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Culture change for women in Afghanistan

When Laura Bush said in April 2016 that she wanted the President of the United States to care about Afghan women, one could reasonably infer that she would rather see Hillary Clinton elected President than Donald Trump. Hillary has proclaimed that women’s rights are human rights, meaning that to the extent that human rights have become a part of mainstream political discourse, so should women’s rights. Human rights are universal rights under international law. If women’s rights are also human rights, then the violation of women’s rights cannot be merely an issue of cultural differences that must be accommodated under the mantle of cultural relativism.

Violations of women’s rights, however, often have a cultural component. For example, in 2014, a ten-year-old girl was raped by a mullah in a mosque in Kunduz, Afghanistan, and then subjected to the threat of “honor killing” from her own family; the mullah offered marriage to the ten-year-old victim instead, and the shelter where she had been staying returned her to her family. As the New York Times accurately observed, “The case itself would just be an aberrant atrocity, except that the resulting support for the mullah, and for the girl’s family and its honor killing plans, have become emblematic of a broader failure to help Afghan women who have been victims of violence.” Anger in Kunduz has been unleashed not against the mullah or the girl’s family but against the shelter that had given her sanctuary and against women activists who supported her and the shelter.

Modern laws have been enacted in many parts of the world but few have overcome entrenched customs. Many of the life-and-death problems women face cannot be solved by the usual template: laws and more laws. Sometimes laws can change even deeply embedded attitudes. Despite often vicious opposition to the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education in the United States, this case arguably transformed the cultural landscape in the South. But that presumes a robust rule-of-law tradition in which most people will obey even laws they disagree with, which may in turn create positive norm change. But this rule of law tradition is often weak if non-existent in many poor countries where rule of law projects are being pursued. Strong cultural norms, especially those that perpetuate women’s subordination, cannot be changed by passing laws declaring women’s equality or outlawing violence against women. Such norms must be explicitly and directly changed, through culture change projects.

Human rights are universal rights under international law

Culture is not homogeneous nor is it static and unchanging. Cultural traditions have changed over the years. What is now deemed “authentic” culture is most likely the result of multi-layered changes through the years. Once culture change is understood to be a part of every cultural landscape, it can be deliberately changed, to reflect respect for freedom and equality of all human beings. For example, there are many consciousness-raising campaigns to get men and boys to relate to women differently, to end domestic violence. Work to end female genital mutilation has included efforts to reframe the practice so that it can be less culturally charged and viewed as a health issue that is damaging to young girls. Cultural norms that see daughters as an economic burden to be married off and hence not truly one’s own have resulted in a devaluation of girls in many cultures. When there is not enough food for sons, daughters are the ones who go hungry. When there is not enough money for school for all the children, sons are sent and daughters kept at home. Daughters are married off at an early age, as if they are a burden to be shed. Girl fetuses are aborted.

These are problems that laws alone cannot solve. The underlying deeply embedded cultural norms that support these practices must be changed. But before this can be done, it is imperative that cultural issues move from the margin of international law to the center. It is imperative that violations of women’s rights in the name of authentic national culture be viewed for what they are: human rights violations that cannot be justified by using culture as a shield. And it is also imperative to recognize that cultural norms and practices are not static but rather fluid. They have changed in the past and can change now and equally important, can be purposefully changed. The Grameen Bank, for example, founded by Nobel Peace winner Mohammed Yunus, has for years engaged in micro lending to poor women in the developing world. In addition to the financial dimensions of micro lending, there is also a social development agenda. The Bank does not require the usual safeguards that conventional banks require before lending, such as collateral and a good credit history. But it does require that borrowers, most of whom are poor women, commit to attend consciousness-raising meetings and to abide by 16 decisions, many of which have cultural dimensions. For example, one of the 16 Decisions is “We shall not take any dowry at our sons’ weddings, neither shall we give any dowry at our daughters’ weddings. We shall keep our centre free from the curse of dowry. We shall not practice child marriage.” Given the fact that a woman is killed every hour in India over dowries, dowry is a significant problem that Grameen is addressing through deliberate culture change.

Cultural norms that impede the human capability and voice of any marginalized person can and should be changed. Many of the poor and marginalized in the world today are women. The Convention of the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women takes both a legal and cultural approach to this problem. It urges ratifying states to enact the necessary laws but also notes that “a change in the traditional role of men as well as the role of women in society and in the family is needed to achieve full equality between men and women.” CEDAW then obligates state parties to take all appropriate measures “[t]o modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women…”

Whether in Afghanistan or elsewhere, women matter. International law cannot rely on treaties and legislation alone to ensure equality of women. It must also focus on the cultural norms that thwart women’s capability and reject any claims that culture change is illegitimate or inauthentic.

Featured image credit: Afghanistan, by Ricardo’s Photography. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

Recent Comments

  1. El roam

    Thanks for that important post , yet , the respectable author of the post , states over and over :

    Cultural change ….but , How exactly , it is hard to perceive . One needs cultural , or religious leaders or priests to achieve it ( mainly ) this can be beneficial if it works , yet , may also create a vicious circle and enhance the basic importance attributed anyway to the local culture or religion observed . Bit problematic !!

    Far greater and effective manner to achieve it , is the economic change . Once, the economy is quickly growing, there is more contact with the greater world, more contact with western perception, more compliance with international norms, more dependence on it also naturally.

    Then , change can become , more tangible and effective . Such change in society, needs also to rely more and more on science, technology and progress. Those are objective purposes, as such (objective and scientific) bear more chances of removing stigmatization towards women, and may recognize the woman, as an important contributor to the society. This is thanks to that tendency , to recognize , the individual capacity as crucial , over inherent cultural and religious perceptions or stigma .

    Iran , is a very characteristic illustration :

    A nation with very strict and rigorous theocratic regime, yet, women there, are not exactly recognized as inferior creatures, and may succeed and integrate, mainly because of very strong aspiration for: economic, scientific, military and technology hegemony of the Iranian nation, upon the region, and even globally.

    Some links illustrating it ( Iran ) :




  2. Zahra

    1) Discrimination against women can be found anywhere in the world, even in improved and powerful countries like USA.
    2) Every existing religion in our world has considerably shown discrimination against ladies.
    3) Cultures usually follows religion; hence, every culture puts women in a lower statue than men.
    From all these, we can easily understand that discrimination against women is not a matter of where you live, which religion you own, and which culture you obey. However, the level of discrimination may differ between them. The exact result we can conduct is that discrimination is still among us. Still, women, all around the globe, suffer from it.
    I , as a girl who is living in Afghanistan, experienced what it really feels to be in a lower position than boys. I exactly felt the pain when I saw girls who were extremely intelligent, but they had to get married on early age. I believe that the only means for removing discrimination against women is making a new and much better culture.
    Putting extremely strong rules and laws against discrimination is a good idea, but not as effective as making brand new culture. It may be too challenging and time consuming to make a new culture, but the result can be promising and of course long-lasting. Laws would make people to be afraid of making violence against ladies, while in their mind, they would still believe on violence against women. On the other hand, founding a good culture will not only make people to believe that discrimination is a negative attitude but also it will make them not to do it.
    The problem is now how to build this positive culture.

    Right now, I’m working on answer to this question. I want to find a more creative and more reliable solution.

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