Culture v. Rationality: The Great Rights Debate
The recent judgments made by the Supreme Court of India have been hailed by liberals across the country. The mechanical legal orders were met with a humane appraisal of the pre-dated social order, in the judges’ statements. However, among the country’s liberals themselves factions developed – some of those who agreed with the legalisation of homosexuality, did not agree with the decriminalisation of adultery, some of those who sought logical relief in both, found none in the Sabrimala verdict. This invokes the question, is the debate really just between liberals and conservatives or has it coalesced into a complex one between culture of rationality and rationality of culture? That is to say that now, the debate is between those who scrutinise society with an apolitical lens of rationality, including culture; and those who rationalise their customs and traditions on the basis of culture embedded in a sense of lineage and/or identity.
The overwhelming wave of saviour-complex dictates that the former must emerge triumphant over the latter. The collateral casualty of homogenisation inflicted by an intrinsic ethnocentrism is thus rather ironical. Why?
1. Rationality is not apolitical;
2. Rationality emerges in a culture and cannot be divorced from it;
3. To scrutinise another culture based on one’s rationality is actually to scrutinise another culture on the basis of one’s own, whether imbued with rationality.
This, however, does not suggest that rationality must be discarded to uphold culture. The sole implication is that rationality is embedded in culture and these inform and evaluate each other. However, in the modern socio-political milieu, minority group issues have become an epitome of the tussle between culture and rationality (represented by the judicial and legislative frameworks).
In the legal domain, it is being demanded that sides be taken – whether individual rights of equality (Article 14) must prevail over group rights (Article 25 – to practice religion freely; religion being one of the most pivotal and contested tenets of culture) or vice versa. Though the legal machinery in India is an unflinching beacon of progress, it is bound to reduce human beings to subjects of human rights. Hence, it must be viewed as a rational indicator of society and not its transformative force. Particularly in the case of minority groups, less emphasis is laid on understanding why a group is sustaining ‘regressive’ practices and it is assumed that these practices are regressive because they are backward, they are uninformed, blinded by culture hence they need to be told better. This is to shed light on the ignorance of rationality that several rationals indulge in. I call this spirit of awakening, ignorance, because it purports a belief of making progress by criminalising the regressive. While that is indispensable in its own right, social reality is significant too.
To understand this in the context of minorities, the verdicts discussed initially are not as relevant as the the practice of ‘khafz’ practiced by the Dawoodi Bohra Community. While the condemned practice of female genital mutilation will be reviewed by the Apex Court, the Dawoodi Bohra Women’s Association for Religious Freedom is standing to protect the practice citing its religious significance. This is a practice which is fundamentally detrimental to the physical and psychological being of a woman, yet is being followed for decades. The sole justification that comes to mind is preservation of culture, to maintain its identity. To investigate this further, let us move over to the Eastern European country of Bulgaria which houses the 18,000-strong Kalaidzhi Roma community.
It is a semi-nomadic or gypsy community of tinsmiths – not integrated in the mainstream Bulgarian society – and has been in a disadvantaged position in terms of education, employment and prejudiced attitudes. The lack of attention given to them by the government and the world is apparent even in the google searches. There is only one thing about this centuries-old community that is given any journalistic spotlight to – its bride markets and their discriminatory nature against women. While that is not untrue, there is not one article about why this practice started, what it means to the people, why are people still following it, why are they discriminated and structurally excluded. While there are some sporadic journalistic investigations, the community has not been studied in an academic fashion.
The bride markets, as the term goes in English, suggest a place where young girls are sold to prospective grooms. Although it is a place where young girls and boys come together with their families to socialise to get in talks about marriage and negotiate a bride price of sorts. Nowadays, the boy and girl’s consent is mostly sought by parents – while cases of forced marriage including those with an older rich man are not absent. Effectively, this price paid is not for the girl, but for her honour, essentially her virginity. Girls are generally married off by the age of 20, and are trained to be homemakers holding a secondary position in the household. Education after secondary school especially for girls is not a popular idea. The only time when the girls are given any freedom is during their visit to the bride market where they dress up and meet the boys.
Whilst this paints a picture of discrimination and lack of voice for the women, I tried to probe the issue. Due to the lack of literature on the community, I present my conjecture – 1. Why must the bride market have been initiated in the first place? – as a means of festivity and as a socialising event, and it was probably a cool festival back then where unmarried boys and girls could meet each other. 2. In that case, why was there a price to be paid? – It must first be understood that modern notions of commodities, market principles are new. Second, the larger Roma community emigrated from north-western India in c.600 AD; the Indian practice of bride pricing could have been emblematic of a way to make a woman’s ‘purity’ (a euphemism for virginity) important; further, this community identifies as Orthodox Christian, which also goes on to reinforce the value they place on virginity.
Provocative as it may sound, this attempt to rationalise their culture is to implore us privileged, convenient rationalists into understanding that communities hold on to their arguably archaic cultural traditions to be able hold onto their identity in this otherwise homogenising world. Minorities in an overall disadvantaged position vis-à-vis the mainstream society clings even tighter to their dwindling culture. Many Kalaidzhi elders fear that within a few generations, their culture will shrivel as the younger ones wish to adapt to the mainstream Bulgarian society – being equipped with internet-empowered phones.
It is important to keep checking cultural practices from time to time, as what might have served a purpose some years back might threaten individual freedom today; today’s society is not warring in nature, hence cultural identity might not need to enjoy inhibited prevalence over individual identity. However, to blatantly judge a culture by standards of one’s ‘rationality’ is ethnocentric and contrary to the spirit of diversity. The only reason why communities cling to their cultural practices, even dysfunctional ones is to sustain their identity – now whether that be in relation with that of the mainstream society or to maintain structural hierarchies in a majority culture. It is important to strive for a society where rationality is recognised as an embedded tenet of culture for timely self-appraisal to account for individual dignity while continuously transforming its identity.
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About the Author
Reeya Rao has been India's representative at the 2016 G20 Youth Summit held in China. She is currently pursuing her Master's in Social Policy and Development from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and holds a graduate degree in Sociology from the Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi University. A former President of her college's National Service Scheme, Reeya's research interests include Education, Gender, Migration and Youth Affairs. A binge watcher of television sitcoms, Reeya also has a penchant for Modern Calligraphy.