Sajida Bibi
Sajida Bibi teaches class at a shelter for abused women in Pakistan. (photo: Nicholas Kristof/The New York Times)

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“My hunch is that the violence in the Islamic world has less to do with the Qur’an or Islam than with culture, youth bulges in the population, and the marginalization of women. In Pakistan, I know a young woman whose brothers want to kill her for honor — but her family is Christian, not Muslim.”

The audio clip above from Krista’s interview with Nicholas Kristof, regrettably, never made it into the final show. Here, he recounts how the story of Sajida Bibi, a Pakistani woman abused by her Christian family, serves as an example of the symbiotic relationship between culture and religion. This story reminds us, once again, to question our assumptions about faith and culture as we listen to stories different than our own. It also begs the question: how much of the dominant religious belief system, even in countries that purportedly keep church and state separate, seeps into cultural customs and cultural conformity.

Thinking about this story also made me wonder about the power of conformity. Isn’t cultural conformity itself almost a religion? Do believers in synagogues, mosques, and churches around the world do what they do primarily because of their belief systems or to conform to the social or religious cultures around them? How much of what we call consider faith expression originates from actual religious belief and how much of it originates from a desire to conform to the expressions of others that share our faith?

In fact, we live neither our religious lives nor our cultural lives in a vacuum. And as the story of the Pakistani woman illustrates, neither does anyone else.

Share Your Reflection



This is very elucidating information concerning the practices of harsh treatment of women, and others who might break over-zealous, if not distorted, norms and expectations emerging from the Qur'an in certain countries; and also what is probably the lessor known point that Christians and some of those who are not professing Muslims, within those cultures, hold to the same mutant cultural norms.

I believe the article above shares a more realistic, and detailed insight into how we as human beings will often conform to the cultural expectations around us - especially when they are coming down from "on high," or are simply the driving force in the impassioned subconscious of most people of the accepted cultural value, kept in place by what have become ingrained, or even intimidating, broad-scale traditions.

As a Christian, I understand and recognize that there is often a high degree of polemical and degrading sentiment, among certain outspoken Christians, about Islam and what are known, or at least thought of, as the trends resulting from the adherence to customs associated with it, when Islam is practiced on a wide scale within a certain country, or segment of society. While much of this rhetoric is very unfair, and is most likely even carries with it a refusal to engage in genuine discussion with real Muslims - engagement that could result in much more understanding on each side; if our intention really is to, with compassion, help root out any one of the many evils of various societies - even where they might exist in our own cherished religious beliefs and values - we also need to be able to recognize the centers from which pressure toward certain areas of conformity are emerging, wherever such rigidity exists, that holds an unquestioning or unthinking and cruel practice over the right and dignity of a human being not to undergo senseless suffering, at the hands of browbeaten masses and unconscious systems.

I am excited to hear this observation by Nicholas Kristof. It matches my observations and conclusion in the Middle East back in the 1980s. My husband and I lived in Amman, Jordan, and visited the West Bank and Israel often. We knew many Arab Christian and Muslim families. I concluded after years in the area and having many Palestinian Christian and Moslem female friends with whom I worked that the style of dress was cultural, not religious. The women wore beautifully embroidered dresses and head coverings. They all--Christian and Muslim--wore that style of dress. Those years led me to understand that society and culture have more influence on how the women dress (and behave and relate to men) than their religion does. Not many in the West would agree with that concept today, though. Thank you Nicholas and Krista!