By Dr. Christopher Carrico
From the point of view of history and anthropology, there are many sad ironies in the current debates in Guyana and in many other formerly colonial societies over cultural relativism versus notions of universal human rights. Cultural relativism, a concept that emerged from anthropology during the early twentieth century, was an idea that was meant to counteract the racist ideas about cultural evolution that formed the dominant European worldview of the time. In a cynical inversion of the spirit of this idea, cultural relativism is today invoked to defend oppressive cultural institutions, and to suppress struggles for freedom. One of the great ironies is that traditions that were imposed upon non-European societies through the violent process of colonialism are today thought of in neo-colonial societies as ‘traditional values’ to be defended against the onslaught of Western ‘cultural imperialism.’ Current debates surrounding gender roles and sexual orientation provide us with clear examples of these processes.
Throughout the colonial era, Western European Christendom propagated its strongly held beliefs about the naturalness of a particular kind of patriarchal family structure. These beliefs included ideas about the moral superiority of their culturally specific forms of marriage, about the inferiority of women to men, and about the right and necessity of the use of physical violence in the discipline of children. Western European Christendom also propagated its particular beliefs about the nature of sexual morality – what kinds of behaviours were moral and what kinds of behaviours were sinful.
The culturally specific ideas about marriage and sexuality that European colonizing societies considered to be universal were frequently at odds with the values of the societies that Europeans subjected to colonialism. Male dominance in gender relations, for example, was a cultural characteristic that was absent in many parts of the world, such as in hunting and gathering societies and many other non-state based societies in the Americas, in Australia, in the Pacific Islands, in some parts of Africa and Asia, etc. The idea that parents have an absolute authority over their children was also an alien notion to many societies, as can still be sometimes witnessed in Guyana’s Amerindian communities where youth were often allowed remarkable autonomy in deciding how to conduct their lives on a day-to-day basis.
European ideas about sexual morality were also quite at odds with the beliefs held in the societies that they colonized. The incredible diversity that is found in human culture regarding ideas about sexual morality is a phenomenon that appalled and frustrated European Christian missionaries as they attempted, against all odds, to make universal ideas about sexual morality that emerged out of specific historical and cultural conditions that were neither universal nor timeless and unchanging.
Even the most superficial examination of the institution of marriage shows us how misguided European Christians were about the universality of their ideas. Most people are familiar with the fact that there are many societies that allowed the practice of polygyny (a man having multiple wives) and that this was a practice that was of particular concern to missionaries in many parts of the world. What fewer people are aware of is the fact that polyandry (a woman having multiple husbands) was also a reality – one that was more deeply disturbing to European Christians than polygyny. Tibet, Nepal, India and Sri Lanka are places where institutions of polyandry have been well documented ethnographically. The large and powerful Nair (or Nayar) caste of India’s Malabar Coast, for instance, had families that were matrilineal (one’s name, property, and lineage were only inherited through the female line) and women had multiple husbands. Polyandry was noted by observers of indentured Indian labourers who were brought to British Guiana, particularly because of the high ratio of men to women in the population that was brought here as labourers.
The notion that marriage is universally a relationship between a man and a woman (or men and women) is also one that does not bear closer scrutiny. Africa happens to be a continent where we find good ethnographic documentation of same-sex marriage. In some parts of Africa, there are certain conditions under which it is considered acceptable for a woman to have a female ‘husband’. Traditions of taking on female husbands have been found in West Africa, and there is indication that some of these traditions have survived in the African diaspora in the West Indies (in Suriname, for instance). In the Sudan, as well, in the Nuer society, where wealth is normally inherited through a male lineage, a family with no sons may ask a daughter to take on the role of a son, take a bride, and be the inheritor of the wealth of the patrilineage.
In a number of Amerindian societies, in both North and South America, the berdache played a significant role. The berdache was biologically male, but took on the mannerisms and behaviours, and did the work that was normally associated with women. Often they married men, and carried out the tasks and played the roles normally associated with wives. In some Amerindian societies, women also sometimes played the role of men. Sometimes these were women who were adept at the tasks normally associated with men (such as hunting or warfare) and these women took other women as wives.
Other than within the context of marriage, male-male sexual relations play an important role in adult socialization in some societies. This was clearly true from the historical evidence we have of ancient Greek and Roman societies, but these were by no means isolated or anomalous cultural examples. Anthropologist Evans-Pritchard’s research among the Azande of the African Sudan showed that when young Azande warriors left their homes during adolescence, they shared residence and had sexual relations with adult male warriors who paid bridewealth for them, and were responsible for their initiation as warriors. The normal progression of Azande male sexuality was from young male brides, to adult male warriors, to retired warriors who married women and fathered children.
In certain areas of Papua New Guinea, ritualized male homosexuality takes on the most ubiquitous form found in any societies. Male homosexual relations are nearly universal in these societies, and male sexual relations with women come with an elaborate set of taboos, are considered to be particularly risky and dangerous, and are considered as a kind of ‘necessary evil’ that is only appropriate for the purposes of biological reproduction. What anthropologist Gilbert Herdt called ‘ritualized homosexuality’ has been found in around 50 tribes in Papua New Guinea. In some of these groups, only oral sex is performed, with anal intercourse being considered unclean, while other of these societies have no taboo against anal sex.
Papua New Guinea gives us an example of same-sex sexuality where the characteristics of the opposite sex are not taken on by its participants. But there are also examples of persons who are biologically of one sex taking on the characteristic of another sex, but do not engage in homosexual acts. In India, there are examples of transvestitism (dressing in the clothes of and taking on the characteristics of the opposite sex) that are associated with celibacy rather than with homosexuality. In some cases, men dedicate themselves to particular goddesses, dress themselves in women’s clothes, and take vows of celibacy for periods of time as performances of dedication to that goddess. There are also men who are devotees of the god Krishna who ritually dress themselves in saris and pray to be reborn as one of Krishna’s wives.
When child abuse, homophobia, domestic violence, patriarchy within the family, etc. are declared to be ‘our values’ to be defended against the onslaught of ‘Western cultural imperialism’ in neo-colonial society, the great irony is that Western cultural imperialism has often been partially responsible in making these behaviours, springing from bigotry and chauvinism, into rampant problems in the first place. None of these problems are exclusive to, or originate from, the Western European colonial traditions. Patriarchy, and all of the violence against women and children that is used to keep it in place, certainly is much older than the European colonial era. Many anthropologists have noted that the oppression of women seems to have emerged at the same time as, and to be a part of the same processes as, the rise of class stratified and state based societies. This means that patriarchy is a problem that is several millennia old, and probably existed in Egypt, Mesopotamia, India and China before it was ever a problem in most of Europe. But as I noted above, patriarchal institutions were by no means universal before the colonial era, and there were always spaces of resistance and alternative traditions even within societies where the dominant traditions were extremely patriarchal (as in many parts of India).
When oppression is defended as a part of tradition, those are traditions that need to be challenged. Traditions are neither monolithic, nor all equally worth preserving, nor are they of some unchanging essence that defines what it means to be a member of a culture for all of time. If anything, what seems to be part of the essence of what it means to be human is the desire for freedom and liberation. We do not settle easily with institutions and conditions that oppress us, and the extent to which we resist being ruled by those conditions is the extent to which we have lived free (and therefore truly human) lives.