Cultural sensitivity or an excuse for inaction? Field work reflection– Tanzania, post scriptum:

Writen by: Line Bager (@lbager87)

Edited by: Sinéad O’Ferrall (@sineadOFGH) & Helen Jane Myrr


Five weeks of fieldwork in Tanzania has concluded and we have returned back to our “comfort zones”. Reflecting on the challenges we faced during our time in the field is inevitable. This blog follows on from “To give or not to give? That is the question”. by Sinéad O’Ferrall (03/06/2015). Here I would like to focus on how we acted, and were perceived as a group, when we visited various health institutions. In these situations, whilst we were curious and naturally inquisitive, we were also concerned about the nature of the questions. It is essential to remain as sensitive as possible meaning I would rarely ask the difficult questions. However, one of my fellow students rightly raised the question: at what point does cultural sensitivity become an excuse for inaction?

Credit: Julia Manzerova (flickr.com)
Credit: Julia Manzerova (flickr.com)

Female genital mutilation – a universal wrong?

Who decides if a practice falls under the definition of cultural or harmful? Or can we define a practice as both? We had only been in Tanzania a few days before this question was raised. At a visit to a reproductive health clinic we learned that women who have been mutilated suffer from many complications and that the staff regularly encountered such cases. Many students were from a ‘western’ perspective, horrified and there was a broad consensus that such practice should not be written off as acceptable because of its cultural roots. Female genital mutilation (FGM) is an example of a practice, which we, as outsiders to the culture, consider as clearly violating human rights of girls and women. This is why I believe we, as students largely educated in northern Europe and America, did not quite appreciate the sensitive nature of this topic as we asked many critical questions about the continuing practice of FGM, despite it being delegalised in Tanzania. Our local teacher was clearly on the defence straight away, maybe surprised at the direct nature of the questions, which naturally led us to stop asking once we realised this. But does the apparent discomfort of our teacher mean we shouldn’t have asked these questions at all?

Striking the balance:

I’m tempted to ask if we sometimes hide behind a principle of cultural relativism to avoid stepping up when we see something as wrong? To what extent is it okay to ask sensitive questions and keep on probing when the answer is being refused or avoided? On more than one occasion, when visiting various health clinics, there was a discomfort among some due to the constant probing and lack of sensitivity in the questions and comments. After asking the same question several times, and being refused an answer, maybe it should be accepted that either the question is not understood, or is being deliberately avoided. Despite our pre-departure training we were still unable to appreciate that cultural differences needs to be respected. Some students felt that not asking these difficult questions would be to silently condone the practice and that we are obliged to ask the difficult questions – maybe that is one of the reasons we are here. But it must be done in a way so we do not disregard the cultural differences – there is rarely a right or wrong, rather many grey areas. As a famous scholar within development studies emphasised; going in to the field requires unlearning what you already know – otherwise you are pre-determined to see things in a certain light.

Who decides?

So what are we left with? Does everything fall in absolute categories of right or wrong? Or are all cultural practices and beliefs a matter of perspective? Who decides where the line is drawn between what differences should be accommodated and which should not? Personally I find it difficult to believe in absolute values. Even the idea of Human Rights is a paradigm that some parts of the world subscribe to more than others. It is hard for me to see concepts that are ‘culture free’ and if that is the case then it also true that our background will influence the way we approach an issue. Unlearning what you already know is near impossible. Even if you succeed you end up acquiring another relative perspective – it is simply not possible to ‘stay neutral’. Nevertheless, the attitude of unlearning might be the best way to stay open-minded and avoid snap judgements. This fieldtrip has shown us just how difficult it can be to study and critically consider what we are seeing while remaining culturally respectful.

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