The “Limit of Tolerance” of a white, privileged, non-Muslim man

I wrote a post last week on the flogging that took place in Pakistan’s Swat Valley and my thoughts on the video. This week, Randy Cohen, a columnist for The New York Times, wrote a piece on the ethics of what took place in Pakistan, as well as the recent law proposed in Afghanistan. While I thought the premise of the essay was not terribly bad (“what do we deem to be tolerable and intolerable?”), the angle at which Cohen looked at the flogging and Muslim women in general had an air of white privilege which was troubling.


The image accompanying the NYT article. Image via Nadeem Khawer/European Pressphoto Agency/

Before taking on Cohen, I must admonish The New York Times for once again relying on the cliched “veiled” woman image whenever there is a feature about Muslim women. This time the image accompanying the piece (featured right) is of a Pakistani woman protesting the flogging with a newspaper covering her face. I know this point may sound redundant to some regular readers, but I say it in the hope that someone at the Times is reading this and gets the message!

Back to the actual essay. Cohen’s first paragraph made me question the rest of his article. The first sentence was wildly incorrect: “Online images recently showed a 17-year-old girl in Pakistan’s Swat Valley being flogged in public for going outdoors with a man not her father, a violation of Islamic practice.” Ignoring the fact that different media outlets have provided vastly different reasons for why the whipping took place, it isn’t correct that Islamic law requires a woman to be flogged for going outside with a man who isn’t her father. If someone is writing a piece on Muslim women, I don’t think it is too much to expect a little research on Shari’ah and whether leaving the house with a man who isn’t a woman’s father, relative or husband is punishable by lashing. This point seems minute compared to my bigger issue with the article, but I think it does relate to a bigger issue in Western media outlets when journalists and columnists write pieces on predominantly Muslim societies without doing much research on what they actually write.

Further in the paragraph, we’re asked:

For us, gender equality is a fundamental value. But we also profess tolerance for other people’s culture and religion. Which principle should prevail? Should we respond to these developments with tolerance?

I understand that Cohen is looking at cultural relativism in juxtaposition to ethics, but the question still has an air of privilege to it. The statement presupposes that that Muslim cultures and Islam are antithetical to gender equality. This overlooks Muslims who fight for gender equality and and Muslims, especially women, who do not see a contradiction between Islam and gender equality.

More importantly, it puts American readers in the position of judging Muslim cultures once more: “We [Westerners] have to balance our ‘tolerance’ for another religion and culture with gender equality.” Cohen’s statement assumes that Americans have the right to do this. It also assumes that all Americans want gender equality, and that Muslims and Americans are exclusive categories. Instead of having Muslims and non-Muslims come together over shared ideals of gender equality, Cohen’s statement and entire post assumes that Americans must take some type of action, instead of supporting Pakistanis and Afghans in their existing actions for gender equity.

In an update to his blog, Cohen wrote that he did not mean to generalize about Islam, and that we have to speak out against sexism in every society. However, even with this update, I still felt that gender inequality in Muslim societies is always treated worse than the “softer inequities of America’s mainstream faiths”. There’s still this idea of comparison to an American ideal, and the reader is still being forced to look at gender issues among Muslim societies from an American perspective.

I do wonder if we would have to decide if tolerance for our own religious traditions and culture should have to prevail over gender equality as a fundamental value. I have never seen this dilemma ever presented in the media, except in cases involving Islam. That’s because serious gender inequality existing in the U.S. isn’t presented as religiously or culturally sanctioned. If Americans–and by extension, people in Western societies–can see gender equality as a fundamental value, but never have that principle conflict with tolerance for other cultures and religions, why is is it different when discussing Muslim societies?

Discussing tolerance is well and good. However, a discussion of tolerance shouldn’t allow us to be comfortable with thinly veiled privilege.

  • Ista

    Perhaps before the U.S. goes and looks at other countries and judges them, we should look inside ourselves and see that we’re not exactly perfect. I get really tired of looking down on Islam when most people don’t know anything about it.

  • Rayhana

    I recall that there was quite a bit of discussion over ideals of gender equality in the case of the FLDS compound (that’s the split-off Mormon cult, where there were suspicions of young girls being traded and sold for marriage to much older, often blood-related, and multiply-”married” men, and women were required to wear certain religiously-specific clothing). There have also been novels, books, articles and movies about orthodox Mormon women (e.g., “Sacred Rituals”), orthodox Jewish women (“A Price Above Rubies” being the movie that immediately comes to mind), and too many works about Catholic Christian women on this issue to list (although “Eunuchs for the Kingdom of God” is pretty basic).

    I think the discussion of religiously-inspired gender inequality in Western societies is vibrant and certainly preexists the current interest in Islam. Quite frankly, rigorously expressed concepts like “patriarchy” and “the male gaze” did not originate with Muslim intellectuals.

  • Rchoudh

    This “concern” for women of other cultures and judgment of their society’s values is really nothing new in the Western imperialist context. They’ve shown this “concern” for Muslim women in the past (just study about France’s occupation of Algeria and Britain’s occupation of Egypt to see this) which was really just a guise under which they can justify their imperialist plots to take over other lands. And Muslim women have not been the only women to come under scrutiny. Britain perfected this “judgment” in India when it used the position of Hindu women in their society to justify its continues colonization of India. I also read that Irish women were also used as an excuse for England to continue occupying Ireland!
    Interestingly this concern wasn’t always present in Britain before its colonization of the Middle East. I remember reading once that the position of Muslim women in their society caused British society to have an internal debate over the comparisons made between the women living over there and British women.

  • Rochelle
  • Chandra

    Thanks. Very nice breakdown of some of the problems in the NYT article.

    What I find troubling in his “Update” is that even while saying he is not making generalizations about Islam and women, he still continues to talk about “religious sexism”, which is precisely the point…this is not about religious sexism per se. And even more upsetting is that while cautioning against the slippery slope of cultural relativism (ie., respecting other cultures even if they are sexist), he still uses, as you point out, the relativising phrase “the softer inequities of America’s mainstream faiths”, which undermines his whole point.

  • Fatemeh

    Great post, Faith!

    @ Rayhana: while the discussion of religiously-inspired gender inequality in Western societies is vibrant, it doesn’t have the same tone as the same discussion when applied to Islam. As Rochelle notes, there are echoes of colonialism and neo-colonialism in the current discourse about Muslim women. It’s “white men saving brown women from brown men” all over again, especially with Western military in the equation.

    And I agree that the “softer inequities” of mainstream American faiths stuff is bunk. I also take serious issue with the way Cohen has structures his argument to exclude Muslims from the “American” term; like Muslims and Islam are only occuring “over there”.

  • Rochelle

    As much as I would like to take credit for that statement, Fatemeh, I believe it was Rchoudh who made those observations. But I’m on board with it!

  • Fatemeh

    Whoops! Thanks for the correction! There are too many similar letters in your names!
    I meant Rchoudh, of course. :)

  • Phil

    What was the reason that the talibs gave for the flogging?

  • Fatemeh

    @ Phil: Different media outlets say differing things, so at this point, no one is sure. They range from having a boyfriend to leaving the house without a male relative.

  • Rchoudh

    Awww no need to acknowledge anything! I believe most of us are already on board with what this type of discourse entails!

  • luckyfatima

    These types of articles are just a guise to trash Islam.

    Cohen: Americans, The West, are so enlightened and liberal and tolerant. We love multi-culti stuff and are not racists. But just how generous and kind can such great tolerant people be with their tolerance? Take for example, The Muslims, here are these two things that The Muslims want us to tolerate: whipping a teenage girl in public and legalizing marital rape. Those two issues are basically what Islam is about. How can we tolerate Islam and The Muslims and their backwards cultures, then? Now, I am not a racist or a bigot, but I just have to put a cap on all of my kind hearted, selfless tolerance when it comes to those daft and backwards people who do evil things like that. Because that is what the average Muslims want us tolerant Westeners to accept: flogging and marital rape. So you see, I am so very tolerant, but I cannot tolerate that.

    A very intolerable article.

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  • Michi

    While this author understands a few things (she can spell with a spell checker) she is very poorly educated. Cohen is a Jewish name, not a European name (look it up).

    And guess… what Arabs are classified as Caucasian/White by biologists. so we have to hate Arabs too? And Persians who are true Aryans?

    Trying to divide Muslims by race is very rude. No one loves a smiling Muslimah more than a smart conservative White man ~ I should know I married one.

    [This comment has been edited to fit within comment moderation guidelines.]

  • Faith

    I debated whether I should respond to Michi but I will. Yes, Cohen is a Jewish name but that doesn’t negate his being white. Additionally, I’m not sure what that has to do with the point of the post.

    As for the rest of the comment, I don’t know how to address it because it misses the point of my post completely. I’m also not sure where I tried to divide Muslims by race. Perhaps Michi misunderstood something in my post?