On Culture and Gender Inequality

No matter what side of the political and social spectrum you stand on, one of the most difficult conversations to be had is about what to do when cultures are disempowering certain people or groups of people. The one trap of development that nobody wants to fall into is of course cultural imperialism- we are not here to tell you what a right or a wrong way to live a life is. However, that does not mean we should let certain practices slide just because they are parts of a culture.

The first thing to reexamine is culture itself. While we might see them as immovable, solid entities, cultures have not just appeared one day with practices and customs set in stone. People have put the practices, rituals and norms in place; people, who were more often than not in a position of power they used to make their own lives easier and to justify their own desires and gather more power. The reasoning “it has always been done this way” is false: it started being done this way when someone with privilege decided it should be done this way. Many people who belong to a certain group governed by certain culture have been excluded from that decision making process and learned to adapt to stay part of the community. Those are first and foremost women - who have traditionally been excluded from decision-making outside of the home - but also all other minorities: people with disabilities, trans people, homosexuals, religious minorities etc. Unpacking this is important for the development sector because it allows us to look at who is dominating the narrative and who is excluded from the narrative. As Blackburn (2003) said, “It is bad that people suffer, and worse if a culture turns a blind eye to their suffering.”

After unpacking the narrative around culture, the second question that arises is whether or not we can judge a certain act or practice as right or wrong. A lot of liberal activists take a very strict stance that right and wrong are culturally relative and there is no way to make a moral judgment. However, whose word are we taking for when we decide to take an act at its face value? If an elder in a community tells us female genital mutilation is not wrong because it is a part of the culture, do we take their word over a thousand voices of women saying they have suffered because of the practice? Avoiding cultural imperialism does not mean we lose our ability to distinguish right from wrong. The only way to avoid falling into a trap of either doing nothing or doing too much is by including a variety of voices into the decision making process.

Any intervention, strategy or activity we plan has to be culturally sensitive, but never deepen or provoke more suffering of those whose voices are silenced. We can objectively see inequalities as morally wrong, but how we address those issues within a specific cultural context is what distinguishes a successful intervention from a non-successful one. Our experience has shown that partnering with grassroots organizations and initiatives at all stages of project planning is a great way of bringing a variety of perspectives to the table.  Often times grassroots movements have a much better understanding of the nature of inequalities that we are dealing with as well as what the stakeholders themselves actually want to achieve. Do not go blindly into a project thinking that either you or the “culture” know best for the people you are trying to help- respect them enough to trust them.

Tena Pick