Cultural Relativism and Human Rights
One of the highlights in Oman was meeting with the Ministry of Culture. He provided insight into the current issues and successes within Oman. There are not many chances that one receives to meet someone who is so involved and invested in Oman and its people. I appreciate the fact that he was open to talking to a group of students from the U.S. He also expressed that he would have liked for us to meet with Omani university students, which shows his willingness to allow us and the Omani people to learn from each other. One specific conversation that a student had with him was one that I will remember.
Before we left to Oman, we met with Human Rights Watch in New York City. The woman told us that one of the big human rights issues in Oman is the abuse of domestic workers. When domestic workers come to Oman it is often the first time out of their villages. Most are extremely poor and have no other choice but to come and work. Many times, these workers have their passports taken and are not allowed to leave. Also, they can live in harsh conditions within Oman and can be put in circumstances that were not agreed upon beforehand.
One student asked about this issue to the Ministry of Culture. Instead of either denying or agreeing that this is an issue, he discussed the role of human rights in the international community. Human rights, to him, are subjective and viewed differently in each culture. It does not make sense to him that one body determines which acts are unacceptable. He asked if we have a right to judge from our Westernized point of view.
This discussion had me thinking about the international community’s responsibility towards humanity as a whole. Each society has different views about acceptability in terms of treatment; how can we judge every culture on the same scale? At the same time, the Western community feels a responsibility to strive towards securing basic rights (by their definition) for every human, regardless of origin.
I never thought about the subjectivity of something as basic as human rights. This lead me to think about other views I hold with a Western bias. Many beliefs that I see as objective truth can easily be subjective when dealing with cultures that differ from my own.
Sophia Adler is a member of the 2016 Ibrahim cohort.