Put Down the Knife, and Walk Away

WHO estimates that between 100 and 140 million girls and women worldwide have been subjected to one of the first three types of female genital mutilation (WHO, 2000). Estimates based on the most recent prevalent data indicate that five million girls and women who are above the age of nine years in Africa are currently living with the consequences of female genital mutilation (Yoder and Khan, 2007). Approximately three million girls in Africa are at a risk of undergoing female genital mutilation every year. In every society in which it is practised, female genital mutilation, and all other similar customs seem to be a manifestation of gender inequality that is deeply entrenched in these social, economic and political structures.


Gender, culture and rights intersect in intricate and complex ways. The critical issue, from the human rights perspective, is not whether and how religion, culture and tradition prevail over women’s human rights, but about how one can arrive at a point at which women own both their culture, and their human rights. The struggle for women’s human rights is not against religion, culture, or tradition. Cultures are shared outcomes of critical reflection and continuous engagements of human beings in response to an ever-changing world. The task at hand is to identify how human rights in general, and equal cultural rights in particular, can enable women to find paths through which we may view tradition with new eyes, in such a way that it will not violate our rights and restore dignity to women.


The tendency to view culture as largely an impediment to women’s human rights is both over simplistic and problematic. By attributing self-propelling agency to culture, independent of the actions of human beings, it diverts attention from specific actors, institutions, rules and regulations, keeping women subordinated within the very same patriarchal systems. It also renders invisible women’s agency in both reproducing and challenging dominant cultural norms and values. Nevertheless, many practices and norms that discriminate against women are justified by reference to culture, religion and tradition. The use of discourses of cultural relativism to challenge the universal legitimacy and applicability of human rights norms is a serious concern.


The principle of universality of human rights can be a vehicle for building consensus and democracy to enable women’s attainment of full personhood through, inter alia, their cultural rights. The challenge, however, is that the complexities of gender inequality and the many layers that it operates in cannot be addressed through a simple ‘one size fits all’ theoretical model. Merely asserting the principle of equality is insufficient. Far greater and more rigorous attention needs to be devoted to formulating and implementing culturally relevant measures that catalyse the transformative equality processes in each particular area of discrimination. The territorial aspect of the problem needs to be addressed. It is suggested therefore that there is a need to understand universality as a transformative dialogue in which disparities in power are acknowledged, the diversity of the world is recognized and positively asserted, and the material necessities for ensuring human dignity are also addressed. Measures are required to support and enhance the cultural legitimacy and symbolic validation of new tools and interpretations that enable practices harmful to women to be surmounted. These may include, for example, promoting knowledge about international human rights standards, revising historical narratives to reflect cultural diversity and highlight women’s contributions, and documenting the actual diversity of practices and making these known. It is particularly important to support women’s transformative initiatives: to listen to local women and build on the tools and terminology they use, including elements to be retrieved from the cultural heritage that may have fallen into disuse.


Women’s cultural rights provide a new framework for promoting all other rights. The realization of equal cultural rights for women would help to reconstruct gender in ways that transcend notions of women’s inferiority and subordination, thereby improving conditions for the full and equal enjoyment of their human rights in general. This requires a shift in perspective: from seeing culture and religion as an impediment to women to seeing them as a way of achieving human rights in general.

By Rishabh Shekhar


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