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Kneeling: Clash between culture and human rights

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Added 14th February 2018 02:18 PM

Some argue that kneeling is a sign of oppression towards women, while others say it is a cultural practice

Kneeling: Clash between culture and human rights

Some argue that kneeling is a sign of oppression towards women, while others say it is a cultural practice


By Enock Kibuuka

For months now, there is an on-going public debate over the issue of kneeling by women in some Ugandan communities. Some argue that kneeling is a sign of oppression towards women, while others say it is a cultural practice.

Well, I have chosen to contribute to this debate. On Tuesday, January 16, New Vision published an article to this effect, titled "Does kneeling really oppress women?" on page 32, with a picture of the former education minister Jessica Alupo kneeling before her husband.

The New Vision went ahead to publish divergent views of the different people about kneeling with Winnie Byanyima opposed to it. Article 37 of the Constitution grants a right to every person to "belong to, enjoy, practise, profess, maintain and promote any culture, cultural institution, language, tradition, creed or religion in community with others."

The debate as to whether women should kneel when greeting elders and their husbands is informed by the concept of cultural relativism. The conflict between cultural relativism and the universal or relative character or rights as declared in the major human rights instruments has and is still a source of debate and contention.

In the contention concerning cultural relativism and human rights, it is sometimes controversial whether a particular consideration is merely a matter of benefits and harms, or is instead a matter of morals or human rights. Cultural relativism can be described as the theory that there is infinite cultural diversity and that all cultural practices are equally valid.

That there are no absolutes upon which to judge one practise against another because, the principles that we may use for judging behaviour or anything else are relative to the culture in which we are raised. Cultural relativism can be formulated using two ways in which judgement might be relative to a culture. First, its truth or falsehood might be relative to the culture. That is, judgment might be true in a relative rather than an ordinary, non-relative way.

Second, the judgement might be true in an ordinary way, but be relative to a culture through a tacit reference to the culture. Cultural relativists stand for the proposition that they can practise their culture as they so desire because it is a fundamental individual liberty, which is even guaranteed by the Constitution.

That they should be allowed to carry their cultural practises as they so choose because the practises have no significant harm on others. Basing on this argument, it is just out of order to criticise let alone condemn kneeling because it is appreciatively practised by particular cultures and it does not harm those outside the concerned cultures. Therefore, people like Winnie Byanyima do not have a legitimate justification to condemn the practices of cultures or societies that have different traditions from theirs, otherwise this is cultural imperialism. Further, there is no legitimate cross-cultural standard for evaluating the treatment of rights and thereby declaring them universal.

Cultures are different in nature and thus the notions about wrong and right, the moral rules and their benefits necessarily differ throughout the cultures and the world because their roots and bases are different. For example, among the Western countries, a standing ovation is a sign of respect, yet not common to African setting. The equivalent of this is perhaps arguably, kneeling in some cultures such as the Baganda; hugging among the Bakiga and Banyankole, etcetera.

Among the Baganda and some other tribes here in Uganda, men prostrate before the traditional and cultural chiefs and Kings. Does Winnie Byanyima find this oppressive? As a social and ethnographic researcher, you go out there with an open mind and become an ‘outside insider.' Perhaps Byanyima is using the lenses of Bakiga or Banyankole to judge the culture of others. Such research findings would be totally biased and devoid of scholarship.

On the other hand, the human rights activists argue that while morals and even human rights need not to be understood as absolute, that is, as morally requiring people to respect them no matter how great the costs or bad consequences of doing so, they do place moral restrictions on permissible actions that an appeal to a mere balance of benefits over harms cannot justify overriding.

The human rights activists echo their sentiment that the theory of universalism advocates that there are human rights aspects that are so fundamental and essential to every human being that they surpass all political, cultural, religious and societal constraints.

Lastly, we need to appreciate the golden difference between human rights and people's rights. Whereas human rights apply to all persons as granted by Chapter Four of the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda, people's rights apply to particular groups of people and they differ. For example, the Baganda, as a social group of people, have cultural norms and practices which might be exclusive to them because that is what makes them Baganda anyway, and so are the other tribes. People's rights differ.

In all sincerity, kneeling does not in any way oppress women. Personally, I grew up kneeling while greeting my parents and grandparents till the age of 12. Though for now I am open-minded and I would not condemn someone who does not kneel to greet me in particular, I cannot condemn and equate kneeling to oppressing women or children. It is just a cultural norm and practice.

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