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Cultural Relativism or Basic Human Rights?

By Karen Garst ~

If you have never heard the term “cultural relativism” before, rest assured you are not alone. One really has to work hard to keep up with the new words and phrases that have popped up in the last few years, particularly on social media. Cultural relativism can be defined by this type of statement: “Women’s wearing of veils in certain Arab countries is just part of their culture and, therefore, we should not criticize them.” It is also reflected in the comment made by Secretary of State John Kerry when asked about whether our ally, Saudi Arabia, should allow women to drive. He responded that this decision was “best left to Saudi Arabia,” thus refusing to take a stand for the rights of women.
But Secretary Kerry and cultural relativists are making a serious mistake for one simple reason. Women don’t have a choice in these countries to decide for themselves whether they wear veils or whether can drive. It is this issue of choice that underlies all basic human rights and should not be construed as simply a “difference in cultural norms.” Mona Eltahawy, in her recent work entitled Headscarves and Hymens – Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution, states that “Cultural relativism is as much my enemy as the oppression I fight within my culture and faith.”[1]
The Human Rights Council is an inter-governmental body within the United Nations system “responsible for the promotion and protection of all human rights around the globe.” It is made up of 47 nations. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as promulgated by the HRC, contains important phrases such as  “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family,” “ the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women,” and “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.” It also decrees that maintaining these basic human rights “is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”
Let’s examine some of the practices that affect women throughout the globe and try to determine whether they would be upheld by the Human Rights Council as a violation of women’s human rights or whether they consist of different cultural norms that should not be criticized by those outside that culture.
Unchained at last
We must realize that it is not only in countries outside the United States that women’s human rights are blatantly violated. The Public Broadcasting System recently aired a program entitled “Unchained at Last” about the practice of older men marrying young girls in the United States.Unchained at Last is a non-profit corporation founded by an ex-Orthodox Jewish woman named Fraidy Reiss. According to its mission, it “helps any woman or girl in the US, from any community, culture or religion, who is or has been pressured, bribed, tricked, threatened, beaten or otherwise forced into marriage.” It is quite obvious that each of the verbs used in that sentence violate a woman’s basic human rights. The founder, whose husband turned out to be abusive after only one week, was trapped for twelve years in her marriage. When she finally escaped with her two daughters, her Orthodox Jewish family shunned her. Esther, whose story is told here in more detail, was married off at just 17. Because she was under 18, her parents signed her marriage certificate. Her husband wanted to see her have sex with other men and she was gang raped numerous times while he hid in the closet and watched. Esther explains why her parents forced her to marry this man. “They didn’t have a chance to grow and mature, so how could they raise children to grow and mature?” It is in this way that culture perpetuates itself. But to not criticize this aspect of culture is to condone it much as Secretary Kerry did in his comment about the Saudi Arabian practice of refusing to allow women to drive.
Female genital mutilation is the removal of part or all of the clitoris and part or all of the labia of the female genitalia. The obvious point in this cruel practice is to remove the organ that is responsible for sexual arousal and satisfaction in the female. The belief is that if this procedure is done on a pre-pubescent girl, she will not seek out a sexual partner prior to marriage, thus fulfilling the cultural and religious dictate to be a virgin when she marries, thus upholding the honor of her family. The requirement of virginity dates from at least the second millennium BCE as evidenced in the Old Testament. Once private property came into existence, the male head of household wanted to be sure that this property would pass to HIS children, thus virginity was paramount in a bride and adultery during marriage was severely punished. Because the young girl has no say in the matter, it is a basic violation of at least Article 3 of the GDHR – “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”
A recent report by UNICEF on FGM gives us some hope as it shows that there has been a sharp decline in numerous countries where it is currently practiced. “Prevalence has dropped by as much as almost half among adolescent girls in Benin, the Central African Republic, Iraq, Liberia and Nigeria.” Education is helping. More and more mothers are becoming aware that this practice can lead to death and at the very least is torture.
Honor Killing
In her book entitled Unworthy Creature, Aruna Papp outlines her upbringing in India. Her story contains a litany of practices that everyone should agree violate the human rights of women. First, her mother had several coat-hanger abortions because abortion was not legal in her country. Second, Aruna herself was raped by a family friend. He raped her anally so that her “virginity” would be preserved (and probably also to increase his deniability). When she finally married, the man who raped her attended her wedding.

The scene that is the most heart-wrenching in her narrative, however, occurred when she was a teenager. She witnessed the burning of Kiran, a young neighbor girl. Kiran was burned to death because her family believed in some way that she had dishonored the family. Needless to say, no police or fire department was called to intervene to save her life. Aruna also found a dead baby girl on a garbage heap.
Each of us must do what we can in the countries that we live in to call out all the practices that do not treat women in the ways mandated by the UN Human Rights Council. I am most heartened by a young girl in Boorama town in North-West Somalia. “I don’t want any part of my body to be cut. I don’t want to be circumcised,” says 10-year old Kheiriya Abidi. Quite naturally she is terrified of the physical pain, torture and possible death that might occur. She had the support of her family, but of course not of the cultural norms in her country.
If Kheiriya can stand up for her rights, what can we do to support her and girls and women throughout the globe? We know that religion and culture are inextricably linked. If you are an atheist, have you told your friends? Do you talk to your friends about things you read like this blog post? There are many organizations that support women’s rights across the globe. Can you help support them financially? Listed below are just a few of them.
For a longer list, please see this New York Times article.
[1] Mona Eltahawy, Headscarves and Hymens – Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), 28


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