Universal rights and cultural relativism: Hinduism and Islam deconstructed

Universal rights and cultural relativism: Hinduism and Islam deconstructed

Catherine E. Polisi

Should nations or individuals have the authority to use culture as a basis for justifying human rights abuses? This question long has clouded the universality of human rights law and speaks to the often complicated nature of defining and condemning human rights violations in a world of many religions, nationalities, values, and cultures. Cultural relativist arguments often have been used to justify even the most severe human rights abuses around the world. My objective in this article is to begin to deconstruct the issue of cultural relativism as it applies to human rights law and to show how it is used as a tool for promoting the degradation and marginalization of women in Hindu and Islamic societies. I will briefly highlight human rights violations committed against women in Hindu and Islamic cultures, such as physical and verbal abuse, dowry killings, gender-biased laws, forced prostitution, female trafficking, restricted access to education, exclusion from participation in government, unfair court proceedings, and premenarche marriage, and I will argue that these violations have no cultural justification.

Although human rights abuses toward women often are justified on the grounds of Hindu and Muslim religious teachings and scriptures, the original, authoritative scriptures of both religions actually hold women in equal regard to men. I will use Hindu passages from the Vedas, the Upanishads, and the Mahabharata and Muslim passages from the Qur’an to present the argument that when these two religions began in 3000 BC and 610 AD, respectively, women were considered an essential part of the community, family unit, and religion. The tremendous gender bias that exists today in Islamic and Hindu cultures reflects not the original interpretations of the scriptures, but rather subsequent male interpretations of these texts.

Contrary to current beliefs in many Hindu and Muslim cultures, women were integral parts of daily religious rituals and were employed as religious philosophers alongside their male counterparts when these religions first began. They are described in the scriptures as equal partners to their husbands and were educated in the religious texts. If male religious interpretations have subsequently changed the meanings of the original teachings to subordinate women to men, cultural justification for human rights violations against women has no real foundation on which to rest.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights protects the civil, political, social, and cultural rights of all human beings despite differences of race, color, sex, nationality, religion, or opinion. The Declaration consists of thirty articles, each of which protects the fundamental and universal rights of individuals around the world. Article 1 of the Declaration provides free and equal rights for all human beings. Article 7 condemns discrimination and extends protection of the law to all. Article 10 protects the right to a fair and public trial by an “independent and impartial tribunal.” (1) Article 16 upholds equal rights within the institution of marriage. Article 17 extends the right to own property to everyone and protects an owner’s right not to have property taken away. Article 18 protects the right to religion and to the observance of religious practices. Article 21 establishes the right of every citizen to take part in the government and vote. Article 23 institutes the right of any individual to work and to have sale working conditions. Article 26 states that everyone has the right to an education. All of these rights are violated in many Hindu and Islamic cultures around the world everyday with respect to women.

The 1999 U.S. State Department’s Report for Congress on Nepal discusses restrictions on women’s right to vote or participate in the political process, gender and caste discrimination, violence against women, rape and incest, dowry killings, female trafficking, employment discrimination, female property ownership violations, discriminatory laws such as those governing marriage and divorce, gender-biased laws related to inheritance, and the lack of an education for a high proportion of females in the country. (2) The report cites cultural and religious norms as the sources of discrimination against women in Nepal:

Although the Constitution provides protections

for women, including equal pay for equal

work, the Government has not taken significant

action to implement its provisions. Women

face discrimination, particularly in rural areas,

where religious and cultural tradition, lack of

education, and ignorance of the law remain

severe impediments to their exercise of basic

rights such as the right to vote or to hold property

in their own names. (3)

Despite Nepalese laws that were created to protect women from human rights violations and consistent pressure applied to the Nepalese government by human rights organizations, women still suffer from human rights violations on a daily basis in this country and in other Hindu cultures around the world.

Women are subjected to equally degrading behavior in Muslim societies. The 2003 Human Rights Watch Report on Pakistan cites the murder of 211 women within the first four months of the reporting period as “honor killings,” in which family members or other men in the community killed women who broke female cultural norms. Furthermore, some human rights violations involved laws such as the Hudood, Qisas, and Diyat ordinances, which allow men to be pardoned for crimes against women, including rape and murder. Female victims of sexual assault are often pressured by men not to report the crime to authorities, or they will be faced with criminal prosecution for committing fornication or adultery. Systematic gang rapes of women as punishment for the crimes of men also are detailed in the report. One Muslim woman was gang-raped by four tribal councilmen after her brother was accused of having an illicit relationship with a woman. The abuse of women for the crimes of men is a regularly used method of “justice” in Pakistan and other Islamic countries. (4)

Women in Afghanistan who were liberated from the restrictions instituted by the Taliban were reported in the 2003 Human Rights Watch report to have been harassed by Islamic fundamentalists who assaulted them or forced them to undergo immediate gynecological exams to determine whether or not they had engaged in sexual intercourse. Girls’ schools also were bombed to ensure that women could not receive schooling, as was the case under the leadership of the Taliban. (5)

Hindu and Islamic societies claim that their religions dictate that women should be subordinated to men, and they attempt to justify the aforementioned human rights violations on these grounds. Violence against women is characterized as punishment for female misdeeds. Yet, with closer examination of the original words written in the central Hindu and Islamic scriptures, it is clear that women were not intended to be subjugated to men. In fact, women held important roles in traditional Muslim and Hindu societies as mothers, wives, religious philosophers, and educators.

In Hindu culture during the early Vedic period, which is commensurate with the ancient Greek period in Western society, women held important roles in religion and society. Both men and women were educated equally in religion and academia; women performed public religious sacrifices alongside men; and females received the sacred Hindu thread that today is only given to religiously learned males. The Haritasmrti recounts the existence of a group of women called brahmavadinis (a Sanskrit term meaning speakers and revealers of Brahman) who remained unmarried and devoted their lives to Hindu religious study during this early Vedic period. (6) A clear distinction in Vedic language is made between arcarya (a female teacher) and arcaryani (a teacher’s wife) and upadhyaya (a female preceptor) and upadhyayani (a preceptor’s wife), clearly showing that women in fact carried out the religious education of others and were communicators as well as students of sacred Hindu scripture. (7) In the Upanishads, women philosophers such as Vacaknavi challenged the ideas of Yajnavalka, her male counterpart. Women such as Queen Bispala engaged in warfare in the Rig Veda, revealing that women also played a role in protecting and participating in state affairs. (8)

Hindu gods and goddesses personify manifestations of Hindu religious concepts and nature. Interestingly, Hindu goddesses, rather than gods, are used most often to represent abstract fundamental principles such as power, strength, education, and wealth, as well as important natural phenomena such as the mountains, the dawn, the earth, and the rivers. For example, Hinduism personifies divine strength and power in the form of a female figure referred to as Shakti. Saraswati, the goddess of learning, music, and fine arts, is portrayed as a female in Hindu texts and paintings. Likewise, Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth, a female personification. Parvati, the mountain goddess, is the consort to Shiva, one of the most important Hindu gods. The goddess of dawn is Usha, the goddess of rivers is Ganga, and the goddess of Earth is Prithvi–all are female personifications of important aspects of nature on which humanity depends. (9)

The combination of male and female energies in one goddess or god also is common in Hindu religion and is referred to as Ardhanareeshwarar. (10) The complementary nature of the two energies is valued in Hindu society and is deemed essential for achieving balance within the gods and within mortals. The three gods who make up the Trimurti (Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Protector, and Shiva the Destroyer) are powerless without their female counterparts. For example, Shiva, the male destroyer, requires power and energy from Shakti, the female provider of power, to carry out his godly duties.

Literature written about the Vedic period clearly exhibits the high respect given to women at this time in history. Romesh C. Dutt wrote in The Civilization of India:

Women were held in higher respect in India

than in other ancient countries, and the Epics

and old literature of India assign a higher position

to them than the epics and literature of

ancient Greece. Hindu women enjoyed some

rights of property from the Vedic Age, took

share in social and religious rights, and were

sometimes distinguished by their learning. The

absolute seclusion of women in India was

unknown in ancient times. (11)

Louis Jaccoliot, an author who lived and worked in French India from 1837-90, echoed the above sentiment:

India of the Vedas entertained a respect for

women amounting to worship…. What! Here

is a civilization, which you cannot deny to be

older than your own, which places the woman

on a level with the man and gives her an equal

place in the family and in society. (12)

Hindu scriptures clearly convey the role of women in the Vedas: “The wife and husband, being the equal halves of one substance, are equal in every aspect; therefore, both should join and take equal parts in all work, religious and secular.” (13) Wives and husbands were directed by the Vedas to perform religious rites, ceremonies, and sacrifices together, as is demonstrated by the Sanskrit name given to the spiritual role of wives, Sahadharmini or “spiritual helpmate.” (14) Women had property ownership rights and the ability to plead their own court cases, as is shown in Book X of the Rig Veda. Mothers were respected above fathers, as is stated in the Mahabharata: “The teacher (akarya) is ten times more venerable than a sub-teacher (upadhyaya), the father a hundred times more than the teacher, but the mother a thousand times more than the father.” (15)

Today, some remnants of Vedic matriarchy exist in the southern part of India. There, through matrilineal lines of inheritance, the oldest daughter receives property or other family possessions from her mother. These matriarchal societies are the vestiges of the formerly more prominent role of females in Hindu society.

Hindu practices such as sati, the expectation that a wife will throw herself on her husband’s funeral pyre at his ceremonial cremation, were not known in the Vedic period. The ancient Hindu scripture Rig Veda states, “Rise up woman, thou art lying by one whose life is gone, come to the world of the living, away from thy husband, and become the wife of him who holds thy hand and is willing to marry thee.” (16) This passage makes it clear that at a husband’s death a wife is not expected to perform sati, as was instituted by many Hindu cultures centuries after the Vedic period. (17) Some scholars argue that the practice developed in 721 AD when Mohammed bin Qasim conquered India and killed thousands of men and enslaved the wives and children of the deceased. Women who lost their husbands chose to kill themselves rather than live as slaves for the duration of their lives. (18) This practice was common and was expected in Nepalese culture until it was recently outlawed after significant pressure was applied to the Nepalese government by human rights groups.

Similarly, marriage dowries in Hindu society originally were managed by women and were intended as collateral in case of a financial emergency. After the colonization of India by the British, Western ideas of gender inequality influenced Indian Hindus, and the practice of dowries became controlled by men, which eventually led to dowry killings in Hindu culture. Dowry killings involve the murder of a wife by the wife’s husband after receiving the in-laws’ marriage dowry. In these crimes, men use marriage to a woman as a method of acquiring money and precious gifts, which are given in marriage dowries, and they murder their wives once the dowry is received. British interpretation of Hindu law regarding marriage dowries at the time of colonization changed ownership of marriage dowries from that of women to men, and soon thereafter dowry murders began to occur.

It is clear from these examples that Hindu culture did not subordinate women to men in the early years of the religion. Yet today, women have been marginalized in society and are restricted from exercising the rights provided by the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Many of the restrictions placed on women in Hindu culture are a result of subsequent interpretations of Hindu scriptures by sexist males or of European colonization and the assimilation of principles and values that existed in Europe at that time.

Islam also has suffered from the male interpretations of the teachings of Mohammad, which have led members of Islamic society to believe that Mohammad instituted the subordination of women. This is incorrect. Prior to Mohammad’s birth in 570 AD, much of the Middle East was an egalitarian society in which women and men worked, learned, and lived side by side. The women in Mohammad’s life, such as his wife Aisha, played a significant role in recounting his religious teachings, which then were written down as the scriptures of Islam. (19) Mohammad’s wives and other women participated in wars, as is reported in the battle of Uhud. Women brought water to the battlefield, fought alongside men, cared for injured soldiers, and played instruments and sang war songs. (20) Quotes from the Qur’an clearly point to equality between the sexes: “Wives have rights corresponding to those which husbands have, in equitable reciprocity” (Sura 2:229). Mohammad addresses both men and women as equals under God in the following passage:

For Muslim men and women.

For believing men and women,

For devout men and women,

For true men and women,

For men and women who are

Patient and constant, for men

And women who humble themselves,

For men and women who give

In charity, for men and women

Who last (and deny themselves),

For men and women who

Guard their chastity, and

For men and women in God’s praise,

For them has God prepared

Forgiveness and a great reward. (Sura 33:35)

Today there are many Muslim nations, such as Saudi Arabia, where laws restrict women’s rights. Although Saudis argue that the laws are based on Islam, they clearly are not based on Islam as it is articulated in the Qur’an. Amnesty International’s 2002 Report on the Muslim Kingdom of Saudi Arabia highlights the nation’s refusal to issue identification cards to Saudi women and laws that deny women the right to drive a car. When Saudi Arabia’s minister of interior was asked if women would be permitted to participate in the Majlis Al-Shura (Consultative Council), he said, “Why make women a political issue . . . [W]omen are not a political issue, but a social issue,” making it clear that women would not receive representation in the government. (21) Saudi women need permission from a husband, father, or brother to apply for a job, be admitted to a hospital, or travel anywhere inside or outside the country. Women are not allowed to study engineering and cannot attend the well-regarded King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, which trains men for work in the energy industry. Furthermore, there is no minimum age at which women may be married, and it is illegal for women to marry non-Muslims. (22)

Muslims often refer to the Hadiths as evidence of Mohammad’s intention to keep women subordinate to men in Muslim culture. The Hadiths were written at the same time that Mohammad lived and preached to his followers, yet the Hadiths differ greatly from Mohammad’s words in their highly sexist tone, as evidenced in passages such as, “If a monkey, a black dog, or a woman passes in front of a praying person, his prayer is nullified” (Sahih Bukhary 8:102 and Hanbel 4:86) and “Bad omen is in the woman, the horse and the home” (Sahih Bukhary 76:53).

Mohammad rejected the Hadiths repeatedly, as can be read in the Qur’an, and commanded his followers to follow only the words he spoke and not those of others. It is clear from the way that Mohammad referred to men and women throughout the Qur’an that he did not intend for Muslim men to think of women as animals or to disrespect or abuse women in any way. In Mohammad’s words,

I never fail to reward any worker among you

for any work you do, be you male or female,

you are equal to one another. (Sura 3: 195)

As for those who lead a righteous life, male or

female, while believing, they enter Paradise;

without the slightest injustice. (Sura 4:124)

Mohammad’s words clearly show that not only should women participate in the labor force as workers, but that their work is equal to that of men in the eyes of Allah. Furthermore, a woman should lead a righteous life that must, of course, include religion, and she will be welcomed into paradise if she gives her loyalty to Allah. These words differ greatly from those of the Sahih Hadiths and demonstrate that Mohammad had very different intentions for women than did Sahib Burkhary and other Hadith writers.

Thus, it is clear that Mohammad did not intend for women to be sexually or physically assaulted by their husbands or other men, uneducated, spiritually and religiously vacuous through separation from religious teaching, or marginalized and subordinated. These societal constructions are the result of sexist male interpretations of Mohammad’s teachings and not the words of Mohammad himself. Why do women remain in a subordinated role in Islamic society today? The education of women and men in Islamic culture is needed to expose Muslims to the true teachings of Mohammad and his original intentions when uttering his sacred phrases.

As in many other religions, followers of Hinduism and Islam look to the past to determine how life should be lived in the present. Many Muslims today seek a return to life as it existed in seventh century AD when Mohammad lived. Middle Eastern countries have adopted the laws of Shar’ia to insure that society is governed by the principles taught by Mohammad. Muslims and Hindus look to religious clerics to help them interpret life as it once was in the era of Mohammad or the early Vedic period; however, the religious doctrine espoused today in many temples and mosques does not accurately reflect life as it existed at the inception of these religions and has led Muslims and Hindus to believe that sacred texts support and provide justification for the abuse of women. As long as misguided interpretations of holy Islamic and Hindu texts are perpetuated, women will continue to be mistreated in Muslim and Hindu societies. If followers of Islam and Hinduism seek to live in communities that reflect their religious principles, they must first understand the religious teachings as they were originally intended. It is time that Muslims and Hindus are made aware that men and women were regarded as equal partners in society and religion when these religions first began, and only over time has this dynamic shifted as a result of sexist male interpretations of the sacred texts. Seeking a return to the religious past must include the recognition of gender equality in Hinduism and Islam and the application of this revived principle in Muslim and Hindu societies.


(1.) UN General Assembly, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 10, UN General Assembly Resolution 217A, 1948, http://www.un.org/Overview/ rights.html (accessed May 10, 2004).

(2.) U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, “1999 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices,” February 25, 2000.

(3.) Ibid.

(4.) Human Rights Watch, “World Report 2003: Pakistan,” http://hrw.org/wr2k3/asia8.html (accessed April 30, 2004).

(5.) Human Rights Watch, “World Report 2003: Afghanistan,” http://hrw.org/wr2k3/asia1 .html (accessed April 30, 2004).

(6.) A Tribute to Hinduism, “Women in Hinduism,” http://www.atributetohinduism.com/Women_ in Hinduism.htm (accessed April 30, 2004).

(7.) Ibid.

(8.) Ibid.

(9.) Ibid.

(10.) Ibid.

(11.) Romesh C. Dun, A History of Civilization in Ancient India: Based on Sanscrit Literature, (London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1893), 21-22.

(12.) Swami Abhedananda, India and Her People (1906; repr., Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing Company, 2001), 253.

(13.) V Rig Veda 61: 8.

(14.) I Rig Veda 122: 2; 131: 3; III Rig Veda 53: 4, 6; X Rig Veda 86: 10.

(15.) The Laws of Manu, Manusmriti 2.145, trans. M. Yano and Y. Ikari, http://members.ozemail.com. au/~mooncharts/manu/manubilingual-1.pdf (accessed May 10, 2004).

(16.) X Rig Veda 18: 8.

(17.) Pramatha Nath Bose, A History of Hindu Civilization During British Rule (1894; repr. New Delhi: Asian Publication Services, 1975), 126-27.

(18.) Koenraad Elst, The Saffron Swastika: The Notion of Hindu Fascism (New Delhi: Voice of India, 2001), 824.

(19.) Leila Ahmed, Women and the Rise of Islam (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992), 47.

(20.) Ibid., 53

(21.) Amnesty International, “Amnesty International Report 2002–Saudi Arabia,” http://www.saudhouse. com/documents/AI%20saudi%20arabia%202002.pdf (accessed May 10, 2004).

(22.) Human Rights Watch, “Human Rights Watch World Report 2003: Middle East Watch,” Saudhouse.cam, http://www.saudhouse.com/documents/ HRW%20saudi%20arabia%202002.pdf (accessed April 30, 2004).


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Catherine E. Polisi recently received her master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies with a concentration in international law and economics.

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