Gender issue and “cultural rights”

by Reda Benkirane

Al Ahram Weekly

Al-Ahram Weekly, Cairo, 23 – 29 March 2006, Issue No. 787

Demographic transformations — particularly urbanisation — seem to powerfully alter traditional societies when it comes to issues of gender rights, writes Reda Benkirane*

One of the signs of the times is the increasing role of women in social change. It is nowadays acknowledged that a more balanced partnership between the sexes would certainly have its universal counterpart in more balanced social, economical and political activities. If a universal perspective is in sight — an equal socioeconomic status between man and woman — it is nevertheless endangered by the tension and antagonism that may exist between the gender issue and certain cultural or religious traditions. Most of the social activists and NGOs representatives who are advocating a promotion of the status of women within southern societies are very often confronted with the embarrassing and persistent claim that certain traditional cultures and religions do not admit the principle of equality between man and woman, as if certain “cultural rights” seemed to take precedence over women’s rights.
How can this serious obstacle to social development be overcome? Arguing that a low status for women should remain unchanged because of the cultural and/or religious legitimacy of certain “archaic” traditions is not something easy to deconstruct. There is also a logical bias in persisting to think that it is ideology — be it religious, cultural, ethnic — that is responsible when in reality it is a corollary of the unequal social status of women in certain societies.
The causality between the low social status of women and the predominance of certain religious, cultural or ethnic traditions is subtler than at first it appears. What if certain cultural traditions only legitimise an inequality of the male-female partnership determined by an underlying family structure? In fact, traditional mentalities are reflections of traditional family structures. These family structures can be discerned in several variants and combinations from a few basic configurations (nuclear/communitarian, endogamous/exogamous) and fundamental values (equality/inequality, authority/freedom). These family configurations can be seen as the infra-logical mechanism that determines the reproduction of specific social values (which can be seen, for example, in marriage and heritage rules) and therefore expresses specific metaphysical ideas and ideologies (reform, Islam, liberalism, communism, etc).

Consequently the exogamous absolute nuclear family, which can be found in the Anglo-Saxon world, favours a differentialist society (“all men are free and different”) where freedom and inequality lead to an extremely advanced status of women. By contrast, the endogamous communitarian family which is typical of the Arab-Muslim world expresses a universalist society (“all men are free, equal and brothers”) but where women are “sisters” who remain minors to be “protected” forever by their father, brother, uncle, etc. The exogamic communitarian family, authoritarian and egalitarian, that can be found in Russia, Serbia, China and Vietnam is at the origin of communism that reigned within these nations — and here atheism expresses somehow the “murder of the father”.

When traditional family structures are broken and subject to brutal and massive changes, it becomes probable that changes of the same magnitude affect mentalities as well, especially regarding the status of women.

Confronted with certain cultural traits — for example in Northern India, in Islamic countries and within indigenous communities of Latin America — women’s socioeconomic status should first be put in perspective along with the recent evolution of certain demographic indicators (average female age of marriage, fertility and literacy rates). During the last 30 years, a certain number of demographic studies have shown that it is the familial microcosm that determines the social macrocosm more than the other way around. In other words, cultural and religious traditions are patterns generated by the type of family structure existing in a given social environment.
This hypothesis, which is the core of the social anthropology proposed by French demographers Hervé Le Bras and Emmanuel Todd, is in accordance with recent researches on cultural transmission done by population geneticist Luca Cavalli- Sforza. In this perspective, female infanticides and child marriage traditions in northern India, the legal status of women still considered as minors in certain Islamic countries, and frequent polygamy in African societies are behavioural by- products engendered by specific family structures. No change regarding the gender issue can ever happen if the corresponding family structures are not transformed by contingent changes such as mass urbanisation, industrialisation, alphabetisation and migration.
Therefore the relationship between family structures and social, cultural and political representations unveils a deep and powerful anthropological force that is deterministic but also takes into consideration evolution and contingency; how, for example, traditional family structures in an urban environment are transformed in relation to housing and labour market pressures. Who among the urban inhabitants of India still get married, like Mahatma Ghandi and his wife, at the age of 13? Are the communitarian and endogamous Arab family structure and the frequent polygamy of African family types unchanged in modern mega cities like Cairo, Lagos, Dakar or Casablanca?

New insights, and signs of hope, regarding the fundamental issue of women’s status relative to cultural and religious rights are to be found in recent demographic indicators for countries that have undergone significant experiences of urbanisation. In North Africa, for example, where nowadays the majority of inhabitants are living in cities, only one country — Tunisia — developed immediately after independence legislation favourable to the promotion of women’s status. Yet recent demographic changes in Algeria and Morocco are contributing to changes in mentalities that verge on being translated into social and legal policies. Concretely, the fertility rate has fallen spectacularly (for Algeria from 7.4 per cent for the period 1970-1995 to 2.8 for 2000-2005 and for Morocco from 6.9 per cent for 1970-1975 to 2.7 for 2000-2005) and the average age of marriage for women has increased, according to the statistics of the UNDP Human Development Report.

In the case of Algeria, civil war expressed, in a certain manner, a sense of identity loss; the state of disarray due to a mental uprooting and metaphysical anxiety brought about with rapid change in demography via decolonisation, rural exodus and urbanisation. In Morocco, the recent reform of Moroccan law on the status of women recognises them as adults regarding the laws governing marriage and divorce. This reform is a direct expression of demographic modernisation.

It is worth noting that the reform of the “Moudawana” (the personal status code that defines women’s status) was first vigorously combated by Islamist Moroccan parties but, once officially adopted, was approved by them and presented as being in conformity with the spirit and the principles of Islamic law. Similar demographic trends can be observed in Turkey, Iran and Malaysia, which show a fall of birth rates and an increase of literacy rates that may announce a real social modernisation. On the contrary, countries like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have not witnessed an important decline of fertility rates, which can also lead to the conclusion that these two countries are not ready for significant change regarding the gender issue.

New approaches, based on social anthropology and the study of new configurations of family structures, are contributing to renewing our understanding of the gender implications of “cultural rights” and religious-based politics. We might find, over the long term, that this tension between the gender issue and cultural rights is transitional and that demographic modernisation is leading to a more balanced socioeconomic status between man and woman.

* The writer is Geneva-based sociologist, author, and editor of Jacques Berque’s posthumous, Quel Islam? translated as Aya Islam? by Bachir Al Sibai ( Cairo, Dar Al-Alam Al-Thalith, 2004).

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