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.