Professor Choudhury Discusses the Role of Culture in Legal Reform

FIU Law Professor Cyra Akila Choudhury, recently served as a panelists at the Stoneman Conference on Gender and Human Rights at the invitation of the Albany Law School’s Dean, Penelope Andrews.

The conference, part of Albany Law’s Spring 2013 Kate Stoneman Series of Events, brought together national and international legal scholars of gender rights and international law to discuss the current state of women’s rights.

Professor Choudhury, part of the panel that discussed the issue of culture, spoke on the role of culture in legal reform.

“Both traditionalists who seek to preserve gender status quos in the law and universalists who wish to sweep aside culture and create a more equitable society tend to construct “culture” as a fixed, unambiguous set of values and practices,” said Choudhury. “Furthermore, it is rarely women who are the creators of cultures, mostly preservers of it. Both groups tend to view the construction of culture as a historical fait accompli by men. Yet we know that there have been a number of social movements in which women have taken up religion and culture and reclaimed them in some ways. They have shown that culture is evolving and contested. Women’s groups have also demanded rights within the cultural and religious frameworks in which they exist even while producing change.”

In particular, she examined the complexities that confront legal reformers with regard to domestic laws on gender relations and international obligations.

“For law reformers, the question that I pose is what work is culture being made to do and by whom?  Is it an alibi to maintain the status quo, an unalloyed good or is it an obstacle to be overcome? It is rare for groups to make cultural arguments about why commercial or housing law ought not to be reformed. Yet, some opponents of human rights use religion and culture to thwart reforms that might have perfectly good foundations in history and society to prevent redistribution of power and resources to women and sexual minorities. This has to be questioned more rigorously,” Choudhury said.

This year’s conference was dedicated in memory of Professor Katheryn D. Katz ’70, who was named the first Kate Stoneman Chair in Law and Democracy in 2007.

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