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The Limits of Tolerance

Should we put up with practices that demean women?


Is it time for progressives to re-think tolerance? By that, I don't mean liberals should abandon tolerance as one of their (OK, our) basic values. But I do think it's time we were more specific in defining what we mean when we say we're "tolerant."

Here's why I bring up the issue. Last week, Warren Jeffs, leader of a fundamentalist Mormon sect that practices polygamy, went on trial in Utah. He's charged with two counts of rape as an accomplice for his role in arranging a marriage between a 19-year-old sect member and the man's 14-year-old cousin. The woman, now 20, says she was forced into the marriage and had begged to be released. Jeffs' lawyer, Wally Bugden, defended Jeffs by claiming the case isn't really about rape, but rather about critics' "intolerance of people who engage in cultural and religious practices that differ from the mainstream." When I read the lawyer's statement, a chill shot up my spine. Here was a deep-seated liberal value -- tolerance of those out of the mainstream -- being turned on its head to justify the ruining of a woman's life.

Budgen is right, of course, when he claims the neo-polygamist Mormons are out of the national mainstream. In fact, they're even out of the Mormon mainstream, as the Mormon Church abandoned polygamy in 1890 and condemns the bigger-than-you-think "fundamentalist Mormon" movement. Since the fundie-Morms are such oddities, it stands to reason that some liberals might be tolerant enough to support their right to practice polygamy -- and sure enough, some do. Luckily for the sake of progressives' moral clarity, most of us are sickened by the thought of a teenaged girl being forced to "marry" someone against her will. After all, liberals believe as strongly in equal rights for women as we do in tolerance. Don't we? Or is that a trick question?

We're not alone these days in sorting out conflicting values; European countries are currently confronting issues of religious freedom vs. women's rights every day. In Europe, the issue is Islamic values as regards to women's roles vs. Western values of personal freedom. So far, most of the European debates concern Islamic women's clothing and how much their faces should or shouldn't be covered, while politicians have framed the debate in terms of terrorism. But a deeper debate about conflicting rights is also in full swing among the people and pundits.

OK, granted, Muslim veils and burqas aren't as urgent a topic as women being forced into unwanted marriages, but the underlying conflicts are similar. Jack Straw, the leader of the British House of Commons, created a major uproar when he commented that the Muslim niqab, or full-face veil for women which reveals only the eyes, is harmful to understanding between people of different cultures.

In the Netherlands, the government announced that it plans to introduce legislation to ban burqas in public places, saying the full-body garment poses a security threat since a terrorist could easily hide inside one of them. Politicians and anti-immigrant groups have generally favored Straw's comments and Holland's burqa ban. Progressives in those countries, meanwhile, have split between those who say Europeans should be more tolerant of Muslim immigrants' traditions, and pro-feminists who say the various types of veils are degrading and out of place in a modern, secular society. In other words, if you're going to live here, you have to accept our core beliefs in freedom. Ironically, the controversy in the Netherlands has been so heated that Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born, Dutch politician who campaigned against acceptance of Muslim treatment of women, was deported.

The British and Dutch controversies follow a similar dust-up in 2004 in France when the government banned Muslim headscarves, Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses in public schools. Progressives in France vigorously opposed the ban at first, until a privately funded poll showed that most Muslim girls liked the ban because it meant their parents couldn't force them to wear the headscarves anymore.

These are tricky political and moral choices for progressives, and there could be a fine line between protecting women's rights and making alliances with xenophobes. But it's becoming harder to argue with feminists like author Susan Okin, who say that multi-culturalism and feminism are now in opposition to each other. Okin argues that advocates of "cultural rights" for minority cultures tend to overlook the fact that those cultures often give men power over women.

To look the other way when women are forced to act a certain way, whether it's marrying someone they're not interested in or hiding their faces in public, is to give up too much of what generations of Westerners have struggled for.

Some practices and, yes, cultural traditions, are demeaning to women -- whether they're from radical Islam, "fundamentalist Mormons" or, face it, mainstream culture -- and shouldn't be accepted in a feel-good haze of naïve good will and tolerance.

For now, Europe is wrestling with what it means to be an open, liberal society. It's time we Americans look at our own conflicts between tolerance and individual rights, specifically the rights of women, and start defining where we stand. Sooner or later, we'll be asked to draw a line.

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