Public lecture “Sex, lies and heritage. Gender equality vs. cultural diversity, round three”, December 10, 2012

Public lecture “Sex, lies and heritage. Gender equality vs. cultural diversity, round three”, December 10, 2012

by: Prof. Dr. Ellen Hertz, Université de Neuchâtel
Venue: Zentrales Hörsaalgebäude 003
Date: December 10, 2012

At first viewing, it is difficult to view the UNESCO-driven desire to safeguard intangible cultural heritage (“ICH”) and promote cultural diversity as anything but laudable. However, as many have pointed out before me, the preservation of what has been called “traditional culture” raises a number of issues for another excessively laudable series of U.N.-based initiatives: covenants designed to guarantee what have been labeled as “universal human rights”. This is particularly true, it seems to me, when it comes to gender equality, and notably the 1979 U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Gender differentiation is central in innumerable ways to all cultures, and discrimination, either explicit or implicit, often follows. Gender differentiation can take forms ranging from sex-based dress codes during rituals, to exclusion of women (or men) from certain areas of traditional knowledge, to the baring of women from certain trades or forms of cultural ownership, not to mention forms of bodily transformation such as excision that are clearly off-limits for heritage preservation efforts.
The state parties responsible for drafting the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of ICH were aware of these issues, and UNESCO even convened a working group that meet to produce specific recommendations on the subject. However, though the discussions were extremely interesting and sophisticated, they seem to have done more to illuminate problems at hand than to propose solutions. The guidelines and binding recommendations that were to have come from this work have not been issued or circulated. Indeed, the entire discussion seems to have disappeared from the UNESCO vitrine, and raising it today seems almost indecorous.
This paper is based on interviews with experts involved in these debates. It seeks to understand how the issue of gender inequality has been exited from the public sphere, and how it is handled in “private”, in the negotiations around specific propositions of ICH that reach the Paris office and the Intergovernmental Committee who screen UNESCO’s lists of ICH. It asks how UNESCO officials have in pragmatic ways “solved” a problem that I argue is fundamentally unsolvable if we respect the terms of the respective normative frameworks on the Conventions. I conclude by offering some suggestions as to a more productive framing of the problem of gender equality in a world where women disproportionately bear the burden of symbolizing and maintaining “cultural diversity”, and where the cause of sex equality is brandished by states for geopolitical aims.

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