Sundlee ’16: Cultures of hatred

Opinions Editor

Indonesian female police recruits are being forced to undergo virginity tests, the Guardian reported Tuesday. Not only is this process humiliating, it also leaves these women in pain. This is yet another example of gendered violence based on cultural values. Indonesian culture is patriarchal and prizes virginity, therefore infringing on the human rights of women.

In the modern world of colliding cultures, there are few tensions more salient than that between cultural relativism and human rights. While it is necessary to consider an individual as a member of a social group, individual rights must be respected over group rights.

This is because the individuals who stand to suffer most from a cultural relativist regime would inevitably be women and children. While I come from a Western background and have been primed to accept the language of human rights, I believe such rights’ fundamental basis is applicable to all peoples, regardless of their cultural origin. The language of human rights has certainly been exploited to justify invasions and improper interventions. But cultural relativism has been used to justify inaction and indifference in the face of injustice.

I suspect that invocations of cultural relativism are all too often an excuse for misogyny, or at least an excuse for patriarchal societies. Violent or coercive attitudes toward women in patriarchal societies can never be excused by cultural relativist explanations, and active steps to prevent such oppression are imperative. In today’s atmosphere of political correctness, it is essential to distinguish polite acceptance from blind apathy, and to fight for the rights of those who have been disenfranchised and abused.

Human rights are the only metric by which to ensure some measure of equal treatment for all people worldwide because they serve as a balancing force for other controlling bodies, including culture. As soon as cultural forces become overtly coercive or violate bodily autonomy, they cross a line of acceptability.

Perhaps it is some kind of perverse coping mechanism to explain the debasement of half the population as part of a culture, instead of viewing it as pure acts of violence that can be halted.

In a more extreme example, many beleaguered aid workers in the Congo have come to see rape as a cultural force, rather than a violent act of war. Lisa Shannon, a veteran aid worker in the Congo, wrote for the New York Times on how the war greatly increased the incidence of rape. The use of rape as a tactic was left unchecked, and therefore the problem was exacerbated. Here we see the consequences of accepting violence as part of a culture. It legitimizes the aggressors and silences the victims. We see this same phenomenon in many Middle Eastern societies. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is lauded as a reformer for making minute gestures towards women’s liberation. Meanwhile, women continue to be treated as second-class citizens, with their movements entirely controlled by men. It has become accepted that women in these countries will be, in Western eyes, mistreated. Because this is accepted by the international community, it is perpetuated.

Violence against women is the product of a society plagued with misogyny. This is not to suggest that oppression of women is not present in the Western world. It most certainly is — though perhaps more often in what appear to us to be less overt forms. I have already discussed more extreme examples of the ways in which culture can be a force for evil, but it is also worth addressing its more subtle influences.

Western women’s desires for labiaplasties is indicative of how patriarchal cultures undermine regard for natural bodies through debilitating gender binaries. These procedures are no more acceptable than those of genital cutting in places like Sierra Leone. In these cases, it is sometimes the individual’s choice to undergo changes. But can one really make the argument that without societal pressures, many of these people would still feel the need to permanently alter their flesh in dangerous fashions? How precious is culture when it impels us to potentially mutilate that which is meant to give pleasure? Perhaps many would find this view too idealistic, but it seems logical that any cultural force that infringes on innate personal preferences regarding sexuality or physicality should be considered suspect and potentially insidious. The point is not that other cultures should assimilate with our own. The point is that all cultures should not subjugate and shame those who do not conform to manufactured and baseless gender expectations.

All individuals should have the right to make their own choices and be entitled to bodily autonomy. We should all have the right to break from our culture and criticize it openly if it suits us. It can be tempting to chalk up acts of violence and injustice like virginity tests to simple cultural differences. It is easy to dismiss drastic procedures with complex and questionable social underpinnings as simple self-esteem boosters. Such conclusions are far too shallow. Instead, we need to dissect our societal values to find which are rooted in hate, and then banish these traits. We have a conception of culture as being an inherently positive force. It is who we are and where we come from. But we must remember that culture is not sacrosanct. When a culture embraces hatred, it must be reformed.


Robyn Sundlee ’16 can be reached at 

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  1. While I overall agree with this article, I think it’s missing a slight nuance – the religious argument. One of the major “clashes of cultures” is that of Western ideals and the ideals of Islam as espoused in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. It cannot be denied that this abhorrent virginity test exists because of the importance of chastity/virginity (as it relates to a woman’s honor) in Islam. The vile practice of FGM is one that occurs in primarily Muslim societies. So why is the author afraid to mention Islam as a possible cultural factor that needs addressing?

    Note: I am not trying to generalize the religion of Islam – I understand that Muslims are not a monolith and possess myriad different viewpoints and experiences. That is why I pointed to Muslim societies in the Middle East (e.g. Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan), Africa (e.g. Somalia), and South/Southeast Asia (e.g. Pakistan and Indonesia). My knowledge of the prevailing attitudes in these countries comes from a 2013 Pew Survey entitled “The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society.” I highly encourage individuals to read it.

  2. This article is the reason why cultural relativism exists. Cherry picking cultural practices, thinking in (Western) dialectic terms (everything is oppressor and oppressed), and beleaguering the role of violence (surprise! violence exists in every culture, and always has) in order to tell people in non-Western countries what they should be doing. Human rights is certainly a Western concept in origin, and while I mostly agree with it personally, it’s not my place to try to force it on anyone. Also, please explain to me what a “natural body” is, and why it’s better than an “unnatural” one. Do you have pierced ears? Plates or screws in your bones? Vaccines in your blood? Implants in your teeth? People have been altering their bodies (and their environment for that matter) for as long as we’ve been a species; it’s one of the things that defines us. Are men who get hair plugs, or plastic surgery of their own victims of the patriarchy as well? You really jump the shark with the labiaplasties comment, and your statement that people should be free to ignore or stand up against a culture demonstrates your complete lack of understanding as to what culture is, or how social norms work. “We have a conception of culture as being an inherently positive force…” Culture is never good or bad, only adaptive or mal-adaptive, and moreover what is “positive” varies from culture to culture as well. That’s the point of a culture. You are also conflating moral relativism and cultural relativism. Take an anthropology course, live among people who are different than you (preferably abroad) or do some actual reading before you pretend to know what you’re talking about.

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