Sunday, March 27, 2011

Gender and Cultural Relativity

On International Women’s Day, I published a post questioning, “What is Gender.” Not surprisingly, it had amongst the most hits of any post, yet it also had the fewest comments. Actually, only one comment was left, and again it was an observation made by Kate Meakin who is researching Fair Trade in India. When I first read her commentary, I was inclined to post a comment of my own in response. However, I decided to sit this one out and see what becomes of it; to see if there are any others who have something to add in relation to the post itself or to address her comment. 

No one said anything. At first this bothered me a bit, but it reflects the depth of questioning I was bringing to the surface by asking readers to examine their own perceptions and even challenge what has seldom been confronted: Our own social constructs surrounding gender that we hold so dear as to never question them.

Kate wrote: “Hi, another interesting post. 

From my stay in Kerala I have had mixed feelings about the role of women in the Kerala society. Despite it being a very educated and forward thinking place, the family set up is still very traditional and this means the wife is there to serve the family (family meaning her husband's parents, along with her husband and children and possibly other family members too).

I've stayed with a few families where this was the set up and the first thing to say is they were very happy families. I guess it's the divide between Western thinking which values personal freedom above all else, to 'Eastern' thinking which has a more collective outlook. In this way if you look at it from the point of view of the family then one family member being there to serve the rest makes sense. Whereas if you look at from the point of view of the value of the woman and her personal freedom then it isn't acceptable.

When you dip into another culture it absolutely makes you realise how cultural gender roles are”.

As a researcher, I appreciated the directness and honesty of her observation followed by a reflection on culture. Again, this is where some believe the conversation ends – it is a cultural issue and there it belongs. End of inquiry, move on. 

The relevance of culture is often used as a justification to support the status quo. However, is it right? What happens in the case when this justification becomes a barrier in the life of women in society, or worse, evolves into the deliberate killing of an unborn child simply because of a social construct? 

In the case Kate brings up, you can readily site another statistic related to gender. offers a definition that needs to be taken into account: "Female infanticide is the intentional killing of baby girls due to the preference for male babies and from the low value associated with the birth of females." As the website name implies, the link presents case studies of gendercide in India and China. 

In the case of India, reports, "According to census statistics, 'From 972 females for every 1,000 males in 1901 ... the gender imbalance has tilted to 929 females per 1,000 males. ... In the nearly 300 poor hamlets of the Usilampatti area of Tamil Nadu [state], as many as 196 girls died under suspicious circumstances [in 1993] ... Some were fed dry, unhulled rice that punctured their windpipes, or were made to swallow poisonous powdered fertilizer. Others were smothered with a wet towel, strangled or allowed to starve to death.'" 

Current Human Rights Fact:  
Approximately 6.2% of potential female births are aborted in India because ultrasound reveals the sex. That’s 480,000 per year (read the source for yourself). Does this sound like a happy family environment Kate describes? A family which would equally welcome baby girls and baby boys into the world? If a girl were born it would seem a time for celebration in India, after all, doesn’t a family need another indentured servant to make their home a happy one? The study seems to suggest otherwise. 

Now let’s ask that pertinent question: “Why?”

Indian culture has constructed a worldview in which women in society belonging in the household, not because they are biologically predisposed to care-taking and housework, but because of the gender role girls are expected to fill when they become women. From the day of birth this predestined role is repeatedly pounded into their minds as an unshakeable destiny; it is their fate and as such it is not to be questioned. To question your destiny is akin to questioning the religious belief systems of your ancestors, your family, your community and society as you know it. “Accept your fate, woman, this is a man’s world” continues to be a phrase women have heard the world over, not just in India.  

Another factor for this repeated theme in India is the dowry system embraced by Indian culture. What is a dowry? identifies this as a core issue and contributing factor to the female infanticide occurring in India. 

Dowry is described as an institution "in which the family of a prospective bride must pay enormous sums of money to the family in which the woman will live after marriage. Though formally outlawed, the institution is still pervasive." also sites a prominent researcher in the field, "Bias against females in India is related to the fact that 'Sons are called upon to provide the income; they are the ones who do most of the work in the fields. In this way sons are looked to as a type of insurance. With this perspective, it becomes clearer that the high value given to males decreases the value given to females. The combination of dowry and wedding expenses usually add up to more than a million rupees ([US] $35,000). In India the average civil servant earns about 100,000 rupees ($3,500) a year. Given these figures combined with the low status of women, it seems not so illogical that the poorer Indian families would want only male children." (Porras, "Female Infanticide and Foeticide".)

In a March 4, 2010, edition of The Economist, there is an article titled, The Worldwide War on Baby Girls: Technology, declining fertility and ancient prejudice are combining to unbalance societies. The article describes ads by Indian medical practitioners, “Doctors in India started advertising ultrasound scans with the slogan “Pay 5,000 rupees ($110) today and save 50,000 rupees tomorrow” (the saving was on the cost of a daughter’s dowry). Parents who wanted a son, but balked at killing baby daughters, chose abortion in their millions." The Economist even cites a common Hindu saying used to justify the selective abortion of a female fetus, “Raising a daughter is like watering your neighbours’ garden.”  

Here is another comprehensive report on the abortion of female fetuses aired on 14 April, 2011 on National Public Radio!

Within the Indian social construct, it would seem that culture is an unchangeable force that has remained the same for millenniums and is not subject to change anytime soon, as many defenders of the status quo would have you believe. However, I can prove to you that culture can change, and it can change rapidly at that! 

Reach into your pocket, your purse, or your handbag and there is probably a cellular phone. This handy little invention has changed the culture of communication! Within a span of just a few years it seems as though everyone owns this handheld marvel, and with this instant communication has come a change in social courtesies on how we contact people and address each other; it has redefined politeness in public places; and in some cases, has made rude behaviors acceptable, or in other cases, society has legislated when and where people are forbidden to communicate with this device (i.e. driving and texting). It has even redefined our language in its written form, to include sentence structures.

Culture is not an unchangeable force; it is not a solid that has remained the same for generations. Culture does change; it is like a fluid or a gel that can adapt to changes in its form without losing its consistency. Culture is much more flexible than those who cling to Cultural Relativity would have you believe.  If things were as they say, women would not have the right to vote and enslaved black men, would still be considered 3/5 of a human being as declared in the U.S. Constitution (Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3). This alone indisputably proves that culture can change, and that men and women can be recognized for their humanity.

Some readers may feel that my blog post is focusing on India too much. Ok, we can look elsewhere in current events; real current as a matter of fact.

Have you ever thought to inquire
about news reports, and what happens
following a reported event?

On International Women's Day, the same day I posted the article asking What is Gender?, there was a protest in Egypt. On March 9th, the CS Monitor published an article titled, In Egypt's Tahrir Square, Women Attacked at Rally on International Women's Day. I encourage you to read the article for yourself. The women were protesting because despite the fact the women consist of half of the Egyptian population, "The military council ruling the country until new elections are held failed to appoint a single woman to the committee tasked with drafting constitutional amendments." As they raised their voices to address this deliberate effort to exclude women from a democratic process, the women were violently attacked by adherents of Cultural Relativity.

The CS Monitor reporter quotes one protester, “'We fought side by side with men during the revolution, and now we’re not represented,' said Passat Rabie, a young woman who came with friends, after men aggressively dispersed the protest. 'I thought Egypt was improving, that it was becoming a better country. If it’s changing in a way that’s going to exclude women, then what’s the point? Where’s the democracy?'”

The reporter added, "But almost immediately, they were outnumbered and beset upon by men who gathered. Some of the men were from the protesters' encampment in the middle of the square.

Dozens of women engaged in arguments with the men, who said that women had enough rights already; ...Some of the men were polite; many were aggressive. Soon, a large group gathered in front of the protest, shouting it down with insults. A sheikh from Al Azhar was hoisted on mens’ shoulders, chanting against the women.

“Go home, go wash clothes,” yelled some of the men. “You are not married; go find a husband.” Others said, “This is against Islam.” To the men demonstrating with the women, they yelled “Shame on you!”

Suddenly, the men decided the women had been there long enough. Yelling, they rushed aggressively upon the protest, pushing violently through the rows of women. The women scattered."

This report is another shameful example of cultural relativity. Unfortunately it got worse and this is why I decided to make this post on Gender and Cultural Relativity: 

Today I receive an email from Amnesty International:

Tortured. Humiliated. Forced to take so-called 'virginity tests' by the Egyptian military.
Investigate forced 'virginity testing' of Egyptian women protesters.

Dear Mitch,

The Egyptian military may have just hit a disturbing, new low: at least 18 women who were arrested during a peaceful protest in Tahrir Square on March 9 said they were forced to take "virginity tests".

Those women were threatened with charges of prostitution if they "failed" the tests. One woman, who said she was a virgin but whose test supposedly proved otherwise, was beaten and given electric shocks.

Make no doubt about it, this constitutes torture. The purpose of this test is to degrade women because they are women. This treatment is unacceptable.

Demand that Egyptian officials investigate the allegations and stop this shocking and degrading treatment of women protesters. Call on Secretary Clinton to use her influence to demand immediate action.

Twenty-year-old Salwa Hosseini told Amnesty interviewers that she was subjected to strip searches while male soldiers watched and took pictures. 

These allegations fuel rising concerns that women, who were at the forefront of the protests that led to President Mubarak's resignation, are being forced into the background in the development of a new Egypt.

The protests that began on January 25th did not occur so that Egypt could replace the shocking and degrading behavior by one regime with that of another.

Egyptian women will not be left behind. They stood up then to demand an end to the repression. We stand with them now to demand justice.

In Solidarity,

Geoffrey Mock
Country Specialist, Egypt
Amnesty International USA
If you are reading this blog, 
         I invite you to join me in taking action!


Fair Trade is more than a business model, more than an ethical approach to providing opportunity to disadvantaged communities, and more than a movement committed to trade justice. Fair Trade is a movement committed to Social Justice and Social Change! As Fair Trade supporters we need to understand not only what the principle of Gender Equity represents, but what it stands against. 


Mitch Teberg, MA

For those who prefer reading black on white, here is the downloadable PDF format: 
Gender and Cultural Relativity