This article is written by Reet Balmiki from NALSAR University of Law. This is an exhaustive article on traditionalism and its effect on human rights with a special focus on Muslim Iranian ideas.
Table of Contents
“A tradition is kept alive only by something being added to it”.
Through the above quote, the American author Henry James captures the idea that traditions are ever-growing and ever-changing. When most people think of tradition, they imagine something that is preserved and remains unchanged forever. However, in reality, traditions and cultures are dynamic and must evolve as society transitions. As society has progressed, several new principles, ideas, and concepts have been brought to light. These also include a change in practices and recognition of the rights of several groups that were ignored before.
While traditions are essential to provide individuals with a sense of belonging, unite people, and enforce certain values, they often enable the violation of the rights of certain groups. This is why traditional practices need to evolve as per the changes and practices in society as and when new changes are brought to light. This enables keeping a balance by allowing the traditional practices necessary for the society and keeping a check on the practices that are unfair and discriminatory towards few groups.
In general terms, traditionalism refers to the behaviour and ideas that support the established customs and beliefs, as opposed to the modern ones. This belief argued that all knowledge known to humans originates from divine revelations and is perpetuated by tradition. The followers of this belief depict strict adherence to the traditional practices and often hold an excessive attachment to these traditions.
Traditionalism is often understood to mean that ‘traditional’ is acceptable and beneficial while ‘progressive’ is detrimental. However, in its true sense, traditionalism recognizes the progress made by the modern world but holds the opinion that the direction of such progress is one of decline. For a traditionalist, truth is not to be found in the future or discoveries of natural science, but in the past.
While the traditionalists believe that the progressive ideas of modern society are harmful to the progress of society, several traditional practices and ideas have been criticised by supporters of modern principles. One of the most important and basic of these is the contemporary notion of human rights as universal and inalienable rights of every human, which is known to be violated in the name of tradition in several parts of the world.
Both tradition and modernity have their problems and benefits and are essential for society. Therefore, there is a need to find a balance between the traditional practices and the basic rights of all groups of people. To do so, we must first understand the effect of traditionalism on the contemporary concept of human rights.
The effect of traditionalism on human rights
The most important question while understanding the relationship between traditionalism and human rights is whether traditional values help or hinder the protection of human rights. The answer to this question is that they do both. While certain religious values and practices undermine human rights, others support and promote these rights. To attain a proper balance between the two, it is required that the practices which violate and hinder human rights must be challenged and prohibited. However, before looking at these practices it is important to understand in what way do such practices undermine human rights.
- Traditional values are often used to justify discriminatory practices that flout the rights of particular groups, compromising their social and legal freedoms.
- They undermine human rights by declaring that all cultures and civilizations share the same set of beliefs and practice the same traditions, customs, and religions.
- They impose a single set of beliefs, overlooking diversity and the dynamic nature of traditional practices. This undermines the rights of women, members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities, and others.
- They are used to justify certain practices such as forced marriages, honour killings, marital rapes, minor marriages, rape of minor girls, female genital mutilation, and so on.
- These values also pose homosexuality as a ‘moral issue’ and as ‘against our culture’. It is looked at as a woe that must be eradicated for the benefit of society. This enables many to oppress and harass members of the LGBTQ community and deny them their perpetuated basic rights.
- Traditional practices are often also used as tools to repress certain groups by the government.
It is essential to understand that the human rights movement is not inherently opposed to traditional values and practices but merely aims to eradicate the practices that violate the rights of certain groups in the name of tradition. The idea is that this movement does not reject all traditional practices as a whole, but aims to transform these.
The consequences of western values
The spread of western values around the globe has caused these values to gain dominance and universality by influencing several non-western countries. The effects of such influence spillover political, social, economical, and marginal issues in the societies. These values focus on the free market, democracy, rules of law, individualism, and human rights.
Though these values are often seen as positively modernizing non-western societies, they often undermine the complete development of traditional cultures and values of these societies, thus facing resistance in such countries. Western values have influenced several aspects of our social life including lifestyles, eating habits, education, etc. However, their impact extends to several principles that have gained global recognition and importance, one of these being the aspect of human rights.
Human rights in Iran
Muslim Iranian ideas affecting human rights enshrined in the Constitution
The state of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran has been severely criticised by international human rights activists, several members of the country, and NGOs. The country is unsecular and follows the religious interpretations of Shia Islam to determine the law of the land. The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran recognizes human rights, which were mainly borrowed from the western constitution and modern international law. However, the Constitution also places religious limits on these rights by adding Islamic restrictions on what qualifies as human rights. By placing such qualifications on the rights, the Constitution has set the stage for conflict between the two systems.
Deciding the law of the land
Article 4 of the Constitution lays down that all laws and regulations must be based on ‘Islamic criteria’. This provision, therefore, makes any act in conformity with Islamic ideals but otherwise violative.
Guaranteeing human rights
Article 20 lays down that all human, political, economic, social, and cultural rights must be ‘in conformity with Islamic criteria’. Therefore, any right guaranteed under this provision is subordinate to Islamic qualifications. These provisions are thus subjected to the ‘Islamic criteria’ which imposes restrictions on them, thus rendering these secular guarantees meaningless.
Protecting the rights of the women
Article 21 provides for the government to ensure the rights of women ‘in conformity with Islamic criteria’. This provision does not specify the rights of women that are to be protected. It subjects these rights to all Islamic ideals, which are often known to be restrictive of women’s rights. The recent interpretation of the Islamic laws is patriarchal and man-centric, and against the principle of equality among genders.
While Articles 20 and 21 of the Constitution might seem to be protecting and promoting the rights of women, subjecting these articles to Islamic criteria defeats this object and renders them meaningless.
Freedom of the press and people’s right to know
Article 24 of the Constitution restricts the press and other publications to express themselves on topics that are an infringement of the basic tenets of Islam. This restricts the press from challenging any acts or practices that are protected under Islam even if they are violative of human rights. This also imposes restrictions on the people’s right to know (or to stay informed) which is a part of the freedom of speech and expression.
LGBTQ in Iran
There is an absence of legal provisions dealing with LGBTQ rights. The state does not recognize same-sex marriage and prohibits all sexual relations between the same sex. The Islamic Penal Code does not recognize the difference between consensual and non-consensual sexual relations between the same sex and penalises all such relations with the death penalty under Article 234 of the Code.
Rights of religious minorities in Iran
Article 13 of the Constitution recognizes only three out of the several religious minorities in Iran. Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian Iranians are the only recognized religious minorities and are free to perform their religious rites and ceremonies. No other religions are recognized, implying that they are not legitimate. Such religious minorities often face discrimination and are not allowed to practice the religion of their choice.
Article 14 requires that non-muslims be treated equally and are entitled to their human rights in conformity with the principles of Islamic justice and equity. This implies the application of sharia rules that treat non-muslims in a discriminatory manner. This provision applies only to those who do not engage in activities ‘against Islam’.
The Muslim Iranian ideas violating human rights
Rights of women and children
Iranian women face discrimination in matters related to marriage, divorce, inheritance, and decisions relating to children. As per the World Report 2021, by Human Rights Watch, a married woman may not obtain a passport or travel outside the country without the written permission of her husband. A husband is also accorded the right to choose the place of living and can prevent his wife from having certain occupations if he deems them against ‘family values’. Such provisions indicate that though there exists a clause granting equality to men and women, due to this right being restricted by Islamic criteria there continues to be discrimination and subordination of women.
In addition to this, the laws in Iran prohibit and punish any sexual acts outside the marriage. This provision also extends to consensual sex outside the marriage, this exposes the woman to the risk of being prosecuted for reporting rape in case the authorities fail to believe her. Such barriers in reporting sexual violence have left several women helpless and let many offenders walk free.
As per the Civil Code of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the legal age of marriage is as low as 13 years for girls and 15 for boys. There is also a provision to wed a child below such age, on the consent of their father and the permission of a court judge. The laws of Iran, thus, do not establish a fixed legal age of marriage and allow children below the age of 18 to be married off. This exposes the children, especially the female children, to physical and mental exploitation and is harmful to them.
Sexual orientation and gender rights
The Islamic laws of Iran persecute and discriminate against the members of the LGBTQ community. These laws strictly prohibit and penalise same-sex intercourse and do not recognise homosexual marriages or provide any legal protection to these citizens. In addition to this, LGBT children are compelled to go through brutal conversion therapy sessions. They often pressurise gay and lesbian members to undergo sex-reassignment surgery.
Such actions on behalf of the officials violate the members right against non-discrimination based on gender and force them to hide their sexual orientation to avoid prosecution, imprisonment, or persecution. The punishment for same-sex intercourse is that of the death penalty under these laws. These laws not only don’t recognize homosexual relations but also criminalise them due to being ‘unnatural’ and ‘against Islamic values’. In addition to this, there are also no laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender.
As discussed before, the Islamic Constitution only recognizes three minority religions and leaves out the rest. This has led to these groups facing severe discrimination and persecution in recent times.
The Baha’i community in Iran faces far-reaching oppression. They are not only denied their freedom to practice their religion but are also discriminated against. As per the 2021 Report by Human Rights Watch, authorities are known to arrest and prosecute members of the Baha’i faith on vague national security charges and close down or suspend licenses for businesses owned by them.
In addition to these, the government also continues to discriminate against several other minorities including Sunni Muslims. Such treatment violates the right to equal treatment and freedom of religion of the members of these communities.
Rights of political prisoners and high rates of executions
There has been a recent upsurge against the suppression and execution of political prisoners. As per the 2021 Report, Iran is one of the leading countries in the implementation of death penalties. Many of these executions have been on four vaguely defined national security grounds, of moharebeh (‘enmity against God’), ifsad fil arz (‘sowing corruption on earth’), and baghi (‘armed rebellion’) and two people on espionage charges.
In addition to the high rate of executions, another shocking aspect is the rate of executions of juveniles, women, and individuals from ethnic and religious minority groups. The suppression of the political prisoners on the vague ground was aided by the Iranian court’s denial to provide access to counsel and provide a fair trial to the prisoners. The lack of due process enabled the acceptance of several forced confessions which led to severe punishments and death penalties. Such actions violate the prisoners right to a free trial, right to be heard, right to life, and other basic human rights.
Therefore, though human rights are guaranteed to citizens as per the Constitution of Iran, the current reality is that several human rights violations have often been observed throughout the country. The authorities instead of protecting these rights of the citizens are severely misusing the Islamic ideas to discriminate against many communities and deny them their basic rights.
Traditionalism supports the already established beliefs and customs as opposed to the modern ones. Many traditionalists often refuse to adopt or implement modern principles that guarantee the basic rights of the people. Though traditional practices are significant for humans around the world, they often place restrictions on certain groups, violating their rights and freedoms. To ensure a free and equal life for all, there is a need to strike a balance between traditional practices and western principles. This can be done by allowing and respecting all traditional practices and values while keeping a check that such practices do not hinder the rights of the people.
There is a need for such balance to be sought by the Iranian authorities. Though the unsecular Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran includes the western principles guaranteeing human rights, these rights are often restricted based on ‘Islamic ideas’. This is a clear example of tradition being used as a tool to bury the rights and threaten certain groups. Thus, there is a need to enable the practice of religion without letting these practices serve as a means to hinder human rights.
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