Culture & Relativism: Child Marriage, Normal Yesterday and Unspeakable Tomorrow

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The diary of a wanderer, discussing cultural relativity, history and the institution of marriage and perceptions of child marriage. 

Growing up in a culturally dynamic household, the child of a Lebanese father and an Iraqi mother, in suburban Montreal, you are inevitably exposed to all manner of cultural questions early on. To make matters more culturally confusing, I spent the first few years of my childhood in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and shortly thereafter, my family relocated to Canada, where we lived up until my high school years rolled around – just in time for another big move to Dubai. Since then, I have lived in Beirut and the south of France, and have travelled a great deal in the meantime.

Needless to say, I am an individual with a rather complex identity, and an even more complex understanding of identity and culture –a direct result of my cultural mash-up of an upbringing. There is no bigger culture shock than that which occurs when a child is ping-ponged between the more conservative Middle East, and ultra-liberal Canada. But getting this culture shock out of the way early on was, in retrospect, what prepared me for the life of a wide-eyed wanderer.

Children are adaptable and eagerly willing to accept things, things that might seem strange to more sheltered adults. People dealing with rude awakenings regarding other cultures later in life are much less willing to look past the differences – far too set in their ways to accept something so different as being normal. It is a simple equation: the more exposure an individual has, the less shocked or surprised he or she may be by a culture and its respective idiosyncrasies, and the less exposure, the higher the likely intolerance level and inability to process certain aspects that seem simply too “foreign” to be acceptable. Cultures all start to blend when one is exposed to many, and the entire notion of cultural relativism fades away all together. The core tenets of culture and morality speak no language, nor do they vary a great deal between two extremely different cultures.

While marrying your daughter off at 13 may seem absurd to an American by today’s standards, and absolutely run of the mill to an Afghan, it was not so long ago that such happenings were the norm in American society as well. In 1836, at 27 years old, one of the most revered proponents of gothic and romantic literature wed his 13-year-old cousin, something that was deemed perfectly ordinary within his society. The writer was Edgar Allan Poe, and the society was 19th century Southwestern United States. This occurred a mere century and a half ago, yet in a relatively short space of time, the prevalent culture in the region has since rendered such actions illegal by law and completely taboo by societal standards. Afghanistan is a developing nation, plagued by religious zealotry and war, with a desperately impoverished economy to boot. A family of five living in a makeshift hut, with no formal education and no source of considerable income, cannot afford to keep their daughters fed for a prolonged period of time. Marrying the girl off is a blessing, because she may now be taken care of and start a family of her own – the highest accomplishment she can hope for given her circumstances. There was no such necessity in Virginia in 1836, yet it was acceptable nonetheless. What makes such an act so appalling to an American today is not cultural relativism; it is a lack of understanding of the dominant discourse within another geographical location with an entirely different social and economic framework.

There is no relativity at play – only lack of exposure. Encouraging a nervous teenager to leave the household and live on their own is viewed as shameful and obscene in the Levantine and yet totally commonplace in parts of Western Europe. Again, the cultural nuances in those regions set forth the reasons for such perceptions. Given the much stronger attachment to the role of the family in the Levantine, asking your child to move out would be effectively abandoning your family, one of the most shameful acts within that society.

In Western Europe, the child is no longer seen as a child, but as an individual who must leave the home in order to become a productive member of society. Such perceptions are products of economic and social development. The rise of individualism and decreased attachment to traditional religious values have gradually ebbed away for the traditional European family, but again, up until not even a century ago was it extremely unordinary for a 17-year-old British girl to leave the home to live and work on her own.

The look in a mother’s eyes, gazing upon her newborn child, is not relative – nor is the yearning to be reunited with one’s loved ones in old age. Some things are cross-cultural. There are many more things that unite us than things that set us apart. These are the things that make up the essence of being human, the things that should be focused upon considerably more than the clothes we wear or the food we eat. There is something precious and universal in the nature of humanity. We may choose to focus on the odd parts of a culture, and pass off a strange or uncomfortable practise as yet another prime example of cultural relativism, or we may choose to seek to understand the origins of said practise, only to realise that intent is not so relative after all; that the starting point is the same, but the routes and time taken to reach certain milestones within a culture are variable.

The cure for relativity is understanding. Understanding is bred through exposure. As a wanderer, I have opened doors within my perception that are sealed shut all around me in others. I have been to Jordan and I have been awestruck by the ancient city of Petra; I have walked in Mozart’s footsteps in the glorious Vienna sunshine; and I have felt true Italian hospitality in Milan. Door upon door, upon door – opened. I have climbed to the top of the world to the great cedars of Lebanon, I have been in love in Paris, where my padlock may or may not still hang over the Seine, and I have been absurdly carefree and rowdy in the streets of Madrid, after too many 1-euro cervezas. I’ve stood under the Eiffel tower and I have looked up at Big Ben and I have gazed upon Manhattan from Lady Liberty’s crown and I have seen humans in all these places doing and saying the same things. I see no relativity, only a delicate web draped around each of us, tying all people together, into a magnificent tapestry of human achievement and wonder. I am myself a tapestry of culture, and I see no paradox in being a Lebanese-Iraqi-Canadian-Emirati who speaks French and loves hummus and maple syrup as one tends to love one’s national foods.

I might not have been everywhere, but I have seen quite a few of this world’s offerings, and if this gives me any sort of credence I would use it to state with full certainty, that relativity is in the eye of the beholder – and I wish everyone could see what I could see, because it’s glorious from over here.

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