Women’s Rights and the Respect for Local Culture: The Price for Freedom?

Women help celebrate Women's Day in Kunar (Photo credit: DVIDSHUB Flickr)
Victoria L. Petitjean

A few weeks ago, I wrote about women’s empowerment and the importance of role models. Having someone to look up to, professionally and personally, remains a core foundation of any individual’s path to self-discovery. It is maybe even more the case for those who are traditionally put down and discriminated against in societies, including women.

Afterwards, I was discussing with a friend. She is from Syria. She told me about her moving to the US for college and how this made her discover freedoms she had never enjoyed until then – from walking by herself in the streets without being hassled by men or having access to her own bank account. Today, these remain completely inaccessible and even invisible to women in her country of birth. Men and women remain fundamentally unequal and this is a core social foundation. It is expressed in social relations, families or even political dynamics. Men and women are born and grow up with these social norms. So when my friend moved to the US, she herself felt during her first months here, that she did not how to react in front of so much freedom!

This incredibly eye-opening conversation got me to think further about the promotion of human rights in countries across the globe.  For women (and individuals in general) who do not decide to travel to countries like the US where there are some new forms of freedoms, can we continue to export our ideas and ideals without more concern for our local impact?

There is an undeniable tension between the humanist intent for development work and the respect of local cultures, themselves long-standing foundations of societies. Development workers have been and continue to be heavily criticized for their work and actual accomplishments, whilst also actually undermining local traditions and culture. This issue came up a lot when I was in Cambodia: although I was working on women’s rights and saw women there heavily discriminated against by society and men, I (and many other NGO workers) felt it inappropriate to interfere too much with the local culture and to respect decades if not centuries of traditions and norms.

I do not think there is any straightforward answer to this very complex matter. What I would like to raise are some points, to help us continue the debate:

  • Every individual is different: I met women out there who wanted to hold strongly to social traditions, even if this stopped them from working or sending their daughters to school. Some were combating them fiercely, and others simply had very mixed feelings. Gender inequalities are at the core of our identities, as women and men. Questioning them shakens up who we are and how we have been brought up.
  • Every culture is incredibly complex: if Syria and Cambodia remain openly discriminatory against women, Western nations are not homogenously egalitarian either! The author Robert Fulghum wrote this when commenting on continued gender inequalities in the West: “Liberation finally amounts to being free from things we don’t like in order to be enslaved by things we approve of” (All I Really Need to Learn to Know I Learned in Kindergarten).
  • Every nation has a heterogeneous history: Cambodia was a matriarchal society until it was invaded by foreign patriarchal-based countries including France and in the 19th century.

Maybe I asked the above question wrongly… and it is not on national bases that we should look at for promoting human rights, but simply on individuals, strengthened by education and experiences. Social entrepreneur Caroline Casey made this very inspiring speech on what she feels Freedom is all about: it is about being us, truly, entirely us. Any individual is the fruit of the culture he/she was brought up in but also so much more. And perhaps the price for individual freedoms is the respect for local and national traditions?

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