It is a fact of the world that there exists a diversity in cultural practices surrounding all sorts of human behaviour; from how food is prepared and shared, to dress styles and rites of passage and one of the pleasures of travelling, either in reality or vicariously via television documentaries is being exposed to this diversity. It is also true that, in the main, such diversity adds colour and richness to the world and for that reason alone is worth preserving, at least as long as the people practicing it want things that way.
However, not all cultural practices are so benign that they can be experienced or enjoyed with total equanimity.
I’ve been following Chinese chef Ken Hom’s Exploring China: A Culinary Adventure the latest episode of which saw him in Yunnan province, Southwest China sampling the food of the ”minorities”. In particular Ken and his co-traveller Ching-He Huang were attending a celebratory meal with the local Hui Muslims. This Chinese minority group follow the same dietary laws as Muslims the world over and appear to share their misogyny and patriarchal pretensions too.
Ching’s reaction to be being shuffled off to a separate party with the rest of the women was at first one of mild but obvious surprise and offence, but then in the voice over, she excuses it as “their culture”, and no further reference to the implied status of the women is made, either within the context of the meal, or in the direct to camera portions of the program.
Immediately prior to this Ken and Ching were witness to the Halal slaughter of a goat, to be roasted for the meal. In this ritual preparation of food the animal is blessed in the name of Allah, its jugular slit and so bled to death. Now, I am aware that the jury is still out on whether this is a more or less humane way to slaughter meat animals than the western preference for stunning first with a captive bolt. The scientific evidence is conflicted at best. However the program managed to gloss over the controversial aspects, mainly by making the process appear much quicker than it is and not showing the reflexive struggle that the dying animal always displays when killed this way.
When Ching comments to their host that in her culture the blood (which is Haraam according to Islam) would be soaked up with rice and eaten, she was responded to with a terse “No!”
Of course people can choose what they are prepared to eat, but the finality of their hosts reaction brooked of no further conversation on even the possibility that other culinary options existed.
The reason the program doesn’t question these cultural attitudes is because, well, it’s not just cultural: Its religious. Almost any other quirk of indigenous or local behaviour could be politely commented on and compared and contrasted with what obtained elsewhere in the world. One could even imagine having a civilised debate about which if any of such practices were ‘better’ however that was defined. But once culture and religion become conflated conversation stops and even comment is seen as inappropriate.
It’s bad enough when this stops us criticising sexual segregation, or debating the merits of animal rights. But religion provides cover for the most egregious of cultural practices and discrimination from denying women’s rights to education or franchise, to genital mutilation, forced marriage, violent exorcism of ‘possessed children’ and stonings.
In twenty-first century Britain we should not let program makers get away with portraying discrimination as quaint and culturally relative without at least passing comment on whether this should be appropriate to any culture anywhere today. And we should not be shy of exposing the role religion plays in perpetuating such violations of basic human rights.
"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"