Recently NPR covered a story about a man in Malawi, Africa arrested for having sex with over 100 women and young girls. In this culture, this man and other men who do this are called “Hyenas” and the families of these young girls pay a Hyena man to have sex with their daughter after her first menstrual cycle. Hyenas also get paid to have sex with widowed women. Just recently, one man was convicted for the “defilement of young girls.” As the NPR news article stated, none of these girls came forward in court so he was “tried for ‘harmful cultural practice.’”
There are a few things to consider here:
- This man was having unprotected sex with all of these women and tested positive for HIV (so far none of the women have tested positive for infection).
- The practice of these men getting paid to have sex with the young girls by their families is believed to cleanse the girls, help keep evil spirits away, and is considered a rite of passage in that culture.
- This man, Eric Aniva, was sentenced to two years of “hard labor.”
- The article did not use the word rape at any point in the relatively short article. You can interpret that however, you would like.
I first heard about this in an anthropology class two weeks ago. Last week I saw that NPR shared the article on their Facebook page and I was interested in what other Facebook users thought of this, so I decided to read the comments. You can read the full article here.
There were a few comments criticizing the author for not using the word rape. Many of the comments were criticizing cultural relativism. Rape is rape, they were saying, regardless of how other cultures define it.
This was interesting. And troubling. As anthropology students, we are trained to be mindful of unique cultural differences and to try to catch our own ethnocentric thoughts. In the United States and many other western cultures, rape is a pretty straight-forward concept. Sexual intercourse against one’s will or while one is unable to give comprehensive consent is considered rape. It is an important issue that the U.S. has been tackling more heavily in recent years.
I am left with a few troubling questions: Is the definition of rape universal? How far can the excuse of cultural relativism go before it’s just a flimsy cover-up for horrid human rights violations? As an anthropologist, how am I supposed to interpret this? As a woman, how am I supposed to interpret this?
As an outsider of this culture, which I know very little about, I try hard to refrain from passing judgment. As someone who wants to make the world a better place, I am often left with the troubling internal debates of what is right and wrong. It is so easy for me to turn and point my finger at this man and his culture and call him a rapist and not think twice about it. I’m not so sure I could ever understand the culture and the circumstances of Aniva’s world. Aren’t we all products of our culture? What if another culture told us something we do every day day is wrong? How do we reconcile this? How do we move forward?
I still think cultural relativism is extremely important to understand and take into consideration when looking at cross-cultural practices and beliefs, but when our moral codes get challenged like they did in this case, it is hard to determine where the line is and whether it really has been crossed. None of the girls came forward to testify, but how could they know if it was rape that they experienced?
Another example of cultural relativism, violations of human rights and trying to find this ever-evasive line between the two is female circumcision, also known as female genital mutilation. I’ve learned a bit about this in a few of my courses through the years and while I know that I know very little, I do know that this practice is particularly touchy for me and I continuously struggle with the excuse that this is culturally relative and my emotional response doesn’t change the nature of these practices. In my mind, these practices exist in patriarchal societies (though there are exceptions) and only exist for the pleasure of men, at the expense of women. Sexuality and pleasure for women in many of these societies do not exist. In my culture, those things do exist and for me and many others it is extremely important, so dealing with this clashing of cultural beliefs leaves me feeling conflicted and upset.
So I leave you with these thoughts and hope that you know that struggling with these questions is okay. It is easy in our society to be quick to have an opinion but the world is not black and white. Our moral codes are oftentimes bumped by these cases and our emotional responses are the first to react. I don’t know what is right and I don’t know what is wrong. I do know what I’m uncomfortable with and what I don’t agree with. I would use the word "rape" in the Hyena case, but I know that I am only saying it based on my culture and how we define rape. If you think critically about this issue, you will start to realize how far reaching this moral conflict is. It is important to explore our moral codes and how it impacts our worldview. There are no universal morals, so who decides what is right and wrong?