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Protecting women’s rights over cultural rights

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at KCL chapter.

In the Manifesto for Migrant Feminism which was written in 2016 in Rome, Italy, there is a feminist call to defend women’s rights over cultural rights. The Manifesto was written in the context of the mass migration of displaced peoples to Europe, which brought together people of different races, cultural backgrounds, and religions. Even in a culture of tolerance and acceptance of differences, there should be an awareness that some cultures and faith groups have more regressive attitudes towards women than others, which manifests as misogynistic practices and rituals. It is not good enough to turn a blind eye to misogyny in the interest of ‘respecting different cultures and faiths’ because it harms the women who are on the receiving end. The manifesto states rightfully how “male violence against women has no colour, no religion, no culture – it crosses all patriarchal societies because it needs to maintain the power imbalance between men and women”. This seems to suggest that male violence and patriarchy are not exclusive to a single culture or faith group, but rather a universal experience that any woman can be acquainted with. It goes on to state how “today we suffer the consequences of neutral anti-racist policies which have been favouring cultural rights over women’s rights, strengthening the patriarchate within some migrant communities”. This seems to suggest how campaigning for cultural rights rather than women’s rights allows patriarchy and misogyny to flourish in some migrant communities because there’s no one from the outside holding them accountable for their actions. As a result, this manifesto encourages Gender Interculturalism which stresses the protection of women’s rights and individual liberties.

The sad reality is that some women need protection from regressive cultural practices, but sometimes this is not possible for them due to two main reasons. The general ignorance in some European countries about the condition of women in ethnic minority communities, their practices, and beliefs. And secondly, the desire for European people to not entangle themselves in anything that they perceive as ‘foreign’ in fear that they might be perceived as racist by those in that ethnic group. Although the responsibility to condemn harmful cultural practices should be on those who are part of the community, people on the outside still have a duty to stand by those who are being harmed. In the United Kingdom, misogynistic practices within the South Asian community have been systemically ignored by those in power and by the British public in favour of multiculturalism and respecting different cultures. This emphasis on cultural rights makes it difficult for women who are being harmed by cultural practices to speak up and receive the help they need. Because these women are not speaking up, it creates a gap in knowledge which means that networks of support and help, such as the police and social workers, are not equipped to deal with ethnic issues, or sometimes aren’t even aware of the issues in the first place. If teachers were made aware of forced marriages, they would take prolonged absences of South Asian female students more seriously. If police officers understood the importance that some South Asian families place on izzat (which translates to honour), a concept sometimes considered to be ruined if a woman leaves her abusive marriage, appears overly westernised, or has a boyfriend— all offences sometimes only redeemable by death— instances where girls are either missing from school, work, or have told police reporting that their family will kill them, would be taken more seriously.

The main question I have is: why is criticism of a sexist practice in a minority community conflated with racism and prejudice? Misogynistic men who don’t want their behaviour to be criticized will use the excuse of racial prejudice to keep others silent, but we should know better than this. By pretending that sexism does not run rampant in these communities, or even refusing to acknowledge these issues, you are giving the men a free pass to misogyny. According to statistical analysis, violence against women tends to be perpetrated by men from their same ethnic background, so white men overwhelmingly abuse white women, and Asian men overwhelmingly abuse Asian women. If you wouldn’t accept sexist behaviour from your own men, why is it okay for men from different ethnic backgrounds to behave in that way? We must hold all men to a higher standard of behaviour regardless of their ethnicity.

A third-year History student who enjoys studying women and gender, I'm also deeply interested in culture and religion. When I'm not watching YouTube, I enjoy reading books, cooking, talking walks in the park, trying to keep my plants alive, getting lifestyle and outfit inspiration from Pinterest and pursing creative endeavours.