Saturday, November 17, 2018

Social Justice

Picture: Legal Bites
Women's rights and LGBT rights are controversial topics in Africa. In some countries, they are not only non-negotiable but also unmentionable. In the west, their intersectionality with other minority rights is well acknowledged. However, in Africa and other non-western countries, such intersectionality is not there because the very people who become minorities in the west (and get discriminated against) are the very people who frown at women's and LGBT rights. 

The visceral reality of these issues makes reasonable men and women unreasonable. However, nuanced cultural contexts are important in understanding any sociocultural issues, otherwise, de-contextual rationalization of such issues become destructive to the culture in question and the people who question some harmful elements of such a culture. There are no bad cultures, but there are bad cultural practices in every culture. Not a single culture can brag of having no unsavory cultural practices. Not now, not in the past. 

Given the fact that all people are culturally located and socially conditioned, it is imperative that one understands the cultural positionality and sociocultural conditions and structures that inform how people look at extra-cultural values. Critical interrogation of how people view things is important as opposed to a blind and uncritical dismissal of how people view issues. I can bitterly criticize Africans who oppose LGBT rights and the feminist discourse without regarding Africans are 'bad people.'

While some people see women's rights and LGBT rights as western political hegemonic-imperialistic 'agendas' that are imposed on non-western people, it is important to know that there is no absolute consensus in the west as to the morality of these issues. Conservatives and religious groups still oppose some of these rights (abortion, reproductive rights, equal pay for equal work etc), arguing that they are against their family and religious values. They forget that family and religious values are all social constructs and conventions. It is also imperative to note that these rights are recent in terms of their moral and cultural currency in the west. 

Women's suffrage moment gained traction at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century (1890s -1920s). The feminist movement gained traction in the late 1940s with the publication of Simone de Beauvoir's Section Sex.

Those who regard these social issues as western values instead of seeing them as human values forget the fact that they have not always been welcome in the west. Men who were accused of sodomy were arrested and some hanged in England. Gay people in Canada used to be arrested - like it happens now in Africa - if they professed to be gay. To argue that LGBT rights and women's rights as a social justice campaign is a western agenda is to lose sight of the fact that it has not always been rosy for these groups in the west. 

Hilde Johnson wrote in her book, South Sudan: The Untold Story from Independence to the Civil War, that the easiest way to stigmatize something in South Sudan (and in Africa I guess) is to argue that it is a "western idea." This is a psychosocial move meant for control. Once people are made to believe that a given idea is 'western', they are driven toward nationalist-culturalist populism to frantically fight 'westernization." 

While I understand that cultural acknowledgment and tolerance are phenomena that don't happen overnight, something I think western activists should understand, Africans and other non-western people need to understand that westerners have not always been (and some are still not) kind to women and the LGBT community. 

Westerners need to acknowledge that it took the west more than 400 years to acknowledge women's and the LGBT rights. Yet, they frown at Africans, who find such rights preposterous.  While Africans need to acknowledge that women's and LGBT rights are not western agenda but human rights, westerners need to understand how long it took for them to accept these rights as part of social justice campaign. 

As someone who writes about issues of social justice and human rights, I find it imperative for activists and social justice campaigners to avoid hypocrisy stealing into their campaigns. I fight for social justice because I know what it has done to me and "my people." I find it despicable that people who have been oppressed and looked down upon for centuries can be part of a process that oppresses others. 

Women and the LGBT community are not out to harm me or go against the values I find imperative; they are only asking me and people like me - straight, cis-gendered men - to allow them to love whoever they prefer without them being stigmatized or oppressed.

Women are asking me and people like me, to be fair to them. To allow them to go to school if they so chose instead of marrying them off at 15 or 16. Women are asking me not to assume they are emotional or weak just because they are women as society tells me. They want me to value them for what I see in them not what society has inculcated on my mind as the 'truth' or 'fact' about them. 

As long as a given group of people is not out to harm me, I don't see any reason why I should be up in arms against their well-being and the rights they are asking from me. 

I understand Africans' frustration with the hypocrisy of westerners at times because they expect Africans to embrace in a few decades what took them centuries to accept. While some of us only need to see the value of given social issues to accept them, some need more time to unlearn prejudices planted in them by their cultures. 

Social issues are not accepted because they are 'good' or 'moral'; they are accepted because they make sense within a given culture.

However, Africans and other non-western peoples need to know that cultures are meant as structures to order society's norms and govern our morals. We need to evaluate the rights of others against the health of our societies instead of assuming that there is a natural, objective cultural stance that should not be violated. Societies, where LGBT rights have been accepted, have not crumbled. 


Kuir ë Garang is the editor of THE PHILOSOPHICAL REFUGEE. Twitter @Kuirthiy 

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