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Women's Cultural Rights Face Down the Storm

NOVEMBER 21, 2012—On Nov. 2, 2012, Human Rights Center Senior Fellow Marsha Freeman (’76) participated in a panel on women's cultural rights sponsored by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights at U.N. headquarters in New York.

The panel highlighted the work of Farida Shaheed of Pakistan, the U.N. Special Rapporteur in the Field of Cultural Rights, upon her presentation to the General Assembly of her recent report, "The Enjoyment of Cultural Rights by Women on an Equal Basis with Men." The panel also featured Lakshmi Puri, Deputy Director of U.N. Women, and Nafissatou J. Diop of the U.N. Population Fund.

An occasion of major importance in its own right, the gathering achieved particular significance as the only U.N. special event scheduled for Hurricane Sandy week that actually took place.

With the U.N. closed for three days and transportation questionable, the original General Assembly presentation schedule disappeared. A reception for Shaheed was cancelled as her hosts in New York lost power and cell towers went offline. But one by one, panelists checked in from their various bases. By Nov. 1, the U.N. had rescheduled Shaheed's formal presentation for Nov. 2, and all of the special event panelists but one, marooned in New Jersey, had confirmed attendance. Forty people arrived for the midday discussion, almost filling the conference room.

People made their way to the event, despite the circumstances, because Shaheed’s report is a major statement for the U.N. record, critical to developing local and international understanding that women have equal rights to participate in shaping their culture and in the benefits and opportunities it provides. Her report shifts the standard approach from citing culture as an obstacle to equality to making equal enjoyment of cultural rights instrumental to realizing all of women’s human rights.

Shaheed's report provides a rights-based framework for women to "actively engage in identifying and interpreting cultural heritage and to decide which cultural traditions, values or practices are to be kept, reoriented, modified or discarded." It notes the historic imbalance in the power to define culture and emphasizes the imperative that "all voices within a community" be heard, "without discrimination."

An emphatic statement on this issue is particularly necessary now, when some U.N. member states are engaged in a retrograde movement to promote "traditional values." Shaheed's report elaborates a human rights standard that challenges the historically limited view of culture as an unchanging monolith of tradition. Rather, the standard elaborated in Shaheed's report places women front and center as agents with full rights to define culture as an inclusive, living process that expresses the voices and aspirations of all.


e>Perspectives International Spring 2013


Marsha Freeman

Marsha Freeman (’76)