Universal Rights and Cultural Relativism

Hinduism and Islam Deconstructed

By
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Universal Rights and Cultural Relativism : Hinduism and Islam Deconstructed - Catherine E. Polisi

Should nations or individuals have authority to use culture as a basis for justification of human rights abuses? This question has long clouded the universality of human rights law and speaks to the often-complicated nature of defining and condemning human rights violations in a world of many religions, nationalities, values, and cultures. Cultural relativist arguments have often been used to jus­tify even the most severe human rights abuses around the world. My objective in this essay is to begin to deconstruct the issue of cultural relativism as it applies to human rights law and show how it is used as a tool for promoting the degradation and marginalization of women in Hindu and Islamic societies. I will briefly highlight human rights violations committed against women in Hindu and Islamic cultures such as physical and verbal abuse, dowry killings, gender-biased laws, forced prostitution, female trafficking, lack of access to education, exclusion from participation in government, unfair court proceed­ings, and pre-menarche marriage, and argue that these violations have no cultural justification.

Although human rights abuses toward women are often justified on the grounds of Hindu and Muslim religious teachings and scriptures, in fact, the original, authoritative scriptures of both reli­gions hold women in equal respect to men. I will utilize Hindu pas­sages from the Vedas, the Upanishads, and the Mahabharata and Muslim passages from the Qur 'an to present the argument that when these two religions began in 3000 B.C. and 610 AD., respectively, women were considered an essential part of the community, the fam­ily unit and religion. The tremendous gender bias that exists today in Islamic and Hindu cultures does not reflect the original interpreta­tions of the scriptures, but rather subsequent male interpretations of these texts.

Contrary to current beliefs in many Hindu and Muslim cul­tures, women were integral parts of daily religious rituals and were employed as religious philosophers alongside their male counterparts. They are described in the scriptures as "equal partners" to their hus­bands and were educated in the religious texts when these religions first began. If male religious interpretations have subsequently changed the meanings of the original teachings to subordinate women to men, cultural justification for human rights violations against women has no real foundation upon which to rest. If the word of "God" (meaning Brahma or Allah) is the definitive source of reli­gious beliefs and practice, then followers of that religion should fol­low the word as it was originally intended. Hindu and Muslim women should be afforded an equal position in society according to the sa­cred Hindu and Muslim texts.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights protects the civil, political, social and cultural rights of all human beings despite dif­ferences of race, color, sex, nationality, religion or opinion. The Dec­laration consists of thirty articles, each of which protects the funda­mental and universal rights of individuals around the world. Article 1 of the Declaration provides for free and equal rights among all humans. Article 7 condemns discrimination and extends protection of the law to all. Article 10 protects the right to a fair and public trial by an "independent and impartial tribunal."1 Article 16 upholds equal rights within the institution of marriage. Article 17 provides the right to own property to everyone and the right to not have property taken away from the owner. Article 18 protects the right to religion and to observance of religious practices. Article 21 establishes the right for every citizen to take part in the government and vote. Article 23 institutes the right of any individual to work and be provided safe conditions in which to work. Article 26 states that everyone has the right to education. All of these rights are violated in many Hindu and Islamic cultures around the world everyday, with respect to women.

The 1999 U.S. State Department Country Report on Human Rights Practices in the Hindu Kingdom of Nepal includes restric­tions on women's right to vote or participate in the political process, gender and caste discrimination, violence against women, rape and incest, dowry killings, female trafficking, employment discrimina­tion, female property ownership violations, discriminatory laws against women including laws governing the institution of marriage and divorce, gender-biased laws related to inheritance, and little or no education for a high proportion of females in the country.2 The report cites cultural and religious norms as the source of discrimina­tion against women in Nepal.

"Although the Constitution provides protections for women, including equal pay for equal work, the Government has not taken significant action to implement its provisions. Women face discrimination, particularly in rural areas, where religious and cultural tradition, lack of education, and ignorance of the law remain severe impediments to their exercise of basic rights such as the right to vote or to hold property in their own names."3

Despite federal Nepalese laws that were created to protect women from human rights violations and consistent pressure ap­plied to the Nepalese government by human rights organizations, women still suffer from human rights violations on a daily basis in this and other Hindu cultures in the world.

Similarly, women in Islamic culture are also subjected to equally degrading behavior in Muslim societies. The 2003 Human Rights Watch Report on Pakistan cites the murder of 211 women within the first four months of the reporting period due to "honor killings" in which family members or other men in the community killed women who had broken female cultural norms. Further hu­man rights violations included laws such as the Hudood, Qisas and Diyat ordinances some of which allow men to be pardoned for crimes against women including rape and murder. Female victims of sexual assault are often pressured by men not to report the crime to authori­ties or be faced with criminal prosecution for committing fornica­tion or adultery. Systematic gang rapes of women as punishment for the crimes of men are also detailed in the report. One Muslim woman was gang raped by four tribal councilmen after her brother was ac­cused of having an "illicit" relationship with a woman. The abuse of women for the crimes of men is a regularly used method of “justice” in Pakistan and other Islamic countries.4

Women in Afghanistan who were liberated from the restric­tions instituted by the Taliban were reported in the 2003 Human Rights Watch Report to have been harassed by Islamic fundamental­ists who assaulted them or forced them to undergo immediate gyne­cological exams to determine whether or not they had engaged in sexual intercourse. Girls' schools were also bombed to insure that women could not receive schooling, as was the case under the previ­ous leadership of the Taliban. 5 These are atrocities committed daily against women in Islamic cultures around the world, and there is no cultural, religious or other justification that can explain this abuse of women.

Hindu and Islamic societies claim that their religions dictate that women should be subordinated to men, and therefore attempt to justify the aforementioned human rights violations on these grounds. Violence against women is characterized as punishment for female misdeeds. Yet, with closer examination of the original words written in the central Hindu and Islamic scriptures, it is clear that women were not intended to be subjugated to men. In fact, women held important roles in traditional Muslim and Hindu societies as moth­ers, wives, religious philosophers, and educators.

In Hindu culture during the early Vedic period, which is com­mensurate with the Ancient Greek period in Western society, women held an important role in religion and society. Both men and women were educated equally in religion and academia; women performed public religious sacrifices alongside men, and females received the sacred Hindu thread that is today only given to religiously learned males. The Haritasmrti recounts the existence of a group of women called brahmavadinis (a Sanskrit term meaning speakers and revealers of Brahman) who remained unmarried and devoted their lives to Hindu religious study during this early Vedic period.6 A clear dis­tinction in Vedic language is made between arcarya (a female teacher) and arcaryani (a teacher's wife) and upadhyaya (a female precep­tor) and upadhyayani (a preceptor's wife) clearly showing that women in fact carried out religious education of others and were communi­cators as well as students of sacred Hindu scripture.7 In the Upanishads women philosophers such as Vacaknavi challenged the ideas of Yajnavalka, her male counterpart. Women, such as Queen Bispala, engaged in warfare in the Rig Veda revealing that women also played a role in protecting and participating in state affairs.8

Hindu gods and goddesses personify manifestations of Hindu religious concepts and nature. Interestingly, Hindu goddesses, rather than gods, are most often used to represent abstract fundamental principles such as power, strength, education, and wealth as well as important natural phenomena such as the mountains, the dawn, the earth, and the rivers. For example, Hinduism personifies divine strength and power in the form of a female figure referred to as Shakti. Saraswati, the Goddess of Learning, Music and Fine Arts, is por­trayed as a female in Hindu texts and paintings. Likewise, Lakshmi is the Goddess of Wealth, a female personification. Parvati, the moun­tain goddess, is the consort to Shiva, one of the most important Hindu gods. The Goddess of Dawn is Usha, the Goddess of Rivers is Ganga, and the Goddess of Earth is Prithvi - all female personifications of incredibly important aspects of nature on which humanity depends.9

The combination of male and female energies within one goddess or god is quite common in Hindu religion as well and is referred to as Ardhanareeshwarar.10 The complementary nature of the two energies is valued in Hindu society and deemed essential to achieve balance within the gods and within mortals. The three gods who make up the Trimurti (Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Protec­tor, and Shiva the Destroyer) are powerless without their female counterparts. Shiva, the male Destroyer, requires power and energy from Shakti, the female provider of power, to carry out his godly duties.

Literature written about the Vedic period clearly exhibits the high respect given to women at this time in history. Romesh C. Dutt wrote in The Civilization of India:

''Women were held in higher respect in India than in other an-cient countries, and the Epics and old literature of India assign a higher position to them than the epics and literature of ancient Greece. Hindu women enjoyed some rights of property from the Vedic Age, took share in social and religious rights, and were sometimes distinguished by their learning. The absolute seclu­sion of women in India was unknown in ancient times."11

Louis Jaccoliot, an author who lived and worked in French India (1837-1890), echoed the above sentiment:

"India of the Vedas entertained a respect for women amounting to worship ... What! Here is a civilization, which you cannot deny to be older than your own, which places the woman on a level with the man and gives her an equal place in the family and in society".12

Hindu scriptures clearly convey the role of women in the Vedas. "The wife and husband, being the equal halves of one sub­stance, are equal in every aspects therefore, both should join and take equal parts in all work, religious and secular."13 Wives and hus­bands were directed by the Vedas to perform religious rites, ceremo­nies, and sacrifices together as is evidenced by the Sanskrit name given to the spiritual role of wives, Sahadharmini, or "spiritual helpmate."14 Women had property ownership rights and the ability to plead their own court cases as is shown in Book X of the Rig Veda. Women as mothers were respected above fathers as is stated in the Mahabharata, "While a father is superior to ten Brahmin priests well-versed in the Vedas, a mother is superior to ten such fathers, or the entire world."

Today, some remnants of Vedic-matriarchy exist in the south­ern part of India. Matrilineal lines of inheritance exist in which the oldest daughter receives property or other family possessions from her mother. These matriarchal societies are now the vestiges of a formerly more prominent role of females in Hindu society.

Hindu practices such as Sati, the expectation of a wife to throw herself on her husband's funeral pyre at his ceremonial crema­tion, were not known in the Vedic period. The ancient Hindu scrip­ture the Rig Veda states, "Rise up woman, thou art lying by one whose life is gone, come to the world of the living, away from thy husband, and become the wife of him who holds thy hand and is willing to marry thee."15 This passage makes it clear that at a husband's death a wife is not expected to perform Sati, as was insti­tuted by many Hindu cultures centuries after the Vedic period.16 Many scholars argue that the practice developed in 721 AD when Mohammed bin Qasim conquered India and killed thousands of men and enslaved the wives and children of the deceased. Women who lost their husbands chose to kill themselves rather than live as slaves for the duration of their lives.17 This practice was common and ex­pected in Nepalese culture until it was recently outlawed after sig­nificant pressure applied by human rights groups on the Nepalese government.

Similarly, marriage dowries originally were managed by women and were intended as collateral in case of a financial emer­gency. After colonization of India by the British, western ideas of gender inequality influenced Indian Hindus and the practice of dow­ries became controlled by men, which eventually led to dowry kill­ings in Hindu culture. Dowry killings are murders of wives carried out by the wives' husbands after receiving the in-laws' marriage dowry. In these crimes, men use marriage to a woman as a method of acquiring money and precious gifts, which are given in marriage dowries, and murder their wives once the dowry is received. British interpretation of Hindu law regarding marriage dowries at the time of colonization changed ownership of marriage dowries from that of women to men and soon thereafter dowry murders began to occur.

It is clear from these examples that Hindu culture did not subordinate women to men in the early years of the religion. Yet today women have been marginalized in society and restricted from exercising their natural born rights as provided by the U.N. Declara­tion of Human Rights. Much of the curernt restrictions placed on women in Hindu culture are a result of subsequent interpretations of Hindu scriptures by sexist males, or are the result of European colo­nization and the assimilation of principles and values that existed in Europe at that time.

Islam has also suffered from the male interpretations of the teachings of Mohammad which have led Islamic society to believe that Mohammad instituted subordination of women. This is incor­rect. Prior to Mohammad's birth in 632 AD. much of the Middle East was an egalitarian society in which women and men worked, learned, and lived side by side. The women in Mohammad's life, such as Mohammad's wife Aisha, played a significant role in re­counting his religious teachings which were then written down as the scriptures oflslam.18 Mohammad's wives and other women par­ticipated in wars as is accounted in the battle of Uhud. Women brought water to the battlefield, fought alongside men, cared for the injured, and played instruments and sang war songs.19 Quotes from the Qur 'an clearly point to equality between the sexes:

Wives have rights corresponding to those which husbands have, in equitable reciprocity. (Sura 2:229)

Mohammad addresses both men and women as equals under God in the following passage:

For Muslim men and women,

For believing men and women,

For devout men and women,

For true men and women,

For men and women who are

Patient and constant, for men

And women who humble themselves,

For men and women who give

In charity, for men and women

Who fast (and deny themselves)

For men and women who Guard their chastity, and

For men and women in God's praise,

For them has God prepared Forgiveness and a great reward.

(Sura 33:35)

Today there are many Muslim nations, such as Saudi Arabia, whose laws restrict women's rights. Although Saudis argue that these laws are based on Islam, they clearly are not. Amnesty International's 2002 Report on the Muslim Kingdom of Saudi Arabia highlights the nation's refusal to issue identification cards to Saudi women and laws that deny women the right to drive a car. When Saudi Arabia's Minister of Interior was asked if women would be permitted to par­ticipate in the Majlis Al-Shura (Consultative Council) he said, "Why make women a political issue... women are not a political issue, but a social issue,"20 thus making it clear that women would not receive representation in the government. Saudi women need permission from a husband, father, or brother to apply for a job, be admitted to a hospital, or travel anywhere inside or outside of the country. Women are not allowed to study engineering and cannot attend the well-re­garded King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals which trains men for work in the energy industry. Furthermore, there is no mini­mum age at which women may be married and it is illegal for women to marry non-Muslims.21

Muslims often refer to the Hadiths as evidence of Mohammad's intention to keep women subordinate to men in Mus­lim culture. The Hadiths were written at the same time that Mohammad lived and preached to his followers, yet the Hadiths dif­fer greatly from Mohammad's words in their misogynistic and sexist tone as evidenced in passages like these:

If a monkey, a black dog, or a woman passes in front of a praying person, his prayer is nullified.

(Sahih Bukhary 8: 102 and Hanbel 4:86)

Bad omen is in the woman, the horse and the home.

(Sahih Bukhary 76:53)

Mohammad rejected the Hadiths repeatedly, as can be read in the Qur'an, and commanded his followers to only follow the words he spoke and not those of others. It is clear from the way that Mohammad alluded to men and women throughout\he Qur'an that he did not intend for Muslim men to think of women as animals or to disrespect or abuse women in any way. In l\4ohamamd's words:

I never fail to reward any worker among you for any work you do, be you male or female, you are equal to one an­other.

(Sura 3:195)

As for those who lead a righteous life, male or female, while believing, they enter Paradise; without the slightest injus­tice.

(Sura 4:124)

Mohammad's words clearly show that not only should women participate in the labor force as workers, but that their work is equal to that of men in the eyes of Allah. Furthermore, a woman is in­tended to lead a righteous life which must, of course, include reli­gion and will be welcomed into Paradise if she gives her loyalty to Allah. These words differ so greatly from those of the Sahih Hadiths and exhibit with clarity that Mohammad had very different inten­tions for women than Sahih Burkhary and other Hadith writers.

Thus, it is clear that Mohammad did not intend for women to be sexually or physically assaulted by their husbands or other men, to be raped and violated, to be ignorant through lack of education, to be spiritually and religiously vacuous through separation from reli­gious teaching, or to be marginalized and subordinated. These soci­etal constructions are the result of male misogynistic interpretations of Mohammad's teachings and not the words of Mohammad him­self. Therefore, why do women remain in a subordinated role in Is­lamic society today? Education of women and men in Islamic cul­ture is needed to expose Muslims to the true teachings of Mohammad and the intentions he originally had when uttering his sacred phrases.

Just as Europe and the United States have moved past gender discrimination in most aspects of society, so should Hindu and Is­lamic culture. The parallels between Western society and Eastern society are quite astonishing. Ancient Greek society, the basis for western society today, utilized female figures to personify ideas such as war, justice, and wisdom just as Hinduism does today. Ancient Greek society also held women in society up to a higher level than subsequent generations did. Similarly, Ancient Vedic times respected the rights of women, yet today Hindu society has adopted discrimi­natory policies toward women. The events in both eastern and west­ern regions of the world are exactly symmetrical and highlight quite clearly the argument against justification of human rights violations based on Hindu and Islamic religious principles. If one is to argue for cultural justification of gender-biased practices in Hindu and Is­lamic cultures, then one must be willing to argue that the United States can utilize culture as a basis for abusing and mistreating women. The bible and other western religious scriptures and cultural practices perpetuated the marginalization of women for centuries. Yet today we look at western countries as the pillars of sexual equal­ity. Western culture changed over time to perceive women as equals to men in most regards, and it is this same process that must occur in Hindu and Islamic cultures before women will be able to enjoy the same freedoms that men enjoy today.