THE BLOG

Human Rights and Cultural Values

24/04/2013 13:02 BST | Updated 23/06/2013 10:12 BST

An interesting issue that often arises when addressing human rights and Western intervention in other countries is the following: are we truly helping or are we simply imposing our values on other cultures? Human Rights surely have a universal value but what about different cultures? And what is 'culture', in first place?

Culture is not something fixed and unchangeable: culture evolves with the people who are part of it and should not be the prerogative of the powerful. 'Culture' is something that is creatively mediated between all parts of society: if the law sanctions that one group has power over another, it's very difficult to assert any rights for the weaker group, especially if they lack material resources and knowledge and if there is no way to access resources through education. So I wonder if the 'cultural' argument is really brought forward as a way to maintain a comfortable status quo- comfortable for the ones that make the rules, it is.

Cultures are fluid and flexible and let's not forget that Western culture too has gone through important stepping stones. There was a time in Europe when it was acceptable to marry at the age of twelve-thirteen; there was a time when slavery was a fact of life; when women didn't have any political and few civil rights; when it was acceptable to imprison and torture people for religious/political reasons; when women could not study at university level. So it's important to distinguish between 'culture' and freedom of choice. It's also a fact of life that cultures do influence each other: not everyone is happy about that but it's a fact of life. I was reading recently of a religious group that objected to having yoga taught to their children as that would 'pollute' their minds.

Cultural aspects are in my opinion a valid point: there are customs and different laws and that's absolutely fine. It would be preposterous to impose a language to another country and enforce schooling from a Western perspective, or a Western dress code. The issue though is what is 'cultural'? And what is the people actually want to adopt new customs?

Secondly, there is a difference between a custom that serves society as a whole, and one that is used to control and oppress one group of people. The real indicator is if the person that is subjected to the 'rule' has a voice, and what happens when this person raises that voice. There are cases in Sharia where women who are raped are then flogged because they are considered guilty of not preserving their 'purity' through sexual intercourse out of marriage. I read about a recent case of a young woman who had been repeatedly raped by her stepfather and had consequently run away: severe public corporal punishment was prescribed.

I suspect she would have gladly have avoided the whole experience of being sexually abused if that had been in her power, but it wasn't in her power. Her 'rebellion' was been met with violence: so what is she punished for? Is it her fault that she made what happened to her 'public' through her response? Is this young woman is being punished for breaking the code of silence that states that women should shut up and bear with anything that comes their way? Interestingly men who speak out for women's rights are often punished very severely in certain countries.

Human rights activists in countries where human rights are being abused in the name of custom and 'culture' need all the help and support we can give them. I am happy to live in country where the common people have a voice: a global economy also means globalising human rights issues and creating a society where everyone can have access to resources in a fair and equal way, and we can do so much if we raise our voices to support this. The fact is, we are lucky we have the luxury of being able to express our opinion!