Friday, 15 June 2012

Tackling Inequality across Society – The Case Against


Daniel Watson




Minister of Information, Culture and Tourism in Liberia, Lewis Brown. MICAT Liberia.
The task of addressing inequality across society is, speaking as a former student of Anthropology, a dubious one. Recognising the structural inequality of society is important but the relative merit of appearing to desire cultural change is questionable. Programmes are much more successful when they seek only to reform practices and not norms. Cultural norms, in their discursive relationship with the practices of society, will follow. For instance, female education, it goes, leads to female empowerment.

So, we must listen when leaders cut off development plans at their root, denying permission to alter practices. Lewis Brown, the Minister of Information, Culture and Tourism of Liberia, ought to make us sit up and listen. He said recently that the Liberian government is not thinking about abolishing any traditional practices. In itself perhaps a laudable statement, however we ought to remember that the practices in question include Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), a highly controversial procedure.

Key to Brown's argument was that any movement to change practices challenges the very essence of being Liberian. Traditional practices shouldn't be seen as evil and any act against them dilutes the values of every Liberian, he said. I can agree on the former but the latter is a conflation of identity and practices that denies their true relationship.

Highlighting the connection between practices and ideals, Brown has constructed an impasse on future routes to progress in female empowerment. What Brown has not done though is demonstrate an understanding of the fluid nature of identity. It is an unkind act to disseminate the idea that identity is irrevocably damaged by change in practices. In reality, practices and identity operate in a discursive relationship, the one informs the other. Furthermore, neither are, in practice, static domains.

Consider Islam. Being a Muslim means affiliating yourself to Islam, having a Muslim identity (as well as any other identity of course). How has it come to pass that we find many different practices of Islam? It is due to interpretation by the Ulama, it is due to the curious way in which we pass on tradition, and it is due to a multitude of Muslim identities. The practices undertaken are analysed by the actors, assessed for their conformity to their chosen identity, sometimes publicly. Acknowledging this process means a concomitant recognition that the relationship between identity, between cultural norms, and practices is not a hard and fast one. It is constantly under reformulation with respect to present concerns; religion is a “discursive tradition”.

A term coined by Talal Asad to explore an Anthropology of Islam, the idea of “discursive tradition” is a useful concept beyond examination of religion. It stands central, in my understanding, to analysis of the relationship between identity and practice. In all action there is an implicit reckoning of what constitutes apt performance. That is to say that cultural norms are constantly invoked in considering the practices of society and that as these practices change the norms carry this change too. Having said that, let's retreat from the esoteric and academic to beat our way back to a tangible scenario.


Joytara, one of the women of JITA who now hopes to grow a successful business. Picture: Kathryn Richards/CARE.
In Bangladesh a scheme has given women the political means to challenge their disadvantaged position. Joytara, the mother of two children, found herself in a difficult situation when her husband became paralysed and her maid servant work was not sufficient to support her family. CARE International's Rural Sales Programme (since rolled into a social enterprise business, JITA) offered Joytara a chance to earn a decent wage. In the programme Joytara operated a door-to-door sales service, selling products from private sector partners.

It is clear from this scheme that Joytara's prospects could not have been improved had she not been given the economic opportunity to change practices. The challenge to the problems of gender inequality at a cultural level are an extra boon to this economic support initiative. Joytara said: “The main problem at first was social acceptance”, and added: “women who stay in the house with no options should work like me and make themselves independent.” It seems clear from these words that CARE's programme has made a significant impact by coming to practical inequality first.

Despite the stated aim to promote gender equality, this approach benefited from looking initially to practices with vulnerable women and will have consequences that filter into wider understandings of female identity. Joytara's comments illustrate that a programme dedicated to challenging cultural norms first would have floundered amongst limited social acceptance.

It is all well and good expounding the opinion that the link between cultural norms and societal practices ought to be properly understood but how can this be achieved? The reality of it, as I see it, is that there is no capacity in which foreign policy can successfully lecture on the fluidity of identity without flirting with imperialism. Rather, the bottom line is this: Identity politics is a dangerous game, one that external agents are best avoiding. Foreign policy is permitted to admonish practices but care must be taken that there is no opportunity given for conflation of criticism of practices with criticism of identity.

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