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Everything has its limits, including Cultural Relativism

Published: February 3, 2012
Section: Opinions


This past Sunday in Ontario, Canada, Afghan nationals Mohammed Shafia, his wife Tooba Yahya and their oldest son Hamed were each found guilty on four counts of first-degree murder for killing the couple’s three daughters and Shafia’s first wife. They killed their daughters Zainab, 19; Sahar, 17; and Geeti 13 in a so-called “honor killing” because they had stained their family’s twisted concept of honor by dressing in Western styles, having boyfriends and because of Zainab’s attempt to marry to a man she loved. Mohammed Shafia was overheard in wiretaps saying this about his dead daughters, “God curse their generation, they were filthy and rotten children. To hell with them and their boyfriends, may the devil shit on their grave.” What was most damning, however, for Mohammed Shafia, and that showed that the girls murder was an honor killing was when Shafia was overheard on the wiretap saying, “Even if they hoist me up onto the gallows, nothing is more dear to me than my honor.” Shafia, along with his wife and his son, are honorless and shameless scum. It is they, along with ever perpetrator of “honor killings” worldwide, who lack honor, not the victims of their murders. The Shafia family will now each serve at least 25 years in prison as they deserve, and justice has been found for their daughters.

Unsurprisingly, Islamic organizations in North America have denounced the Shafia family’s crime and have brought attention to the fact that honor killings have roots in old tribal customs, not Islam. Here at Brandeis, however, I have spoken to people who have said that judging the Shafia family for their crimes means that we are lacking sensitivity for their culture. These cultural-relativism absolutists apparently believe that even murder can be justified if it is part of a people’s culture. I wonder if these people would continue to believe this if they were traveling and were abducted by a group of people who believed enslaving another human being is an important rite of passage in their culture? Would they defend the culture of such people? The murder of these young girls is proof to me that even cultural relativism has its limits. A culture that condones murder, torture and slavery needs to be changed, end of story.

Central Asian cultures need to eliminate honor killing from their culture, just as American culture needed to get rid of lynchings just five decades ago. Murdering another human being because they looked at someone the wrong way, or fell in love with the wrong person can never be justified. Do cultural relativists believe that it was OK for white Americans to lynch black people because it was part of their culture to string up black men for looking at white women the wrong way? What about widow burning in Indian culture? Or how about legalized slavery in Mauretania? Should we have never spoken up about cultural practices that involve murder, torture or slavery? Cultural Relativists need to answer these questions. We should always respect other cultures, however, under no circumstances should cultural practices ever get in the way of saving a human life.