When Human Rights Override Culture

by Ekua on March 8, 2013 in female travel,race/culture/identity

Culture as it pertains to travelers can be a touchy subject. Residual colonizer guilt is an enormous yet unspoken aspect of the way travelers from the so-called first world feel that they should approach the different cultures they visit. Adding to the guilt is an underlying sense of urgency about the way unique cultures seem to be rapidly fading into an increasingly homogenized world.

Out of these worries, the “good traveler” is born; the kind of traveler who goes to great lengths to be perfect on the road, the “I do as the locals do” types who never let an analytical remark about a place slip out of their mouths.

To a certain extent, it’s a noble cause. But the problem with the rules of being a “good traveler” is that they seem to be standardized for the whole big and varied world. This can easily lead to disregarding a culture’s serious issues under the guise of respecting the culture.

In particular, this mindset can be incredibly blind to women’s rights around the world. When it comes the institutionalized covering up of women (including cultures that don’t hold men accountable for their actions and insist that women are the ones responsible for their safety by dressing “appropriately”) and barring women from certain activities or going to certain places, it’s incomprehensible that so many people—including women who would never stand for that at home—enable it with the line, “It’s just their culture!”

But behind what we see and experience as travelers is likely a much worse scenario for the women who have to live with it every day of their lives and have no set date to leave. As travelers, we only see the outermost layers of institutionalized or accepted oppression and violence towards women, and we have the privilege of knowing we will eventually hop on a plane and leave.

Of course, I don’t recommend that you put yourself in harm’s way by disregarding local customs when you travel, and don’t think that you alone can show up change things. But rethink the way you talk about oppressive cultural norms in your discussions and your travel writing. Don’t be afraid to be honest and call oppression what it is. And think about who you’re really empowering when you say, “It’s just their culture!” Are you supporting the true heart of a culture or a patriarchal establishment that wishes to maintain its power?

Culture is not a stagnant thing that we should expect to infinitely continue as it is. Culture can be many beautiful things–art, music, food, a different way of interacting with people. It absolutely does not have to be oppressive. And as Desmond Tutu eloquently states in this video, traditions were created by humans, and they can always be changed by humans:

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Mindy and Ligeia March 9, 2013 at 12:19 am

VERY interesting post and one that has caused us to think a lot! Gloria Steinem shocked the world when she responded in this exact way towards female circumcision and thus such a debate began. We have had this dilemma as well concerning the atrocities we have seen against women, animals, children and many other groups. It’s hard not to do something when you see a child being beaten in the street for example, presumably by a parent. Is that just their culture? And so what if it is? Does that suddenly negate the abuse that you witness and label it as “ok”? After all, there are parts of our culture that we also think is wrong. Racism is still a big problem in N. America and if someone were to visit the States for example and after witnessing a racist event, would they simply say, “oh, that’s just their culture”? God, I hope not! I don’t want that to be part of our culture and perhaps some of the people in each country we visit also feel the same way about the discrimination we are witnessing.
Another point is that sometimes something can seem like discrimination because we are looking at it from our cultural point of view and yet the reality is something else. I once attended an Ojibwe social gathering in Toronto and saw that only men were in the center playing the drum there and the women’s group was off to the side. With my US-American eyes I saw discrimination because I assumed that the center was more important as it is in our culture and “off to the side” shows disrespect. I also saw this as “women were not allowed in the center”. A few months later I learned about the history of the drum in Objibwe culture and the result of the story is that the women invented the drum to end war and they felt that the men needed this more (to stamp out the warrior spirit) and so they pushed them to the center so they could better feel the power of the drum and women surrounding them.
We both really enjoyed this post and enjoy your blog in general very much. Thanks for sharing. :)


Ekua March 14, 2013 at 11:30 pm

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. There are definitely a lot of details to nitpick at when you start to look at various cultural festivities and all, but as I wrote this, I had broader oppression toward females in mind. That’s good point about a scenario in which people came from abroad and condoned racism at home. While writing this post, it crossed my mind that people are willing to speak frankly about other country’s race issues, but hesitate when it comes to women’s issues. It’s interesting to start thinking about why that it!


phil March 10, 2013 at 3:24 am

Thoughtful (and important) post, Ekua. I think something that travelers who say “it’s just their culture” also need to realize is that in almost every part of the world there are people there who are fighting to change certain aspects of that culture. It’s fairly evident now that NGO’s that focus on human rights do their most effective work when they partner with locals who are already working on the same goal. So these travelers need to ask themselves what they are actually saying when they remark “it’s their culture” if there are people in that same culture fighting to change it.


Ekua March 14, 2013 at 11:47 pm

Thanks, Phil. Very true. And to add to that, it’s important to remember that the loudest and most prevalent voices that set the tone for the way a traveler understands a country may not be the only voices. There may be ideas and feelings bubbling below the surface that travelers don’t hear because they don’t have access to that information or the people who feel that way may not have a way to share their side of things. For example, when I was in India, I often read stories about women’s issues in the paper or in magazines, but the overall way it was written was as a new story or as this is my life as a woman, but that’s just the way it is. So last year when I saw coverage of the massive crowds protesting against rape culture, it blew my mind, but also made sense. That mindset didn’t just come out of nowhere overnight, it was brewing for awhile before it demanded to be heard.


Aurora March 14, 2013 at 7:18 am

Super thought-provoking (thanks!). It seems to be that there is a careful balance between the ‘I’m right and know better’ and the ‘this is your culture so I will look the other way’. To me, where I strive to find that balance is through knowing as much as I can about a culture, about a place. And then, where are the corners I can push and tug at? Who are the people and organizations I can support? And what is an important, big deal versus something that is different from my culture? (For example, being more covered up in India and Nepal than, say, South America or the US).

Thanks for these important thoughts, especially in times when people are still questioning whether women can/should travel solo.


Ekua March 15, 2013 at 12:10 am

Thanks for chiming in. I’d it’s say less about being right and more about what is right and just. I can’t help but think: Why is it okay for me to have less rights or accept that I’ll be treated more poorly as a woman in another country than I would be at home? Why do I have the right to ask for equality simply because of the country I was born in while others are relegated to a life of oppression because they were born within some other lines colonialists drew?

As I mentioned in the post, things that look like they may not be a big deal are often just the most explicit part of oppression. Beyond them you may find stories of bride burnings, gang rape, and women feeling obligated to abort their female babies (leading to the problematic event of way too men and not so many women which cycles back into some of the other issues). The consequences of any culture (rich or poor, across races, religions, etc.) dictating that women should cover themselves up because of men are actually huge. It tells a society that men are not responsible, have no control over themselves and that women need to cover up so that they are safe.

I wouldn’t give up traveling solo and will always be cautious on the road even if I disagree with the culture’s ideas on women. I just think we will get a lot further if people speak up for people regardless of country lines. Humans first, culture second. The world is irrevocably intermixed at this point and maybe it’s time to change the way we are fearful of that. Any culture could probably learn something from another while still maintaining its identity and own unique flavor… the world is big.


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