Cultural traditions that oppress women are not worth preserving

Writing like this makes me want to pull out my hair. In an otherwise decent New York Times story about the myriad forms of violence that women in India face on a regular basis, sits these paragraphs:

As girls age, the strict controls that many families have over their daughters cannot protect them from rape and sexual assault, since most of those crimes are committed by people known to the women, studies say. But even so, such controls have some benefits, public health experts say. Indian women have, on average, no more than two sexual partners in their entire lives, and most are virgins when they marry, surveys show. This absence of promiscuity is probably an important reason that AIDS never became an epidemic in India.

“Tradition in this case is not a bad thing,” said K. Sujatha Rao, a former health secretary of India and a crucial figure in the fight against AIDS. “You take marriage here as a much more sacrosanct thing.”

Trying to determine how to protect women in India while preserving the country’s traditions has led to a very public debate in recent weeks.

Right. Because promiscuous women are the cause of AIDS epidemics in Africa and Asia and elsewhere in the world. Because virginal women can better defend the population of a subcontinent. Because controlling women’s sexuality is the key to protecting them and us.

But the undercurrent that I find even more disturbing (THAT MEANS IT’S REALLY FUCKING DISTURBING TO ME, GUYS) is the idea that cultural traditions that so proudly and greedily oppress women are somehow worth preserving.

This isn’t an Indian issue, or a Western media issue. The idea of culture-is-all-important is a global issue, one that colors all aspects of policy and politics. Example: at a peacebuilding conference I attended last fall, one of the most heated topics was how to preserve traditional systems of justice in conflict-torn areas. For international agencies, respecting culture is all-important when engaging in justice in post-conflict zones — people on the ground are probably telling them what works for them, that honoring traditional systems of justice will be important in a post-conflict society. An international body doesn’t want to be perceived as ignoring the voice of the people, so it listens. But the problem is, most of the “people on the ground,” the ones who are both speaking out and who are being reached out to by international groups, whether aid agencies or media organizations or governing bodies, are people who already have a voice. They are people that already have power. And these people are mostly men interested in maintaining a status quo that is often systemically (culturally!) unjust towards women.

So my question: Why do we see inherent value in protecting tradition when many cultures, and their economies, policies, and systems of justice, including ours, are used as tools to further disenfranchise women and other minority groups? Why be so careful not to overstep traditions that historically marginalize whole sets of people? Segregation was once part of American culture. Miscegenation laws were once part of American culture. Women’s suffrage was once blasted as destroying American culture. The world changes. I argue that we should not be so quick to defend culture — ethnic culture, colonial culture, racist culture, fundamentalist culture, gun culture — as sacrosanct.

The importance of understanding a culture is paramount, as Samhita pointed out yesterday. We absolutely need to understand the subtleties of a system in order to work within it, engage with all parties, and move forward on social justice and human rights issues. But we can’t move forward while also trying to preserve the very systems that create injustice and oppression. We need to dismantle it. Culture is a system like any other, and in nearly every part of the world, it’s a patriarchal one.

Mahnaz Afkhami, founder and president of the Women’s Learning Partnership, said it better than me:

“One aspect of culture is aesthetics, which everyone loves and which is what distinguishes one place from another, such as dress, cuisine, celebrations, music, literature, how we conduct our daily lives. The other aspect is that our culture is the prism by which we evaluate and understand our environment. That is something that without the change of which we cannot have human rights, peace, and women’s rights.”

Yet we dance around, often scared to call out sexist or racist traditions as bullshit when they belong to a culture not our own (and sometimes even our own). What are we so afraid of?


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Join the Conversation

  • Jacqueline Hentzen

    I’ve always been of the opinion that there is no “real” culture which requires the oppression of women — and, by that, I mean that there isn’t any culture out there whose true core is practicing traditions that oppress women. My basis for this comes from that popular poster which has all of the world’s religions on it and then the same message next to each one (you know the one: Christianity — Love thy neighbor, Judaism — What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor, Islam — Not one of you truly believes until you wish for others what you wish for yourself, Paganism — An it harm none, do what thou will, etc.)

    If all cultures (read: religions, but — be honest, how many times do you hear someone defend their culture and what they really mean is their way of life as described by their faith?) all believe essentially the same thing — namely, treat others as you’d want to be treated — then where does all the bullshit about treating women come in? So, in reality, this is less of a “Let’s find a balance between cultural practices and differences and equality” issue and more of a “Let’s call people out on their bullshit when they claim misogyny is part of their culture because it REALLY isn’t” issue.

    So… yeah. My stance is that all cultures should be equally respected… but that anyone who claims that oppressing women is part of their culture is just full of shit… Which means most of the world is full of shit, but… that’s okay — I was already very aware of that.

    • Alita

      “If all cultures (read: religions, but — be honest, how many times do you hear someone defend their culture and what they really mean is their way of life as described by their faith?)”

      I tend to have the opposite problem especially when talking to other people about my faith, in fact its happened a few times on this site. when people ask me why i dont act a certain way or dont hold the views they assume i should hold based on the belief about people of my faith and i explain there is a confusion between religious belief and cultural practises i am told they are one and the same. they are not.

      And I am all for the idea of not supporting somthing that is harmful to women, its irrelevant whether the practise is considered cultural, a thousand years old etc thats no good reason to continue it imho.

  • smallcat

    I understand the urgency of your question and I think you framed it well – but the answer may surprise you. If we don’t take culture seriously, then any reform project will fail to garner enough support to really last, and end up endangering women more than helping them. It is certainly frustrating for feminists, but let’s remember – if we simply denounce a cultural practice for its backwardness, are we not increasing the danger for the women who must live in the communities that advocate such practices? We have to do MORE than denounce – we have to create a space where a real dialogue about values can emerge, so that opposing values (which are often part of the culture itself) can get airtime and eventually prevail over the values that support oppression. If we don’t do this, women wil be subject to the charge that they are in alliance with outsiders – again, I am not saying this is a valid argument – but as advocates for women we need to understand the difficult position that women are in and we must take it seriously. If women are going to get real change, it has to have roots in their culture, and we have to ensure that happens to ensure their safety and autonomy.

  • QuantumInc

    I think that if you are going to change a culture you need support, and indeed leadership from people who live and breathe that culture for your movement. As frustrating as it may be, feminists who grew up outside of a particular society will simply have to wait until someone from inside that society starts a feminist movement unique to that society. Of course the foreign feminists will probably find themselves frustrated again as they work within a movement that doesn’t belong to them.

    Many international NGOs, including the U.N. and it’s subsidiaries are painfully aware of the rationalizations that went into colonialism and the damage that resulted. Thus they avoid any talk that even sounds like one of those rationalization; and probably the most popular rationalization back in the day was the idea that we must change their culture for their own good.

    Personally I include ANY socially transmitted behavior, belief or thought pattern in my definition of culture. Sexist beliefs and behaviors can certainly be part of the culture, and yes women are often complicit in their own oppression because they was how they were raised, that’s what their friends, parents, family, the media, teachers, etc. told them so they believed it. Whether that culture is “legitimate” or not, or if only certain parts are, seems meaningless to me. A social shift could change the legitimate and illegitimate, the valuable and damaging parts with equal ease.

    Back on topic: You can’t really change that culture from the outside. If you don’t speak their language they simply won’t listen, and inevitably if you haven’t lived life from inside that culture there is going to be certain things you don’t understand, and certain points where you can’t connect. Of course those who live inside that culture are less likely to criticize it. Though it is still likely if they recognize how something hurts them or limits them.