Women’s rights and culture

February 19, 2009 by

Aasiya Hassan

Aasiya Hassan

Earlier this week I wrote about the horrific murder of Aasiya Hassan, whose husband beheaded her in what may have been an honor killing. For many commenters on the web, it is apparently impossible to condemn this nightmare without hastening to add that American culture has plenty of its own home-grown brand of misogyny, and it’s therefore “intolerant” to notice the particular lethalness of the honor-shame paradigm in some non-Western cultures. You know the argument: America is full of sexism and the commodification of women and our own gendered violence, so we have no business even talking about women’s rights.

If you’re a habitué of the progressive blogosphere, this line of thought is probably so familiar that you take it in without blinking. But let me ask you a couple of questions. Remember during the Beijing Olympics, when many people sat out the proceedings to protest China’s human rights record? Did anyone argue that because the West has some problems of its own in that regard, protesting the Olympics amounted to nothing more than “intolerance” of Chinese culture? Here’s another example: in the final years of apartheid, South Africa was the world’s pariah. Did anyone argue that because the West has its own history of racial discrimination, it was “intolerant” to condemn apartheid? Did anyone claim that we should accept South African culture on its own terms and keep our noses out of other people’s business?

Of course not. And I’ll tell you why: because in China and South Africa and every other setting where men are or have been oppressed, the issue is seen as one of universal human rights. It’s not a question of culture or of tolerating each other’s customs; it’s a question of fundamental rights to freedom and bodily integrity. Abuses in one society don’t somehow mitigate the failings in others, because human rights are couched in terms of universal standards. Either you measure up or you don’t.

Yet when the issue is women, somehow the commitment to universal rights evaporates. When Hillary Clinton said that “women’s rights are human rights,” she was articulating an ideal, not describing a reality. The fact is that women’s rights aren’t considered human rights. The status of women is treated more like a cultural quirk, part of the collection of idiosyncrasies that define a given group. “It’s just the culture,” people say, as if they’re describing the cuisine or the architecture. Women are furniture.

But for me, as a feminist, women’s rights are human rights. I am not an apostle for American culture, which is certainly far from perfect; I am an advocate for women. When I criticize honor killings or sharia law or any of the other non-Western abuses of women, I’m not speaking from a standpoint of cultural chauvinism. The ground I occupy is one of fundamental human rights for all women: freedom of action, of self-determination, of bodily integrity; freedom from violence and oppression and subjugation; freedom to be educated, to work, to love, to have children (or not); freedom to participate fully in life as first-class citizens. I view and judge every society on earth through that lens, including my own.

But by the same token, it doesn’t work to simply advocate for a universal ideal of women’s rights without inquiring too closely into the specific cultural obstacles to achieving that ideal. The devil, as ever, is in the details. We cannot unpack the situation of an abused wife in a conservative Christian community, for example, unless we understand the particular social and religious codes at work. We can’t stop honor killings unless we know why they happen — and I mean exactly why they happen. What are the social and religious codes at work there? What is the psychology of the people who do this? What drives them, what sustains them, what potential punishments and rewards are in the offing? I wrote on Tuesday that “we must be like doctors fighting disease, seeking to identify precisely the pathogens involved.” If we’re serious about ending the oppression of women, nothing less will do.

None of this should be misconstrued as an argument against multiculturalism. There is remarkable beauty to be found in almost every culture, and people all over the world have created wonderful and compelling traditions that are worth preserving. But just as the individual’s rights end where the other person’s nose begins, a society’s right to its own customs ends at the point where human rights are violated. People seem to have little trouble applying that calculus when the rights of men are involved; it’s past time for women to be granted the same consideration.

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