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When Universalism Met Culture

As I read the story of Aasia Bibi, the 17-year-old Pakistani girl who unintentionally poisoned and killed 17 members of her family in her attempt to escape the prospect of an arranged marriage, I wonder how many South Asian women have contemplated the same. As a South Indian woman myself, talk of my marriage is something I’ve heard since I was 14, but I’ve been lucky enough to have been brought up in a household where the idea of love prevailed and coercion didn’t. That’s not the reality for a lot of women like me or for a lot of women with less privilege than I.

Though, there is the one thing those women share with me that knows no class, education and wealth boundaries.

Culture – that end-all-be-all justification for so many cherished and detrimental practices and customs. It’s what was used to justify my mother making jokes about what sort of man I should bring home when I’m older. It’s what is probably being used to justify Aasia Bibi being forced into an arranged marriage. But, it shouldn’t be.

The “cultural norm and tradition” argument has been used to justify slavery, child marriage, rape in marriage and female genital mutilation – practices that, for many hold cultural significance and may even be “enjoyable,” but for just as many have proved devastating and traumatising. Culture has been an anchor for a home for some, but it has also killed and hurt so many others. Using the culture argument takes away and negates agency from those who’ve been actively hurt by it too. It is not a sound enough argument morally to make against the violation of personal rights and freedoms. It has, on a personal and institutional level, impeded efforts at proscribing a universal set of human rights, that statesmen, at one point of time, believed in.

But, what are the implications of just letting culture control the human rights narrative, or at least guide it considerably? This Facebook user, found in what is always the dismal abyss of the comment section, states it simply:

“If we can’t emphatically argue that humanistic values and liberal values are clearly better [than cultural values], we are doomed.”

This Facebook comment is one among the 113 that littered the Atlantic’s opinion article titled ‘Why Some Women Get Circumcised’. Olga Khazan, the author of this controversial piece, was merely trying to expand on and complicate what she knew about the oft-disagreeable ritual. However, her attempt at understanding female genital mutilation came across as an “acknowledgment” of the practice “given culture.” While Khazan deserves more credit for attempting to do the contentious, it is often the case that “culture” is used to justify certain practices and norms.

The perhaps hastily written, perhaps well thought-out Facebook comment compels us to confront a reality and an, ironically, universal debate that we are all too familiar with. A debate that is of utmost importance not just because it allows for wild, intellectual posturing but because it has serious real-life implications. The number of people who’ve experienced female genital mutilation is supposedly 70 million higher than previously found, around one-third of girls are married before the ages of 18 and 19 and in India, rape within marriage is only considered illegal if the spouse (here, usually female) is under 15 years of age. The common thread among all of these instances of rights and freedoms violations? ‘It’s just in our culture to do so’.

The slippery slope of ‘cultural values versus universal values’ has created this wild skatepark of thought and opinion that has affected actual international human rights frameworks and law.

When it shouldn’t. International human rights frameworks, treaties, and law exist to create a universal standard of being and freedom to be aspired to. We can shout ourselves hoarse and silly about the Western liberalism of the concept of universalism. We can even criticise this “universal standard,” – stemming from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – considering it was decided upon by the leading hegemons at the time post World War 2, US and USSR. And, we absolutely must do these things. Granted too, the rhetoric of “universal human rights” has been used to justify NGO infiltration of local communities, one-sided development strategies that do more harm than good and a cultural penetration that has left local culture wanting.

Yet, it doesn’t and shouldn’t negate the fact that the function of human rights norms… is “to propose a set of values to guide behavior in all societies.“ That’s why we wanted such a framework to exist in the first place, especially post World War II! A norm or practice being “culturally specific” is not good enough reason to skirt around it with regards to upholding human rights. It also surely and simply isn’t good enough reason to continue the practice of something that is harmful.


Featured Image Source: Aasia Bibi. Iram Asim/AP

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