Tuesday, October 26, 2004

The Cultural Tradition of Oppressing Women

In very plain terms, respecting cultural diversity and being a feminist often clash. Sexism is an inherent part of most cultural traditions on this earth, certainly if you go back far enough in time, and therefore combatting sexism and the oppression of women usually means fighting a cultural tradition.

The most recent example of this conflict comes from the Pitcairn islands, famous for being the place where the eighteenth century mutineers of the British ship HMS Bounty settled. The society they established is extremely tiny in numbers, so tiny that a recent court case which found six men guilty of rape and other sexual abuse of minors will convict about half of the adult male population of the island.
According to the reports about the court case, sex with minors is an established cultural tradition on the island, and to convict these men to prison sentences will create real hardships for the islanders who depend on them for their labor in crewing a long boat which is the island's lifeline to the rest of the world. See how the thread is tangled here?

It's probably almost always true that finally paying attention to some violation of human rights causes hardships somewhere in the society. After all, we build our societal systems brick by brick, and if one of these bricks is drawn out, the ones above it will collapse. Does this mean that we should just accept sexism as an inherent part of traditions and not address it?

Similar questions have been recently asked in Europe where the gypsies of Romania have a tradition of arranged marriages for their very young daughters. In today's terms, this means forcing the girls to leave school and marry the choice of their parents and become a submissive, uneducated housewife living with the new husband's kin. Some of the gypsy leaders argue that the tradition of marrying their daughters young is what allowed them to survive as a group during the hostile centuries of oppression and discrimination. Whether this is true or not, it is certainly true that in this case (as in the Pitcairn islands case) someone outside a group is condemning their cultural norms.

This creates internal conflicts for all who support both multiculturalism and feminism, and so do many other practices still prevalent on this planet from Female Genital Mutilation to dowries. Which should take precedence: the survival of a traditional way of life or the human rights of women or other oppressed groups? My answer is to give priority to human rights, but this does not have to mean a wholesale condemnation of a culture. Cultures do change and progress, keeping some parts of their inheritance and discarding others, and it is possible to preserve most parts of cultural traditions without holding on to sexism, though this may take some time and temporary turmoil. After all, the abolition of slavery did not mean the end of the Southern way of life in the United States.