On “harmful cultural practices and norms”


Attending pre-conference events at the International Conference on AIDS and STIS in Africa (ICASA) 2015 in Harare, which starts tomorrow, the phrasing “addressing harmful cultural norms and practices” comes up often. Specifically in the context of gender and HIV this seems a very important issue. Now of course it is; there are a lot of cultural attitudes that are problematic in its enforcement of patriarchy, there are many that fuel vulnerability to HIV especially for women (both cis and trans), queer communities, sex workers, etc.; however, this rhetoric brings with it a perpetuation of a very problematic worldview.

To clarify, I in no way seek to advocate against the work that many do under this framework, I merely seek to contextualise the used language and to offer a few thoughts. No need to fetch tar and feathers… Some TERF took care of that a few posts back.

My issue is that the term “harmful cultural practices and norms” are specifically used in reference to problematic cultural issues in Africa, Asia, Latin American, and indigenous communities elsewhere. Specifically, in the gender sector in the African region it is very prevalent. Yet I wonder why the selective application of the term “cultural”. An inherent link is being forged between “harmful” and “cultural” in reference to non-Western norms, values, and cultural practices. At this point we tend to apply the word “cultural” specifically to non-Western cultures, as Western culture has become globalised to the point that it is used to measure whether something is “cultural” or not… The only times the term “Western culture” seems to be common is in historical settings, purporting something of a homogenous Western culture stemming from Ancient Greek ideals of democracy etc.; or in the contact of “attacks on Western culture” by immigrants, Islam, atheists, etc.

At this point labelling anything non-Western as “cultural” is presenting it as “non-modern”, i.e. backwards… especially because the rhetoric of “harmful cultural norms and practices” tends to promote the view that anything “cultural” is potentially harmful. Yet harmful attitudes and norms in the Western world aren’t intrinsically labelled as “cultural” while they can absolutely be linked to “Western culture”. The sheer racism that many Greek philosophers engaged in is often ignored, yet racism (as in white racism) is never labelled a “harmful cultural practice”; this is just one example…

We need to watch out how we talk about problematic practices, and how we seek to address them; we need to avoid promoting the rise of “Western culture” as a global norm that anything else needs to be measured against. Patriarchy exists everywhere, yet only outside the Western world is it labelled “cultural” and intrinsically linked to someone’s culture… as if in order to address this we need to fight against this “culture” and strive for conformity with the Western world. We do not.

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