Human Rights vs. Cultural Rights

A few days ago Lorenz from an  anthropologi blog commented on a Pakistani, female anthropologist named Samar Minallah. This woman has spent her career helping raise awareness for human rights issues in her own country despite the enormous gender discrimination that pervades her country.  In the interview  Minallah spoke about a tradition in Pukhtun culture, which is a people group located in the northwest part of the country. Swara is the name of this tradition and it entails the exchanging of underage girls to settle feuds between families. These girls are subject to verbal, physical, and emotion abuse and sometimes even die for the families sake. Minallah talks in the article about how these brutal actions most likely stemmed from a well meaning tradition, and still today the girls being given are told they will be peacemakers between the two families.

I was listening to a lecture today in an anthropology class about the difference between human rights and cultural rights. This blog made me think about the lecture I was listening to earlier and really examine what was happening in this Pukhtun tradition. The whole thing is obviously a violation of human rights. The Pakistani government has even recently upped the punishment for such crimes. This makes me wonder how many times in our own history we have covered up clear human rights violations with mentally labeling them (if not verbalizing it) as cultural rights or norms. A few stand out for sure…

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3 Responses

  1. This type of situation is a real question for many people who look at anthropology, especially at traditions like the swara. There are many other different rites of passage that may be considered as violating human rights, like female circumcision. regarding the swara, it reminds me a little of royalty marriages during the middle ages, where marriages between people would signify a truce or alliance, even between enemies. I wonder if the swara is always a negative experience, is the reason why this is considered a violation of human rights because of a few well publicized cases?

    Generally I am more in favor of cultural rights as opposed to human rights, especially of cultures that try and disassociate from western culture.

  2. Going back to the discussion we had in class about female circumcision (aka mutilation) that is happening in some middle-eastern countries, I think that human rights should always come before cultural rights.

    Why would it matter whether a specific culture tries to disassociate from western culture? There is a tendency to criticize the West, even when the alternatives undermine human rights… Not everything in the “Western culture,” whatever that may be, is negative.

    “Cultural preservation” is a made-up concept, if we consider that each culture changes and mutates along with its social environment.

  3. Sometimes I wonder if the tendency to criticize the West, “western culture”, is a result of our tendency to impose our values on other cultures as being better than the alternatives. As much as I may believe that to be the case, the point I am conscious of is that my viewpoint is very blatently ethnocentric.

    When it comes to “human rights”, it seems as though they are imposed in some form or another, because there is no across the board agreement on what human rights are and who decides. Therefore, no matter what our intention is, the rights that we say all humans are entitled too are often going to be forced on one culture by another, leaving those who are being imposed upon to likely feel angry and critical towards those who are un/intentionally disempowering them nad undermining their culture (the West).

    The dynamism of culture doesn’t remove the ability for the members of said culture to consciously attempt preservation or focus on aspects of their culture that they feel strongly about “preserving”. This unified act of consciously opposing the assimilating forces in an effort to remain distinct (or to simply preserve cultural creations like language, art, and rituals) can also be seen as culture revitalization (which may sound like less of an oxymoron than “cultural preservation”).

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