News Carol Hunt

Friday 19 September 2014

Equality shouldn't vary from culture to culture

Boko Haram knows that the biggest threat to religious terrorists is educated girls, writes Carol Hunt

Published 18/05/2014 | 02:30

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PLIGHT: Protesters at a sit-in rally in Abuja for the abducted schoolgirls last week. Photo: Reuters/Afolabi Sotunde

It's called "The Girl Effect": the fact, and it is a fact, that if you want to bring men, women, families, communities and countries out of poverty, you concentrate on educating the girls. Why? Because – and again, this isn't just my feminist opinion but a fact – when "you improve a girl's life through education, health, safety and economic opportunity, these changes have a positive effect on their families, communities and nations". Any country interested in progress, equality and all the other Enlightenment ideals that we've fought so hard to achieve and maintain in the West, has to ensure it pays attention to the education of its girls.

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"Change starts with a girl", is the tagline of 'Educating Girls Matters' – because when girls are educated you get lower birth rates, improvement of child nutrition and health, an enhancement of women's domestic role and political participation, and lower child- and maternal-mortality rates, among many other benefits.

Like you, I find it hard to believe that there are places in the world, and people living in them, that don't have a similar aim. Who isn't interested in eradicating poverty, spreading prosperity and wisdom within their communities?

Well, it's obvious that groups like the Taliban in Afghanistan, Jabhat al-Nustra in Syria and of course Boko Haram in Nigeria, aren't.

These are groups who hide behind the cover of religious extremism in order to control and terrorise. And all over the world, we shake our heads and say how terrible it is – that schoolgirls are kidnapped in Nigeria, that mass rape is a weapon of choice in places like Syria and Congo, and that the Taliban throw acid into the faces of female children who dare learn to read. Extreme groups in extreme circumstances, we tell ourselves.

But these groups didn't just materialise out of the ether. They are a product of their cultures. In the same way that the imprisonment of women in Magdalene laundries and the torture of poor children in industrial schools was a consequence of social and religious culture in Ireland up until relatively recently, so too is the kidnapping of schoolgirls in Nigeria a consequence of a religious and social culture that does not want to treat women as equal citizens with equal rights to men.

We're not supposed to say that, though. All cultures should be treated equally, shouldn't they? If we say that one culture – say, the one that doesn't insist on genitally mutilating young girls or making women cover themselves from head to toe when they leave the house – is morally superior to another, we are accused of being illiberal, of judging others by our own standards, of not understanding or respecting another person's culture. For some reason we can criticise ourselves – we can say that the influence of Catholicism, for instance, in Ireland was pernicious and in some cases evil, and we will be applauded by the liberal majority; but try say

the same thing about how Islam is interpreted in Nigeria or elsewhere and you'll be accused of Islamophobia.

This doesn't make sense. Either we believe in equality or we don't. Either we think all people should be accorded human rights, or they shouldn't. We can't decide, for instance, that we believe here in Ireland that all citizens should be treated equally – but not in Africa or Afghan- istan because, well because they're different people with different 'customs'. Because if we do – if we say that everyone is entitled to treat their own people according to the diktats of their particular religion or culture – then why are we so surprised when we see what groups like Boko Haram are up to?

Yes, it's extreme, but it's just a continuation of the ideology that women are not equal and should not be treated as such. It's not as if we didn't know that women in Nigeria were treated as lesser citizens because of their "culture", is it? Or that more than half the girls in Northern Nigeria are married off by the age of 16, that they are then expected to start producing children within the year, that only one in 10 girls gets to finish secondary school (in the Northern regions, one in 20).

The girls getting ready to sit their physics exam in Chibok were a very privileged exception. That's why they were targeted. They were not the norm; they were an aberration in a culture where women have little value beyond child rearing and housekeeping.

Yet we knew all this, just like we know millions of young women suffer genital mutilation, or are stoned as adulterers or refused an education because they live in countries where they are denied equality.

Last week we saw the UK, USA, France and even China and Israel involve themselves in searching for the schoolgirls of Chibok. This is a welcome development. Nigeria needs the world media and Western powers to highlight the plight of these girls and their families and send the word to extremists everywhere that it will not tolerate the denial of education to women – not just in Nigeria, but everywhere.

I'd like to be able to attribute the extraordinarily lacklustre response of the Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan, to the kidnappings as basic ineptitude or just bad management of the situation, but it's hard not to conclude that missing girls just didn't seem to be much of a priority to him. Nor does it seem to matter to him that the reason they were kidnapped was because they were committing the crime of studying. As we've seen, educating women doesn't seem to be a priority in Nigeria.

This is a mistake. The biggest threat to religious terrorism isn't bombs, threats, drones or guns. It's educated girls. Boko Haram know this. Al-Qaeda know this. The Taliban know this. Here in the West we have rightly been horrified at the actions of Boko Haram and other groups like them, but we need to be just as appalled at societies who deny their women equal rights, in the name of "custom" or "religion". Moral relativity isn't the tolerance of different cultures – it's hypocrisy. A hypocrisy that lays fertile ground from which groups like Boko Haram can emerge from. We need to cop on to this. And we need to support initiatives like The Girl Effect.

@carolmhunt

Sunday Independent

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