November 28, 2004

Gender Difference Masquerading As a Tool for Women Oppression in Cultural Discourse

Culture is a primary force in the socialisation of individuals and a major determinant of the consciousness and experience of the community. However, there are variances of gender inequality in all cultures, which may not be due to mere deference to cultural exigencies. Gender equality is a paramount condition for equitable and sustainable global positive development. This paper shows that it is not possible to respect individual cultures and at the same time secure gender equality. There are many cultural traditions where women are subjected to social, economic, financial, political, religious and mythical conditions which amount to permanent, violent and gross violations of their Human Rights (HRs), in the name of cultural rights and sovereignty. This paper also shows that gender equality is independent of tradition and culture and that there is no gender equality. It also includes, various declarations, conventions and HRs case-law show that, many cultural and religious norms are contrary to the HRs of women, despite the fact that, these religious and cultural norms are claimed to be indispensable to society.

1. Introduction

The concepts of culture and gender are riddled with philosophical, ideolgical and linguistic semantics, which, for reasons of economy of space, shall not be indulged in, in this essay. Instead, functional definitions of culture and gender shall be adopted. Gender is a social phenomenon, to construct and to unequally regulate societies (Bunch, 1990). It is a reification of the 'male-stream' (Graycar R. and Morgan J., 1990) masquerading as the norm for the division of labour and concomitant enjoyment of benefits arid it is iniquitous. This social taxonomy is saturated with negative reciprocity (Roded, 1999), equality based on such relationship is illusive (Fletcher, 1996). In fact, it can be argued that it has induced endemic and iubiquitous inequality in human societies (Bix, 1999). Blanket respect for cultural differences while expecting gender equality contemporaneously is a mirage.

On the other hand, culture is the aggregate of value systems in human societies, and according to which, many human societies distinguish themselves from others. It includes the language, folklore, legal norms and even religious sentiments. It is intimately linked to human society to the extent that, it defines the individual within it (Cerna C. and Wallace, J., 1999). It demarcates individuals' aspirations and ambitions, " is the source of individual and communal world view. Culture is a primary force in the socialisation of individuals and a major determinant of the consciousness and experience of the community" (Cerna C. and Wallace, J., 1999). While it is important to have distinctive cultural traits for self-actualisation and issues of self- determination, culture must not become the sind qua non of women oppression (Binion, 1995). Not withstanding their plight under the yoke of men's tyranny or patriarchy (Ridall, 1999), women's salvation appears to elude them every century (Davies, 1994), vis-- vis various cultural traditions (Ward, 1998). There are variances of gender inequality in all cultures, which may not be due to mere deference to cultural exigencies (Charlesworth, 1991). However, this must not be taken as a justification for disrespecting other cultures. It is also imperative that, "international co-operation, while promoting the enrichment of all cultures through its beneficent action, shall respect the distinctive character of each. (Brownlie I. and Goodwin-Gill, 2002). On the other hand, hasty judgments that a tradition in some distant part of the world is morally retrograde are familiar legacies of colonialism and imperialism and are correctly jegarded with suspicion..." (Nussbaum, 1999). This difference is .elucidated as asymmetrical Otherness (Kymlicka, 1995). At times, these cultural differentials are epitomized as primitive versus civilised taxonomies. It must be reiterated that, gender equality is a paramount condition for equitable and sustainable global positive development. The international community has cogently recognised that, " and economic development cannot be secured in a sustainable way without the full participation of ,women and that equality and equity between women and men is a priority for the international community and as such must be at the centre of economic and social development" (Brownlie I. and Goodwin-Gill, 2002). Based on the above introduction, an attempt will be made in this essay to show that, it is not possible to respect individual cultures and at the same time secure gender equality. There are many cultural traditions where women are subjected to social, economic, financial, political, religious and mythical conditions which amount to permanent violence and gross violations of their Human Rights (HRs), in the name of cultural rights and sovereignty. section II of this essay, which is on, 'Culture and Gender', shall endeavor to demonstrate that, gender is a conduit for violation of HRs of the human person (woman), under the reified veil of authentic cultural norms, beliefs and traditions. section III is on 'The Dialectics of Universalism and Relativism in Cultural Discourse'. In this section, it will be argued that, respecting specific cultures and their traditions amount to cultural relativism within the remit of universal HRs, which are purported to belong equally, to all human beings, women and men. This section will maintain that, gender equality is independent of these two polar cases. Women are subjugated in both universalistic and relativistic cultural approaches. Section IV deals with, 'Culture and Patriarchy'. Patriarchy is a pervasive and oppressive sociocultural, political, legal, economic/financial and theological institution, which accounts for many gender inequalities in human societies. You can bestow respect on specific cultures, but patriarchy will see to it that, there is no gender equality. section V is on 'The Incompatibility of Some Cultural and Religious Norms with Human Rights (HRs) Norms'. This section endeavors to show that, various declarations, conventions and HRs case-law show that, many cultural and religious norms are contrary to the HRs of women, despite the fact that, these religious and cultural norms are claimed to be indispensable to society. section VI is the Conclusion', in which, the author will summarise all the cardinal issues: why, it is impossible to respect individual cultures, and at the same time maintain gender equality.

II. Culture and Gender

It can be plausibly argued that, gender as a social construct and the creature of culture, is a significant variable for causation of inequality in human societies and subjugation of women within the framework of respect for other cultures. This was found to be the case by the Human Rights Committee (HRC) in the Lovelace v Canada case (UNHRC, 1977). Inhuman inequalities entrenched in cultural practices reduce the concept of culture to a farce (Nussbaum, 1999). It is evident that, the ubiquitous perpetuity of cultural traits and norms endows human cultures with degree of sacredness and sanctity (Afhami, 2000). Once the norms and traditions are entrenched, they are enforced directly or indirectly through other institutions (Binion, 1995) of society such as the courts, church and the family. This is true of practices such as female circumcision (Gunning, 1999). The justification is both social and theological (Howland, 1999), albeit with a lot of reification in order to maintain the social and psychological subjugation of the female section of the society (AlHibri, 2001). Dominant groups also tend to institute and entrench social classes, which lead to inequality (Cerna M. and Wallace J, 1999) based on cultural traits such as the caste system and the Untouchables in India (UNDP, 1996). Many women are crippled and disabled by these cultural institutions (Cerna M. and Wallace J, 1999). Issues of women development and underdevelopment in fact and in law transcend cultural and geographical boundaries (Narayan U. and Harding S., 2000). It is also true that, "the unequal condition of women results from a universally repressive and unjust social order that, throughout history has denied women the opportunity to gain capabilities necessary to successful competition (Afhami, 2000). There ought to be a universal solution to this ubiquitous pauperisation of women via cultural practices (Trevenen, 1996). This attempt to introduce a mainstream antidote to women sufferings is envisaged within the framework of a universal liberal approach via individual women in these heterogeneous cultures . Within the liberal tradition, respect for cultural traditions is blamed for the overall morbid status of women especially in the Third World (Nussbaum, 1999). However, gruesome women sufferings in the Third World are (Thiam, 1986), the West is not immune from the transcendental and dehumanising effects of gender politics within cultural practices and traditions albeit with highly sophisticated capitalist features. "...Western cultures and other cultures as well, systematically classify many behaviours and attributes according to mutually exclusive gender categories that lie on a superior/inferior hierarchy...".Near universal cult\ural norms in the West does not tantamount to a panacea for gender inequality (Scott, internet).. Recognition of cultural difference does not create equality. Appreciation of other cultures, must be based upon more pragmatic reasons, not just for generation of gender equality (Kymlicka, 2001). There is no positive correlation between respects for individual cultures and the emergence and sustenance of gender equality (Kymlicka, 1991). It could be argued that, respect for particular cultures is not the missing link within the framework of the appalling universal subjugation of women of all races, in accordance with the degree of societal development obtaining in respective cultural formations. All factors associated with cultures (Abdel E. and Pearson M., 1987) and local laws (Barnett, 1997) must be investigated. For example, in the West, the case law does not show all the violence against women in society (Clapham, 2002). Women are still deprived of their human rights globally, not just in heathen or subaltern cultures relative to the West. In fact, "...women in Europe are still poorly represented in politics and economic decision-making ...and are too often portrayed in the media in traditional stereotyped roles" (Diamontopoulou, 2000). The propinquity of gender inequality to entrenched cultural practices masquerading as universal or particular cultural norms is ubiquitous in all cultures. There is a negative correlation between respect for cultural traditions and gender equality. The remedy to gender inequality is unavailable in vacuous respect for different cultural norms, nor is it definitely achievable via universal culture, however defined. It can be argued that, the solution may be somewhere between universalism and relativism as discussed in the next section.

III. The Dialectics of Universalism and Relativism in Cultural Discourse

Universalism and relativism are the Scylla and Charybdis of HRs discourse with respect to gender equality within the remit of respect for other cultures. They are great exaggerations, salutary where they correct each other, and the truth lies between them (Morrison, 1998). It can be argued that, the most equitable socio- economic and cultural formations within which gender equality flourishes, are those, which adopt good practices from both universal and particular cultural traditional norms, while jettisoning all those norms, which entrench and perpetuate the oppression of women by men in the name of culture and tradition (Nussbaum, 2000). It is therefore contestable whether respect for particular cultures is a foundational infrastructure for gender equality in human societies. Liberal universalistic approach to issues of women subjugation is used contemporaneously with the notion of capability approach (Nussbaum, 1999) to maximise individual capacities. The capability approach relates to the individual within socio-economic, financial, legal, and cultural formation, as opposed to some collectivist paradigm, where the individual is a subset of these formations (Nussbaum, 1999). The Achilles Heel of this approach is that, it neglects the fact that, social change cannot be sanctioned by development models which emanates from without the community purported to benefit from the development process. It also neglects the practical fact that, most if not all productive decisions especially in the Third World, however, quantitative they are, are socially embedded, and their ultimate use are sociologically determined, and thus, culturally oriented however heinous the cultural infrastructure of a given community are (UN, 1981).

Not withstanding the practical difficulty of producing a universal monoculture devoid of oppressive cultural and traditional practices, seen through the eyes of outsiders, it is argued that, this approach is pivotal if women are to be included and fully integrated into the society. It is maintained that, unless a radical approach is adapted to remedy the situation, women will continue to be oppressed via patriarchal norms and regulations which are very entrenched in the private sphere of social formations. This oppression is made more impossible to overhaul due to the use of religious rhetoric to justify the inequality, which has developed over the centuries (Okin, 2000), and which has usurped all powers (Jagar, 2000). Universalism may not be the ultimate solution to gender inequality in human societies globally (Binion, 1999), as there may be some vestiges of hegemonic characteristics within it (Ngugi T, 1993 and Pieterse J. and Bhikhu P., 1995). The proponents of universalism also argue that, it is erroneous and egregious to assert inter alia that, cultures are inherently exclusive with no common features and thus degree of nexus, which could be used to develop some functional common culture among human groups. Relativism must not be used for personal political aims (Donnelly, 1989). The utilisation of human rights parlance does hide the fact that, men benefit more than women (Chalersworth, 1992). It is therefore imperative that, 'cross cultural universals' (Reteln, 1990) are essential to develop genuine human development approaches for the benefit of both men and women (Schutte, 2000; Ferguson, 2000; Barker, 2000).

On the other hand, relativism considers all assertions as valid including diverse moralities. The validity of a moral value is relative to another. It therefore follows that, no other morality is intrinsically better or superior than another. They are just different within their individual contexts (Trask, 1999). Respective cultures have variant notions of human rights. Some view human rights within the context of the community taken as a whole (Kim, 1993). Within Third World context, the universalistic orientation is considered Euro-centric and the invocation of culture and cultural traditions as bulwarks against European cultural onslaught is therefore justified in these countries (Baxi, 2002). Women are the victims in the process (Cerna and Wallace, (1999), even though, their disability make them appear to be in agreement with their oppressors (Al-Hibri, 2001). On the other hand, "cultural relativity is conceptually complex..., it is nave to suppose that rights that are universally identified and defined, regardless of their intrinsic value, may be implemented in defiance of values, rules and customs that are locally prescribed in the name of culture" (Afharrii, 2000).

There is a profound difference of opinions as between the various races that are intellectually brought together by the transcendental issues of gender inequality and how best to create spaces and resources for women empowerment in a world saturated by male power. This schism assumes a protracted nature in multiracial societies (King, 1988). Black women scholars question are not happy with mainstream feminism for example. The degree of patronisation and placation in Western feminism is antithetical to values and goals of many black women. The issues that concern black women include racial and class discrimination, which become part and parcel of cultural perspective of these women in multicultural societies where they form a minority. Respecting their cultural rights in this context is immaterial, if forces, which are even beyond the control of their male brethren, determine their lives (O'Shane, 1976). "Women of colour are thought of as individuals who commute between two different worlds, characterised by different socio-economic and cultural regimes, but ones, which they have learnt to assimilate, and internalised to enable them to function effectively within both worlds. These women have adopted two types of personas as survival strategies in the two worlds. When in the world of the white women, they have to behave in a fashion, which is recognisable by the dominant white culture, and when in the world of their black culture, they have to behave according to norms, which are expected of them if they are to be accepted by the wider society" (Lugones, 1987). These women, torn between variant cultures, cannot achieve gender equality, however, they adapt to respective black and white cultures in their multiracial society. More than mere recognition of these cultural differences is needed to create beneficial productive spaces for them in this society. Within the context of Australia for example, the relationship between Aboriginal women and their men is quite different and unique from that of Black American women and their men, nor is it comparable to the experiences of Black African women (Changu, 1992) and their men. In Australia, Aboriginal men have not attained the same economic and financial independence as Black American men albeit in relative terms. The African men are not also comparable to their American Brethrens where they still mostly depend on subsistence production' for the reproduction of the producing unit. These various experiences of these men and women depict the fundamental issue inherent in cultural differences, which are functions of extant economic, political, financial, technological and religious structures in the society (Behrendt, 1993).

The common cultural and sociological chain which links the subjugation of women in the West to that of women in other cultures is the phenomenon of patriarchy, which is universal, regardless of spiritual, temporal and spatial factors obtaining in all human societies globally. This phenomenon wjll be discussed in the next section to ascertain how it contributes to gender inequality, notwithstanding respect accorded to specific cultures globally. It is imperative that, universal and particular patriarchs are disabused of their invidious discrimination against women via dysfunctional gender entrenched practices and traditions. The reification of subjugation of women by patriarchs is euphemistically justified as inherent cultural rights specific to particular peoples, or as univers\al approach to division of labour in society even in industrial countries. Both universalistic and relativist approaches to cultural discourse under the command of patriarchs, play pivotal roles in pauperisation of women globally.

IV. Culture and Patriarchy

Patriarchy is a universal phenomenon transcending all worldly cultures and traditions. It is a sociological organic mechanism by which responsibility and other valuable assets in human society fall under the custody of the male species of human beings. The patriarchs in society in both public and private institutions including the family have usurped all the functional authority to the exclusion of the female species of the human race (Curzon, 2001 ). With this ubiquitous inequity perpetrated by patriarchs in human society, the dethronement of patriarchy may be a panacea for universal gender inequality within the framework of respect for other cultures. "Patriarchy manifest itself in every forum within the family, in religion, in employment and in political life. Patriarchal attitude in part explain the phenomenon of violence against women both within the family unit and between strangers. In the transition from culture to law, the concept of patriarchy illuminates much that is otherwise unclear about the 'maleness' of the law and the legal process" (Barnnett, 1997). On the other hand, it is even argued that, ''s genitals define sex' (McKinnpn, 1987). 'Women rights as human rights' will not be recognised within all cultural traditions except through a process which "regards as historically necessary and feasible the overthrow, by global praxis, of universal patriarchy, in all its vested and invested sites" (Baxi, 2002).

This domination of women by men via patriarchal ideology is not limited to specific cultures. In Britain, it is discernible that there are patriarchal mode of production, patriarchal relations in paid work, and patriarchal relations in all institutions of the State (Walby, 1990). This emphasis on patriarchal dominance goes on unopposed in all societies (Binion, 1995). Patriarchs use gender politics to subjugate women in all cultures European and non- European alike, notwithstanding cultural difference. Patriarchs also use racism simultaneously with gender issues to subjugate women in multicultural societies (Williams, 1991). The patriarchs have stratified societies in such a way that, their happiness is guaranteed ipso facto (Gunning, 1999). Patriarchs have even determined the eating patterns of women in all societies (Cerna and Wallace, 1999). Women of some tribes in Southern Sudan do not eat until all the male members of the household are fed and satisfied, then the women and girls of the household will eat what is left in the pots including the left over from the men's meal (Lako, 1998). Adverse cultural practices in most non-European societies were/are sustained for the gratification of patriarchal tendencies. The Chinese foot binding, the Hindu Suttee, and the African and Arab female genital mutilation (DaIy, 1991) are all for the happiness of men. The practice of female circumcision is reified as purity, where "...the clitoris is 'impure' because it does not serve male purpose. It has no necessary function in reproduction...hatred of the clitoris is almost universal, for this Organ is strictly female, for woman's pleasure..." (Bamnett, 1997). These acts do not exist in these cultures independent of patriarchal ideology. "Law in mythology, culture and philosophy, is the ultimate symbol of masculine authority and patriarchal society" (Rifkin, 1980). Ultra independent women are perceived as threat in patriarchal societies globally, in both historical (Hardy, 1975) and contemporary contexts (Hester, 1992). Patriarchy is unjust and its historical inequity is present in all contemporary societies regardless of the level of socio-economic and technological development achieved. It is prevalent in the underdeveloped countries of the Third World, and is ubiquitous in the industrial countries of the West (Wright, 1993). It is arguable that, gender inequality will persist with or without respect for particular cultural traditions. This is a human phenomenon which permeate all human cultures, European and otherwise.

V. Incompatibility of Some Cultural and Religious Norms with Human Rights Norms (UN, 1954)

There are many cultural and religious norms which are heinously contrary to all elementary norms of HRs requirements that (UN, 1954), there is no justification whatsoever, to continue to sustain them in the name of deference to specific cultures (UN, 1995). Article 2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) 1966, read together with all its paragraphs and subparagraphs is very clear and determinate of what States parties should do to guarantee equality in territories under their jurisdiction. This means that, cultural practices, which are detrimental to women in society, cannot be taken to nurture any gender equality, and therefore, should not be respected as cultural traditions worthy of social propagation. In Open Door Counselling and Dublin Well Woman v Ireland (Eur. Ct. H. R., 1992) the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), found Ireland in breach of Article 10 (freedom of expression) of the European Convention on Human Rights. Ireland purported to use Article 40(3)(3) of her Constitution, which protects the right to life of the unborn, and other reasons related to religious morality. Here is an example of women subjugation via politics and religion as subsets of the Irish Culture. In Lovelace v Canada (HRC, 1979) , the Human Rights Committee (HRC) found violation of Article 27 of the ICCPR, when Lovelace lost her rights and status as Maliseet Indian, as a result of section 12(l)(b) of the Indian Act, after marrying a non-Indian. This legislative instrument was purported to safeguard cultural rights of Indians in Canada, but ended up discrimination against women, a clear case of respect for cultural rights at the expense of women rights, because it did not apply to men marrying non-Indian women. In Aumeeruddy- Cziffra v Mauritius (HRC, 1985) the authors were complaining against the enactment of the Immigration (Amendment) Act, 1977, and the Deportation (Amendment) Act, 1977 by Mauritius, which they claimed constitute sexual discrimination against Mauritian women. Mauritian men were allowed to marry foreign women who are allowed to reside in Mauritius, but the same does not apply to foreign men marrying Mauritian women. The HRC found inter alia the violation of Articles 2(1), 3 and 26 in relation to 17(1) and 23(1) of the ICCPR by Mauritius. These legal instruments and cases are clear indications that, cultural practices such as female genital mutilation; polygamy, child marriage and general gender related discrimination are culpable and negate any semblance of equality between men and women.

V. Conclusion

It has been demonstrated above that, it is not possible to respect specific cultures and aspire to sustain gender equality at the same time. The HRs of women must not be the dependent variables which vary in accordance with the amount and degree of respect accorded to particular cultures. Women's happiness and their participation in societal positive development must not be synonymous with the quality of cultural traditions obtaining in their respective cultures. The cultural practices listed above and the manner in which cultures are used and abused to subjugate women is indicative of the fact that, respect of cultures by others may in fact be an endorsement of horrendous sufferings by women of those other cultures. Some of the variables of gender inequality are endogenous to specific cultures and others are exogenous. To subjectively restrict human beings to live under tortuous, obnoxious, unconscionable and degrading conditions as acquiescence to whims of another culture is contrary to the inherent dignity of the human person (woman).


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Wani Tombe Lako, Assistant Professor of Community Studies and Rural Development, University of Juba.

Copyright Ahfad University, College for Women Jun 2004