'Culture' clash: the law, women's rights and real-world solutions

When culture trumps law to undermine women's rights, new forms of culture can help women in the struggle for equality. Marion Bowman reports from the first day of the Trust Women conference in London  

Marion Bowman
5 December 2012

‘We’re not asking for 20,000 laws. We are asking for one constitutional law – just one, which says that men and women are equal in their rights and responsibilities’. This quotation from Tunisian human rights activist Amira Yahyaoui had a prominent place in the short video that opened the two day Trust Women conference being held in London December 4-5. With 300 plus delegates from 28 countries there to seek inspiration, solutions, debate and action on putting the rule of law behind women’s rights, that ‘one constitutional law’ seemed to be the common ground all could find.

But, however important this basic point, nothing could be that simple in the real world of politics and campaigning. A diverse succession of speakers throughout the first day of the conference testified to some of the challenges and obstacles on the road to implementing the reforms that would guarantee equal rights for women in both law and practice.

The main problem?  ‘Culture’. The quotes marks, used by the conference organisers, are critical to the point being made, that culture, and its sub-set ‘ traditional values’, are made by people – man-made, even – and so must be challenged and changed if they work to deny women freedom and equality.

Keynote speaker Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, asked the question of the day. ‘Which culture should law follow? For example, in some countries polygamy is part of culture. There is the question then of whether the law should follow that sort of culture. The answer is definitely no.’

Delegates heard speakers’ testimony, often harrowing, about the effects of ‘culture’ on women. ‘These are examples of how culture trumps law every single day,’ said Alison Smale, the Executive Editor of the International Herald Tribune, one of the organisers, with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, of the conference. The male guardianship system in Muslim countries, forced marriage and bride slaves, female genital mutilation, acid attacks on wives by husbands and their relatives: all recorded in countries that are parties to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

So the conference heard that despite international treaties and national constitutions and laws,  5,000 women are murdered in ‘honour’ killings a year, 1,500 women suffer acid attacks a year, in African countries three million girls a year are subject to female genital cutting (FGC), and there are 10,000 forced marriages or threats of forced marriage a year in the UK.

Nazir Afzal, the Chief Crown Prosecutor in the North West of England, told the conference: ‘Laws are never enough. You need to enforce them, and attitudes are key to this.’ Kevin Bales, co-founder of Free the Slaves, said that the highest rates of slavery and forced marriage are in countries that have dual legal systems – where both formal national laws and tribal law or customs apply. ‘National law can make certain practices illegal,’ said Bales,’ but tribal law is what happens’. Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, a journalist and filmmaker, said that in Pakistan, the constitution enshrines certain rights, but ‘the family and community define who you are’.

Breaking taboos is often the first step to bring national laws, constitutions and ‘culture’, recognised by many speakers as the patriarchal and political control of women by men, into line with international standards of human rights. Mercy Chidi, of Kenya’s Ripples International, spoke of the difficulty of bringing the sexual abuse of girls as young as three within families into the open because of the taboo on talking about sexuality itself. And yet, as Fiona Sampson has written on openDemocracy, it is in Kenya that a coalition of social workers, lawyers and funders are now making legal history with the ‘160 girls’ case. They are accusing Kenyan police of discrimination for their failure to protect girls from rape. The case is a compelling example of both the gap between law and practice and the ways in which activists are exposing such betrayals of women’s rights and working through both the culture and law to close the gap.

Nowhere was the debate about the law/culture gap more pointed than in the focus of the conference on the 'Arab spring'.  The succession of revolutions and unrest that began last year in Tunisia then followed in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria brought women onto the streets and into civil society and political discourse as never before. But the early aspirations of women are foundering as the political processes evolve. ‘The situation in Egypt is really alarming,’ said Dina Wahba. Her fellow panellists from Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Libya all agreed that it was crucial to get women involved in the processes of writing new constitutions which are at risk of incorporating the religious – and usually conservative - influences of Shar'ia law.  A referendum is being held in Egypt on December 15th, but, said Wahba, ‘with no equality provisions the constitution does not meet any of the aspirations of the revolution ‘.  It only allows for women’s equality with men if it does not conflict with Shar'ia law. Shar'ia law is behind the only partial acceptance by Arab countries of CEDAW - numerous reservations have been registered because of issues like equality within marriage.

Minky Worden, Director of Global Initiatives at Human Rights Watch, said ‘We are at a pivotal moment for several countries, and for women and girls in particular, where these new constitutions are being written’. A clause in Tunisia’s first draft constitution defined women as second class citizens. It has now been dropped. In Libya, which has not had a constitution since 1951, there is a debate underway on how to create the committee of 60 people who will draft a new constitution by next spring. Should the 60 be selected by the 200 members of parliament elected this year, who are overwhelmingly men with a strong representation by Islamists, or a general election? There is no likelihood of a quota of women being agreed, yet according to Alaa Murabit, founder of the Voice of Libyan Women, ‘it is 100 percent understood that Shar'ia will be either a source, or the main source’ for the new constitution. ‘Excluding Shar'ia is not part of the dialogue,’ she said.

Sussan Tahmasebi, co-founder of the International Civil Society Action Network, said the problem was that when the legal framework allowed for Shar'ia to be taken into account, it usually led to conservative interpretations, especially for women. And it becomes sacred. ‘Changing the constitution as society progresses becomes problematic. You can be accused of heresy,’ she said. The answer for her was to work for international standards of human rights. ‘These are not Western standards. They are for everyone.  And because people who target women’s rights do so specifically, so we need to as well, to guarantee these rights specifically.’

While the detailed politics of these constitutional struggles play out across the Arab wolrd, there is clear concern that the battle against Shar'ia may be lost. ‘We are dealing with very short deadlines,’ said Sussan Tahmasebi. ‘But if we get constitutions with Shar'ia law and conservative interpretations of Shar'ia, we will keep fighting’.

When the moment came to agree some points for future action, Tahmasebi was answered with a creative thought from another conference delegate: ‘The time has come for women to interpret the Qu'ran – we can give a prize for the best one.’  As other delegates had urged, when culture trumps law to cancel out women’s rights, sometimes the best strategy in response is to find new forms of cultural activity. Culture, just as much as law, can be made by women.  That might provide a better answer to Shirin Ebadi’s scene-setting question ‘Which culture should law follow?’

Read more articles on openDemocracy 50.50 on the themes at the Trust Women conference





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