Cultural rights and wrongsHow many more women must die before defining how far Chhaupadi is acceptable?
Yet another woman has passed away while living in isolation in a cold shed during her period just to please her god. Menstruation is a natural phenomenon for women which requires no justification, but there are several peculiar practices which are followed during this time among the Hindu community in Nepal. While many young people are slowly abandoning these traditional practices, there are still some customs observed by a large section of society. Among them, the most common practice is Chhaupadi Pratha which is found in western Nepal. This custom has received national and international attention time and again. Chhaupadi Pratha is a cultural practice. Abstaining from regular activity is a custom among many Hindus. Can Chhaupadi or such abstention be regarded as a right because universal human rights also respect culture?
While we claim human rights to be universal, does Chhaupadi help us understand cultural relativism? You may have a different opinion, but I am trying to test Chhaupadi as cultural relativism as explained by Jack Donnelly in his article Cultural Relativism and Universal Human Rights. Donnelly rejects universal human rights and advocates a slight deviation from that universal claim. All the current UN agreements on human rights are based on universal human rights. International human rights law lays the foundation for cultural rights as values through which, it argues, individuals and communities pass on their values, religion, customs, language and other cultural references that help to foster an atmosphere of mutual understanding and respect for cultural values.
Should cultural norms be preserved?
Should behaving differently during menstruation be questioned? No matter how strange an outsider may consider the practice, it can be a cultural practice. Abstaining from kitchen work, not entering temples, not touching others and maintaining certain composure are some of the fundamental rules followed by Hindus during menstruation. This is a traditional practice and part of culture which no one has the right to question because it is their cultural right. Behaving differently during menstruation for this group is the same as Sikhs wearing turbans, Newars conducting the Ihi ceremony and Janajatis drinking alcohol and wearing different types of clothes and so forth.
I know little about history, so I don’t want to comment much on how Chhaupadi Pratha started. I don’t know whether women used to voluntarily abstain from taking part in certain activities or they were forced to do so in the past. Staying ‘clean’ during one’s period might have been a necessary evil at that time which was passed down by the ancestors to modern civilisation.
Drawing a line
Having identified Chhaupadi Pratha as a cultural right, it is also necessary to draw a line between acceptable and unacceptable limits. The question is how much of a cultural practice is acceptable. Those countries which have ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) must know that any cultural practice that is apparently harmful to the individual and society should be understood as a form of discrimination in the name of culture which might be based on gender, caste, ethnicity or religion.
For example, preventing women from attaining education in the name of culture is a violation of their human rights. Similarly, preventing a so-called low caste woman from entering a hospital in the name of culture or traditional practice is simply wrong. Likewise, stopping a so-called low caste person from entering a public temple in the name of culture is discrimination. It is one thing to practice your own culture, but it is quite another thing if it curtails another individual’s freedom. Chhaupadi Pratha is a cultural practice among Hindus, particularly Brahmins and Chhetris. However, the extent of the practice or demarcation is highly essential here to differentiate between good and bad. Some cultural practices have vanished over time after society successfully drew the line between good and harmful practices.
International human rights bodies, including the UN, have clearly demarcated harmful and acceptable cultural practices. Donnelly, who denies universal human rights, also defends cultures from a soft corner. It is important for us to know that he denies radical universalism, but also doesn’t support radical cultural relativism. Between strong and weak cultural relativist positions, Donnelly defends weak cultural relativism.
Magar is a graduate from the University of Essex, the UK