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  • Writer's pictureKhushal Gurjar

Discarding Cultural Relativism in the Context of Indian Feminist Movement

International Human Rights Law has always suffered a lot of challenges at both ideological level or in its practical implementation. Idea of cultural relativism provides one of such challenges that are portrayed as one the most valid defense against the universalization of human rights. Its proponents argue that the world is divided into different cultures and each culture has a different understanding of human rights. The universal character only represents the understanding of human rights in the powerful nations which do not take into account the view of other politically weak countries. Although in some countries, this concept actually caters to the needs of the local populations (acceptance of the Ubuntu principle of South Africa), but the majority of the examples portray its use to justify authoritarian and religious regimes which are challenged by the International Human Rights Law.

In Indian context, the argument of cultural relativism is invoked to justify religious laws violating basic notions of human rights. The defense of cultural relativism might be required for some communities to maintain its practices, but the fear that this argument might be used to justify various social evils of religion and culture overpowers its positive uses. For example, a cultural relativist argument would justify evil like the caste system just because it aligns with the moral codes of Indian people. This idea goes against the very definition of human rights which exists by virtue of being a human. In the Indian context, cultural relativism is heavily opposed by the feminist and Dalit movements as the arguments of cultural specificity are mostly invoked to perpetuate and flourish the centuries-old subordination of women and Dalits.

Indian society is essentially a patriarchal society where gender discrimination is a persisting reality. Indian patriarchy is essentially represented by Hindu patriarchy which dates back to the most ancient of times such as Rig-Vedic or even Pre-Vedic. In every historical text, women have always been identified in reference with a male counterpart while he was the complete center of attention. Women were essentially considered as ‘chattels of men’ which in turn reflect the patriarchal understanding of women as a property rather than a human being. Women only had duties towards society while no rights were provided to them. Apart from the comparison with property, the human rights of women were largely compromised by introducing the idea of ‘chastity of a women’ which got recognition because of its sanctification through religion. Chastity of women was protected at different levels such as family, society, and lastly by the state/king itself. The idea of chastity of a woman further became important for maintaining the Brahmanical practice of endogamy which was an instrument to keep the myth of purity of blood and the evil conspiracy i.e., caste system, intact. Polygamy was a rule while polyandry was a taboo.

The mainstream Indian Feminist Movement finds its roots in the works of social activists like Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Dayanand Sarwaswati who aimed at removing evil social customs like the Sati System and Prohibition on Widow Remarriage. A lot of credit is also given to Ishwar Chandra Vidhyasagar and Pandita Ramabai for their contribution to women education in India. But when we delve deeper into the movement, one can easily conclude that these movements even though very important, did not work for all the Indian women equally as they were essentially Savarna Movements and ignored the specific problems faced by women belonging to lower castes. The mainstream movement ignored the contributions of Savitribai Phule in the field of women education as she established the first exclusive school providing modern English education specifically for women in India. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar could be said to truly represent an all-Indian feminist approach as his works in the Indian Constitution and later with the Hindu Code Bill and other reforms were the major instruments that enabled women of all castes and religion to remove social barriers and truly fight towards achieving total equality and gender justice. When studied deeply, we can conclude that Hindu Patriarchy was a systematic means for violating the most basic human rights of women in which religion played an important role. Although, Indian feminist movement has been able to deal with a lot of such problems at the outset, but still, a lot of work remains to be done.

In this light, a relativist position could end up giving approval to practices such as general subordination of women and minorities, female genital mutilation, child marriages, and many more. Such argument would only work to undermine the movement of human rights based on the idea of such rights being inalienable and enjoyable by virtue of being a human. Cultural Relativism challenges the universality principle of human rights and justifies those cultural variations should be provided legitimate exemption under International Human Rights Law regime irrespective of it leading to many human rights violations. In conclusion, we can say that this idea is really problematic not only in Indian perspective but in the majority of cases, as it prevents society from criticizing its own culture and hence limits the possibility of social reforms in removing ill of the society from unbiased perspective.

*The author of this post Khushal Gurjar, he is a LLM Candidate at National Law University, Delhi and an alumnus of National Law University and Judicial Academy, Assam. He can be reached at

Image Source: Indian Express

Article Number: 2021/LNLR/08B07


The views expressed in this article belong to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Journal.

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