Playing our Part in Ending Human Wrongs

As we look around the world today we become aware of how many states are actively involved in the suppression of others. Many a nation seeks to persecute those it fears, whilst others formulate laws designed to disadvantage those not of the same ethnic make-up, religion or clan. Whilst the world occasionally takes an interest in state sponsored violence when it comes to physical or psychological abuse that has been shaped by “culture” there is a marked reluctance to speak out and act in a robust and co-ordinated manner.

Cultural sensitivities, taboos and the charge of cultural imperialism help silence many who might otherwise raise their voice. As a consequence human wrongs are perpetrated, especially against women and girls and excused as culture.
To the anthropologist and historian there appears to be a common theme in various cultural acts which would generally be deemed to be wrong and this is that historically the lion’s share of these have been perpetrated against women and girls. Some in the so-called Liberal West look aghast at much of what still goes on, yet it must be remembered that it is only in relatively recent years that women in Europe ceased to be viewed in legal terms as men’s chattels. Many cultures are grounded in a patriarchal outlook that silences the voice women and frames laws which are to any neutral observer are at best ill-thought through and at worse misogynistic. Those that study such actions and the practices that are protected or hushed up are often told not to interfere as the said practices are part of local culture. 
History is satiated with cultural practices many of which were aimed at women, either as a control mechanism or to reinforce the dominance of men. To confront, challenge or go against such practices was to go outside the bounds of “accepted norms” and thus to risk social stigma, ostracism and possible retribution and death.  Repeatedly it is women and girls that bear the brunt of such ire. Some say that it is not for others to interfere when it comes to culture, well interestingly it is often only with a degree of interference that change takes place.

Suttee, the Indian custom of a widow burning herself on the funeral pyre of her dead husband though never widely practiced was finally outlawed by the British in 1829. When India gained independence from the British in 1947 no one contemplated repealing the law, suttee had been consigned to history.

In China for centuries well-born girls endured foot-binding in order to create tiny feet that were deemed delicate and alluring to men. In the early Twentieth Century the Chinese Nationalists endeavoured to suppress such a practice with it being outlawed by the Communists in 1949. Foot-bidding is now seen as a relic of a decadent past.
It is laws that have brought about change and overtime cultural norms have adapted accordingly. Equally laws (invariably drafted and approved by men) that can perpetuate misogyny. In the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan vani is a tribal custom in which blood feuds are settled with forced marriages. This un-Islamic practice sees young girls handed over for a life of misery and unremitting humiliation and abuse in order to pay for the crime of her male relatives. Whilst vani has been illegal since 2005 the local police and much of the judiciary is utterly indifferent to such wrong doing. In 1979 General Zia-ul-Haq promulgated the notorious Hudood Ordinances, with clauses relating to adultery and rape that in effect made the violation of women easier.
Men are often indifferent to the plight of women or excuse their inaction by abdicating their responsibility to reduce unnecessary suffering by claiming it is a women’s matter or that women wish to perpetuate the acts concerned. In this regard the most striking example is that of Female Cutting otherwise known as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). The taboo that often surrounds this subject ensures that men are largely ignorant of it or choose to stay silent. There are rare incidents of men actually recording their thoughts and observations and one of the most powerful descriptions having been written by Tom Driberg MP and featured in The Best of Both Worlds (Published in 1953). In this passage written whilst Driberg was in the Sudan in 1952 he describes the situation of Sudanese women:
“They are, in fact, mere breeding-machines – but deprived artificially even of much of the pleasure of married love; for the hideous rite of Pharaonic female circumcision, tho’ it is illegal and has been condemned by leading Moslem authorities, is still practiced almost universally. This operation is performed when a girl is six or eight years old: external genital organs are removed, usually by an untrained midwife with an unsterilized razor. The girl’s legs are then strapped together for forty days, to allow the wound to heal, a small hole in the consequent scar tissue being kept open with a straw or match. When she is married a slit is made with a razor to allow intercourse. At the birth of each child, again the scar tissue is slit with a razor for the delivery, and again sewn up.
Sudanese women admit that they do not enjoy this disagreeable procedure – ‘but there it is’s the custom.’ The grandmothers are most to blame for its perpetuation: it is they who naggingly insist that the daughters of their daughters (and daughters-in-law) must be circumcised.
One man was married recently and found that his bride had not been circumcised, divorced her at once and sent her home in disgrace, which – as things are – will be lifelong.”
Plenty of men, especially those who shape policy, are squeamish and prefer to turn a blind eye to such activity. It should obligatory for them to watch the film Moolaadé (2004) by the Senegalese writer-director Ousmane Sembène. Here it is not Western female NGO workers highlighting the issue, it is an African male. It is heartening to hear that only this week there was widespread support in the Kenyan Parliament when it debated a bill aimed at punishing those found practicing FGM.
When it comes to the well-being and safety of others, we all have a duty of care. There is much talk about human rights, but before we can deal with rights we must endeavour to end the wrongs. A culture built on wrongs is not a culture at all; it is barbarism masquerading as culture.


More by :  Mark T. Jones

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Views: 3332      Comments: 1

Comment Eloquently and forcefully stated.
Often, what ought to be apparent to everyone, but is not, is a simple truth concealed by culture and tradition.

23-Apr-2011 10:47 AM

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