Are women human?

Featured, Women — By Yalidy Matos on January 13, 2010 at 08:01

The universality of human rights continues to be contested by cultural relativists. Cultural relativists accept the notion that culture and cultural “tradition” trumps international human rights law. However, not only are cultural relativists accepting this notion, but by accepting it, they are also accepting that half of the human race, women, are legally unequal. Most, if not all, of human rights violations affect women directly and/or indirectly.

Under cultural relativism, women’s human rights are not granted the same weight as men’s human rights. Does that mean women are not human? Can discrimination, violence and abuse against women be a real and valid cultural tradition? Can women enjoy basic human rights and culture? Women’s equality does not have to come at the expense of culture for various reasons. First, the cultural “traditions” that is invoked by particular cultures are not apolitical, monolithic, or static. Second, the fact that almost all human rights violations are against women either directly or indirectly is not a coincidence.

Women’s rights and women in general have historically been subordinated and deemed inferior; hence their inferiority had less to do with the particular culture than it does with patriarchy. Lastly, women like men due to their humanity deserve to have both equal rights and culture. Therefore, discrimination against women is not a valid tradition; it is an international human rights violation, regardless of country, culture or tradition.

Cultural relativism fails on the assumption that all cultures are apolitical, monolithic and static. According to Abdullahi A. An-Naim, this assumption is called the politics of culture. An-Naim suggest that “culture is constantly contested in a political struggle between those who wish to legitimize their power and privilege and those who need to challenge the status quo…to realize their human dignity…”[1]

Hence, culture is political. Within cultures there are those who gain from certain cultural tradition and those who are discriminated and harmed by them. Culture cannot be assumed to be monolithic; there are those people that oppose some cultural traditions. In every culture there exist individuals or minority groups that are opposed to particular cultural traditions that are harmful and discriminatory. Therefore, to say that cultures are static and never changing would be wrong. Cultures are continuously changing in order to “offer its adherents a range of options, and seek to accommodate varying responses to its norms”[2]

It is not surprising then that women bear the brunt of discriminatory and harmful cultural traditions. Women are not in power, and the range of options is not options for women, but ways in which those in power continue to legitimize their power.

To be part of a culture is good thing, something to be proud of. Culture defines part of a person, and should not be taken away. However, those in power cannot continue to use culture to legitimize the subordination of other human beings. Women just like men, people of color, the disabled, the migrant worker, the refugee, deserve and have the right to be treated as full humans. Women’s equal rights do not have to be in opposition to culture, but it is urgent that it be in opposition to cultural relativists that believe it is “tradition” or culture that subordinates women. The particulars of a culture that claims a subordinate status of women needs to be looked at with skepticism.[3]

[1] An-Naim, Abdullahi A. (1994). State Responsibility Under International Human Rights Law to Change Religious and Customary Laws. In R. Cook (Ed.), Human Rights of Women: National and International Perspectives (pp. 167-188). Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press. (p. 173).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Mayer, Ann E. Cultural Particularism as a Bar to Women’s Rights: Reflections on the Middle Eastern Experience. In Peters, J. and Wolper, A. (Ed.), Women’s Rights, Human Rights: International Feminist Perspectives. New York: Routledge, 1995. p. 185.

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Author: Yalidy Matos (3 Articles)

Yalidy Matos

Ms. Matos is a first year PhD graduate student at Ohio State University in Political Science. Her major field is American politics, and focuses on race/ethnicity and gender politics. Ms. Matos graduated cum laude from Connecticut College with a double major in Government and Gender & Women’s Studies, and a minor in English. She wrote her undergraduate honors thesis on the implementation of two United Nations conventions (CEDAW and CERD) at the local municipal level in New York City, following in the footsteps of San Francisco’s victory. Her thesis asked how local organizations, such as non-for-profits, can be both a part of a system, that of a liberal democracy (the U.S), and do work that is simultaneously outside of that very same system. Her passion for race and gender equity led her to apply to a PhD program in Political Science, and hopes to shift consciousness around race/ethnicity and gender issues in the United States.


  • Dr.Brittney Dr.Brittney says:

    Dear Ms. Matos,

    I find your analysis to be quite intriguing and astute in many ways. In my own work, however, I have encountered African feminist scholars for instance, who defend culture and cultural practices like female genital cutting. For many of these scholars, cultural defenses provide a corrective to the imperialist impulses of many Western scholars and activists who condemn certain practices based upon a universal notion of womanhood. Part of what I’m asking is whether “human rights” is truly a pure category, unaffected by the political, cultural, or ideological? And if human rights is the way that we should go in the universal empowerment of women, how do we guard against Western imperialism?

  • Yalidy Matos Yalidy Matos says:

    Dear Dr. Brittney:

    Thank you for taking the time to reply to my article, I apologize for the delayed reply back.

    Your points are, indeed, very good ones and there are the same questions I dealt with in my undergraduate honors thesis. I theorized “human rights” by using transnational feminist work, such as Chandra Mohanty and Audre Lorde to understand the pros and cons of human rights as a term, as a praxis, and an ideology of sorts.

    Inderpal Grewal in a 1999 article “‘Women’s Rights as Human Rights’: Feminist Practices, Global Feminism and Human Rights Regimes Transnationally” provides the very same critique you’re making. Human rights in many ways is a western enterprise. In addition,has been and can be imperialistic. However, when the human rights of women, for example, is taken upon local organizations it can have a powerful effect. In the past, human rights has been used as a weapon against women’s rights, in fact it still goes on, cultural relativism being and example. Although I am not arguing for no culture or a lack of culture, but for a culture that is not defined to be contradictory to women’s rights.

    One of the ways in which we could guard against the flaws of human rights is to localize it principles and build solidarity rather than sisterhood with women, either across the nation or globally. What human rights provides is principles, and the ways in which we decide to put them into action then becomes the significant question to ask. Hence, the problem (at least for me) moves beyond the limitations of human rights as a theory (i.e. the universality of human rights–in other words deeming all “women” the same), the real decisions, and where the problems can surface is in how we decide to make human rights practical.

  • GMC262 says:

    “In the past, human rights has been used as a weapon against women’s rights, in fact it still goes on, cultural relativism being and example. Although I am not arguing for no culture or a lack of culture, but for a culture that is not defined to be contradictory to women’s rights.”

    Specifically how have human rights been used as a weapon against women’s rights?

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