Religion and Violence   /   Spring 2004   /    Interviews

A Conversation on Religion and Violence with Veena Das

Thomas Cushman

One of the more interesting ideas in human rights these days is the idea that the goal of the human rights movement is to provide agency to those who don’t have it, presumably because of cultural repression. This seems to me to be a loaded idea of what agency means within culture. I am thinking of a recent photograph from Iraq that showed a Shiite brigade of militant, veiled women marching in protest against the U.S. occupation. You might, for instance, interview one of these women, who appear to the average Western observer to be repressed, and she might tell you: “I am free as a bird. I love my life.” The Westerner, with her human rights ideology of agency as individual freedom from culture, might dismiss this as “false consciousness.” She might say, “You are not really free: you are marching in formation; you are veiled.” What seems to be lacking in the Western ideology of human rights, and what anthropologists seem to have always understood (which explains some of the hesitance of some anthropologists toward the universalism of human rights), is the idea that freedom can come from within culture. And in cases where one sees religiously grounded expressions of violence that look like instances of cultural repression, one can surmise that for participants these mighty actually be experiences of freedom.

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