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?