Cultural Relativism: A Challenge to Women Equality

By Mariona Nogueras Piferrer

“Culture does not make people. People make culture. If it is true that the full humanity of women is not our culture, then we can and must make it our culture.”

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.


Human rights are rights which are inherent to all human beings, irrespective of nationality, place of residence, gender, national or ethnic origin, color, religion.[1] Its main purpose is protecting and promoting the rights of Equality, Dignity and Liberty, which should be universal and available to all human beings. The problem facing Human Rights is that all human beings are diverse in nature, and within diversity we have different cultures constituted by different societies and their traditions, making those three ideals for Human Rights difficult to achieve. This paper shall explain what cultural relativism consists of, analyse the main conflicts surrounding it, and theorise how cultural acceptance may be achieved. Following this analysis of cultural relativism, the paper shall demonstrate how it challenges gender equality through one of the many violations to human rights, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Africa and South Asia.

Culture is a central concept in anthropology and it begs several questions such as; where does culture come from? Why are cultures Universal?  Why do we have so many different cultures? [2]  Before answering all these questions we have to understand what culture consists of. It can be defined in many different ways but the most complete one goes as follows:

A culture is a way of life of a group of people–the behaviors, beliefs, values, and symbols that they accept, generally without thinking about them, and that are passed along by communication and imitation from one generation to the next.” [3]

Those normative beliefs, together with related cultural values and rituals, impose a sense of order and control on aspects of life that might otherwise appear chaotic or unpredictable. [4]  The intersection between culture and ethics is established through  different perceptions of what is ethical to one culture will not be considered so by someone living in a different one. [5] 

Cultural Relativism is a principle established by Franz Boas during the 20th century. He states, “although for every culture some moral judgements are valid, no moral judgement is universally valid. Instead every moral judgement is culturally relative”. [6] In other words, cultural relativism states that moral actions are subjective due to the uniqueness and diversity among different societies. It denies the existence of a single and absolute truth because humans are subjective to different factors that might differ in the perception of this one, as it is culture for example. Therefore, you cannot judge a particular cultural custom from the perspective of a different culture, which is not the one who has done the action because you will not understand it; “All peoples form judgements about ways of life different from their own”.[7]

Human beings live with the cultural and moral values they have grown up with. These can be considered essential in order to preserve their society and cultural identity. Therefore Cultural Relativists do not stand for Human Rights since they argue that those “essential rights” are culturally dependent, therefore concluding that no moral principles can be made to apply to all cultures.[8] Due to this, it is been questioned because of their Western philosophical assumptions and objectives attributed.  This is seen as a colonialist attitude, known as the “Western Issue” due to the “exportation” of the western values to the south which threatened to eliminate local peculiarities and impose their cultural and economic domination. If we did so, there would be contradiction in the conflicting human rights. Violation of another’s human rights cannot be justified through the utilisation of one’s own rights. Therefore some cultural communities do not respect Human Rights norms and values.[9]

This perception of “morally right is equal in accord with the norms of my culture” is patently false. If we say that “morally right” can be considered synonymous with, “in accord with the norms of my culture” anyone who morally defends a practice after saying that it agrees with the norms of that culture, but is not morally right would be in contradiction. However, it is clear that he or she has uttered no contradiction, indicating that “morally right” is not a stand-in for “in accord with norms of my culture”. [10] If we focus on the general claim which cultural relativism stands for “no moral judgement is universally valid: every moral judgement is culturally relative”.[11] By the adoption of this position it might be seen as a way of avoiding the problems which the world faces with practices such as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

Any Western person, born and raised in Western culture, will stand against this practice. On the other hand might be that women or men in Ethiopia, one of the places where this cultural action is practised, would defend FGM, saying that you are no one to question their traditions, adding that your attitude is a colonist one. A cultural relativist would tell you that the Ethiopian is right, you cannot judge an action unless you have grown up in this culture, because you cannot understand it properly.

Female Genital Mutilation is a traditional practice that consists of “partially or totally removing the external genitalia of girls and young women for non-medical reasons. It is illegal in many countries”. [12] It is a procedure that takes from twenty to thirty minutes and has been already been done to 100-140 million women in total in over 28 African countries and many in South Asia.[13] There are several reasons for this practice: in order to preserve premarital chastity; it is a signal that the girl is ready to be sexually active; to prevent dangerous situations, like rape. What they all have in common is that they seek to control female sexuality. [14] 

The reasons why FGM should be forbidden go beyond immediate bodily harm. After undergoing this practice, the girl is going to suffer from short and long-term health problems such as menstruation problems, excessive bleeding, kidney pains, problems going to the bathroom and the psychological trauma of the event. There was a case of a girl who had an extreme fear of knives because it was the tool which they used to remove part of her genitals. [15] The process also leads to public health problems. The girls when they undertake this procedure are not provided with any type of anaesthetic. Normally they tie both legs with a bow to immobilise them during the extraction. But because of movement provoked by the pain, the person doing the FGM might mistakenly cut or perforate other parts of the body. In addition, the tools used are usually not sterilised and this can lead to serious diseases such as HIV, AIDS, and syphilis. [16] Despite this, the cultural practice which harms young girls and women has existed for several thousand years and has turned into a great concern for the World Health Organisation (WHO). [17]

There are a few studies on the effect that FGM has on adult women’s sexuality. None of these studies attempt to differentiate between the physical and psychological causes of altered sexual response in some genially-mutilated women and why some women with a particular type of mutilation may experience sexual pleasure while others do not. A study conducted by Megafu in 1983 was interested in the effect of female genital mutilation on the age of first sexual intercourse and the incidence of premarital coitus among young Ibo women in Nigeria. He found no difference in what he termed “levels of promiscuity” between “circumcised” and “un-circumcised” women. [18]

As has been mentioned, one of the main reasons why FGM was done was to preserve premarital chastity. In other words, to prevent the woman being sexuality attracted to a man before marriage. Even though they extract the woman’s clitoris, as Megafu’s study said, the other parts of the body become more sensitive to sex, meaning that the intentions behind FGM fail. At the same time, this same study shows the effect on men’s sexuality, which states that you cannot enjoy sex because you are constantly aware that your partner is suffering, so therefore you cannot relax. [19] So, this practice which was performed with the interests of the male partner in mind in fact turns out to produce counter results.

In terms of how we can stop this practice we have to take into account that one of the main reasons why this practice is still on-going is due to lack of education. Some women believe that one of the reasons why it has to undergo this procedure is because the clitoris, while you grow up, becomes bigger and can harm the baby. Unfortunately, changes in behaviour do not happen simply as a result of receiving rational or scientific information. Parents who fear that their daughters will be perceived as promiscuous, for example, if they do not undergo genital mutilation, will need a stronger motivation to stop the practice than just scientific information. Therefore the public testimonies by non-circumcised women who are highly respected as role models may be a more effective way of stopping this act in these communities than health or religious messages. [20]

Summarising, we cannot blame culture for the practices that women have to endure. Culture can do nothing. By nature, it is a closed system, meaning that it is flexible and holds many possibilities of choice within its framework. It is the summation of behaviour and habitual modes of thought that makes up a particular society. As it has been said at the beginning of this essay;

Culture does not make people. People make culture. If it is true that the full humanity of women is not our culture, then we can and must make it our culture.” [21]

Cultural relativism spreads values, which are understandable, but I believe this ethnocentric attitude, which characterises the way most individuals feel about their culture, is used as an excuse to avoid the effort of changing. I use the word ‘excuse’ because I want to believe that no one likes seeing people suffering, no matter what the reason is. It boils down to the fact that our society is too individualistic. We care about injustices only when they affect us directly. Cultural relativism is used as a way to excuse themselves for not caring and not sounding selfish and inhumane. By adopting this attitude you are not promoting and respecting other cultures, at least in this aspect, you are inferring in the establishment of equality, an example of this is the acceptance of Female Genital Mutilation, because it is a cultural practice which has serious health consequences, causing pain and suffering. Female Genital Mutilation should not be considered simply as a cultural custom. It is an act of harm, which has to be fixed. Hurting someone in order to be able to control their sexuality should not be considered culture, because a woman does not need to be mutilated to become a real woman.


Mariona Nogueras Piferrer


1 “Human Rights.” Equality and Human Rights Comission. rights/human-rights.

2 Kanazawa, Satoshi. “Where Do Cultures Come From?” Pdf.

3 “CULTURE.” Tamu Edu.

4 Boundless. “Culture and Ethics.” Boundless Management. Boundless, 21 Jul. 2015. business-13/ethics-an-overview-95/culture-and-ethics-448-8309/

5 ibid.

6 Tilley, J. J. “Cultural Relativism, Universalism, and the Burden of Proof.” Millennium – Journal of International Studies 27, no. 2 (1998): 275-97.

7 Herakovits, Melville Jean. Cultural Relativism: Perspectives in Cultural Pluralism. N.Y.: Vintage Bks., 1972.

8 “Cultural Relativism vs. Universalism.” Global Policy. general/29441.html.

9 Andrew Fagan. “HU100 Week 19: HRs and Identity.” Notes taken in class from week 19.

10 Tilley, J. J. “Cultural Relativism, Universalism, and the Burden of Proof.” Millennium – Journal of

International Studies 27, no. 2 (1998): 275-97.

11 Herakovits, Melville Jean. Cultural Relativism: Perspectives in Cultural Pluralism. N.Y.: Vintage

Bks., 1972.

12 “Female Genital Mutilation.” World Health Organization.

13 FGM – A Ritual of Agony. May 31, 2011.

14 ibid.

15 ibid.

16 ibid.

17 Female Genital Mutilation. Geneva: WHO, 1998.

18 Female Genital Mutilation. Geneva: WHO, 1998.

19 ibid.

20 ibid.

21 Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.



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