Culture as a Barrier to Women's Rights

Anisa Mahmoudi
Posted October 14, 2020 from South Africa

In Bolivia a girl is raped at the age of 15. She is shamed for reporting (aka bringing attention to) this violation. He is not held accountable. She perseveres, nonetheless, and in doing so is faced with a judge who implies that because she didn’t scream, she wasn’t raped. 

In the USA, a young woman is sexually assaulted by a “star athlete”, while unconscious. He is painted as a victim, his future irreparably harmed (due to his own actions).  His athletic career was now on the line. He is found guilty. In mitigation, the father of the perpetrator appeals to the judge to not let “20 minutes of action” determine his son’s future. He should have received 14 years in prison. Instead, he was sentenced to six months. The presiding judge says a tougher sentence “would have had a severe impact on him”. The impact on the survivor, apparently, pales in comparison.

In Pakistan, two women are murdered in an “honour killing.” Why? Because a video surfaced of them kissing a man. Who murdered them? The father of one victim and the brother of the other. What of the man in the video, you ask? Well his life actually matters, and he is spared death. Instead, he is arrested for vulgarity.

Three examples from around the world do not paint an adequate picture of the prevalence of violence meted out to women. They do not paint an adequate picture of how deeply ingrained society’s biases against women are and how those biases play out in practice. This is not even the “tip of the iceberg”, so to speak. But they demonstrate how pervasive and damaging harmful conceptions about the value and status of women are world over. That a judge thinks that the act of screaming is the only means of protesting non-consensual sex demonstrates a disconnect between the consciousness of men and the realities of women. That a father refers to the sexual assault of an unconscious human being as “20 minutes of action” demonstrates how little value female life is given. That a judge sentences a perpetrator with an unduly lenient sentence is enough to discourage future survivors from coming forward and clearly says, “the life of a male is more important”! That family members murder their own flesh and blood for acts contrary to their own views, demonstrates the contempt with which the patriarchy views women.

In what seems like hopeless times insofar as women’s rights are concerned, one can draw strength from the knowledge that the international and regional human rights frameworks provide powerful mechanisms with which to address the discrimination women and girls face on a daily basis. The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) is an international law treaty that obligates states, as the title suggests, to eliminate discrimination against women. Violence is one such form of discrimination. There are countless other ways in which discrimination against women occurs, though no matter the form, discrimination is often rooted in harmful and deeply embedded patriarchal cultural and societal patterns of conduct. Article 5 of CEDAW contains a modification obligation, requiring states to “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 of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women”. The inclusion of this obligation speaks to the critical role that harmful conduct and thoughts play in maintaining the systemic and structural sexism evident in every corner of the world and the need to shift the narrative to one that considers women as human.

CEDAW’s reference to “cultural patterns” might prompt one to think that culture is something that belongs to anyone other than the self; that harmful cultural practices only include the very obvious examples such as female genital mutilation or child marriage. It’s easy to point fingers and call out problematic characteristics of another and to neglect reflecting on one’s own cultural patterns that are harmful, and which perpetuate negative stereotypes about women. So what are cultural rights? What are these social and cultural patterns that CEDAW refers to and which need to be modified to pave the way for true equality?

Cultural rights, as explained by the Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights in her Universality report, are “an expression of and a prerequisite for human dignity.” They are an integral part of the human being as an individual and as member of a community and ought to be protected. What they are not, however, is a justification for violations of human rights and this where the tension surfaces. Most would have heard of the term cultural relativism, “often adopted with regard to the rights of others, deemed to have lesser or different rights claims because of the collective to which they are assumed to belong. Almost no one would relativise her or his own rights”. [1] The patriarchy, on the other hand, has relativised the rights of women for centuries, with serious repercussions for the lived realities of over half of the world’s population. CEDAW’s inclusion of the modification obligation speaks to the necessity of altering those cultural “norms” that undermine the equality project.

These cultural patterns include, as mentioned earlier, the more obvious practices such as female genital mutilation, forced marriage and others that create similar outrage (though the practices persist). But let’s not forget - and only point fingers at others! - the normalised examples of culture that act as a barrier to gender equality. These include, amongst others, the gender pay gap, participation of women in political and other public spaces and the cultural pressures from friends and family on women who choose career over motherhood, or who selfishly dare to do both. Certain behavioural characteristics that are praised and emulated in men, such as assertiveness, outspokenness, strength and the like are framed negatively when they are seen in women: stubborn instead of assertive, talkative and bossy instead of outspokenness. Similarly, the expectation on girls to be polite, quiet and acquiescing while boys can be rough, loud and often rude – you see where I am going with this. These, too, are cultural practices that maintain the structures of sexism that exist today and that need altering. Thus, as the CEDAW Committee states, complying with the Convention “will require a reconceptualization of the role of women in society from that of a mother and wife, exclusively responsible for children and the family, to that of an individual person and actor in society."[2]

This includes the way in which judges view the life of a woman in criminal and civil proceedings. Where harmful cultural patterns of conduct are eliminated, there is no longer any room for a judge to even think that screaming is any indicator that a rape occurred. Or for a father to consider (let alone verbalise) the actions of his son as “20 minutes of action” when those actions caused harm and long term trauma to a woman. Or for men to think that the actions of a female family member are any of their business, much less an offence worth her losing her life over. We are reminded that our thoughts are what becomes action and we need to begin challenging the thoughts that lend themselves to discrimination. This is what CEDAW’s modification obligation sets out to do – to fundamentally shift the current and widely held conceptions relating to the value and status of women in a way that eliminates harmful stereotypes that give rise to the discriminatory behaviour.

[1], para 48

[2], para 148


Comments 9

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Oct 15, 2020
Oct 15, 2020

Important voice! I would say combating stereotypes which are wrongly perceived as an unchangeable part of the culture is one of the most important steps we can take for women's equality.

Oct 15, 2020
Oct 15, 2020

Welcome to World Pulse Anisa :) Your story is your power.

I heard you! Word is not enough, but we need to roar to be heard! Your voice is matter. Our voice is matter.

Thank you for sharing.

Nini Mappo
Oct 17, 2020
Oct 17, 2020

Hello Anisa,
Welcome to World Pulse. Thank you for adding your voice to all the ones here about valuing the life and freedom of a woman as much as a man's. It was interesting to see that in all the countries you mentioned, even in the US, justice always bends towards a man. Sigh
Let's keep talking, maybe we'll be heard as our collective voices rise to a crescendo.

Oct 17, 2020
Oct 17, 2020

Hi Anisa,
Thank you for this enlightening piece about CEDAW and letting me know more about the work of the organisation. The discussions and decisions around the elimination of all kinds of discrimination against women are very important, as well as knowledge about these issues. Moreover, it is disheartening that various forms of discrimination against women have not waned, although these issues are said to have been on the front burner of the UN and similar organisations for a while. That is why I applaud you for raising your voice, hoping that those concerned with implementing laws and ensuring justice would hear us. The examples you sighted are so disheartening, but were all allowed by culture and patriarchy. :( Thank you for bringing these issues to the fore again.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown highlighted the undesired effect of this discrimination even more, hence we must continue to raise our voices like you have just done by sharing your first post on World Pulse. Let us all hope that CEDAW actually fulfills its obligation ''to fundamentally shift the current and widely held conceptions relating to the value and status of women in a way that eliminates harmful stereotypes that give rise to the discriminatory behaviour." Together, we can!

Congratulations and a warm welcome to the sisterhood! 'Nice to have you join us.

Keep writing and shining.

Love and hugs,
E. J.

Oct 17, 2020
Oct 17, 2020

Thanks for sharing on this issue, Anisa! It also captures the pervasiveness of gender-based violence. In some cases in the Caribbean, it's not uncommon to hear reports of members of the criminal justice system dismissing instances of GBV as "just some sex, not really harmful" etc.

Karen Quiñones-Axalan
Oct 27, 2020
Oct 27, 2020

Hello, Anisa,

Welcome to World Pulse! I'm happy that a new voice from South Africa is rising up!

You have eloquently written the pains of injustice women experience all over the world, but as you said, this is not yet the tip of the iceberg. There are horrible cases in our country, too, that we only learn through the news, but how about those cases that haven't been reported? What a tragedy.

Thank you for raising your voice on this issue.

Anita Kiddu Muhanguzi
Nov 17, 2020
Nov 17, 2020

Dear Anisa,
You are most welcome to World Pulse and thank you for sharing your post on violence against women. It is very absurd that violence against women happens across the world and so we need to united to roar against this vice and up hold the dignity of the women and girls. Thank you and have a lovely day.

Martha Vanya David
Nov 18, 2020
Nov 18, 2020

There is so much power in your piece Anisa. Each example you gave certainly does not give a sufficient account of the horrors that women face worldwide on a daily basis. Cultural Relativism is very real and so is its impact on the lives of women around the world. I agree that cultural rights should not be used to justify the violation of the rights of a person.
Great job overall for writing such an insightful piece!

Julie Desai
Nov 23, 2020
Nov 23, 2020

Thank yah for sharing