We can do better than solve inequality—there, I said it. Talk of inequality on a global scale may lead countries toward an identical, “modern” lifestyle—but it won’t elevate us.
Writing for CNN, Frida Ghitis compares the realities of Hillary Clinton and Jyoti Singh Pandey; in the same week, both womens’ hospitalizations dominated the news.
But the discrepancy between their prevailing identities—one, arguably the most admired woman in the United States, the other, the victim of a brutal rape—leads Ghitis to conclude that their “parallel stories point to a sharp divide in the worldwide struggle for women’s equality.”
I don’t find Ghitis’s method too effective. The side-by-side comparison of a female leader of the “first world” with a casualty of the developing world is a reductive premise to explore the international state of women as a whole.
One could just as easily note the discrepancies between Joyce Hilda Banda, president of Malawi, and a teenage girl in Steubenville, Ohio.
We know that some women will receive respect and admiration in their lifetimes, while others will be ignored, or worse, abused.
The success of individual women is not license to unfurl the “Mission Accomplished” banner only to say that, in a state of inequality, lifestyles fall along a drastic spectrum—with this, Ghitis agrees. However, her framing of female inequality risks being labeled as an example of “apples and oranges.”
Rather than make a point tied to the fate of distant individuals, why shouldn’t we examine the ways in which each society could better value human life?
Releasing the issue of inequality from a direct comparison frees us to acknowledge cultural diversity as we look at how the value of human life has evolved.
The discussion of life’s value includes both men and women. It begins with the very definition of what it means to be human.
If asked point-blank ‘what does it mean to be human?’ we may feel daunted by the enormity of the question, when the truth is that—in two primary ways—we define the term for ourselves all the time.
The first way is through cultural norms. During my semester abroad in Morocco, after more than a few days without a shower, it wasn’t rare for an American student freshly emerged from the bath house to proclaim, “I feel like a human being again.” Human: by this definition, clean. It’s an offhand remark with bold connotations.
Or take the cultural norm of literacy, advocated by the UN and included in a list of internationally supported Millennium Development Goals.
Is literacy a necessity for all humans to lead a fulfilling life?
Literacy adapts an individual to the demands of a society that values literacy—as if it were a form of technology. However, in pockets of the globe where books are scarce, can we assume that daily existence is burdened by illiteracy?
When we go into another society we bring our preconceived notions of the ‘good life,’ and we want to observe that every citizen is equally valued.
I remember sitting in my host family’s living room in Rabat, as family members proudly recounted voting in 2011’s constitutional referendum. ‘What about Mama Soumia?’ I asked, and paused as there was a brief exchange in Arabic. Someone translated: she didn’t go to the polls, she was making the couscous.
Looking at this woman, I did not see someone thwarted in her civic duty by traditionalism. Where others might see a subservient domestic, I saw a strong wife and mother perfectly capable of making a judgment as to how she should allot her time.
Her lack of civic participation would be problematic to some observers, but I would venture to say they are employing Ghitis’s flawed framework.
This brings me to the second way in which we define being human: the ability to perceive the value of human life. This definition, by its very nature, is self-dependent.
When we want to create distance between ourselves and those who commit atrocious, unfathomable acts, we revoke their human label. They become monsters.
As Badri Singh Pandey—speaking to Sunday People, said of his daughter’s rapists, “I don’t have the words to describe the incident. All I can say is they’re not human, not even animals. They’re not of this world.”
World creeds and religions may be outdated on issues of social equality—but at their core they contain a directive to value human life.
For this reason, interpretation and re-interpretation evolves international communities in ways that an imposed framework cannot.
Foregrounding the value of human life—whether male or female—ultimately resolves inequality, and counteracts the impulse to commit rape.
Crossing cultural boundaries to illustrate inequality isn’t conducive to progress, even in matters involving universal rights.
Parallel stories tell a tale of inequality, but their function is limited.
The literacy with which we should be most concerned is the ability of all cultures to value human life.
Striving to be less animalistic doesn’t necessarily make us more human—this is not a vague platitude of comfortable privilege, it’s a challenge to the notion that improvement is simply “narrowing the gap” between the Hillary and Jyoti.