The Fine Line Between Tradition and Human Rights

What is ‘Tradition’?

Tradition is yet another building block that makes up an individual’s identity, nestled snugly in between culture and beliefs. For many years we’ve been programmed to respect and honour our traditions as they represent the very roots of our family trees. Yet, rarely have we stopped to ponder what tradition actually is. Is it a set of routine practices, carried out repetitively from one generation to the next? Or is it something greater, something that our ancestors deemed to be a means of survival, something of great importance that foregoing it would lead to drastic consequences?

The term ‘Tradition’ derives from the Latin word ‘traditio’ which means to transmit, to hand over, and to give for safekeeping. When one envisions the origins of a tradition, their initial impression may be the lifestyle of people of their culture centuries ago. While that may be the case, some traditions are not always an ancient practice or belief. Scholars have accepted that only a minimum of two transmissions over three generations are required for a pattern of belief or action to be considered a tradition. This means that you can even start a tradition as long as your future grandchildren apply it in their lives.

Tradition is good. Think of how bored (or broke) we would be without annually receiving Ang Paos from our family during Chinese New Year. Imagine Christmas’ lackluster without the act of gift-giving or the twinkling of Christmas trees. Visualize how uninspiring it would be to venture into the New Year’s without being welcomed by the familiar sounds of fireworks.

The beautiful thing about tradition is that it comes in many forms, dance, games, attire, food and even behaviour. We’ve established that tradition plays a positive role in our lives. However, beyond mere amusement and convention, is there a grander significance to it?


Many of us in this day and age may think of tradition as the one thing holding us back from advancing as a society. In contrast, tradition actually plays a vital role in the lives of many today. 

Traditions in essence are what bind and build communities. As explained in previous paragraphs, traditions and celebrations, and other mannerisms help people to identify themselves and the people around them which brings a shared sense of belonging, especially in multiracial countries such as Malaysia, where the wide variety of ancient traditions allow for people to better their understanding, respect and tolerance of different communities.

While many traditions are often scorned as being too conservative, many of them actually provide us with valuable insight regarding how we should respect not only ourselves, but also the people and environment around us. This can come in the form of old tales passed down from generations or other courtesies commonplace in some cultures. Examples of this include the Malaysian tale of how uneaten rice would result in pimples on a future partners face, the Japanese tale that lying down after eating would result in you turning into a cow, or even how washing your hands and feet when entering a house would prevent spirits from coming along with you. All of these tales share the same goal of protecting the listener from harm. 

Apart from widespread and well known traditions that reside within our societies, descendants of  indigenous groups that have been (and still are) heavily marginalised and oppressed are beginning to embrace their roots and traditions with more pride which allows for the preservation of valuable history of communities that lived before the widespread neo- colonisation of the western world. Their ancient traditions provide the opportunity for researchers and people alike to learn to treasure the otherwise disappearing rich culture of their lands. An example of this is their bond with their lands and nature that have been deeply embedded in their age old traditions. According to the UN Environment Program:

“Their (indigenous peoples) traditions and belief systems often mean that they regard nature with deep respect, and they have a strong sense of place and belonging. This sustains knowledge and ways of life that match up well with modern notions of nature conservation and the sustainable use of natural resources…

…Unsurprisingly, indigenous peoples have been stout opponents of development imposed from beyond their communities. They defend their lands against illegal encroachments and destructive exploitation, from mega-dams across their rivers to logging and mining in their forests. “

The conservation and understanding of the reasons that traditions are as such can help people to advance with caution and planning as we learn from the experiences of our ancestors. This is incredibly useful as it prevents history from repeating itself and can also save us from many unwanted dangers such as climate change, and to stand up for ourselves against those who seek to exploit vulnerable and insightless peoples for their own gain.  

Human Rights

Human rights is a simple concept made complicated with the brimming flow of injustice in the world. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nation states the following:

Article 5

No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Article 16

  1. Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
  2. Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
  3. The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

Article 18

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Certain traditions threaten to cross the boundaries of human rights by condoning practices which can inflict harm on others. An example of this is Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) which is a common practice conducted by certain communities in Africa, Asia, Middle East, Eastern Europe and South America.

The World Health Organization (WHO), defines FGM as any procedure which involves the partial or total removal of external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. Despite its popularity in the hidden corners of the world, there has not been any substantial proof to support the presumption that it carries health benefits for girls and women. In contrast, it can lead to severe bleedings, urination problems, cysts, infections, as well as complications in childbirth and higher risk of newborn mortality.

From a psychosexual perspective, FGM is performed to ensure virginity, preserve fertility, and enhance sexual pleasure for men. It is also intended to ensure fidelity by reducing a woman’s sexual desire which can result in sexual dysfunctions among women. It is patriarchal by nature as it compromises a woman’s body in order to suit the desires of a man. 

Another tradition treading on a thin line is child marriage. According to UNICEF, child marriage is defined as a marriage of a girl or boy before the age of 18 and refers to both formal marriages and informal unions in which children under the age of 18 live with a partner as if married. Although child marriage disrupts the lives of both girls and boys, it affects girls disproportionately.

Despite global condemnation, child marriage is still prevalent in many poorer countries such as Bangladash, Guinea, India, Mali, and Sudan. The reason why it is more frequently seen in nations with low economic development is because girls and women are not seen as potential wage earners but rather considered to be financial burdens to the family. Therefore, parents view giving their daughters away as a method to alleviate their family’s expenses.

Gender inequality also plays a significant role in this cultural tradition. Child marriage is prompted by the social belief that women are valued in accordance to their virginity. Consequently, it creates a social environment where a woman’s sexuality is criminalized and dishonourable to the family. To prevent shame, parents view an early marriage as a protection for their daughters and their family name.

Despite the long upheld tradition, child marriage results in dire consequences as it can negatively affect their psychological state, health and education. Times are changing and women have proven that they are more than house cleaners or heir bearers. This intergenerational chain of poverty can be broken by allowing girls to be active participants in society through education instead of belittling them to nothing more than companions of men.


With that said, tradition is something that has been embedded into our lives from the moment civilisation began. It teaches us how to think, how to act and how to work with the world around us. It gives us useful hindsight, keeping us alive and our lives colourful as cultures mix with globalisation. However, tradition should never be something to hide behind in order to justify discriminatory acts against otherwise marginalized communities. Tradition should always be used as a way to improve the condition of living for the present as well as for the future. As we progress into a more inclusive and accepting era, it is perhaps time to unlearn traditions that harm and discriminate and cultivate those that benefit and represent the diversity and uniqueness that makes us proud to identify with the ways of our ancestors.  

By: Natasha Maya and Saoussan

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