Friday, 11 January 2013

Rape Culture and Cultural Relativism

Every feminist blogger in the world is probably writing about the rape of a 23-year old woman student in New Delhi in December 2012.  Like everyone else, I am outraged by this rape. As one of the Indian activists I heard on the Canadian Broadcasting Company said, it was particularly cruel and violent. It appears that a group of men who were on a private party bus tricked her and a male friend to join them, and then raped her to death, damaging her internal organs with metal tools.  It is sad, though, that it took such a violent rape to galvanize Indian women and men to action. The same woman I heard on the radio said that this was no “ordinary” rape, by which she meant the day-to-day rapes that Indian women experience, often by relatives or acquaintances.
Protesters in New Delhi, India on 27 December 2012 after a brutal gang rape on 16 December 2012
caused the death of a young Indian woman. Retrieved from
If any good comes out of this rape, it is the mobilization of women in India and elsewhere to demand that the police and the courts take rape seriously. There are still places in the world where, if a woman reports a rape to the police, they will then rape her in turn: as “damaged goods” she is fair game.  
This brings me to debates about cultural relativism in human rights, which have annoyed me since I started publishing on human rights in 1980. Some people claim that human rights are a “Western” invention and imposition on the rest of the “non-Western” world. This is factually incorrect in all sorts of ways. Non-Western countries at the UN voted for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 (Canada only voted for it at the last minute, having lots of doubts!).  Since then most countries of the world have signed onto a long list of human rights documents. And there are human rights and women’s rights activists all over the place. In 1980 a male African scholar at a conference told me that African women didn’t “need” rights because men treated them so well. I went home and asked an African student what she thought of that: she replied that her brother-in-law had beaten her pregnant sister to death, and then took custody of the infant who survived the beating. Nowadays, there is a huge African feminist movement and no scholar could get away with saying such a ridiculous thing about women not needing rights.
 One way around the argument that the “West” imposes human rights is in effect to argue its opposite, that all “cultures” have human rights, they just have different conceptions of human rights. That’s what I heard a bunch of my male colleagues saying at an academic conference in the late 90s. It was unbelievable. A group of distinguished white men, all well-known scholars of human rights, argued that all cultures protected human rights. When I stood up and criticized them, pointing out that there are very few cultures in which women enjoy human rights even in principle, let alone in practice, they shushed me! But if all cultures have human rights, then women are not human. Women exist in all cultures but in very few do they have rights. Even in the West, women’s rights are very recent. My mother’s generation, for example, were expected to follow their husbands blindly wherever they went; were not able to get credit in their own name; and in Quebec, where my own mother lived, were not even able to have emergency surgery without their husbands’ permission. This actually happened to a friend of my mother: her husband was away on a business trip and she had to find him (without email, etc.) before she could have surgery.
Catharine MacKinnon's law faculty photo,
retrieved from
Of course, you could ask where does rape fit into this? One of my all-time favourite feminists is the American legal scholar, Catharine MacKinnon. She was one of the first scholars to argue that rape is torture. I remember her sitting with a bunch of male suits at a conference at Banff in Alberta in 1990. She talked about “Linda Lovelace,” a pseudonym for a woman renowned in the 1970s as a pornographic actress (this was at a time when many rebellious North Americans idealized “free love”—which often meant men sexually exploiting women as much as they wanted). Linda Lovelace was actually the victim of a cruel, sadistic pimp, not a willing actress in a sexually liberating age (see reference below).  Catharine made some of the men she was sitting with very uncomfortable, describing in excruciating detail what happened to Linda Lovelace. 
If human rights really are a Western cultural idea, then I say “Go for it!” Human rights protect everyone from torture. And torture is what rape is, for many victims. The Indian student on the bus was a torture victim. It used to be thought that only agents of the state could commit torture; so the policeman who beat up a prisoner at the station committed torture, but the same policeman who went home and beat up his wife was just committing a private crime. Catharine MacKinnon—and others like her—showed us that private citizens can and do torture each other.  The women who are demonstrating and blogging all over the world against rape are not victims of Western cultural imperialism: they don’t need Western women to tell them rape is torture. We have to change all cultures that encourage, condone, or tolerate rape. A culture based on the suppression by torture of a huge part of its population is not a culture worth preserving.
Update, January 18, 2013: One of the commentators on this blog said s/he had expected more depth on this topic. It's hard to go into much depth in a blog. For more on what I think about cultural relativism, see my article "Cultural Absolutism and the Nostaliga for Community," published in Human Rights Quarterly in 1993, vol. 7, no.2. It's available on line for free from Scholars' Commons (Wilfrid Laurier University) but I haven't figured out how to put the link on yet.  Also, I published an article "Universal Women's Rights since 1970" in Journal of Human Rights, 2012, vol. 10, no,4, but it's not free on-line.
Reference: Catharine MacKinnon, “On Torture: A Feminist Perspective on Human Rights”, in Kathleen E. Mahoney and Paul Mahoney, eds. Human Rights in the Twenty-First Century: A Global Challenge,Boston: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1993, pp. 21-31.


  1. I was expecting little more depth in the analysis of cultural factors viz a viz cultures across the world or evolution of the concept across developed countries. It has just skimmed the surface with few case studies.

    For ex: The cultural or religious claim that we treat women as equivalent to goddess also puts the implication on women that they have to live, behave, dress and hold up the personality of a goddess as defined from dressing, demeanor, politeness. That again comes to how do cultures define a role of a women.

    There was an atrocious comment by one of the RSS (Hindutva movement) leaders that Rape happens in India (Urban - Westernized) world and not Bharat(The country governed by Rama of Ayodhya, Ramayana Myth).

    I was looking for more depth with such perspectives across the developed countries on what led to framing rules for the women and how those were used to exploit women.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. yes, i agree! i'm also indian but thw words you says that is true.