Universal Rights and Cultural Relativism: Hinduism and Islam Deconstructed

By Polisi, Catherine E. | World Affairs, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Universal Rights and Cultural Relativism: Hinduism and Islam Deconstructed


Polisi, Catherine E., World Affairs


Should nations or individuals have the authority to use culture as a basis for justifying human rights abuses? This question long has 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 often have been used to justify even the most severe human rights abuses around the world. My objective in this article is to begin to deconstruct the issue of cultural relativism as it applies to human rights law and to 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, restricted access to education, exclusion from participation in government, unfair court proceedings, and premenarche marriage, and I will argue that these violations have no cultural justification.

Although human rights abuses toward women often are justified on the grounds of Hindu and Muslim religious teachings and scriptures, the original, authoritative scriptures of both religions actually hold women in equal regard to men. I will use 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 BC and 610 AD, respectively, women were considered an essential part of the community, family unit, and religion. The tremendous gender bias that exists today in Islamic and Hindu cultures reflects not 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 when these religions first began. They are described in the scriptures as equal partners to their husbands and were educated in the religious texts. 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 on which to rest.

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 free and equal rights for all human beings. 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 extends the right to own property to everyone and protects an owner's right not to have property taken away. Article 18 protects the right to religion and to the observance of religious practices. Article 21 establishes the right of every citizen to take part in the government and vote. Article 23 institutes the right of any individual to work and to have sale working conditions. Article 26 states that everyone has the right to an 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's Report for Congress on Nepal discusses 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 such as those governing marriage and divorce, gender-biased laws related to inheritance, and the lack of an education for a high proportion of females in the country.

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Universal Rights and Cultural Relativism: Hinduism and Islam Deconstructed
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