What is the meaning of the word “culture”? It is a word that is difficult to define because it means different things to different people. It can also be quite contentious.
There are three commonly understood versions of the word “culture” according to Susan Marks & Andrew Clapham (International Human Rights Lexicon)
1) culture as the arts
2) culture as a particular way of life
3) culture as the dimension of difference
My own understanding of the tem is most like point no. 2 “culture as a way of life”. Travellers talk about their culture, Northern Unionists also use the word and I would describe my own culture as being Irish Catholic, educated and feminist. I use these terms to describe my values and beliefs about myself and my heritage.
When I was young I took part in the local St. Patrick’s Day Parade as a Member of the Girl Guides. Unionists attended Orange Parades and by their participation gave expression to their culture. Of course the standoff over Garvaghey Road in Portadown highlighted the issue of whether they had the right to walk down one particularly Catholic road where the residents opposed the march. Violence arose over the issue and this went on for a number of years until the Parades Commission took over. It was the job of the Parades Commission to decide on routes for the parade and to determine how the parade should proceed. One year the compromise was that the Orange Order could walk down the Garvaghey Road but they were obliged to do so in silence.
Another worrying aspect of culture / cultural practise is Female Genital Circumscision which is a carried out in many parts of Africa. This is a potentially life threatening procedure and it is inflicted on young girls without their consent. There are many other examples of culture throughout the world, eg. Saudi Arabian women must wear the burqua and cannot go out in public without a chaperone. How do these women feel about the rules that have been laid down from on high and described as “culture”?
Do Human Rights protect culture or do they deny it? Article 15 of International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights obliges state parties to recognise “the right of everyone to take part in cultural life” and Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil & Political Rights provides “in those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to those minorities whall not be denied the right, in community with other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, profess and practice their own religion or to use their own language”.
Terry Eagleton in a book called “The Idea of Culture” referred to the concept of culture as “affection, relationship, memory, kinship, place, community, emotional fulfillment, intellectual enjoyment, a sense of ultimate meaning” and he went on to say that these things are “closer to most of us than human rights charters”. Human Rights can nonetheless provide the context against which issues of culture can be judged.