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Cultural Relativism and Women's Rights

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Culture against women

Women’s rights, just like human rights, are norms that aim to provide a certain standard of living and access to services to all women regardless of their religion or any other status. They exist as a separate concept outside human rights not because they constitute a different set of entitlements but because their realization is more complicated than the realization of the same rights concerning men. Considering the fact that women’s rights are a relatively new concept, in many countries women can legally exercise their freedoms for only a century, women face many challenges when making the same claims as men.

Cultural relativism is one of the most prominent threats when it comes to the fulfilment of the rights of women in different parts of the world. The concept assumes that there are many various cultures, each with their own set of traditions and each is to be judged according to their values . The term is often used in discussion regarding the execution of the rights of women in the Global South (term referring to ‘mostly (…) low-income and often politically or culturally marginalized’ countries). Men representing local communities use it as an argument defending their harmful practices and discrimination of women since they present them as an intrinsic part of their cultural identity which cannot be changed. On the other hand, cultural relativism jeopardizes the principle of gender equality in Western societies where women from foreign cultures are perceived as victims of those cultures instead of conscious members of their communities.

This essay will argue that cultural relativism presents a serious challenge to the realization of the rights of women. The work has been divided into two parts. The first part will consider the tradition of child marriage in Nigeria as an example of how culture influences the realization of the rights of women in the Global South; the second part will analyse the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights regarding the practice of wearing Islamic garments in educational institutions in Western countries which will show how the process of accommodating different cultures in one society may result harmful in fighting for gender equality. In both cases, the paper will study how the cultural relativist approach impedes women and the international community from successful action against discrimination of women.

The Global South

Many countries of the Global South do not oppose harmful traditions which are against international women’s rights law. Women are constantly being denied fundamental rights and freedoms, such as liberty and security of person and freedom from degrading treatment . Local political leaders refuse to recognize their traditional practices as violations of rights; since their customs have a source in either religion or history of tradition, these are seen as valid and binding. Men present their culture as something sacrosanct and the inferiority of women as the natural order. Their narration impacts both the awareness of women regarding their position in society and the attitude of Western countries that want to introduce change in foreign communities. Subsequently, it inhibits both local women and international bodies from firm action against discrimination.

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), in 2017 in Nigeria, 18% of girls before the age of 15 and 44% before the age of 18 were married. The child marriage is a violation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) , ratified by Nigeria, which obligates the state to ensure free and full consent to the marriage. Additionally, this practice may cause further harm. A newly-wed girl has to leave school to start working in her husband’s household and is often a victim of domestic violence. Early marriage also may lead to adolescent pregnancy which in turn puts a young mother’s life at risk. Given the fact that majority of women in Nigeria have no access to health care, the maternal mortality rates are very high (917 maternal deaths per 100000 live births compared with the world average of 211). Man view this custom as another form of controlling women, a way to ‘preserve the chastity of our youth’ and avoid premarital pregnancies that would bring dishonour to the family of the girl. Local communities also recognize it as a natural obligation; a woman is expected to become a wife and a mother therefore educating her in school is seen as a waste of time.

The perception of the practice of child marriage may vary depending on the country’s region but many locals recognize it as a commonly binding custom. Cultural relativism presents the culture as the most valid entity. The culture is talked about as if it was imposed on the certain community aeons ago by some unnamed force and the reasons behind it are beyond human’s capability of understanding. Everything else can be amended or sacrificed to satisfy its norms but never the culture itself. As a result, women feel powerless and do not even think about changing the ruling order. Little girls in Nigeria rarely oppose the practice of child marriage. Many of them believe that marriage will save them from the burden of working at home and hope for some type of love and support from their future husband. In reality, they exchange one form of bondage for the other. Notwithstanding, it does not mean that they support the harmful tradition; they simply do not know that their rights are violated as cultural relativism holds them in the assumption that they do not have any at all.

The cultural relativism also jeopardizes the external actions designed to help women achieve gender equality. On one hand, Western countries are often discouraged from engaging in the promotion of human rights in the Global South since they may be accused of ignorance and imposing their values on foreign communities. On the other hand, the power of cultural relativism is underestimated when it comes to international legislation. Nigeria is a party to CEDAW which obligates its parties to act against gender inequality in their countries. Article 5 of said convention tries to tackle the challenge posed by cultural relativism; it acknowledges the existence of various cultural patterns that discriminate women and encourages states to modify them. Many states believe that a simple amendment in law will provide for the change. However, the CEDAW Committee envisions the change as a gradual process of social education. In Nigeria, there are laws protecting children from early marriage but people still follow old tradition. The current approach is detrimental when it comes to a proper realization of women’s right as it allows countries of the Global South to continue to do what they were doing while neglecting the true cause of the problem. Simple amendment in law will result in nothing if people still re-enact the same gender patterns.

Women as victims

The cultural relativist approach has different however still negative repercussions for the realization of women’s rights in Western countries. The issue there arises during the process of multicultural accommodation. While it is believed that today’s society is open and international, states often face difficulties when trying to accommodate cultural differences among members of their countries. The governments, sometimes unconsciously, take cultural relativist position when they assess foreign practices according to their values and there are many instances where stereotypes and misperceptions of certain cultures prevail over common sense. Such an approach heavily impacts the rights of women who are often portrayed as victims of their cultures instead of conscious participants. It discredits their opinion on the matter and promotes an unfair and detrimental image of a certain culture. This can be observed in discussions regarding women wearing Islamic garment in public spaces which, according to the Western perspective, is a symbol of oppressing women.

In Leyla Şahin v Turkey , the applicant, who was a fifth-year medicine student at Istanbul University and a practising Muslim, claimed that the new policy banning students wearing headscarves from entering the lecture halls and taking part in the exams violates numerous rights provided by the European Convention on Human Rights, namely the freedom of thought, conscience and religion and the right to education. The judges considered the application admissible but ultimately held that there had been no violations of indicated rights and freedoms. The majority claimed that the state acted within a reasonable margin of appreciation when infringing the applicant’s rights. The court referred to the principles of secularism and gender equality when justifying their decision. They claimed that wearing the Islamic headscarf conveyed message contrary to principles of gender equality, tolerance and respect of others since it is a tradition imposed on women by a religion and therefore the state had right to act against such practice.

Unfortunately, in this situation Ms Şahin was powerless. Although she provided substantial arguments for her case, the court did not address them. She argued that democratic society, such as Turkey, should embrace pluralism and freedom to express one’s religion instead of censuring it . She also emphasized that even though she considered wearing a headscarf her religious obligation, she did not aim to impose such duty on other Muslim students; for her, the headscarf was a religious symbol and not a sing promoting gender inequality. In the dissenting opinion, Judge Tulkens expressed a similar view that the Islamic headscarf should not be viewed as a univocal token. The religious garment has many meanings for Muslim women. It can be a statement of one’s religious beliefs, but it can also be an expression of ethnic identity or a political act against Islamophobia and a sign of women’s independence from the stereotype and her power against other people’s opinion. The cultural relativist approach on the part of the state takes that power away from women.

A subsequent threat of the Western narrative of cultural relativism is the imbalance of power between the state, the community and the women. The state that disposes of legislative power may either give too much control over practices to the community, in fear of being called out as ignorant or impose too many restrictions on the said community when being guided by its values. In both cases, the opinion of women is not taken into account. They are forced to choose between their cultural identity and freedoms that should they possess without any restrictions. In the described case, Ms Sahin was forced to move to Vienna to pursue her studies as Istanbul University’s policy made her an ultimatum; she could either stay true to her religion and leave the university or abandon a part of her identity and continue to study there. Although the state claimed to act in the women’s interest, its actions contributed to the promotion of the image of women as victims that need to be protected from their own culture.

Women’s voice

The dialogue about culture needs to be changed to allow the proper realization of the rights of women. In every societies, the concept of cultural relativism contributes to maintaining gender patterns promoting inequality between men and women. Traditional practices and cultural stereotypes appear to be more important in light of international legislation than women’s dignity and their rights. Whereas both states and local communities have their opinions, no one listens to women. In the court, Ms Şahin shared her view on the religious obligation to women to wear the headscarf and what it personally meant to her. Nonetheless, the majority did not attach importance to her words but continue to impose their views on her. There are customs in the Global South countries that deny women such fundamental rights as access to education or independence from male members of her community, simultaneously making her helpless and unaware of injustices she is experiencing. In supposedly democratic and multicultural societies of Western countries, women suffer from misconceptions about their culture and are deprived of their identities for their good. Inviting women to discuss their perspective on culture would be the most prominent way to fight the degrading influence of cultural relativism.   

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Cultural Relativism And Women’s Rights. (2022, February 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 17, 2022, from
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