“That is just how things are.”
I cannot tell you how many times I have been told this in carrying out my research in Nepal. It is a quite grueling and often fruitless endeavor to attempt to get deeper than this when speaking with some rural Nepalis about their lives.
Although I am never excited to get such a response in the field, at this point in my fellowship, as my fieldwork begins to wind down and I begin to focus my attention on how best to move forward in a positive direction, I feel I would be remiss not to pause and reflect on what it means.
WRRP stakeholders and their fellow community members act consistently with the cultural traditions of their communities, i.e., they do what they know. Don’t we all? Who am I to tell someone from another culture that their traditions are human rights violations? What standards are even appropriate for a set of rights purporting to be universal in this globe full of incredibly diverse peoples?
Bim Kumari BK, 18, and Chandra Kala BK, 19, of Jhine Village, Maintada VDC, Surkhet; both pregnant
VDC-Level Interaction Program in Maintada VDC, August 2012
I am not a cultural relativist. I am a human rights activist, and neutrality is not my holy grail. I make judgments, I criticize. At a practical level, culture inevitably seeps into the moral realm. Ancient Mayan practices of human sacrifice were wrong;female genital mutilation (or FGM) is perverse. So is child marriage.
This does not mean that I do not believe that culture is important. It absolutely is. Understanding cultural context fosters tolerance and respect for difference. Human rights include cultural rights. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which presently boasts 160 state parties (notably not including the United States), provides that it is one’s human right to “take part in cultural life”.
Traditional Magar Dress; 18th World Indigenous Peoples’ Day
So how do we reconcile the right to culture with the concept of universality that is fundamental to human rights? It is (relatively) easy to discuss these concepts when measuring extremes. Are there many who disagree that human sacrifice is wrong and cannot be justified by cultural context? Are many people up in arms about members of the Nepalese indigenous Magar performing their traditional dance? The difficulty lies somewhere in between and there is most certainly an area over which reasonable minds may differ.
On the one hand, cultural relativism challenges enthnocentrism, which is particularly associated with the West, and protects indigenous cultures from oppression from outside powers. On the other, it undermines the universality of human rights, a set of minimum standards of rights to which we are entitled by virtue of our humanity alone, and leaves categories of persons susceptible to oppression from within their own communities. So which is it?
It is my view that all too often a cultural justification proffered in response to human rights abuse allegations is merely pretext for maintaining oppressive policies. From a women’s rights perspective, embracing cultural, or moral, objectivity allows practices of male dominance to be perpetuated. As Sarah Menkedick of Change.org puts it, “[c]ulture . . . is not a homogeneous entity developed and sustained by consensus, but often a hegemonic and absolutist structure that marginalizes women. . . . [V]irtually all of the world’s cultures have patriarchal roots, and the most ardent defenders of cultural relativism tend to be the men whose cultures naturally, necessarily, subjugate women.”
On the interplay between universality and culture Diana Ayton-Shenker writes“[u]niversal human rights do not impose one cultural standard, rather one legal standard of minimum protection necessary for human dignity.”
When offered by local villagers in Nepal, the response “that is just the way things are in our culture” is not good enough to satisfy my curiosity. When offered by states to justify practices of dubious compliance with human rights standards, I think that nothing less than the strictest of scrutiny is appropriate.
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A discussion of culture is also apropos right now because of the festivals being celebrated in Nepal this month. In the past several days, in walking through the center of the municipality in Surkhet, I have had the opportunity to watch traditional street performances for “Lakhe Jatra”, a festival in celebration of the birthday of Hindu God Krishna and portraying portions of the great Hindu epic Mahabharat, as well as performances by Nepalese indigenous groups in honor of the 18th World Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
Thank you very much for reading and please enjoy a glimpse of these celebrations via the video below.