Monday, March 02, 2009

When rights and culture collide

Our notion of human rights oftentimes is so fragile. Partly because of the persistent fascination of most people with human rights as a Western construct, that its core values and norms are instinctively rooted in the way of life as it is known in the developed world.

Two incidents involving the way food is consumed and how humans clean after it is excreted from the body illustrate this feebleness of our human rights system.

In 2006, a Filipino seven-year-old Grade 2 student in a west-end school of Montreal was reprimanded and punished by his school lunch monitor for not eating “the way Canadians eat.” The young boy, who was born in the Philippines and came to Canada at the age of nine months, was eating with fork and spoon, a customary eating practice for Filipinos. Shocked by the eating habits of the boy which seemed primitive by the school’s standards, the school principal then asked the boy if people from his country washed their hands before they eat. The principal also told the boy’s mother that they live in Canada now and that they are required to eat like Canadians. Apparently, there is an official way to eat in Canada.

Incensed by the culturally insensitive remarks of the school principal, the boy’s family filed a complaint, and public indignation against the school ensued. After two years, the Quebec Human Rights and Youth Rights Commission partially upheld the complaint by finding the comments of the school principal discriminatory and in violation of the child’s rights. However, the Commission did not find that the young child was reprimanded because of his cultural habit of eating with a spoon and fork at the same time.

In January 2009, a Filipino worker was sacked by his Australian employer, the Townsville Engineering Industries (TEI), for his “un-Australian” toilet habits. Amador Bernabe, a machine operator on a working visa from the Philippines, used tap water to clean himself instead of toilet paper.

The incident happened after Bernabe’s foreman followed him into the toilet questioning his toilet hygiene. He was holding a bottle of water when his foreman warned him that he couldn’t bring the water inside the toilet. Bernabe replied that it was for his personal hygiene and he wasn’t breaking any law or rules of the company.

Bernabe was called to report to the company manager the following morning and was asked what happened. The manager said if he didn’t follow the Australian way that he would be immediately terminated from work. “Sir, then you better terminate me,” Bernabe replied.

TEI denied firing Bernabe for his toilet habits. The company’s manager said that Bernabe’s toilet habits posed a serious health risk to other employees and he had been counselled a number of times about the issue.

According to his manager, Bernabe’s practice of cleaning himself with water after his toilet visits had left the toilet cubicles splashed with water suspected to be contaminated with faeces and wet soggy toilet paper lying on the floor. “Other employees complain about the mess and the possible spread of disease and will not use the cubicles until they are cleaned and disinfected,” the manager added.

Both of the above incidents illustrate to us the difficulty in tolerating and accepting the culture of people from impoverished societies into the mainstream culture of the more dominant economies. The young boy from Montreal was punished and isolated from his peers and commanded to another table to eat alone because he used a fork to mash his food and push it into his spoon. The school lunch monitor found this habit disgusting and similar to eating like a pig. In Australia, while Mr. Bernabe lost his job, it earned him the praise of the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union for standing for his rights which the union believed were violated by Bernabe’s employer.

Far too often, countries as diverse as Canada and Australia get away with bragging about their multicultural societies. It is not easy to claim that we live in a multicultural society when even a small and very petty cultural difference like the choice of eating utensils or using water to clean up after relieving oneself can’t be tolerated. Living in an environment of multiculturalism includes tolerating those differences that don’t cause harm or insult fundamental values.

It appears so comical in this day and age of increased immigration and cultural diversity that an argument would arise about how each of us should shovel food into our mouths or whether we should use water or paper to wipe our behinds after using the toilet. Surely, there are much more serious and genuine cultural conflicts that arise in a multicultural setting without denouncing harmless practices for being “un-Canadian” or “un-Australian.” The only thing “un-Canadian” or “un-Australian” is the insensitivity and disrespect shown towards that young boy in Montreal for eating the way his parents taught him at home or, in the case of Mr. Bernabe, for his harmless, yet hygienic, toilet habits.

Harmonization of human rights standards will always remain complicated if some societies continue to insist that human rights are based on Western culture, and as such, are not applicable to societies whose cultures are non-Western. The incidents discussed earlier are trivial compared to values which are continually evolving and influenced by growing global economics and culture, values that appear to collide with traditional Western-based human rights beliefs.

Culture has become the most contentious issue in the debate whether there is universality of human rights. The wearing of burqas by Muslim women who have migrated to the West to cover their faces in accordance with hijab has become a controversial political issue in Western Europe. Intellectuals and political groups have advocated their prohibition for various reasons. In 2004, France became the first country to abolish the wearing of the burqa.

A senior member of the English government, Jack Straw, asked Muslim women from his constituency to remove any veils covering their faces during meetings with him. Some Muslim groups said they understood Mr. Straw’s concerns, but others rejected them as prejudicial.

Twenty years of war and a fundamentalist regime sent Afghan women into seclusion. The Taliban prohibited women from working outside the home and excluded them from education. Women could not appear in public without a burqa. Incidence of depression and other mental illnesses among women soared. After the liberation of Afghanistan from the hands of the Taliban, many hoped that women will be given equal rights with their male counterparts. But tradition, culture and religion remain formidable obstacles to equality.

In some regions of the globe, there are countries that have distinct cultures rooted deeply in their communities. Asia-Pacific countries, for instance, have been greatly influenced by Buddhist, Confucian, Hindu, Islamic or Christian beliefs which form a huge diversity of cultures. This situation supports the argument that since cultures are different, the values being upheld are also different. In other words, human rights must be interpreted in the context of this situation, in a manner that distinctly adapts to the situation, thinking and practices of peoples in a particular region. Recognition of certain rights should be valid in accordance with the culture of a people and not be considered in derogation or distortion of human rights as expressed in international human rights instruments.

Cultural diversity actually enriches human rights rather than inscribe a different perspective. Human rights principles bring out the common features of the cultures of a people. The pervasive presence of culture in the lives of people is just a natural result of human existence. Hence, the general principles contained in the international human rights instruments must be given wider meaning as they are supplemented by the depth of the cultures of a people. Some cultures stress duty, community welfare, obedience to authority, consensual approach to problem resolution – values that are essential to social cohesion, which in turn are important in upholding human rights. Following this line of argument, human rights therefore are universal and indivisible. Nothing justifies emphasizing some rights and putting secondary importance on other rights.

The great task remains in how to find the best means of relating the cultures of a given people to universal human rights principles. Claims that some practices are “un-American,” or “un-Canadian,” or “un-Australian” will not be helpful by any means. Some cultural elements can be easily identified with human rights while others may be found contrary to basic rights. The important issue is not to lose focus on the fact that the realization of human rights has to take into account the cultural milieu of peoples, of finding a common ground between cultures and human rights which will lead to their meaningful interaction.

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