Cultural Rights Vs. Women’s Rights: How do we strike a balance?

Image courtesy of:
Image courtesy of:

This is a paper I wrote for one of my modules last term for MA International Politics and Human Rights, I enjoyed researching for it and writing it so much that I think it will be a waste not to share it with you. Here is a shortened version of it, hope you like it and your comments are deeply appreciated: 


In an ideal world all human beings will be treated equally, regardless of their gender or ethnicity. In fact, article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” However in reality this is not practiced. The universality of human rights, especially when it comes to women’s rights, is lost in the realm of cultural relativism. Drawing from Bunch’s (1990) observation that gender related abuses have been most neglected, I believe that cultural and religious group rights are given more recognition than women’s rights. In this essay I will set forth various theoretical claims and practical cases to argue my point that in reality cultural rights are given a higher grounding than women’s rights, specifically in the Middle East and Asia, but also in Africa and in some cases in the West. I will also look at various approaches that may help in rectifying these challenges.

Before I discuss the challenges I will look at the background of both cultural and religious groups rights and women’s rights. Will Kymlicka (1995) lays down two different kinds of group rights. The first is minority rights that protects the interests of their members and secondly rights which impose restrictions on its members, such as some cultural groups that set prohibitions and regulations on women. Kymlicka supports the first kind of rights but regards the second kind as “difficult” (cited in Anthias 2002: 280). It is one of those situations that whatever approach you choose to support there is always a negative aspect to it. If you oppose the second kind of rights you are demeaning the autonomy of a culture: “rejecting the cultural rules of a minority” (Anthias 2002:280). However if you ignore that these cultural impositions are abusing individual human rights then where does that make you stand? For instance, if you ignore the very brutal practice of female genital mutilation just because it is a cultural practice, does not that make you as ignorant as those practicing it? I will dwell on this further when I discuss how the human rights of women are abused in the name of culture.

Image courtesy of :
Image courtesy of :

Even though I take the position that cultural and religious group rights are recognized more than individual rights, this does not necessarily mean that I think it is a bad thing. Group rights are essential because they provide “members with meaningful ways of life across the full range of human activities, including social, educational, religious, recreational, and economic life, encompassing both public and private spheres” (Kymlicka 1995 cited in Okin 1999: 11). Culture defines who we are and instills important values in an individual, and the rights of these cultures should be protected. However the problem arises when the group rights of cultures clash with individual rights and in particular with the rights of women.

Among the international instruments that protect cultural rights, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights very narrowly addresses this in Article 27 (1): “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.” Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966) also addresses this in a similar way. UNESCO Principles on International Cultural Co-operation (Article 1) emphasizes that: “Each culture has a dignity and value which must be respected and preserved.” The Vienna Declaration very clearly states that: “the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind” (International Human Rights Internship Program 2000). On the other hand, women’s rights were also considered in the 1945 United Nations Charter with the establishment of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). The CSW was responsible for the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which was adopted in 1979. Feminists have been known for challenging the “dominant interpretations of human rights, arguing that they are biased against women, because they address violations by states, and ignore the violations that women suffer at the hands of men in the private sphere” (Freeman 2011: 148). However it should be noted that the Universal Declaration and Article 2(e) of the CEDAW imposes obligations to protect women’s rights on states, groups and persons. But then again, if these rights conflict with cultural and religious group rights, in many cases the priority is given to cultural group rights because the international human rights laws and related instruments were created with the public sphere in mind and tends to distance itself from the violations against women in the private sphere (Moghadam and Bagheritari 2005: 3).

It is however, important to note that regardless of the notions of public and private spheres, women’s rights are extremely important because they focus on women’s “longing for justice, for equality, (and) for recognition” (Anthias 2002:275). Feminists have fought for and continue to fight for the rights of women and recognize the battle women face against oppression everyday in every part of the world. For once, women are empowered to stand up for their rights and not be subjected to the whims of men. Anthias (2002: 279) discerns that the “culture of ‘communities’  (are being prioritized) over the issue of gender rights or human rights of women”. However the feminist movement has been battling for the recognition of women’s rights ever since the 1840s (Feminism and Women’s Studies 2012). Okin (1999:10) best defines feminism as the “belief that women should not be disadvantaged by their sex, that they should be recognized as having human dignity equal to that of men, and that they should have the opportunity to live as fulfilling and as freely chosen lives as men can.”

Nevertheless the struggle for gender equality still continues, and this is where it is important to discuss the imbalance between cultural and religious group rights and women’s rights. Okin argues that these sets of rights clash because the advocates of groups rights have not taken into account that “minority cultural groups, like the societies in which they exist, are themselves gendered” (1999:12). It is not enough to set cultural rights and not take into consideration gender inequality. Women’s rights should also be highlighted within cultural rights. Within every society, be it religious or cultural, there is a substantial difference in power between men and women (Okin 1999:12). Another reason that there is no balance between the recognition of these two types of rights is that some activists tend to focus on one type of rights, failing to notice other types of rights. This is what Ackerly refers to as ‘Cognitive Dissonance’ (Ackerly 2007: 19-20). This is definitely the case when it comes to cultural group rights and women’s rights. Cultural and religious group rights activists will focus on advancing these types of rights failing to recognize that this may assist in violating women’s rights and vise versa. Anthias (2002) points out that “we cannot build a fairer and more just society for women unless we also engage with the other oppressions, around ‘‘race,’’ of culture, of class.”

There is also the argument that Human Rights always protect the rights of the individual. But every individual lives as a part of a society, whether cultural or religious, and therefore they will bear these human rights in relation to the society they belong to (Gould 2004:37 cited in Ackerly 2008: 29). This is one of the main reasons that cultural and religious group rights clash with women’s rights, because when you try to protect women’s right you might violate cultural rights of an ethinic or religious group. My unanswered question resonates closely with Okin’s question: what should we (the international community) do when “the claims of minority culture or religions clash with the norm of gender equality?” (Okin 1999:9). Even when certain groups continue to violate gender rights in their cultural practices, are we supposed to respect their cultural rights?

On the same note, Freeman sets out the view that “different societies strike the balance between individual rights and the common good differently”. This concept recognized as ‘cultural relativism’ is another reason that these two kinds of rights clash. How do we argue that human rights are universal when the counter argument states that human rights are relative; it differs from culture to culture? Cultural relativism is not simply definable as different authors provide different views of the term. From one perspective, cultural relativism may be considered to be a positive concept because it promotes cultural diversity and respects the views of various cultures (Anthias 2002:276). However, when it comes to extreme relativism, or the idea that what is good or bad, right or wrong is relative to the cultural background of the individual (Bowie, n/d), authors, such as Freeman (2011:125), argue that it is “incompatible with human rights, which entails some universal principles.”  The “universalism” of human rights has to constantly compete with different cultural interpretations of human rights because a characteristic of Human Rights is that it respects “autonomy” (Freeman 2011: 125). Therefore it is safe to say that the concepts of cultural rights and individual rights will always clash. Freeman, quite boldly states: “cultures that endorse human rights violations cannot demand our respect simply because they are cultures” (Freeman 2011:127).

On the other hand, the accusation of cultural imperialism is another argument that comes up when examining the claims set forth in relation to cultural and religious rights. Cultural Imperialism is a form of cultural hegemony, giving some states the power to “impose worldview, values, and lifestyles on others” (Lechner 2001). Scholars argue that cultural imperialism is dangerous because “Western Universalist notions” may influence the ideas of justice “everywhere” (Anthias 2002:279). Some critics also argue that the notion of the universality of human rights is just an illusion, a façade that the Western world adopts to disguise ‘cultural imperialism’ (Freeman 2011: 121). This may be the case, however, the notion of ‘western hegemony’ may be challenged, when in practice the West does little “to implement human rights on non-western countries” The West can converse about it all they want but when it comes to actually implementing policies to protect human rights the “local hegemonies – for example, of male religious elites – may be more important and more oppressive for millions of people” (Simmons 2009: 369-371 cited in Freeman 2011:122).

Moreover, everyday the rights of women are being abused in the name of culture. Some scholars argue that human rights are a western concept and questions “whether a Western ideal of human rights can have any universal significance for all peoples” (Tierney 2004: 2), but this should not, by any means, allow such horrible things to happen to women. Okin argues that group rights tend to be antifeminist in nature, “they substantially limit the capacities of women and girls of that culture to live with human dignity equal to that of men and boys” (Okin 1999:12). Among the many violations committed against women I have decided to focus on honour killings, female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) and polygamy.

The notion of ‘honour’ and family reputation is one of the most important ideals within the Asian society. Okin gives examples of honour killings committed in Pakistan and Arab Middle Eastern countries, where women will be pressurized into committing suicide or even be killed by their own family members who wish to restore the “family’s honour”. This is especially true for rape victims (Okin 1999:16).  It is such a shame that people are so hung up on their culture that they blame women for being raped, when it is actually the man who committed the crime. The reason that this practice of ‘honour killing’ still exists is because when cultural violence are labeled as “ ‘honour-based violence’… (it) makes it difficult to target policies effectively and risks stigmatizing certain communities” (Dustin 2006:1). A shocking example of this occurred on the 29th of October 2012 in Pakistan, where parents of a 15-year old girl killed her by “dousing her with acid” because she was “talking to a young man”. The area of Kashmir where this family lives does not administer policies against honour-killings, however the Pakistani administration has begun investigations of murder (The Tribune, 2012).

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) is, in my opinion, the most ruthless violation of women’s rights. A report by the World Health Organization (WHO) reveals that up to 140 million females mostly from Africa, Asia and the Middle East has undergone FGM/C (WHO 2011; Whitcomb n/d: 3). An interview with practitioners of clitoridectomy in Cote d’Ivoire and Togo, published in the New York Times revealed that the idea behind FGM/C is to “insure a girl’s virginity before marriage and fidelity afterwards by reducing sex to a marital obligation” (Okin 1999:14). But this is just one motive behind FGM/C, Whitcomb points out many different reasons for FGM/C, from a symbol of the coming of age of a girl to a way that women are protected from men and from their own sexuality. The reasons and motives for FGM/C differ from culture to culture but in the end it “acts as a functioning social and cultural convention because it serves to place men, women, and children into their “rightful” places in their specific society” (Whitcombe n/d: 16-17). However, Shell-Duncan argues that FGM/C is hugely problematized by the health framework and “assumes that FGM/C is a “pathology” for which the only solution lies in a “campaign style attack” in which the “pathology” can be “cured” (Shell- Duncan 2008: 229 cited in Whitcombe n/d: 20).

Polygamy is another issues that threaten some women. Although this may seem incredulous to the Western world, many women who are obligated to this cultural practice seem to be fine with it. Many women from poor backgrounds find this to be their only source of survival. In Islam there are many rules that govern the practice of polygamy, however Okin argues, “in polygamous cultures, too, men readily acknowledge that the practice accords with their self interest and is a means of controlling women” (1999:15). In October 1996, two states in Malaysia (Selangor and Perlis) have tried to amend the law of getting permission from the first wife in order to get a second wife (Othman 1999:179). This shows that men use their culture as an excuse to carry on these practices in the 21st century, in many cases against the will of women. Women’s rights groups in Malaysia argue that “acknowledging polygamy as the inalienable right of Muslim male nullifies the Islamic notion of a woman’s rights in marriage” (Othman 1999:180).

When it comes to the violations against women in the name of culture, The Marxist idea of false consciousness plays a big part. False consciousness is any belief or ideology “that interferes with an exploited and oppressed person or group being able to perceive the objective nature and source of their oppression” (Open Anthropology, n/d). Linking it to the case at hand it can be argued that women do not fight for something they have never known existed. All they have known and been brought up learning is that this is a part of their culture; in their eyes these violation such as FGM/C, polygamy and forced marriages are not violations at all. They have not been educated to know that these are violations against their dignity. “The injustice that denies them food and education denies them the ability to imagine alternative ways of life” (Nussbaum 1993 cited in Freeman 2011:125). This might be the main reason that in many cultures women are deprived of the right to education, because if women are educated they will fight against the administrations of these cultures for their rights. The most recent example is the case Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by the Pakistani Taliban. Twelve-year-old Malala was an advocate of Education for girls in Pakistan. The Taliban was threatened by Malala’s outspoken views and accused her of “promoting Western culture in Pashtun areas.” They were mostly threatened by “the symbolism of a young girl challenging their retrograde Islamist vision” (Dobson, 2012).

A statement by the Government of Bangladesh (cited in Ackerly 2008:4-5) best sums up the seriousness of violations against women in the name of culture:

“The practice of dowry, of integrating a new bride into the domestic hierarchy of her husband’s family, of domestic violence in order to gain a first wife’s assent to a second wife, of forced marriage, of local religious and community leaders issuing fatwas or community authorized punishments all contribute to the context of human rights violations.”

Anthias (2002:281) also argues that these violations may be practices of cultures or acts by individuals in the name of culture, but there is absolutely no way that it should be regarded as a part of the rights of culture. However by ignoring or failing to address and stop these violations, States are recognizing these as the rights of culture and giving less recognition to the rights of women.

At the same time when it comes to the recognition of women’s rights there is also the whole argument of the public and private sphere, which I touched on at the beginning of this paper. If an act is pointed out to be a violation against women’s rights, the argument that prevails is that what belongs to the private or domestic sphere cannot and shouldn’t be examined as a human rights violation. Therefore “culturally endorsed practices” that is a violation to women’s rights may in most instances be hidden in the “private or domestic sphere” (Okin 1999:23). Anthias sets out the argument that the dichotomy between the public and private sphere is not simple.  It is not easy to distinguish between what belongs in the public sphere and what belongs in the private sphere. However Anthias does state that religion is commonly placed in the private sphere, “but this ignores the role that the Christian church still plays in the shared public domain” (Anthias 2002:280). Also, when it comes to Islam, religious ideas and grounding dominates the public sphere, it “involve(s) a whole way of life” (Anthias 2002:280). On the other hand, there are also values regarding gender equality in the public sphere, but religious and cultural groups seem to dismiss them.

Carrying on from the topic of religious rights, Islam is one of the religions that have been constantly accused when it comes to violations against women. Many Muslim countries, especially states in the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and Yemen operate under Shari’a Law. Saudi Arabia is believed to be the state that operates under the strictest interpretation of Shari’a Law (Johnson, 2011). Shari’a law is based on the Qur’an, and Muslim’s believe that no human being should question the Qur’an (Freeman 2011:130). Therefore, women’s rights cannot even be discussed because the old interpretations of this law still prevail in the 21st century and “Muslim women do not enjoy human rights on an equal footing with Muslim men under Shari’a” (An-Na’im cited in Othman 1999:174). Islam is a universalist religion, however some of its interpretations of the Qur’an, such as the example of Saudi Arabia given above, is incompatible with human rights law (Freeman 2011:127). In every area of Islamic life women are considered to be inferior to men, Othman (1999:127) best describes this dilemma:

“A disregard for the historical context within which the Shari’a was constructed, and for the historical character of the Shari’a itself as it was developed and applied within early and classical Islamic civilization, has permitted fundamentalists to perpetuate in our own times a pre-modern antagonism against women.”

This has definitely brought on a negative perspective about Islam as a whole, which I believe is unfair because Islam as a religion does have its good values and morals. However, the main issue here is the way some Muslims interpret Islam, which puts it in a negative light. Muslim men and women should take the initiative to challenge the “traditionalist and neo-traditionalist views of human rights in Islam” (Othman 1999:173). This is the only way that Islam can pave the way for respecting the rights of women.

An equally significant challenge to the recognition of women’s rights is the right to self-determination. Article 1 of both the ICCPR and the ICESCR reads: “All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development” (Committee of 100 for Tibet, n/d). Margalit and Raz (cited in Freeman 2011:145) argue that “individuals flourish through culture.” Therefore culture is essential for the positive development of groups and for the well being of the members of those groups. Thereby Margalit and Raz try to justify self-determination for the protection of groups. Freeman also points out that “the right to self-determination (is) the most important human right or the precondition of all other human rights” (Freeman 2011:146). That statement alone shows that cultural rights are put before the rights of women. Recognizing the right to self-determination of cultures gravely endangers the rights of individual group members, especially women (Margalit and Raz 1990 cited in Freeman 2011: 145). As Freeman so rightly states: “the right to self-determination of one people may conflict with the right to self-determination of another people” (Freeman 2011: 146). Therefore, there is no win-win situation when it comes to self-determination, especially when the self-determination of cultural groups is given a higher grounding than that of women.

Consequently, the notion of multiculturalism plays an important part when it comes to recognizing cultural rights over women’s rights. Multiculturalism is a good thing; in fact it is a great thing when it comes to fighting racial discrimination. The concept of Liberal multiculturalism celebrates the diversity of all cultures and ethnicities, however, in the hype of celebrating culture it fails to examine the “sexist elements of ethnic culture”, it ignores the exclusionary boundaries that these culture set (Anthias 2002:280). The notion of “maintaining culture” is needed in a multicultural society; nevertheless, people are so consumed by maintaining traditional cultural values that they don’t realize that this may cause human rights violations or more specifically women’s rights violations. When the international society gives higher recognition to cultural rights, they forget who defines the needs of various cultures, is it not the dominant male role that represents the needs of cultures? (Anthias and Davis 1992). “It is important to see why ethnicity matters but without treating it as an adequate means for pursuing various social and political ends” (Anthias 2002: 280).

I have set out my arguments as to why cultural and religious groups rights are more recognized than women’s rights, but the question is how do we strike a balance between the claims for these two types of rights? I will attempt to answer that question in the next section.

The state plays an important role when it comes to protecting human rights of all individuals and groups in its jurisdiction. Ackerly points out: “promoting universal human rights requires institutional and social change” (Ackerly 2008: 23). This requires the state not only to change laws and state policy, but also social practices (Ackerly 2008: 23). Many Middle Eastern and Asian states need dire reforms when it comes to institutions such as the police. There have been instances when women go to the police with allegations of rape, only to be raped by the police itself (Navai, R. & Scurfield, C. 2012). If women cannot go to state authorities whom can they go to? Therefore the State needs to play a big part in ensuring that women can be safe in their societies. It is also important that the women of the society should be involved when reforming laws and policies in protecting and preventing violations against women (Dustin 2006:1).

Whilst targeted laws and policies may be a good thing in preventing these violations, education and awareness is really important too: “new laws are relatively cheap, but sometimes unnecessary and rarely enforced” (Dustin 2006:2). By educating the population of the country, mainly the male population, on human rights violations and on interpreting religious texts with the historical context in mind, a state, which is in great need of reforms, can get ever closer to protecting human rights of women. Dustin (2006:2) rightly states that: “a human rights framework can help to raise awareness of and prevent violence against women, and be used to promote core values, including in relation to women’s rights.”

Healy (2006 cited in Freeman 2011:124) argues, “Universality is sometimes confused with uniformity”. To some extent this is true because the interpretation of some human rights may defer from culture to culture, and its implementation may have a positive effect only when that culture’s values and traditions are respected. This does not mean that gross human rights violations should be accepted; it means that the international community should encourage these cultures to implement/alter its policies to protect human rights in a culturally sensitive manner.

Thus, we have examined the challenges that women have to face when it comes to balancing the recognition for their rights in contrast with the high recognition given to cultural and religious rights. We have looked at how this takes places, from the interpretation of religious texts and the violation of women’s rights in the name of culture to the importance placed on self-determination of cultural and religious groups. We have tried to find possible ways to address these challenges and come to the conclusion that the deprivation of education can be the root cause for all of this, not only women but also men need the right education in order to make a just society for everyone, including women. All of this does not mean that we should disrespect the values and traditions of cultural groups, and it does not mean that the West has a right to interfere in the conduct of other States, especially Asia, Africa and Middle East. It only means that baring cultural and religious group rights in mind, women’s rights too should be given an equal grounding. Women’s rights shouldn’t be treated as an exception to cultural and religious group rights but as an integral part of it.












One thought on “Cultural Rights Vs. Women’s Rights: How do we strike a balance?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s