A Democracy of Chameleons: Politics and Culture in the New Malawi

By Harri Englund | Go to book overview

9.
Human Rights and the Multiparty
System Have Swallowed Our Traditions

Conceiving Women and Culture in the New Malawi
Ulrika Ribohn

Historically, no larger group has suffered greater violations of its human rights in the name of culture and tradition than women. (Nagengast, 1997: 358–359).

Even though human rights are a transnational phenomenon, they are interpreted and understood in local contexts. These interpretations are locally manifested in various ways.1 Malawians' understandings of human rights and the universal intentions of the United Nations are in many cases dissimilar. “When the salient contrast appears to be between ‘the local’ and ‘the global’ it is not culture but the difference between global and local manifestations that becomes the interesting problematic” (Strathern, 1995:154). The salient issues here are the manifestations of transnational agendas represented by official agencies, on the one hand, and local reactions to them, on the other. A key dichotomy revolves around cultural values and human rights in local discourses of human rights, particularly in relation to women's rights.

Deploying official human rights discourses, governmental organisations and representatives of the so-called civil society argue in favour of human rights even if the practical implementation of human rights would conflict with local cultural values. Official arguments have been met by sets of counter-arguments stressing cultural values even when practices based on these values appear to deny certain groups (particularly women) their rights. Cultural practices are gendered in human rights discourses when, for example, official statements identify local cultural practices as threats to women's rights, while the general public identify women as carriers of “traditions”. The categories of “women” and “cultural practices” are thus often reified—made abstract and absolute—in current discourses on human rights in Malawi.

The intent of this chapter is to analyse local manifestations of human rights by illustrating how gender, transnationalism, and human rights are intertwined in local human rights discourses. Social changes in the wake of the democratisation process are incorporated into local notions of human rights, and many people apprehend the changes as a threat to “culture”. Local reactions against human rights are based on notions of a new “culture”, associated with “Western” values. What is interesting is not so much whether human rights and “culture” actually are in opposition to each other, but whether such a dichotomy in local human rights discourses has observable consequences. As Henrietta Moore writes: “The particular force of cultural dis-

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1
When I argue that in Malawi human rights have local manifestations, I do not mean that rights are needs that have been conceptualised into rights, such as is the case in the indigenous rights movement in Australia. Instead, human rights discourses in Malawi are consequences of the belief that the introduction of human rights solves some political and social problems in Malawi.

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