Last Wednesday evening in Northampton, I participated in a public dialogue around the question, “Do Muslim women need saving?” together with about 45 other members of our local community. It was the second event in the six-part Bridging Muslim/Non-Muslim Divides series jointly organized by Karuna Center and Critical Connections. The dialogue began with an "interview" between Mehlaqa Samdani, Executive Director of Critical Connections, and Falguni Sheth, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Political Theory at Hampshire College. We then broke up into small groups for more in-depth discussion. At the close of the evening, representatives from each small group took turns engaging in a dialogue based on the small group's insights while we all listened.
Prompted by the night’s topic, Professor Sheth suggested that Western media portrayals of Muslim women following 9/11 have reinforced stereotypes about the oppression of women in Muslim societies—for example, through media coverage of highly charged cases such as those involving “honor killings.” She expressed the importance of being aware of the types of media we are consuming, how it’s framed, and for whom it is targeted. While she made no excuses for domestic violence or state repression of women within any society, she encouraged us to ask ourselves what causes us to feel discomfort when we encounter behavior that is outside of our own familiarity (e.g. wearing the veil). We thereby become able to find commonalities rather than differences across cultures.
In the latter half of the evening, we broke into small groups and conversed at length about the kinds of individual experiences that propagate cultural and religious misunderstanding. From these conversations, one of the biggest takeaways of the night were parallels drawn from our own societies to ones that are often identified in contrast (e.g. The West and The Middle East). Instances of gender-based violence and poor access to social services, for example, are not exclusive to any one society or country. To overcome our differences and the apprehension we feel when we engage in unfamiliar terrain, we have to reform our present ways of thinking.