As anInternational Development Studies student, I am constantly reading articlesthat involve global gender inequality and the many actors and organizationsinvolved. Recently, I came across an article in The Guardian: InternationalEdition written by Patience Akumu, regarding Winnie Byanyima, an executivedirector of Oxfam International, an international confederation of charitableorganizations focused on alleviating global poverty (Oxfam 2017). The articlediscusses a controversy surrounding a photo and tweets published by Ms.Byanyima concerning an incident where her female neighbour insisted on kneelingin front of her to greet her. She requested that this practice be stopped andin response, Ugandan women disagreed.
In Uganda, this is one of many traditionaland cultural practices in which women must follow; women are expected to kneelin front of men, elders, or social superiors. While boys also follow thispractice, they are only required to kneel until they are teenagers, whereaswomen must follow this practice for the duration of their life (Marin, 2015). From myperspective, I believe that the main point the author is trying to illustrateis the fine and difficult line and between longstanding and valuable culturaltraditions or harmful ones that impede on women empowerment and rights. Theunderlining question being asked is how to determine what practices areacceptable or unacceptable, hindering the rights or empowerment of others.Kneeling may not be a large issue however it perpetuates larger problems askneeling directly sustains inequalities of power between women and men. Inaddition, the women in Uganda need to ask themselves, if thispractice/tradition truly doesn’t mean anything, then why don’t men also followthis practice for the duration of their lives.
Moreover, in order to correctly analyze thisissue, cultural relativism needs to be kept in mind. Universally, womenare viewed as subordinate, inferior, and have a secondary status to men(Ortner, 1974). In Uganda, women are considered subordinate and property oftheir husbands, representing essential features and core ideas of Ugandanculture reflecting a male’s right to dominate over women (Lindorfer, 2007).
This clearly demonstrates that culture provides guidelines for socialbehaviours, norms, values, and practices including the practice of kneeling. In’Romance of Resistance’ we learn that a moral code is one of the most importantmeans of perpetuating the unequal structures of power (Abu-Lughod, 1990). If wewere to apply this to the issue presented in the article of whether or not tokneel, from an insider’s perspective, the view of women of Uganda, they are followingwhat their culture deems to be right and respectful, and therefore, following amoral code. From Winnie’s perspective, her objection is towards a practice thatwhile, may lay on a spectrum of cultural tradition, is applied only to women tomake them of lesser status in a patriarchal system. Kneeling is a culturalpractice that physically lowers and directly subordinates women, having noplace in an equal world. Regardless if the practice is a means of oppression ofwomen, they will continue to do so, perpetuating the unequal structure of powerin Uganda. While Ugandan women may claim they support human and women’s rights,they detest any suggestion of full equality. One Ugandan woman, Paddy Garille is quoted saying “I don’tsupport those who make them think they women are equal to men.
Its Biblical”.The difference in perspectives between Winnie and the women of Uganda furthersthe author’s point that the line between a valuable or harmful culturaltradition is difficult to draw. It is also worth noting again that WinnieByanyima is an executive director at Oxfam International, an organization thathas a goal to achieve gender justice through the empowerment of women byensuring their needs and rights are recognized. Therefore, as a progressiveUgandan woman and working towards achieving these goals, she knows that thereis a need for human action and resistance.
Further, with the issue of otherUgandan women seeing no harm in the practice of kneeling that further subordinatesUgandan women. The cultural ideology of Uganda practiced explicitly devalueswomen and accord them their roles, tasks, and practices, and it is culture thattells humans what they ought to do, what they ought to think, or what theyought to expect of others. The issue then lays in the need to change themindset of a whole society in order for complete equality, a difficult task,especially when that society has a rich history full of cultural practices and traditions.
The controversy surrounding Winnie and her objections towards this practicedemonstrates a violation of the moral code which is understood as a way ofresisting the system and challenging the author of those who represent and benefitfrom it (Abu-Lughod, 1990). In order to properly analyze this issue, we needto apply cultural relativism, a concept that Winnie Byanyima did not do.Cultural relativism, the perspective that all cultures are equally valid andcan only be truly understood in their own terms. Even though Winnie is ofUgandan culture, she is also a leader on women`s rights and has her own set ofbeliefs, different from those of Ugandan culture.
Winnie, or any other outsiderwith the same perspective towards the practice of women kneeling for elders, men,or social superiors, should, keeping cultural relativism in mind, understandUgandan culture in its own terms so that the culture appears to be a meaningfulway to live (Greenwood & Stini, 1977).