Accepted Paper:

Sex, lies and heritage  


Ellen Hertz (University of Neuch√Ętel, Switzerland)

Paper short abstract:

The UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Convention is expressly subordinate to international human rights norms such as sex equality. What it safeguards, however, generally reflects traditional patriarchal socio-cultural ordering. How is this contradiction dealt with (papered over?) in practice?

Paper long abstract:

The preamble of the UNESCO Convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage refers to the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR), which expressly forbids discrimination based on sex. Unlike the Convention, the UDHR is a resolutely modernizing document, seeking to transform societies that use ascribed categories such as sex or race to create and perpetuate social inequality.

Clearly, the inclusion of the UDHR within the ICH framework produces contradictions. The most obvious of these have been dealt with: overtly patriarchal practices such as excision are not accepted by the Intergovernmental Committee for inclusion on the Intangible Heritage Lists. But this exclusion leaves unresolved the more subtle ways in which gender permeates the entire heritage paradigm.

Examined through the lens of cultural heritage, traditional societies' emphasis on sex difference takes on a very different colouring. Women are assumed to play a key role in the transmission of traditional culture, from the singing of lullabies to informal socialization, to the worship of fecundity goddesses. An entire counter-narrative of sex-role "complementarity" is available to justify traditional sex-based social organization, as is evident from many items honoured on the UNESCO Lists.

In this paper, I will examine how this implicit logic of sex difference is handled (or not), and what kinds of compromises and blindness this leads to. At a more general level, I ask how the UNESCO paradigm can preserve "cultural diversity" within the UN framework that, for better or for worse, aims to reduce and even eliminate "social diversity" in certain clearly articulated ways.

Panel P312
Making heritage, making knowledge