Making women's human rights in the vernacular: Navigating the culture/rights divide

Peggy Levitt, Sally Engle Merry

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


    Culture and rights usually seem at war with each other. They are portrayed as opposites, such that the advance of one means the retreat of the other. Anthropologists have criticized this opposition for some time, yet it persists in popular culture (e.g., Wilson 1996; Cowen, Dembour, and Wilson 2001). Both popular discussions and human rights debates end up juxtaposing these two ideas. Cultural practices undermine and diminish rights. Rights concepts disrupt and weaken culture and social order. The two seem irreconcilable. One of the most vivid illustrations of this opposition is the portrayal of the Taliban political movement in Afghanistan in the late 1990s with its depictions of fully veiled women, exclusion from schools, and oppressive punishments for alleged sexual misbehavior. Such images proved that the culture of Afghanistan was so unjust that U.S. intervention in Afghanistan was necessary to protect women's human rights. And of course, female genital cutting is seen as a classic example of the oppression of culture, with its depictions of the pain and suffering of women forced to endure the surgery by fathers, husband, and "cutters," who are portrayed as embedded in a "traditional" culture. These stories insist that there is an inevitable opposition between rights and culture, and that rights are weapons that push against intractable culture. Many of the stories about the opposition of culture and rights have a gen dered subtext. They typically zero in on women as the quintessential innocent victims of culture. Many of the examples where human rights challenge what are defined as oppressive cultural practices concern women: female genital cutting, honor killings, sex selection, sex trafficking by parents or relatives who sell their daughters, child marriage, dowry murders, devadasi (women dedicated to serve a deity in a temple who sometimes become prostitutes) arrangements, and sometimes veiling. The response to critiques of these forms of injury is often that these are parts of culture and must be preserved, although such arguments are often made by political leaders or lineage heads rather than the women themselves. As passive and vulnerable persons, women need to be rescued by a muscular human rights or humanitarianism or even by a masculinist state such as the Bush regime in the U.S. Human rights interventions in nongendered domains, such as torture or the right to food, rarely portray such a stark opposition between an emancipatory rights discourse and an oppressive culture. Intriguingly, there are few reports of objections to installing traffic lights or licensing regimes because they will disrupt culture, although such systems clearly do alter practices of governance. Conducting a census does not seem to challenge culture, although making statistical measurements of populations is a particular historically and culturally specific practice that emerged with the rise of the modern nation-state in Europe and the U.S. in the early nineteenth century. The census was an important technology for the emerging nationalism of nineteenth-century Europe and its focus on political economy. The effort to map and tally a nation's population along with its size and capacities was premised on the idea that a state's population is the basis of its wealth. Assessing its characteristics facilitates managing this wealth. Moreover, even the questions asked in a census are cultural products, expressing established social categories and prevailing social concerns. The decision to measure the distance to work or the presence of indoor toilets in a census cannot be understood outside culture. Despite the culturally embedded nature of a census, there are rarely international debates about the way a census disrupts or undermines culture. In my visits to meetings of the UN Statistical Commission, I (Merry) heard virtually no discussion of the way these new technologies of knowledge might threaten cultural understandings, social order, or subjectivity. The international human rights system is also deeply cultural in its procedures, ideas, and work. Rights are a cultural phenomenon, expressing a particular way of talking about the individual and the state, validating the forms of respect for difference, and articulating how individuals should relate to each other in order to behave justly. The system has its own historical trajectory that builds on Western political theory, its distinct procedures for handling problems, making judgments, and carrying out its work. These procedures, along with their assumptions about how to handle conflict and differences, are replicated in various international venues where human rights work is carried out. Nevertheless, in UN meetings culture is "out there" in remote villages and jungles. It is what other people have, while the cosmopolitans who feel at home in New York, Geneva, Vienna, and other world capitals see themselves as outside culture. Yet their world is also a cultural system, one premised on ideas of human rights and universality. As a social system, this is what anthropologists used to call a nonlocalized quasigroup, consisting of pockets of social interaction and shared meaning through which individuals circulate. The social world is coherent, but exists in various locations. The cosmopolitan world of government diplomats, UN and NGO experts, and donor officers, such as those working in transitional justice or development projects is a world of frequent mobility around the globe in sites that they do not have time to get to know in detail or, necessarily, think it is important to know. In these settings, culture refers to the way of life of the "other." Thus, our understanding of the inevitable conflict between culture and rights is premised on a particular set of images of culture opposed to rights, even though rights are a cultural phenomenon. We argue that these images are fundamentally those of women oppressed by their culture, and that this framing, in which rights are the heroic weapon that frees women from an oppressive "traditional" culture into a world of freedom and choice, underlies human rights work. However, this image misrepresents the intersections between rights ideas and cultural practice that actually take place. It misunderstands how rights and culture work and instead builds on imperial narratives of the civilizing process and the transformation of "backward" society.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Title of host publicationGender and Culture at the Limit of Rights
    PublisherUniversity of Pennsylvania Press
    Number of pages20
    ISBN (Print)9780812243284
    StatePublished - 2011

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • General Social Sciences


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