A young girl in Sudan is held down on top of dirty old mattress, her legs pinned open, while a woman sits between them with a razor blade in hand ready to cut her clitoris. This young girl is experience a form of Female Genital Mutilation.
In Nepal an adolescent girl is menstruating. She is banished from her home to an isolated hut where she will remain until her bleeding has ended. For days she sleeps in the cold and without food. She is experiencing the chhaupadi, a centuries old ritual practice in Nepal that considers girls and women “unpure” while they are menstruating.
A mother irons her daughter’s breasts in Cameroon. She is attempting to shield her from male attention. The smaller her boobs, the less appealing to men and the less likely she will get pregnant before finishing school.
In Mauritania a woman is force fed, locally known as gavage. Overweight women are more attractive to Mauritanian men. Thus girls, starting from a very young age, are forced to over-eat in order to gain weight.
These are just a few examples of countless atrocities being committed around the world against women in the name of culture or tradition.
These human rights violations are tolerated in many parts of the world, and in the same way I was reading and watching these girls and women suffering in my living room, the whole world is witnessing such crimes being committed over and over again and little has been done to stop them. Tradition and culture have been used as excuses for torture inflicted on women’s minds and bodies and as a result they are perpetuated.
Culture is a human product; therefore, traditions and customs evolve through time. They are not fixed givens; they are created, manipulated and abolished. There are many customs that, if practiced today, would be considered ridiculous or absolutely unacceptable. However, few violent practices that target woman have been done away with. This is a result of patriarchy, which forms the basis of many cultures. It is an exercise of oppressive power over women.
As discussed, culture is not born out of a spontaneous generation or divinely ordered; it is man-made, literally and figuratively. Is it likely that men would create or accept ‘traditions’ that would, for example, reduce their sexual pleasure? Of course not. Men wouldn’t create or allow castrating practices on themselves or jeopardize the penis as a symbol of power. Would they?
If acceptance is given to such barbaric practices against women in the name of culture and religious traditions, isn’t it legitimate to wonder why? Why is it so convenient for men to have all these so-called traditions and customs exclusively directed towards women? Why has ‘culture’ focused on slaughtering women’s bodies and violating their human rights, while men are privileged? Is it just because men are the ones who have been setting the rules of the game all along –as they continue to do so?
Some would argue, rightly so, that women are the ones that perpetuate these traditions. As we’ve seen from examples, it is the elder woman in the village cutting off a girls clitoris, the mother sending her daughter out of the house, ironing her daughter’s breasts, or force feeding her, but why is she doing this? The answer: for her daughter’s best interest, which in most cultures means marriage.
As long as men continue to seek these ideals and hide behind ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’ these horrible crimes and human rights violations against girls and women will continue.
Madeline Mendoza is a Nicaraguan social activist. She is also an International Faculty Member of iLEAP: the Center for Critical Service. She has been selected as one of the Voices of Our Future Correspondents 2011, a program launched by World Pulse to deliver rigorous training in new media and citizen journalism for grassroots women leaders.