Cultural Imperialism

Why is the issue of respecting the rights of women ‘reduced’ to the practice of cultural imperialism? A respect for and, love of human beings, regardless of gender, is not the imposition of a western value-system on an eastern tradition.

Whether you happen to come from Asia, Australia, America or Timbuktu, you may not like to see your family members and friends - who happen to be female - treated as second-class citizens and have their basic right to decent and fair treatment compromised in any way.

This basic human response is not a notion dreamt-up by Western ideologues that Asian’s ‘en masse’- those brought up in Asian cultures - find incomprehensible. The product of an alien culture!

There are people in the West and the East who may be inclined to ignore the unfair and unjust treatment of women that is sad and tragic but continues pretty much everywhere (throughout the world).

How on Earth could anyone consider the equal treatment of human beings of any kind - regardless of gender, race, sexual preference etc. nothing more than an ‘ideological’ decision?

It is clearly much much more important than this (trivialisation) of basic human care, kindness and, compassion.

We need to ‘recognise’ our basic human need to care for each other - all human beings - regardless of whether they are male, female or, transgender.

It’s also worth remembering that there is a difference between the expression of personal values and adherence to traditional practices and, human rights. If, human rights are violated through the expression of personal values and traditional practices there can be unforeseen consequences. Sometimes, there is a correspondence between values, traditions and, human rights and, sometimes not!

Womens rights are human rights!

May all beings live with open hearts and clear minds!


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I am interested in how different perspectives on cultural imperialism and hegemony are used to explain cultural dynamics and as a strategy for justifying discriminatory behaviour.

It can be used in different ways for different reasons.

We all know about the injustices and tyranny that many people have suffered throughout history when their traditional homelands were invaded.

We all know about the violence of war and the injustices of colonialism. The process of culturally sanctioned dispossession and theft.

There are many and varied ways that cultural imperialism and ‘colonisation’ is explored and discussed as it still is a practice that has a powerful impact on all of us - some more than others.

It can be used as a tool to ‘explain’ the dynamics of repression and domination and also, unfortunately, to justify it!


Discussions around hijab here in Europe show that’s it is actually not that simple. Many Westerners regard hijab as a symbol of gender inequality and subjugation of women in Islam, as a symbol of female inferiority that some Westerners allege is inherent in the teachings of this religion. Quite a few Westerners think that all Muslim women wearing hijab do so either because they fear punishment by their families for failing to do so or because they were exposed to intense religious indoctrination clouding their judgement. For these Westerners, it is impossible to imagine a Muslim woman who would wear her hijab voluntarily, just because she wants it. In reality, the reasons for wearing hijab may include all of the above: fear of physical violence, religious indoctrination, free personal desire, and possibly lots of other reasons. It means that a blanket ban of hijabs could be and is interpreted by many Muslims as imposing Western secular values on a religion that is not quite compatible with them.

The same could be true for the bhikkhuni ordination. While many female renunciants perceive their status in the Sangha as a result of oppression or discrimination, some of them, especially in the traditional Buddhist countries, can be totally okay with it and even find it desirable. Some monks can be advocating for status quo because they are sexist, some because of power play in the upper echelons of the Thai Sangha, and others because they sincerely believe this inequality to be an essential part of their religion, of the Dhammavinaya. I don’t say I myself like or justify the discrimination against bhikkhunis, I don’t say that they are wrong in protesting against discrimination, I don’t say nothing should or can be done about it. It’s just that in reality in other cultures the reasons for bad things and even whether something is always perceived as a bad thing can be very different from what we would expect in the West.


I do understand what you have said, there can be many and varied reasons why some people are treated with more respect than others. There are many reasons why people may conclude they are not being treated poorly or disrespectfully, that their basic right to fair treatment, is not being compromised if they are treated in an unkind, insensitive, indifferent or, disrespectful manner. In some cultures, past and present, we also find ‘violence’ sanctioned, openly practiced and, celebrated.

I am interested in how these forms of cultural behaviour are explained but also, often, justified. It is one thing to provide an explanation as to how these cultural dynamics come into existence and are continued - even codified and sanctioned in religious traditions and texts - and, it is something else entirely, to justify sexual discrimination, the poor treatment of any human being, on religious grounds.

Any ideology - religious or otherwise - that openly abuses the human rights of women or ‘anyone’ needs to be challenged and changed.

Of course, this should not be used as a pretext for undermining or opposing the expression of religious freedoms. Not all religious practices are a violation of human rights. In the ‘universal declaration of human rights’ there are protections of religious freedoms. Freedoms such as the right to practice the religion of your choice etc. Therefore, if I choose to convert from Buddhism to Rastafarianism my right to do that is recognised in the declaration.


What I said was that what you or me or anyone else consider to be sexual discrimination or poor treatment of any human being can be perceived as perfectly normal or even good by this very discriminated human being. The moment we are saying ‘Oh no, you don’t understand, it’s discrimination, you are being treated unjustly’ to this human being, we are trying to impose our ideology on them.

To give a more extreme example, I hope we both think that BDSM practices exercized outside of a particular sexual context and / or without the consent of the participants, are totally unacceptable. In other words, we don’t want people being denigrated, beaten, or whipped, unless they want it. No-one in their right minds would ban the BDSM practices because beating people is unethical or would organize a non-BDSM sex organization. However, us Westerners placing blanket judgements over Oriental attitudes, practices, or opinions can sometimes be doing just that.

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When bhikkunis and bhikkus - including Ajahns in the ‘Ajahn Brahm tradition’ and elsewhere - express clearly, carefully and, sensitively, how women have been and, continue to be treated poorly and disrespectfully within the four-fold assembly, we need to ‘hear’ that and respond to it through changing age-old forms of discipline and etiquette.

Those who are in a position to act and bring about change - and feel the need - should be encouraged to do so for the benefit of everyone who practices together - as members of the four-fold assembly.

We cannot simply justify improper behaviour because it says it’s appropriate in a holy-book or it is embedded in the practice of a Buddhist tradition.

This is just not good enough reason to ignore the welfare of females in our Buddhist practice communities.

This does not mean every practice community should be required to change only those that want to get rid of sexism.

To argue, as some have, that this call for respect, the respect of women’s rights in our practice communities is an imposition of western cultural values on an Eastern tradition - a practice developed in Asia - is incomprehensible.

This claim, that it is a form of cultural imperialism being foisted upon traditional Buddhists who have an Asian cultural sensibility is not just mistaken but patently false.


Answer: Because, this universal Asian cultural tendency or practice simply does not exist in reality.

Cultural and, by way of implication, religious practices that discriminate against women are not peculiar to Asian cultures - they are global.

Wherever sexism is practiced there are people in those societies and cultures who oppose sexual discrimination and others, who would like to see it continued.

Therefore, the claim that attempts to end sexual discrimination everywhere, in every culture and way of life, is a form of ‘cultural imperialism’ and not a response to a terrible and entrenched form of human behaviour (found throughout the world) is untrue.

Unfortunately, this kind of argument, that makes reference to cultural imperialism and, the imposition of western values on an Asian religious tradition is used by some to criticize the people who work towards a recognition of the issue and try to change or, completely end, sexual discrimination in our practice communities. I have had people oppose my views on these grounds - frequently!

That is all I am saying - is that clear?


Great words, I totally agree. What we shouldn’t do is to say that everyone should follow our adivce or assume that all bhikkhunis and bhikkhus as well as other renunciants, especially in the traditional Buddhist countries, are not happy with the traditional formula. We should find help those nuns who want recognition and change, which doesn’t mean we should condemn or break up those who stick to the old ways, be they male or female.

In other words, it is the Western progressive secular ideology and its values who get to decide what parts of the Buddhist sacred texts and tradition is proper or improper. If there are Buddhist nuns who think this behaviour is proper and voluntarily submit themselves to it, we have no right to object. The same is true for those nuns who believe it to be improper.

Okay, we are starting to running circles. In any case, I think that my participation in this thread should be limited to the comments I have already made, so best of luck!

No, sorry.

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Please re-read my last comment as some of the points you have made were addressed while you were commenting. It has relevance to what you have just written. We were both busy with the discussion at the same time in our different lines of reflection.

When you wrote:

[quote=“Vstakan, post:8, topic:8511”]
“it is the Western progressive secular ideology and its values who get to decide what parts of the Buddhist sacred texts and tradition is proper or improper.”

This is an example of the ‘cultural imperialism’ argument, that I claim is patently false - for reasons given in the opening piece and, my last comment.

I do see clearly how western culture and values can, and are imposed on other cultures and traditions.

I believe the valid notion of ‘cultural imperialism’ is used and abused by sexists, racists, homophobes, religious fundamentalists and others.

It is ‘misused’ to justify discrimination and prejudice and deflect fair, decent and, reasonable objections to the cultural practices and traditions they support.

It involves accusing those who take issue with sexism, religious repression and violence etc. of being motivated by a desire to change discriminatory behaviour for ‘ideological’ reasons.

As stated in the OP, many of us oppose sexist attitudes and practices simply because they ‘hurt’ many caring and sensitive human beings. Those who have to live with the consequences of sexist behaviour and who don’t appreciate it.

Similarly, many heterosexuals are saddened by discrimination that causes pain and suffering to those with different sexual preferences. They just don’t like seeing human beings treated in a way that is unfair and improper.

For many of us, these kinds of issues are not about ‘ideology’ but about emotional intelligence and, it’s absence.

‘Treat others the way you would like to be treated.’ It’s simple not complicated!

If the ‘rights’ of others - who are not male - or, have a different skin-colour or racial appearance are respected and defended, sexists or racists can and, at times do, ‘protest and complain’ that their rights are being ignored.

There are some who say: “in our way of life it’s perfectly OK to treat women as ‘inferiors’ or, not afford them the same basic rights and privileges we enjoy as men. Stop denying us our right to treat women in the way we are accustomed to!”

There are some who say: “our holy-books and the practices prescribed within them, oblige us to practice sexual discrimination against women. Don’t practice cultural imperialism - impose your foreign values - and suggest our mothers, wives, daughters etc. would benefit from enjoying the same rights we have. Our religious practices forbid it and, our holy-books threaten ‘terrible consequences’ for contemplating change of this nature! We would be punished by God or, accrue bad kamma, if we stopped practicing sexual discrimination.”

There is something else that needs clarifying - as well. I have never suggested in any way, shape or form, that, any monastic (traditional or otherwise) - or anyone - should do anything that they feel is inappropriate. This is a most unfortunate and recurrent insinuation or accusation that is made with reference to what I have written.

It happens frequently and, I can only find two explanations for why it happens when, nothing of the sort has been said or implied in any way whatsoever - by me - and only by my respondents.

One explanation may be: it is simply assumed that this must be a ‘motivation’ that lies behind my concern for the rights of women in Buddhism.

Is that what you assume?

Another may be that it has the effect of portraying my best and honest attempts to explore this important issue in a way that ‘implies’ an unwholesome intention. An intention to push people into doing things they don’t want to do.

Do you believe this has been my intention all along?

There is nothing hidden - no hidden intention - in anything I have written. If, I insisted that people stop practicing sexual discrimination then I would say as much - clearly and unequivocally.

Instead, I simply point out the clear and obvious problems that arise when people are discriminated against - and don’t like it - and how it would be in their interest if we did something to stop this happening.

If, on hearing this someone responds by saying: @laurence is wanting to impose “Western secular progressive ideology and its values” on traditional Buddhism or, he wants to force traditionalists to give up sexist practices - whether they like it or not - I have to be ‘honest’ and make it clear.

These are false and misleading claims!

I would hope that the mistreatment, sadness and, disappointment of women in our practice communities would provide traditionalists with sufficient motivation to reconsider their commitment to sexist behaviour embedded in Buddhist codes of practice and forms of etiquette.

This seems like a reasonable starting point for addressing the issue?

Only after we arrive at this point in the discussion, can we begin to address the actual discriminatory practices and what, if anything, can be done about it.

There are some who derive pleasure from what others find painful but this is not the issue.

We are talking about unwelcome sexist behaviour that some - not all - Buddhists care enough about to respond to with kindness and direct action. In order to right the wrong!

Sexism is not an ideology that we have simply heard about and, that we may believe in or disbelieve. It would make no sense to say: ‘I have heard about sexism but I’m not sure if I believe it actually exists. Maybe, its just an ideological invention with no ‘correlate’ in the real world. It may be the product of fertile imaginations, a fantasy like: the moon is made of cheese etc.’

This raises the question: why would someone practice Buddhism if they were capable of coming to this conclusion as the validity of Buddhism could be questioned or dismissed on similar grounds? It may seem strange to have to point this out but comments along these lines have been made in earlier threads.

Even what we say is not a conclusive indication that we are sexist as we could speak in a way that is sexist, by way of illustration or, through forgetfulness or inattention and, not engage in sexist behaviour with regard to our personal conduct in daily life.

Conversely, we could say things that suggest that we have non-sexist values but act in a way that contradicts what we say. Sexist language can be offensive and distressing but sexist conduct, the emotional, mental and, physical mistreatment of females is worse. Sexism is something we do or, don’t do - its a practice.

If, sexism is embedded in your ‘code of practice’ and you are against sexism, then, what should you do? There are only 3 realistic options - observe another existing code that has no sexist practices, delete/modify the sexist elements in the existing code or, create a new one?

It makes no sense to say we are opposed to sexist practices but remain committed to preserving sexism in our code of practice - does it? Oddly enough, this does seem to be the consensus-view on this site?

Has anyone heard about impermanence - somewhere - change is possible?

The reason I ask, if what I have said, is clearly understood, is for a very important reason. The reason is, it is clear to me, by the nature of your responses and the (PM’s) I received from you (and from others), that something has been read into what I have written that wasn’t actually there in my comments regarding my ‘motivation’ for sharing. Something that has never been felt or expressed by me, at any time or place on this site - or elsewhere.

I am happy to explain in more detail about this communication issue to anyone who requires further clarification. Just message me and I will be happy to help in any way I can.

Yours in the Dhamma, Laurence