Carol Hunt explains why we are often hesitant to point out shortcomings in other cultures which fail to protect their citizens
"Of all the evils for which man has made himself responsible, none is so degrading, so shocking or so brutal as his abuse of the better half of humanity; the female sex (not the weaker sex)."
Mahatma Gandhi, 1921
CURRENTLY in India, the world's largest democracy, six state MPs are facing rape prosecutions, while two national politicians are facing charges that fall just short of rape. It seems doubtful, though, that these politicians are suffering sleepless nights; last year in Delhi alone, out of 635 reported rapes, there was only one conviction. And rapes are rarely reported because of the stigma suffered by the victim.
On Thursday, Amrit Dhillon, a journalist based in Delhi, asked how long it would be before the Indian middle-class fury over the rape and death of a young physiotherapy student in December petered out: "A week? A fortnight? A month?"
Dhillon wrote despairingly, that "rape in India is the culminating act of a chain of violence against women which begins in the womb – female foeticide, a subservient status for girls in families, poorer nourishment than their brothers, less education, less medical treatment, early marriage followed by domestic violence and sexual harassment in public places at all times".
Just last June, India was cited as the worst of all G20 countries for women to live in – behind Saudi Arabia – due to its "culture of infanticide, child marriage and slavery"; 45 per cent of its women are married before the age of 18; 56,000 maternal deaths were recorded in 2010; 57 per cent of its young men (and 52 per cent of young women) believe that it is acceptable for husbands to beat their wives.
Just last week, a two-year-old girl was raped to death in Gujarat and another victim of a gang rape committed suicide.
What is surprising is how many of us are shocked. As if we don't have access to newspapers, television, radio and the internet; as if we didn't know what happens day in, day out in the largest "democracy" in the world – and many other countries.
I'm usually not a great fan of the "what-aboutery" argument. This type of deflection often occurs when a proponent of a particular stance can only defend their position by saying "but what about...?" and point to something that distracts. For instance, in the wake of the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar and the consequent criticism of Ireland's treatment of pregnant women in crisis, some commentators tried to dismiss such concerns by pointing at India's record on female rights and asking, "You dare to lecture us?"
And certainly I was loath to engage in that particular debate. However, sometimes a tipping point is reached where you cannot, in all conscience, ignore a hypocrisy that can blind us to the facts.
Since the death of Savita Halappanavar was first reported, the Indian media have repeatedly portrayed the Republic of Ireland as a backward, religiously fundamentalist little country with little or no regard for the status and safety of women. "The stigma surrounding unwanted pregnancies ... is horrible," reported a blog in the Hindustan Times. It continued: "Women who have been raped are afraid to go to rape crisis centres or even report the rape to police because they are afraid they will be forced to have the baby of the rapist." The Hindu said: "Savita was failed by the Irish Constitution, which is based on religious dogma that is discriminatory and leaves no room for rational argument."
In Europe 53 MEPs from 15 different countries and four different political groups sent a letter to An Taoiseach describing their shock at hearing of the tragic death of Savita.
The Indian foreign minister, Salman Khurshid, appeared on television saying, "They [the Irish] have a legal framework that is rooted in religion."
Letters have been sent from all over the world to Irish state offices by people insisting that they will never set foot in this "barbaric" country again, with one American saying that he would recommend a US boycott of all Irish products.
Please, people, could we have some perspective here?
Yes, absolutely, Ireland should always expect to have the highest of standards where human dignity and civic rights are concerned. Savita Halappanavar was in our care, we appear to have failed her and her family (though we must add that the precise circumstances leading to her death have yet to be determined by the Hiqa inquiry team) and, in my opinion, we have also failed the many women who are forced to travel to other jurisdictions each year. We are, however, as a people, on both sides of this debate, not shy of criticising our own traditions and laws, or of holding our own beliefs and prejudices up to public scrutiny. This is to our great merit.
But we are often – and I include myself here – hesitant to similarly criticise other cultures which fail to protect their citizens in the most blatant and disgusting of ways.
There are, I believe, two reasons for this. The first – in my case anyway – is the fear of giving ammunition to the "other side" and igniting the ire of our own. In the abortion debate, it could mean giving those who would prefer not to legislate for the X Case reasons to argue that we all should be grateful to live here and not India.
The second reason we stay silent is the prevailing Western devotion to the philosophy of "cultural or moral relativism" – an ideology often, wrongly, identified with liberalism and secularism. Relativism is the view that what's true for one person or culture may not so be for another; consequently there are no absolute moral truths, just differing opinions which are equally valid.
If we (white, Western, rich and of Christian heritage) judge that such "traditions" as female circumcision, child-marriage, the stoning of adulterers, suttee (the burning alive of Hindu widows) and the position of women as second-class citizens are morally wrong, we are often accused of cultural imperialism or even racism.
Relativism is why American policies are minutely criticised while those of nations like Pakistan, Iraq or India are often given a free pass. Relativism is one of the reasons why the democracy of Israel is constantly held to a different standard of behaviour than its neighbours where civil rights are concerned. Relativism is why we accept harsh judgement in the Savita Halappanavar case while refraining from pointing out the hypocrisy of this criticism from countries like India.
It's always good to have an open mind where differing cultures and practices are concerned – but not so open that our brains fall out.