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III. What Is Culture and Why Does It Matter?

Feminist theory has yet to come to grips with culture and religion, while traditionalists have tainted the word "culture" by defending "cultural practices" harmful to women. So we must pause to define our terms.

In the words of Ama Ata Aidoo, "The culture of a community really is the totality of the ways in which that community conducts its life: its births, growth, study, work, entertainment and death."3 Or, as Marjorie Agosin puts it, "Culture is who we are and who we are becoming."4 It is the food we put on the table, the way we cook it, the utensils with which we eat it, the relations between the people who sit at the table and the people who cook and serve, what is done with the leftovers, what is discussed during the meal, what music, dancing, poetry or theatre accompany it, and the social and spiritual values of those present—for, when we say culture, we include the visions, dreams and aspirations of humanity.

How is it possible to talk of social and economic development without talking about culture? To treat literacy and art in a purely instrumental way, as most development programs do, is to reinforce values that are part of the problem, not the solution. Do we want only materialist development? Have we no interest in spiritual and political development? How can we address the question of literacy if we ignore the question of what there is to read? Do we want women to learn to read and write merely so they can follow the instructions in packages of birth control pills? Or, as the Indian feminist Kamla Bhasin says, do we want them to be able to "read their own lives, write their own destinies, and claim their share?" Mariella Sala puts it like this:

"Without attention to culture, sustainable development is not possible, because profound changes must necessarily be culture-related. We must understand that women's silence is as serious a problem as poverty itself, and is both the cause of poverty and its effect. It is a vicious circle that must be broken. Women writers all over the world are mute; they are without a voice because so many social institutions are deaf to their plight and totally unaware of the importance of creative expression in mobilizing people's energies for change. The impact of creative literature and its ability to point out crucial aspects of social problems and to envision better ways of living cannot be denied, yet few see that sustainable development, political equality and peace must be based on full human development, and that art and culture are therefore strategic questions."5

Carolina Maria de Jesus, a barely educated woman from a Brazilian favela, collected wastepaper from garbage heaps to feed her children but, fiercely intelligent, wrote in her diary every day.

"I have a mania to observe everything, tell everything, and note down the facts...We are poor and we live on the banks of the river. The river banks are places for garbage and the marginal people. People of the favelas are considered marginal. No more do you see buzzards flying the river banks near the trash. The unemployed have taken the buzzards' place."6

This diary not only gave her a reason to live; it gave the rest of the world a way to understand the world of the favelas and inspired a generation of other testimonies by Latin American women. Like Carolina Maria de Jesus, women in the early U.S. labor movement often spoke of their longing for the beauties of art and nature, so that life should not be made up merely of ceaseless toil. In 1912, women textile strikers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, coined the slogan, "We want bread and roses too!" That slogan is still appropriate. But the categories of most development programs do not have room for people like the Lawrence strikers or Carolina Maria de Jesus or their successors like Dolores Huerta, Wangarai Mathai, and Rigoberta Menchu. Because they isolate economic questions, such development programs fail to deal with the complex web of social relations that enmesh women.

A web doesn't move if you pull at only one strand; all you can do that way is break it. The historic cultures and family ties of much of the world are already under attack, if not altogether destroyed. We must find ways to preserve what remains while at the same time refusing to accept those parts of tradition that treat women and children as less than human. Imposing colonialist definitions of progress while ignoring the cultural lives of indigenous peoples has already had devastating consequences. As Ama Ata Aidoo puts it, describing the condition of Africa:

What happens to a society whose own arts have been killed off, dangerously marginalized or ridiculed out of existence through colonial intervention? What happens to such a society especially if, at the end of formal colonization, it does not seem capable of mobilizing resources, encouraging its cultural workers, or does not have any peace, necessary to recreate newer forms of cultural manifestations?...Clearly such a society would be heading towards confusion, inertia, decay and death....In Africa...both governmental and non-governmental agencies...have adopted the most pragmatic, the most insensitive and the most humiliating policies of development. This attitude either says: "the people don't know anything so let's ignore them completely," or "let's sink a few wells and sell them family planning"....

Within this view of development in Africa, nobody, but absolutely nobody, is asking about what is happening to the human body and the human mind at the end of a hardworking day. And Africans have been working hard for a long time. We have a continent filled with over 500 million of the most tired people in all history. We have been exhausted for over 500 years. Today's Africans cannot afford even the mere notion of vacation, holiday, entertainment. People have lost touch with earlier forms of rest and not acquired any new ones. How do we get even our memories to function at all when we are not rested or relaxed? What is going to happen to us? It is an enormous question. When we zero in on women, we shall confront a plight so grim it will break your heart.7

Because most programs for women's economic development, education, and political equality either bow to patriarchal culture or try to impose the culture of the developers, they have fundamental conceptual flaws.

  • Their economic programs are reductionist, as if everything else would fall into place if only economic relations were changed. This is a variant of the old belief that, if you can just get women jobs outside the home, they will automatically become equal, a belief that generations of experience has disproved.
  • Their education programs see women as an economic resource—in the World Bank's phrase, "women are the best investment"—rather than as full human beings. They thus promote a narrow vocational training that stops at functional literacy and low-level technical skills. Women need a broad humanistic and scientific education for the same reasons men do—so they can understand and appreciate life, give intellectual and political leadership, and make the greatest social contribution of which they are capable.
  • Their programs for equality are flawed by legal fetishism, a belief that if you can just pass the right laws, women will become equal. Approaches that focus on law while ignoring culture will not change things sufficiently for the majority of women; we can all think of countries where women are equal in law but not in fact. Our problems would not be solved even if every country elected or appointed women to fifty per cent of its positions of power, for, in many countries, these women would be the wives, lovers, sisters, or daughters of important men, or members of a small group of ruling families. Besides, women politicians do not necessarily serve the interests of most women. And even if progressive women held half the offices in a few countries, that wouldn't change the relations between countries.

These approaches are flawed because they fail to address the cultural factors that impede women's progress. Programs for cultural, political, and economic development must work with, not against each other. It is naive to think that women will be helped by poverty-eradication programs dependant on World Bank loans when these loans insist on changes in the national economy that further impoverish the poor, who are largely women. It is absurd to fight patriarchal culture with one hand and fund it with the other, as do international agencies and NGOs who funnel their money for family planning and female education through religious institutions. The aim may be to reach religious women but the result is to subsidize the growth of a traditionalist bureaucracy that seems committed to the subordination of women. Campaigns for reproductive rights in the US, Poland or Nicaragua, the fight against amniocentesis in South Asia or female excision in West Asia and Africa—these are not merely struggles for better health care, but battles against traditional patriarchal culture, and they must be fought in those terms.

Cultural work that asks questions about the position of women is a central element in our strategy for female emancipation, but this work must develop in dialectic with the cultures that already exist. Culture has a life and rhythm of its own that cannot be laid out on an economic grid or simply "used" for propagandistic purposes. All too often, the cultural modules of development or health projects merely take the cultural values of the developers, dress them in local costume, and put them onstage. This is not what we mean. In the words of Ninotchka Rosca, "When we say cultural development is central, we mean that people need the time and space and access to means of cultural expression to be able to articulate their own social values." This process is as necessary to overall development as roads and wells and health care.

3 Keynote speech at "Cultural Dynamics and Development Processes and Africa at the Century's End," UNESCO Conference, Utrecht, June 9, 1994. back
4 Letter to the author, 3/16/95. back
5 Speech at Women's WORLD forum, "Write Against Silence," New York, March 15, 1995. back
6 Carolina Maria de Jesus, Child of the Dark, translated by David St. Clair (NAL, New York: 1962), p. 53. The original edition, Quarto des Despejo, was published in Brazil in 1960.back
7 Aidoo, op. cit. back