International Women’s Day could be happier

According to media reports Vatican, Iran, Russia and other nations resist UN efforts to stop sexual violence against women. The objections are based on the argument about the different cultures and religion.


What could be is the best way how to pursue this agenda against the objections based on cultural and religious arguments?


Marsha Freeman, Director, International Women’s Rights Action Watch, Senior Fellow, Human Rights Center, University of Minnesota

The objections to progress on women’s human rights currently being made on the grounds of preserving culture and tradition are unfortunately common, and the list of countries that object is unfortunately frequently longer than the few named in the article you cite. Iran, the Holy See, and a handful of others are frequently at the forefront of the objections, but they are not the only ones. Such objections are not really about culture and tradition but are an effort to stake out political territory, using the lives of women as an emblem of opposition, without regard to their status as human beings.

Culture is not monolithic or static; it is made up of human beings whose lives and ideas change all the time.  It also is not owned by any single government, religion, ethnic group, or sex.. The very existence of the global discussion of violence against women, and its definition as a significant human rights issue, indicate that indeed culture does change: even  naming  the issue was culturally  impossible almost everywhere thirty years ago.

The claim that “culture” or “tradition” or “cultural diversity” dictates impunity for violence against women is contrary to every precept of human dignity and human rights. Governments that refuse to endorse policies to prevent and redress violence against women, on the basis of  culture and tradition are basically endorsing the violence, no matter how they phrase it.

Culture is defined by those who live it. Women have a right to freely participate in developing their culture and to define  what it means for them, but that right frequently is blocked by those in power–be it their family ( whoever has power, usually but not always men), their community, or their government. If one could ask individual women in these countries whether they want to be beaten, raped, and murdered by men–and if they were free to answer without punishment– I doubt that any would say yes.

Sheila Jeffreys, Professor, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne

Hard to know what to say in a soundbite. It is true that many harmful practices against women and girls are defended by patriarchal religions. These include servile marriage in which girl children and women are forced to marry, and married polygamously, and live lives of constant rape and forced childbearing. Girls and women are forced by religion into the harmful practice of veiling and covering the body.

As to what to say to arguments about need to respect culture and religion I would say that both cultures and religions have been created by men in their own image. Cultures and religions create power and authority for men, whilst inflicting harmful practices on women and girls. Cultures and religions are social constructs that must be radically transformed from the ground up or abandoned. Women need a new ‘culture’ that starts from respect for the human rights of girls and women and puts them first. That would be revolutionary.

Judith Gardam, Emeritus Professor, Law School, University of Adelaide

In my opinion women (and many sympathetic men) are far too readily silenced by arguments as to culture. It is not a convincing argument that nothing can be done about sexual violence against women because of cultural and traditional restraints. How can a decent society condone this type of behaviour? It needs to be borne in mind that it is not women who created the so-called “culture” in which men are allowed to take child brides and rape them with impunity and beat their wives et cetera. How could women have ever devised these particular cultural practices? They have been  developed by and  in the interests of men.

I am quite happy to listen to arguments as to culture when women have had equal opportunity to contribute towards the rules and regulations of a particular culture. But this is not the case anywhere in the world today. This is not however an answer to your question as to what is the best way of confronting these arguments. This is a question of strategy and I am primarily an academic and not an activist.  In my opinion, however,  women and men that support their views need to constantly draw attention to the situation of women and that sexual violence is unacceptable in any context irrespective of the so-called traditional practices.


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