Human Rights Dialogue (1994–2005): Series 1, Number 7 (Winter 1996): New Issues in East Asian Human Rights - A Conference Report: Articles: The Role of Cultural Reflection

Dec 5, 1996

This article is part of a report of the Carnegie Council's workshop, "New Issues in East Asian Human Rights," held at Seoul National University in Korea from October 2-5, 1996.

Relative to globalization and development imperatives, renewed reflection on cultural traditions played a lesser, or not clearly delineated, role as the impetus for emerging rights issues. Instead, discussions emphasized culture's dual positive and negative role in realizing human rights.

The interplay between cultural norms and economic development is best captured in Suwanna Satha-Anand's paper on prostitution in Thailand. Suwanna of Chulalongkorn University in Thailand argues that prostitution has its roots and remedies in cultural tradition as well as economic push and pull factors. According to Suwanna, the "single most important factor in the chain of conditions leading to prostitution is the economic equation since no other occupation to which a semiliterate rustic could aspire pays so well." At the same time, she says localized notions of karma or kham condition Thai women's low valuation of their self-worth and impede advancement of their rights. Comments by activists Amor Almagro of Child Rights Asia Net in Thailand and Kek Galabru of LICADHO in Cambodia confirmed the existence of this situation in other parts of Buddhist Asia.

Suwanna cites historian Craig Reynolds to explain how karma conditions gender inequalities in Buddhist traditions:

  • [A] woman had an inadequate store of merit, and the only way to remedy this situation was for a woman to make merit through acts of religious devotion. In this worldview, differences in gender reflected inequalities of accumulated merit and Buddhism, by explaining differences in this way, thereby ratified them as inequalities. .12

Once this line of reasoning is accepted, Suwanna writes in her paper:

  • [I]t is only natural that women occupy an inferior status in this life....being born a female is [not] permanent to a person's nature, as it applies only in this life. There are always opportunities [in future lives] to change one's sexual fate. What one can do is make and store one's merit in this life so that one will be reborn a male in the next. The fact that one's sexuality is actually not permanent seems to reinforce the power of the Buddhistic belief in women's inferiority.

From a Western standpoint, Charles Taylor noted in discussions that paradoxically, many Thai women feel drawn or pushed into the sex trade by strong moral commitments. He added:

  • But the form this moral commitment takes, and the kinds of sacrifices it unproblematically imposes on women, makes it a highly questionable one, seen in the light of standards of gender equality and equity.

He referred to embedded cultural notions of the "dutiful daughter," whose providing for her family through prostitution is a meritous act—the merit of which is the flood of remittances to families in rural areas.

The fact that prostitution in Thailand and other Buddhist societies may be seen as a moral duty necessitates careful consideration of the perspectives of Thai women. Jefferson Plantilla noted that Thai Buddhist tradition does not allow women to gain merit for themselves and their family as men can by becoming monks. Consequently he suggested that prostitution may be a woman's way of fighting back—an assertion of a "right" to self-protection for the future. That the assertion of this "right" to make merit takes place in the context of duty is similarly problematic in many Asian contexts, said Plantilla. Other relevant issues include what Buddhism says about a women's right to her body and the enjoyment of sexual behavior.

Before delving into Buddhist texts to better understand the practice of prostitution one must first consider how salient a role Buddhism plays in Thai society at large. How Buddhist is Thailand today and how strictly are Buddhist teachings being adhered to by those who call themselves Buddhists? Amor Almagro described the sometimes perverted process of cultural reinterpretation as cultural "commodification." She gave an anecdote about Wat Kanikapol, a Buddhist temple built around 1910 in Thailand named after the prostitutes whose merit-making built it; their earnings were channeled to the temple as offerings, a common practice.

Buddhist influences aside, if wmen turn to prostitu-tion by choice and are not entirely forced into it, what are their rights and how are we going to protect them? "If they are there to make money," Amalgro asked, "why not recognize their rights as workers?" In fact, the women's movement in Thailand is now considering the decrimin-alization of prostitution in an effort to protect the rights of women workers.

Part of the solution that Suwanna proposes to the problem calls for the provision of programs of action which directly help alleviate poverty and the plight of women, such as training programs, improving the female literacy rate, and general education about their rights and the law. It also calls for an improvement and reinforcement of laws that punish traffickers. Almagro also stressed the need to look critically at men's behavior, most importantly their use of disposable income to procure sex.

"Accusing fingers have been pointing to Buddhism as one of the guilty parties in the whole charade of Thai prostitution," explains Suwanna, who believes that "Buddhism should and can do something to help remedy the situation" at the structural level. She argues for concerted efforts "to reorient economic development policy, so that it is more conducive to human development, particularly the development of women." This approach would necessitate rereading and reinterpreting "certain elements in tradition and religious cultures which have been putting women in a subordinate position for such a long time," along with changes in unfair family laws, and bolstering law enforcement. Suwanna argues in her paper:

  • The situational approach adopted by many NGOs needs to be coordinated with the structural approach. In other words, the missing link in this whole process is to go back to the self-formation process of women. As long as the general male-female relationship in Thai society remains unchanged, it seems unlikely that the tragedy of prostitution will die of itself. One of the ways to alleviate the situation is to create rights awareness within the transmission of traditional cultural values.

In response to Suwanna's call for cultural reinterpretation, Charles Taylor asked:

  • Can we, should we go back to the beginning of the tradition and rediscover sources, and look on some of the things that have come down from [the tradition] as reflecting more the patriarchal, inegalitarian features of that society than the actual inspirations from the tradition?... It may be possible to return to the original sources of the religion and make a new reading of them in the light of the demands we feel today morally for equality and human rights. Thereby we liberate not only women, but also the spiritual sources from the dead weight laid on them by societies interpreting them.

This sort of reinterpretation of cultural and religious traditions is already going on in many societies as they cope with the effects of globalization, development, modernization, and social change. .13 Often, however, reinterpretations by religious leaders linger on the esoteric and moralistic dimensions of their traditions without linking them to the realities of structural transformations underway in the society. Yet, reinterpretations that are progressive in taking on more political issues and threatening existing power structures run the risk of fueling fundamentalist charges of "spiritual imperialism."

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