Human Rights and Culture
Human Rights have been defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) of 1948. The basic aim of the UDHR was the achievement of common rights. Human rights are inter-related, inter-dependent and indivisible, and equally important. They have different aspects that include civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights.
Cultural rights, in a domestic context, emanate from a certain culture. According to sociologists, culture is a socially transmitted system of idealized ways in knowledge, practices and beliefs, customs and values along with the artefacts that knowledge and practice produce and maintain as they change over time. Similarly, culture is a phenomenon that includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, customs, taboos and many other abilities and behaviours acquired by man as a member of a certain society or community or group. Culture is a very broader term that encompasses products, processes, and a way of life. According to UNESCO (1995), “Culture shapes all our thinking, imaging and behaviour … [it is] a dynamic source of change, creativity, freedom and the awakening of innovative opportunities. For groups and societies, culture is energy, inspiration and empowerment.”
Culture has both positive and negative prospects.
In a positive manner, culture is an ever-changing and ever-growing phenomenon. On the negative side, it can restrain development as it produces different rigid power structures. Power structures are very difficult to evolve and change. Human Rights in the context of culture are difficult to define and practice because cultures are diverse and heterogeneous.
On this issue, two important theoretical frameworks are part of the discourse, i.e. universalism and cultural relativism. Universalism maintains that every human individual has certain rights that need to be protected and secured in spite of any differentiation, distinction and discrimination. Universalism propagates universal rights for every human being. On the other hand, the cultural-relativism debate argues that cultures are diverse and have different views about right and wrong. Cultural relativism is a belief that cultures must be judged on their terms rather than by the standards of another culture. According to the cultural-relativist perspective, an act, idea, form of dress or other cultural manifestation is not inherently right or wrong, correct or incorrect. These things should be judged only in the context in which they occur – what is appropriate in one culture or context may be inappropriate in another. There are no universal human values and mortality; therefore, human rights need to be interpreted in a diverse manner. UN’s discourse of human rights remained in the paradigm of universalism where all human beings enjoy equal rights despite discriminations but the law of distinction and differentiation can be applied.
Can the UN declaration of human rights be applied to all diverse cultures? The answer lies in the fact that in Western liberal democracies, this phenomenon can easily be applied. But in the culturally diverse global south, the application of human rights based on equality creates conflict, contentions and chaos.
Pakistan is a heterogeneous society with variant cultures, languages and historical tendencies. This differentiation makes it difficult to apply a single policy pursuit. Pakistani culture is tainted with hues of medieval patriarchal power structures that are quite difficult to change. Therefore, it would take a gradual and steady process to alter the cultural basis against patriarchal structures. A case study from erstwhile FATA is being presented here to demonstrate how the implementation of the universalist perspective of human rights is difficult.
The Pakhtun-dominated area of Pakistan was formally known as Federal Administrative Tribal Areas (FATA). This war-trodden territory had socio-economic and politico-cultural problems. Although it has now become a part of the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), it still remains a source of concern regarding women’s rights.
The women in erstwhile FATA are considered merely a property that is traded to safeguard traditions, ranging from marriages to feuds. One of the brutal and inhumane customs followed here is “Swara”. In this practice, girls of the killer clan or tribe are given to the aggrieved party as compensation to settle a feud. This custom is heinous that violates human rights and is, indeed, against Islamic values.
Another cultural practice is called “Vulvar or Ser Paisay” which is the bride money. In this practice, the father, brother or guardian of a female takes money from the bridegroom for contracting his marriage with their girl. This practice has socio-psychological repercussions for females. As they perceive themselves as a tradable commodity and, in most cases, when the value of that female exhausted in the eye of the husband, he can divorce her.
Tor is another prevalent custom that is a form of honour killing. The literal meaning of this term is black in Pashto and it has application over adulterous women. This is a norm in tribal areas to judge and kill a woman on the slightest suspicion. This cultural practice is mostly forged to take revenge from another tribe or clan.
All the above-mentioned customs are practiced under the influence of ‘Jirga’ – the main pillar of tribal judicial structure. There is a monopoly of tribal chieftains and clerics. The women of erstwhile FATA cannot even defend their rights as Jirga proceedings are prejudicial to their rights and interests. Moreover, a woman cannot be physically part of a ‘Jirga’ even when the matter is relevant to her.
Tribal people in erstwhile FATA have declared women’s education as un-Islamic and against the ethos of Islamic values. They assert that women’s education is influenced by Western values and traditions. The implementation of the patriarchal framework under the banner of religion and culture is their main focus. The educational infrastructure there only consists of schools.
Women are considered economically inferior beings though Islam, the dominant religion there, accords them the right to inherit property. But, socially and culturally, it’s not an acceptable norm there. In this region, women work in the agricultural fields but they have no direct share in the income generated thereon.
Women have no significant participation in the political discourse and the conditions in this region are quite gloomy. Traditionally, women have no role in politics. In 1996, the then-President of Pakistan, Farooq Ahmad Khan Leghari, introduced electoral reforms that provided an arena of opportunity for women. Ever since, only a few tribal women have been able to exercise their political rights. No woman from this area has been elected to upper and lower houses of the country’s parliament.
It is very difficult to change the cultural basis of this area where patriarchal social structures have deeply penetrated. The application of universalist human rights takes time and effort. This cannot be done overnight. The solution and resolution only lie in empowering this territory with sound and reliable educational structures and the inculcation of true Islamic values. Only through awareness and conscious effort the cultural contours can be made pragmatic and rational. Educational socialization, then, would precede cognizance towards political and economic rights.
The writer can be reached at: Iqrarz2009@live.com