Interview with Dr Julie Fraser: Social Institutions and International Human Rights Law Implementation – Part II: Social institutions and dynamism

In Part I of this series, Dr Julie Fraser and ILA Reporter Assistant Editor Stephanie Triefus discussed how social institutions can be used to overcome the lack of resonance of human rights discourse around the world, including Australia. This part delves deeper into what social institutions are, how they change, and busts some myths about the concept of culture.

ST: Religion is so structured that it seems to have more in common with public institutions, whereas other social institutions like the media, universities etc are more fast and loose, so it really depends on who sets up these organisations and what their intentions are. 

JF: I like the term fast and loose! I think I phrase it in my book as ‘dynamic and evolving’. But that really is it. All of these social situations, because they’re part of our culture, are fast and loose – to varying degrees. Even though we might think of religion as ancient and that we’ve had these practices for sometimes thousands of years, they are constantly changing. For example, Muslims may still pray five times a day, but they now can download smartphone apps that tell the prayer times and play the call to prayer.  So yes, the norms and rules do change based on different influences, and this is the beauty of social institutions: they give the perception of permanence despite constant evolution. We can all be agents within our culture – and if we can bring our social institutions more in line with human rights, then it can be really powerful. And that approach again goes against the legalistic top-down approach. Instead of the international community or national government imposing certain rules, it’s individual people within their social institutions saying, ‘we want these rules’. In my case study, it was Muslim women from within Islamic organisations saying, ‘we want equality and we want reproductive rights’. And that is really powerful.

ST: What are some of the benefits and limitations of culturally sensitive approaches to human rights implementation?

JF: I think one of the problems in international human rights law is that there is a negative connotation regarding ‘culture’.  In the sense that it’s too often affiliated with ‘harmful traditional practices’. Culture is almost code for FGM/C [female genital mutilation/cutting] in human rights discourse, and this is just untrue, but it also has a tinge of Orientalism. To ‘us’, what we do isn’t culture. This is life, and it is ‘others’ who have these exotic cultures. We don’t talk as much about Western culture.

ST: There’s that whole joke about white people having less culture than a pot of yoghurt, which is actually racist – the sense of ‘we’re normal and everyone else is weird’. For example, labiaplasty is a non-issue in the West, whereas FGM/C is unthinkable.

JF: We don’t think of ‘our’ culture as a culture, it’s the norm and everything that deviates from that is then ‘culture’.  And that’s been taken up in human rights discourse in both some of the literature as well as some treaty body practice. Culture is not inherently good or bad.  It can be used by people either for good or bad purposes.  A benefit can be that we can employ our own culture positively to shape norms, to recognise equality for all and to promote particular human rights, but we can also use culture to deny people rights. I don’t think that culture is well perceived in international law, and this is where we need some more interdisciplinarity in terms of drawing more from anthropology, sociology, to really look at culture and what it is. More focus could be placed on the West, where we also have some cultural practices that are detrimental for human rights. 

ST: Your book dismantles some stereotypes, such as that Muslim women are passive victims and that cultural interaction with human rights equates to harmful traditional practices. Are there any myths you would like to bust that crop up in public discourse relating to human rights and culture?

JF: In terms of Muslim women being passive victims, I think that’s an old myth now in academia, but still a present one amongst the general public. It certainly relates to the discussions now about the niqab and the burka, and all of these bans that we’re now seeing in Europe. It goes back to this idea that women are imprisoned by their religion, and they are forced to wear these things against their will. Of course, there will be different experiences within that, but my book tries to reiterate that as a myth.  And I was so impressed by these women I met in Indonesia, they were absolutely trailblazing and unapologetic and they put up with a lot of criticism.  They were definitely not ‘passive victims’. An example I used in the book is about a group of women ulamas – Islamic clerics – who get together and make their own religious rulings – fatwas. Traditionally, it was always done by men, but these women looked at the texts and said ‘we can do it too’.

ST: What’s also interesting is the face covering issue – now everyone is wearing masks in public, and that’s not a problem whatsoever, whereas before, if 15 Muslim women in a city wanted to cover their face, it had to be illegal.

JF: Like the example of vaginoplasty and FGM/C, here again the contradiction is apparent. A number of countries in Europe have banned face veils but also passed facemask orders. This is an example of the Janus-faced nature of these issues. Covid has certainly underlined the role of culture in protecting rights. Many of the claims made against Covid measures are done on the basis of human rights – people saying ‘it’s my human right to not wear a mask or it’s my right to go outside’.  And it’s really interesting that they’re taking up the language of human rights to make these claims – albeit incorrectly.

ST: And Dan Andrews, the Victorian Premier, saying ‘it’s not about human rights, it’s about human life’ is classic Australia – we’re talking about the same thing, but we’re not going to use human rights discourse.

JF: Which goes back to this disconnect, the lack of resonance – but it’s also a misunderstanding about what human rights are. If people are going to claim that it’s their right not to wear a mask based on their human rights – I’m excited that they’re using human rights language. But we need to better understand what rights are and how they apply. Human rights are not absolute. That’s part of the problem with human rights implementation – a lack of familiarity with what these norms are, what they mean and how they are supposed to be used to improve our lives.  For me, all of it comes down to education, in that sense, which is why I work in education. 

The ILA Reporter thanks Dr Fraser for her time.

Stephanie Triefus is a PhD Candidate at Erasmus University Rotterdam in the field of human rights and international investment law and an Assistant Editor of the ILA Reporter.