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What is "culture"

What is culture? Is it static or dynamic? In this step, we will take a step back to consider these questions.

In the video here we see how Dr Estrada-Claudio responds to accusations that SRHR concerns are a Western imposition. But what is culture? In the previous steps we have used this word generously and we see it whenever differences between groups of people come out.

In the first week we saw that this word is often used in debates on sexual and reproductive rights as well: traditional values and culture against ‘ progressive’ values. Some (religious) actors frame sexual and reproductive health and rights, expanded freedom for women and rights for sexual minorities as an imposition of ‘western culture’.

Strictly speaking, ‘ culture’ encompasses everything people learn after they are born, from certain ways of doing things, to certain taken for granted ways of understanding what it is to be a woman, a man, or something else. It is highly variable both historically and across the contemporary world. And it is often valued in certain ways: people often posit one way of doing things or understanding things as ‘ better’ than another way and link this to the ‘ in group’ and one or more ‘ out groups’.

In exploring the cultural landscape of the Cordillera we referenced local culture, youth culture, global culture, etc.. These terms are often quite fluid and overlapping: if Filipinos are the world’s most avid cell phone users, should we consider this to be local culture? Or global culture, since the cell phone was not invented there, nor the social media platforms that are most frequently used? Or both?

Yet, sometimes ‘ cultures’ may suddenly come to be understood as static and bounded: ‘western culture’ (including human rights, SRHR) is bad, tradition is good. Or the other way around: traditional practices are harmful, human rights are good. People start arguing about what is authentic, and what is not. These discussions may quickly spiral into grand abstractions that do not connect to the issue at hand anymore, as dr Claudio shows: ‘am I not a Filipina? And I am advocating for reproductive rights’.

There are several considerations to keep in mind when it comes to appeals to culture and related terms such as tradition:

  • Culture is never static, but changes continuously. Often, what is called ‘tradition’ has a much shorter history than we think, and used to be quite changeable before it was labelled as a tradition and as something that should not be changed.
  • Culture is often contested: who defines what ‘the culture’ of a particular group is? what influences are permitted and developed eagerly, which are not?
  • It is often much more plural in practice than how it is presented to outside groups.

In conclusion: to call SRHR an imposition of western culture does not do justice to the enormous energy and activism developed outside the ‘western’ context around these themes and to the fact that cultures are never static or uniform.

This article is from the free online

Religion and Sexual Wellbeing: Pleasure, Piety, and Reproductive Rights

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FutureLearn - Learning For Life

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