TRADITIONAL VALUES, CULTURE
AND WOMEN'S HUMAN RIGHTS
UN GA 68 PANEL
Zarizana Abdul Aziz
I will explore the intersecting terrains of international human rights, law, culture and politics. I will also discuss traditional values and culture from the perspective of State responsibility. It is not possible to include all forms of violations of womenís human rights, so I will restrict myself to violence against women.
First, please allow me to say that State responsibility has over the years expanded to include not only State obligation not to violate human rights, but the obligation to exercise due diligence to ensure that violations of human rights, whether committed by State actors or non-State actors are eliminated. In violence against women and culture, this due diligence principle is all the more important as States have tremendous power and ability to mould values and culture.
Letís start with 2 basic premises:
1. Culture is a social construct. Culture is not only a social construct, it is entrenched and maintained through State and non-state institutions.
2. The avoidance and prevention of violence constitute the basic purpose of lawmaking and thus forms part of State responsibility within the due diligence principle.
Cultural narratives which demand social and legal acceptance of VAW erroneously presume that all cultural practices should be preserved. If interpretation of culture and tradition includes violence against women, women are not only told to accept violence, they are denied any role as equal and active contributors to the development and production of culture. Thus, normative laws and rights are not only intrinsic to cultural formations, the formulation of the cultural narrative is itself bound to law making, power and privilege.
Questioning the narrative of culture and VAW puts the understanding of power back in the centre of our understanding of culture and allows us to interrogate upon what terms of engagement and with whose interest culture is narrated. The political strategy to prefer narratives of culture to legitimize VAW, promotes the idea that there is an inherent cultural right by some amongst certain communities to execute violence against women. Consequently, the upholding of these cultural practices tends to be represented without reference to and emptied of the actual injuries to women.
One way to accommodate concerns on essentializing oppressive elements in cultural groups is to exclude illiberal norms and practices in our cultural narratives so that what is essential for cultural survival does not overlap with what is oppressive and reprehensible. Not all cultural practices contain universal goodness that needs preservation and continued and continuous everyday choreographed enactments.†
Arguments positing a clash between traditional cultures and modernization in the discourse of VAW is misplaced. VAW is a systemic global practice which is then justified in the name of honour and culture, and in the process, re-conceptualizing women not as victims of violence but violators of culture and family honour.
Take the case of domestic violence. A state that abdicates its duty to confront and eradicate DV expects a wife and other female members of the family to accept violence, where violence occurs, as a part of marital and family life.
Ironically, the Stateís inaction in the face of VAW is an aberration as the State has an interest and a duty in confronting and eradicating all forms of violence. Confronting violence is and must be the primary duty of the nation state. It is imperative that we critically examine how cultural discourses are created, reproduced and instrumentalised to challenge womenís human rights.
It is the Stateís duty to intervene in the commission of violence against another person. This duty embraces different notions of responsibility. If society sees no evidence of willingness by the States, as representative of society, to take effective action to sanction against violence against women, society will more readily associate VAW as part of its cultural identity.
Violence against women has decivilized us as a human race. Its practice is normalized in our imagination; its defense bound in the name of culture, honour and religion. The Stateís inaction in enforcing the letter of the law coupled with the signals given by the legal and judicial officers that violence against women is tolerated, implicitly sanctioned the continued practice of violence against women, if not provide a fertile terrain for a thriving culture of violence against women.
Cultural practices have become exercises of power because of the way that culture is often used in competing ways to fulfill diverse political agendas. Deconstructing culture in the context of violence against women therefore involves examining the identities of those claiming their rights to culture, the authorities which sanction these rights, and in the event culture is used to claim legal rights, the role of the State as the final arbiter in recognizing and perpetuating these claims.