A Vision of Gender in Culture

Sat, Nov 6, 1999


By Mahnaz Afkhami
In Culture in Sustainable Development: Investing in Culture and Natural Endowments / Ismail Serageldin and Joan Martin-Brown (eds.) / World Bank / 1999

My task is to talk about a vision of gender in culture to an assembly that wishes to integrate culture in its policies to achieve sustainable development. The reason why the World Bank is interested in this proposition, I assume, is two-pronged: On one hand, you cannot have long-term sustainable development if half the population of the world is kept out of the developmental process. On the other hand, to achieve women’s participation in the development process, you need to consider the requirements of the prevailing culture. Women have been at once preservers and destroyers of culture. They preserve culture by transmitting it to new generations. They destroy it by seeking values, facts, and esthetic arrangements that correspond to their vision of a just and equitable society. In their acts of destruction, women seek to be creators of better cultural arrangements for everyone. In this process they try not to confuse arrangements of power with assignments of value to societal arrangements. I wish to deal with the subject of gender in culture in these terms.

Culture is the medium by which we communicate with our social and physical environment. It structures our facts, values, likes and dislikes. Involved in this is the whole set of manners- the terms of civility we have inherited from our traditions- and artistic creations like music, painting, architecture, and cuisine. Many of us who are in this room today live, or have lived, in societies whose history goes back thousands of years and whose culture contains traditions that have become pillars of world civilization. We are heirs to cultures that have produced all the major prophets-Zoroaster, Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Lao-Tse, Mohammad-as well as many moralists and philosophers who together have defined our ethical principles and mapped out our moral compass. These are points of pride for each of us. It is therefore natural for us to value and honor them.

Culture also denotes a whole set of concepts about social relations, including the place of individuals in society-their rights, their worth, their standing-all that directly affect their identity. Women have struggled for many years to make the point that they have the right and ability to become vocal in their cultures. Traditional culture however has wanted women silent; but it has not been silent about women. On the contrary, it has proclaimed vociferously who we are, where our place in society is, and what the limits of our ambitions and aspirations ought to be. It is important to note that women’s status in society-socially, politically, legally, economically-has been fundamentally the same across history for a majority of the world’s population. Except for surface differences in manner and style, the basic arrangements for division of labor and power between men and women have been the same across the world. A woman’s rights over major decisions about her children’s future, place of residence, marriage, inheritance, employment and the like have been severely curtailed in most of the world during most of human history. Until the turn of the century, when New Zealand became the first country to give women the right to vote, there was no place on earth where women shared in the political process. Nor did they have the same chance to train for a job, get a job, or once having gotten it, receive equal pay or equal opportunity to advance.

In recent decades, women have been moving from the margins to the center of history playing increasingly important roles in families, communities, and states across the world. As women became increasingly aware and assertive, their demands for equality, participation, and access elicited reactions that range from curtailing their right to the privacy of their bodies and minds to policies that deny them experiences that are essential to their ability to compete in society. The infringement of women’s rights is usually exercised in the name of tradition, religion, social cohesion, or morality. Always it is justified in the name of culture.

Some of us who have worked in the field of women’s rights know how difficult it is to get the idea across that the whole concept of development and progress hinges on culture change and that culture change involves a change in the relation of women to each other and to other members of society. We have worked hard over the years to achieve a consensus, at least in theory, that unless women are admitted to an equal, participatory partnership in the affairs of domestic and international society we will not be able to achieve the goals of fairness, justice, and development that humanity seeks. This consensus, reflected in a number of international documents of rights, is encapsulated in the first paragraph of the Mission Statement of the final Platform for Action of the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995. It declares:

The Platform for Action is an agenda for women’s empowerment. It aims at removing all the obstacles to women’s active participation in all spheres of public and private life through a full and equal share in economic, social, cultural and political decision-making. This means that the principle of shared power and responsibility should be established between women and men at home, in the workplace and in the wider national and international communities.

Equality between women and men is a matter of human rights and a condition for social justice and is also a necessary and fundamental prerequisite for equality, development and peace. A transformed partnership based on equality between women and men is a condition for people-centered sustainable development. A sustained and long-term commitment is essential, so that women and men can work together for themselves, for their children and for society to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

The task of achieving the goals of Beijing becomes particularly difficult when veneration for the past creates enormous barriers against the idea that there may be values, beliefs, and customs in one’s culture that deserve to be changed because they are out of date, impractical, unfair, or simply bad. We do remember that not long ago in Europe the church burned women it declared to be witches in order to cleanse their souls and to keep the society pure. People watched and hailed and clapped in in approval. This was part of the culture. No one I believe now supports the act or condones it on the theory that it must have been appropriate to the culture of the late Middle Ages. No one, I believe, approves the ancient practice of slavery or the more modern one of racial discrimination on the theory that they were or are upheld by some cultural norm. We must pose the question: why is it that in so many societies women encounter so much opposition when they demand the most rudimentary rights to civil treatment? Why is it that the denail of these rights is always based on some fundamental point of culture? Is this culture real, or is it a fetish that is used to maintain some economic, social, or simply psychological privilege? Culture is often used as an effective tool for those who wish to prevent change by glorifying the past or justifying the existing order of things, both in the West and in the developing world.

Change however is an elemental feature of contemporary life. But change does not happen to everybody in the same way or with the same speed. All development therefore is uneven, varied, and consequently multi-cultural. Development in the Global South is doubly so because of many things, first among them the colonial experience. This I believe is precisely why we are now faced with this thorny question of reconciling rights with cultural multiplicity within states. We must face the fact that there is no longer a culture that defines what truth is for everyone. Within every society there live many groups with differing views they have acquired as a result of their relative position on a matrix of time and space.

Let us take the idea of Muslim culture as an example. Some half-a-billion women in the Muslim world live in vastly different lands, climates, cultures, societies, economies, and politics, spread from the Pacific Rim to the coasts of the Atlantic. Few of them live in a purely traditional environment. For most of them modernity means, above all, conflict-a spectrum of values and forces that compete for their allegiance and beckon them to contradictory ways of looking at themselves and at the world that surrounds them. The most taxing contradiction they face today is the one between the actual everyday demands of living in the contemporary world and the requirements of tradition as determined and advanced by the modern fundamentalist worldview. This worldview, conforming variably to many domestic and international political needs and necessities, invariably insists on singling out women’s relation to society as the supreme test of the authenticity of the Islamic order.

If the purpose of the struggle for women’s rights is to achieve equality in freedom, then there is no escape from the necessity to challenge and change the discourses that assign women to a particular niche in the society. The Beijing Platform identifies some 12 subjects as priorities for implementing women’s rights. Culture change is a common requirement for all of them. Cultural development must be a creative process. It must include the elements in our collective past that give us our sense of identity while excluding those aspects that inhibit our blossoming into free and whole human beings. It must allow us to move in history without losing control of history. It must allow us to retain our identity without imprisoning us in the confines of the patriarchal historical structures. To achieve this we must maintain our roots as we transcend them by achieving a synthesis and a synergy between the local and the global.

The indispensable factor in the movement for creation of a culture of equality is the nurturing of a sense of self, sense of identity, and a sense of empowerment in individual women across the globe. Central to this is the global program of women’s rights education. We now have several women’s rights education models in various stages of development and testing. The Sisterhood is Global Institute, the organization I represent, has developed a dialogical, participatory model that stresses the linkages between universal rights and indigenous cultures. This model has proven very successful in test after test in ten different Muslim countries. The model recognizes that all cultures contain within them the seeds of moving forward with history. History everywhere moves from law to right-that is, from the idea of truth as given to the idea that we participate in the discovery and interpretation of the truth. The central concept in this model is the individual’s right to choose.

We must emphasize and follow this kind of program as seriously as possible. This is not a substitute for other projects-education, economic empowerment, political participation, and the like. But it is fundamental in the sense that it mobilizes the grassroots for re-imagining the truth. And it is imporative in the sense that it we are to realize a future worthy of the lofty vision we have set forth for ourselves and for our children, we must succeed in integrating women’s human rights in the structure of development policy as well as development politics.

We need to rethink society in order to ensure equal rights to women. But, equal rights is not enough. As we move toward the 21st century, we need to develop new insights, new ways of looking at the world, if we are to have a fighting chance to achieve the values of freedom, equality, justice, and humanity that most of us agree on and wish for. We need to develop a frame of reference that transcends the notion of equality with men under conditions that are fundamentally unequal and unjust for everyone. We need to challenge the idea that the contemporary operative forces in the present global market, whether of gods and services, or of politics, or of technology, or of gender relations, will lead us to a better life. We need to question and challenge the present forms of generation and distribution of knowledge. We need to give shape and substance to the notion, now acknowledged by the international community, that all issues are women’s issues. We must reconceptualize and recast issues of war, peace, poverty, economic justice, freedom, identity, cultural authenticity, individual dignity, and a hundred others that humanity faces in new and different ways, in non-patriarchal ways. We must, all of us, women and men, work together to effect and control a culture change-not in relation to East or West, or North and South-but in terms of the best we can salvage from our collective heritage of humanity.

I believe the time is finally at hand for women everywhere to break the silence, to become partners in the design of our future, our changing cultures. We are on our way to open up new ways of imagining our cultures, including our original myths, texts, and traditions. We are on the way to redefine our cultures. We mean to say that culture is dynamic, changing with time and circumstance, and that women represent a new time and a different circumstance.

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About Mahnaz Afkhami

A lifetime advocate for the rights of women, Mahnaz Afkhami works with activists across the world, especially in Muslim majority societies, to help women become leaders. She is Founder and President of Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace (WLP), Executive Director of Foundation for Iranian Studies...more

Kudos to @RepRoKhanna & @RepMattGaetz on their bipartisanship efforts in passing the Khanna-Gaetz amendment in the #House. We're a step closer to preventing another unnecessary/costly war in the #ME. Congrats to @PAAIA & other allied #Iranian-#American orgs for their #advocacy.

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Quotables – Culture

"The infringement of women's rights is usually exercised in the name of tradition, religion, social cohesion, morality, or some complex of transcendent values. Anyway, it is justified in the name of culture." - Gender Apartheid, Cultural Relativism, and Women's Human Rights

"The central problem of cultural relativism is that it must deny rights to women (or men) who have become aware that they posess rights because they possess an identity that is theirs independently of the community to which they belong." - Cultural Relativism And Women's Human Rights

"We must pose the question: why is it that the denial of the most rudimentary rights to civil treatment for women is always based on some fundamental point of culture? Is this culture real, or is it a fetish that is used to maintain some economic, social, or simply psychological privilege?" - A Vision of Gender in Culture

Quotables – Human Rights

"We must pose the question: why is it that the denial of the most rudimentary rights to civil treatment for women is always based on some fundamental point of culture? Is this culture real, or is it a fetish that is used to maintain some economic, social, or simply psychological privilege?" - A Vision of Gender in Culture

"Women's status in society has become the standard by which humanity's progress toward civility and peace can be measured." - Architects for Peace

"The crass infringement of women's rights we see in the Muslim world has more to do with power, patriarchy, and misuse of religion as political weapon than with religion properly understood as individual faith." - Gender Apartheid, Cultural Relativism, and Women's Human Rights

"Rights and empowerment are interconnected: unless a substantial number of women in a community come to believe that they have rights and demand to exercise them, right remains an abstraction." - Faith and Freedom
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