Share your privileges
Human rights is about behaving humanely with everyone, especially with the less privileged. `But do we truly want to empower those below us?' asks NIGHAT GANDHI. World Human Rights Day falls on December 10.
IT is heartening to note that on December 10, also World Human Rights Day, Iranian lawyer and human rights activist, Shirin Ebadi, will receive the Nobel Peace Prize for 2003. It was on December 10, 1948 that the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which, in its preamble, states that "recognition of the inherent dignity and of the inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world" (http://www.un.org).
One of the first female judges in Iran, Ebadi is a long-time activist for women and children's rights, as well as the rights of refugees. But should we leave the business of promoting human rights to a few high profile individuals or organisations in the world? Human rights are about the rights of humans. And as we are all humans, it is about each one of us. Quite simply, human rights are about behaving humanely with everyone, especially with those who are not as privileged as we are.
On a more personal note, I must mention my friend Rukmini, who once asked us to lunch. When my children and I arrived at her flat, she told us that the girl who helped her cook, would also be eating with us. I was speechless and awestruck at the simple grandeur of this gesture. Her routine act of sharing a meal, and at the same table with her cook, struck me as far more empowering than doling out all leftovers we don't want to eat, and the clothes we don't want to wear, to our household helpers.
The big question is, do we truly want to empower those below us in economic and social status? Do we really believe that all of us have the right to be equals? Or is there a core of fear, the fear of loss of our privilege? The fear that sharing our privileges with others means we might be lessening our own.
But what if we didn't believe privilege was a pie of fixed proportions? What if we replaced the fixed-privilege belief with a flexible and expanding view of privilege? What if we believed that sharing privilege makes privilege grow for all? That the more we share our privileges, the more people we help empower to equality, the more the collective pie of prosperity is going to expand? The philosophy of human rights is a philosophy of flexible and growing privilege. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights reminds us of the gruesome consequences of not sharing privileges: "Disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind". The two World Wars of the previous century and the numerous ongoing wars, the ever-looming threat of terrorism, the incalculable damage to human life and the earth's environment are all such barbarous acts, which have surprisingly failed to outrage our collective conscience enough to end the present inequalities.
Something is wrong with us when we think it's not our responsibility to fix the political situation out there in the world. What will it take to realise that the politics is not out there, it's right here in our homes and our hearts, in the way we live, in the way we treat one another, in the way we disregard the basic rights of our servants. In the way we feel so comfortable addressing those who shoulder our daily drudgeries, and help paint the sheen of middle-class apathy over us as our servants. How often have inexperienced homemakers been handed down this fundamental piece of wisdom regarding servant-management by their mothers and respected elders keep servants in their place, don't give them too much, don't spoil them, or you'll regret the consequences. Keeping them in their place means perpetuating the unending cycle of their oppression.
How is this done? Simple. The vast majority of Indian domestic workers receive no health benefits, no promotions, no paid vacation time, no career advancement, and worst, no recognition for a job well done. Is this what we would want for ourselves in our workplaces? Most of us would not like to work for an employer that offered no incentives. Unless our empty bellies ached and we didn't have a choice. Unless it was the only kind of work we could get. Most of us would balk at the idea of calling such slavery work.
W. E. B. DuBois, the post-Civil War era's foremost Black American intellectual, and an extremely gifted writer around the turn of the 20th Century when slavery had been abolished officially, but the freed slaves had few, if any, legal, civil or social rights, wrote of the mutual damage that charity did to its White givers and its Black receivers. Charity and almsgiving, wrote DuBois, could not truly empower Blacks, but only perpetuate inequality between Whites and Blacks, and make the goal of equality of all races an unrealisable ideal. In The Souls of Black Folk, DuBois wrote of the healing power of simple social interactions between races, who had been on the opposite sides of the colour-line of prejudice for more than two centuries. "In a world where it means so much to take a man by the hand and sit beside him, to look frankly in to his eyes and feel his heart beating with red blood; in a world where a social cigar or a cup of tea together means more than legislative halls and magazine articles and speeches-one can imagine the consequences of the almost utter absence of such social amenities between estranged races."
We could replace DuBois's colour-line with religion-lines, caste-lines, class-lines, and even nation-lines. Ask yourself this simple question: When was the last time you sat down to a cup of tea and a chat with the person who cleans your house, washes your clothes, or scrubs your dishes? Many of us would think this degree of equality with our servants bizarre, and not even in their best interest. Well-meaning Whites in the post-Civil War era in the U.S. offered similar arguments for the continued segregation between Whites and Blacks in social, cultural and educational spheres. At the end of his unforgettable book about the human rights of the Black people, at a time when the phrase human rights hadn't yet appeared in popular usage, Dubois hoped that "infinite reason (would) turn the tangle straight" among human beings. It's been more than a hundred years since DuBois wrote those words. The past century has stood witness to more violations of the basic rights of more humans than any other time in history. The tangle among human beings is more twisted than ever.
Do we have reason to hope that the tangle could be unravelled anytime soon? Perhaps we could begin with a journey inward, an act of introspection that leads to a better awareness of our own deep-seated prejudices and fears against others of our race who may be different from us. A journey that helps us see ourselves as part of the whole. Right now, that whole is cracked and in imminent danger of disintegrating. Unless, we make an effort to cement the cracks with those ubiquitous sealants generosity, kindness, and wanting but not stopping at just wanting, rather, actively finding ways of sharing our privileges with the less privileged. Most importantly, remembering DuBois's warning it's not charity, not almsgiving, not securing our place in heaven, that this is all about. It's not about us helping those poor unfortunate folk out there. It's about us helping our children and ourselves and grandchildren share the planet's plenty in peace and prosperity.
Nighat Gandhi is a writer and women's rights activist. E-mail her at email@example.com
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