Modernity Worldwide

hejaab. photo by Please! Don’t Smile.

Many Westerners commonly, if unconsciously, believe that the paradigms enveloped by the term modernity – progressivism, universal suffrage, feminism, etc. – were essentially birthed in the West, only to leak out and infiltrate other societies in recent eras.

While my education and experiences abroad have certainly taught me better, I could have at least in part counted myself among the masses who subconsciously subscribe to that belief – until yesterday.

Yesterday afternoon I sat down with a professor of feminist literature who lives here in Madison, and by chance dove into a brief discussion about feminist thought in the Middle East. As we talked, she drew upon personal experiences with Middle Eastern women and on books from Middle Eastern authors to make a point about how the West never held the market on progressivism.

One of the authors she mentioned that intrigued me most is Marjane Satrapi, an Iranian woman who wrote and illustrated a graphic memoir titled Persepolis. Satrapi was raised in a progressive household in Tehran, but was sent by her parents to Vienna at age 14 to escape an oppressive regime – she lived a migratory life, hopping between Iran and Europe a couple times before settling in Paris.

Though I’ve yet to read the books, what I gather from this professor’s commentary on them is that despite Satrapi’s exposure to the West, the roots of her progressivism stemmed from her homeland. I could perhaps relate this to a feminist novel I have read written by Egyptian author Nadal al Saadawi, who’s disdain for patriarchal society was homegrown.

My interaction with this professor encouraged me to think a bit more deeply about the dangers of viewing the world as split geographically into backwards and forwards. In this time of fear and war, the images most Americans see of Middle Eastern society are those representing backwards tradition – radical Islamic clerics, women wearing face veils, and bombed-out dust bowl cities. If we are ever confronted with opposing representations, perhaps of Middle Eastern academics or educated people fighting for equality, media often frame them as being “Westernized.”

And there is another danger in this view – making similar assumptions, many fundamentalists in the East have written off and dismissed progressive ideologies as simply being an invasion of Western thought, rather than being homegrown movements. The truth is that Eastern societies have a rich cultural history of academic thought, and wherever there is a pursuit for knowledge, dissidence for the status quo will surely sprout.

The fight for equality and wisdom is first and foremost a human endeavor, and no one region or society holds the keys. Movements for freedom often take on different features and cultural traits, as evident in Turkey’s current struggle for balance between secularism and Islamic faith, but the heart is essentially the same.

When Westerners view other nations or societies as typically backwards, needing to be fixed by Western value systems, we are unwittingly reverting to the archaic perspective of “the white man’s burden.” This is an odious reality we need desperately to face, because in truth, we do not have the corner on modernity – everyone has legs to stand.

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