An Open Letter to Kenneth Roth (Let’s Talk About It)

If you could write a letter to a human rights worker, what would you say? Would you thank them for their hard work, write words of encouragement, maybe even offer them funds to continue their efforts?

What if this letter was addressed to Kenneth Roth, head of Human Rights Watch, known as one of the largest U.S. defenders of human liberties? Mr. Roth is one of many international organization leaders who has unofficially and officially provided political and social support to Islamist parties, many of whom are responsible for the gross gender inequality with which their countries exist.

Though Roth’s name is currently being attacked, why is it that in general, we are afraid of pointing a finger towards political Islam? I agree with Roth’s point of view in that Islamic parties are not necessarily worse than many “autocratic regimes that the West props up;” however, this does not mean it is okay. I in no way mean to attack Islam, nor Christianity, Judaism, or any religion in general; the freedom to practice your religion should always be. However, a human rights organization that downplays violence against any group of people simply for fear of being politically incorrect is no human rights organization. An Islamist state that discriminates against women should not be accepted; a Christian state (that I occasionally fear the U.S. is to become) that does the same should not be accepted either. A separate church and state existed once; this does not merely mean the fact that you believe in god or not is no matter of the state, but also that a persons right to safety and happiness should not be dictated by the states’ religion.

So here is my letter to you, Mr. Roth: it’s okay to point fingers sometimes, and accuse people when they are attacking someone’s basic liberties to health and happiness. If you are not capable of taking a stand against something that is so wrong, then why the hell are you working in human rights? Clearly you are in the wrong field. Please, strap on a pair, because this is weak on your part, and we are not proud.

Nathalie Couet
With a French-Polish mother and a Québecois father, Nathalie has always been fully aware and grateful of the fact that she is a citizen of the world. Born in the United States, Nathalie moved to the United Kingdom at six months, only to return to the U.S. at the age of three. After high school, Nathalie moved to Montréal, Québec to complete a Bachelor's degree in Anthropology/Archaeology/African Studies. Forever in love with writing, the outdoors, and photography, Nathalie spent several years as a freelance sports photographer and writer. A deep love of science brought her back to her roots, and she now works in communications for a software company. (She has long said that tech geeks are her spirit animal…and now she spends her days with them.) Suffering from self-diagnosed wanderlust since she was a little girl, Nathalie has been fortunate enough to visit most of the U.S. states, several Canadian provinces, and a dozen countries over three continents. As an adventure junky and an avid rock-climber, Nathalie now travels whenever and wherever she can, writing, climbing, and eating everything she can along the way.

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    1. Reading the book “Reading Lolita in Tehran” and it talks about how some Iranian women in the 80s found it so annoying that Americans fought to liberate them from wearing the veil. They felt like there were so many other causes Westerners could fight for, and felt somewhat violated that they took it as their own responsibility to fight for this one. Though they hated wearing the veil and complained about it on their own, they felt that it was their issue to complain about and their fight to fight. Anyway, thought that’d be pretty relevant to the discussion here, though I guess that begs the question of what makes an issue something worth international attention, versus something that should be deferred to “culture”?

    2. The question has always bothered me too, and I think one of the things that’s bothered me the most has been the switch from one extreme to another in feminist discourse. We’ve gone from “those poor women need help and we need to rush in to save them!” to “they’re fine and we should stay out of it entirely.” To me, the proper line is somewhere in between- recognizing the autonomy of people in their own countries and cultures, but facilitating that autonomy whenever it’s being limited by law or practice. An example of appropriate intervention and support (from my perspective) would be other countries engaging with members of Congress over their willingness to let any number of causes (i.e. religion) to interfere with women’s ability to access affordable and safe contraceptives. Coming into the U.S. to set up advocacy agencies on our behalf would be patronizing, I think, but volunteering for agencies that American women have already set up would be supportive. Does that make sense?

      Of course, we’re talking about a variety of practices all over the world, and some of them are in a category unto themselves (i.e. acid burning or systemically requiring women to marry their rapists). At the same time, there are already organizations “on the ground” to work with survivors and to advocate for broader change. Mr. Roth’s job, I believe, is to collaborate with these agencies in broader discourses.

    3. I can agree with that. I think it’s important we support local organizations fighting for their causes rather than taking it upon ourselves to do so.

    4. Living in a Muslim community it can be hard to accept that the women here in Morocco have so fewer choices in their daily lives than I do, but this is the way it has been here for hundreds of years and although things are slowly changing, as I believe they need to, it’s going to take a lot of diplomacy, tact and understanding before these women are ever treated as equal members of the human race. That said, we shouldn’t be pussy footing around the issue for fear of upsetting the political applecart, at the end of the day, regardless of whatever religion we choose to follow we are all members of the human race, and right and wrong applies to us as humans, irrespective of religion. But if there are aspects of the Muslim faith (or any other faith) that we as an International community do not support, does that then mean that we are condemning that faith as a whole? I know many people who follow certain religions but appear, in my view, to pick and choose the elements of that faith that they wish to adhere to, and they will happily justify it with no shame. Just as there are elements of certain faiths that I would happily support, there are many elements that I definitely would not. So I can appreciate that it might be possible to support some aspects of a religion while not supporting others, but when it comes down to something as important as human rights, the lines between what is right and wrong are well defined to most of us, regardless of religion, so Kenneth Roth really has no excuse for not taking action.

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