as you are, can make a difference? I know I’m not. I don’t have the answers, I don’t have the skills, I don’t know what I can offer, save this:
That to not speak is worse – a thousand times worse – than to be silent. Yes, I am all of the things I have stated above – remote and powerless in this – and these cultures are not my cultures, these stories are not my stories. We do not have the right to impose our views. But if you genuinely believe that the victim of child abuse deserves to be imprisoned and flogged; if you think that it is okay to shoot teenagers in the head, and if you regard it as merely good manners to stay silent while women are abused and mutilated, then shame on you. Because this isn’t a culture clash; this isn’t respecting the complexity of a situation. This is the plain and simple destruction of a woman’s choice, a woman’s right, and the freedom to decide for yourself, cut off by the lash or the gun.
And in some places, silence is judicious, and silence is respectful. And too often, silence is cowardly; and no, we don’t have the answers, but damned be to hell if our ignorance and our fear stops the debate. We have the freedom to speak – a glorious freedom. Let’s use it.