Rhetoric or Rights?: When Culture and Religion Bar Girls' Right to Education
Elizabeth Chamblee Burch
University of Georgia Law School
Virginia Journal of International Law, Vol. 44, pp. 1073, 2004
Women account for almost two-thirds of the world's illiterates. In the year 2000, the World Education Forum met in Dakar, Senegal and set goals to (1) eliminate gender disparities in primary and secondary education by 2005, and (2) achieve gender equality in education by 2015. Two months before 2004, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) reported that sixty percent of the 128 countries that attended the Dakar Conference would not meet these goals. The report attributed the failure to sharp discrimination against girls in social and cultural practices.
The report failed to mention that social and cultural practices persist in many countries with high disparities because of the practices' firm entrenchment in the Islamic religion. Islam is the dominant religion in the majority of countries with the highest levels of gender disparity in education in favor of boys. The report identified the causes of gender disparity as labor market inequalities, enduring stereotypes, cultural preference for sons, early marriage, early pregnancy, domestic labors, and HIV/AIDS. Although the report attributed disparity to social norms and traditional practices, it failed to acknowledge that these norms and practices are symptoms and manifestations of the same source: Islamic fundamentalism.
Because religion and culture cause the disparity, the United Nations' organizations and many human rights groups opt to approach the situation with either carefully worded rhetoric or silence. These organizations implicitly consent to the cultural relativist position on human rights by remaining silent as well as by focusing their efforts on reporting violations committed against Islamic fundamentalists. As the founder of a dissonant female Muslim group noted, cultural relativism is "the big threat," and "everything can be tolerated in the name of culture." Only when fundamentalist groups seize power, as occurred with the Taliban in Afghanistan, do the United Nations and human rights groups report on violations committed by fundamentalists.
Deference to fundamentalists ignores the voices of dissension from Muslim female groups and prevents an effective campaign that identifies and targets religion as the root cause for educational disparity. For girls to realize their right to education, the international community must recognize and legitimize the voices of opposition, confront despotism in religion, encourage the eradication of biased gender roles regardless of their origin, and invest in innovative human rights education.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 72Accepted Paper Series
Date posted: October 5, 2005 ; Last revised: June 19, 2010
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