Informal Feminism

{January 9, 2011}   Cultural Relativism Vs. Human Rights

This week I am going to talk about a topic that I have debated many a time in my women’s studies career, Cultural Relativism vs. Human Rights. I credit a co-worker with giving me my light bulb moment on this topic when she pointed out an article about a group of Israeli men trying to force women by law to sit at the back of the bus. This was a shocking moment because despite all the things I have learned about the world, such blatant segregation and discrimination against women boggles my mind. This got me thinking about cultural relativism because these men see it as their right to force women to sit at the back of the bus because the women are seen as lesser in their culture.

Cultural relativism is when people are allowed to do something because of their cultural beliefs. One example of this is that certain people are allowed to take days off work because of their cultural beliefs. This seems to be a perfectly harmless way to think of it and meshes with my views on human rights because people should be able to abide their cultural traditions. However, it is when these traditions clash with the basic human rights of another person that cultural relativism becomes a problem. An example of this is when people say that women should be circumcised in certain cultures because it is the belief of that culture that circumcision should be allowed. This is problematic because it is then infringing on the human rights of the woman being circumcised, which is usually done to teenage girls under unsafe circumstances.

            With that brief outline of cultural relativism I would like to explore a certain topic that affects many women, honour killings. Honour killings are when a woman or women are killed because they disobeyed or slighted a male relative in someway. This could be anything from sleeping with someone outside of marriage to dressing a certain way. I did some research into the topic and came up with an article published by CEDAW (Committee of Elimination of Discrimination Against Women). This brief article discusses the issue of honour killings and cites the amount of women killed each year from them at around 5000. In my opinion that is too many women to be killed because they supposedly disgraced their culture and their family. It also states in this article that “The killers mostly go free: in some countries it is not illegal for relatives to murder female family members thought to be guilty of transgressions and where there are avenues for prosecution they are often not pursued.” (Murder in the Name of Family Honour). This is frightening to think about, that women all over are being killed because of slight transgressions and there is little anyone is doing to legally pursue them. It is the basic human right of these women to live without fear of death as punishment for a cultural transgression. One thing that I find when I bring this topic up is that Canadian people feel as if they are separated from the issue. There is a belief that this only takes place in other countries.

            This belief is misguided. I found cases of these killings within our own country. Two jumped out at me as I was doing some research, one took place in 2009 and four women were killed. The family in this case hailed from Montreal where they had emigrated to from Afghanistan. What the exact reason behind this honour killing was I found to be unclear. However, there seemed to be little doubt the mind of the police that it was an honour killing. The second case was in Toronto, it took place in 2007. In this case it was one girl and her brother picked her up from school and brought her back to her father who then strangled her for showing delinquent behaviour. He stated, “My community will say you have not been able to control your daughter. This is my insult… She is punished.” (Father, Son plead guilty in ‘honour killing’ of daughter in Canada). These are two cases that took place on Canadian soil, so if people think to remove themselves from this problem because it is not on Canadian land then they are unfortunately wrong.

            With the father’s statement from the second Canadian case, it becomes clear that these killings are an issue of cultural relativism. They took place because these women showed disrespected to their culture somehow. In the CEDAW article it states,

Women and girls are murdered and abused every year by male relatives as punishment for a range of behaviours judged to have damaged the family reputation. The so called “honour killings” by relatives are often in response to perceived breaches of traditions governing sexual behaviour; the woman may have been raped; she may have expressed a desire to choose her own husband; said she wanted a divorce; or tried to claim an inheritance.       

These examples show how this is a clash between cultural relativism and human rights. The men seem to believe that they have the right to kill these women because they have challenged a cultural tradition but that infringes in the biggest way possible on these women’s human rights. This is not to mention the abuse that many women must face under the same banner, they may not be killed but that does not make these women free from persecution.

            What I hope that you get from this discussion is a broader understanding of the way that cultural beliefs impact women’s lives in significant ways. Almost all cultures have found a way to segregate women and control their lives to some degree. This topic also brought to light the idea that physical boundaries no longer reflect cultural boundaries. We are living in a global society where people move around and bring their cultures and traditions with them. This makes cultural relativism important to challenge because we are not removed from it. These are not issues that only happen in one place but could happen to women all over the world, including our homeland. We need to continue to fight these issues to secure safety for women all over the world.

CEDAW Article:

Star Article:

AFP Article:


Marnie says:

What a great topic!

Roselie says:

Wow this is one heavy topic. It scares me to think that allot of places in this world are moving backwards. You would think people would start to open their eyes, and see we are all equal, no matter what the sex. I have always thought that Cultures should have their own rights, but they should not over ride our basic human rights.

Theresa says:

I agree this is a pretty heavy topic, and relevant in todays society. However, it is just not a matter of cultures and human rights but also imploring people to understand Universal Laws. These types of activities that are experienced in other cultures cannot be tolerated in North America. There is a difference when it comes to crossing borders and it most certainly includes how people treat and respect each other regardless of gender.

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