Gender and the 2003 Intangible Cultural Heritage Convention

Gender and the 2003 Intangible Cultural Heritage Convention

1 Agosto 2020 Off Di Direzione Rivista Siti Unesco

By Janet Blake, Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, Shahid Beheshti University, Tehran, Islamic Republic of Iran – (From: World Heritage No. 78, 2016)


Gender is commonly expressed, enacted, performed and even constituted in and through intangible cultural heritage (ICH) and is manifested in a variety of forms that go far beyond a simple, dualistic male/female dichotomy. Despite this, the gender dynamics of safeguarding ICH have, until recently, received little attention. With the publication of Gender Equality, Heritage and Creativity in 2014, UNESCO took a major step in officially recognizing this important aspect of the significance and character of heritage as well as of the impacts of protective measures. When thinking about how gender dynamics affect ICH and its safeguarding, we can understand heritage as a process through which our identities, including gender identities, and social and cultural meaning are mediated and worked out.

Given that gender diversity has its roots in culture, it represents an important form of cultural diversity, a value formally endorsed in UNESCO’s 2001 Declaration on Cultural Diversity. The many and various gender dynamics of ICH can be found, for example, in Japanese Kabuki theatre in which a subversive gender role is presented in the form of male actors playing female characters, expressing a gender ambiguity and transformation that challenges binary female/male gender systems. Similarly, the Hát chầu văn shamanistic ceremony from Viet Nam is one in which traversing gender is integral, with female mediums possessed by male spirits and taking on ‘masculine’ gender characteristics (dress, weapons, behaviours, etc.) and vice versa. The Dance of the Chinelos in Mexico includes a burlesque ‘Widow’s Parade’ of men dressed as women, reflecting the fact that the role of homosexuals in Meso American and pre- Columbian societies was accepted.

Clearly defined roles

At the same time, examples of gendered ICH practice along all-male and all-female lines abound, as in the Song and dance of

the Acoli in Uganda where men and women have clearly defined roles. Interestingly, women have used this performance as a public space in which to promote issues affecting them as a gender category. The Ganggangsullae women’s dance in the Republic of Korea, inscribed on the Representative List in 2009, binds women together, offers them a channel for self- expression and serves as a means for new brides to integrate into the community. The Makishi masquerade in Zambia is performed at the end of an initiation rite for 8- to 12-year-old boys that takes place within the village community and marks their re-entry to society as adult men. Some other ICH elements demonstrate clear gender-based divisions of labour, such as the traditional manufacturing of children’s wooden toys in Croatia, which are hand-made by men but mostly painted by women, as inscribed on the Representative List in 2009.

No single and universally applicable understanding of gender exists and some societies recognize a number of different genders, including transgender and double-spirited people. Hence, the uncritical imposition of inappropriate views of gender roles can damage gender systems which may be crucial to the transmission and safeguarding of ICH elements. As these systems are embedded within other social power relations, a gender-based approach to safeguarding ICH has to contextualize human activities within wider social relationships. Moreover, since community participation is central to the 2003 Convention, gender analyses of ICH should give prominence to the cultural community’s own understanding of gender balances while bearing in mind the diversity of viewpoints within the community.

Safeguarding traditions

However, taking such a gender-responsive approach to ICH safeguarding can prove a challenge. As pointed out in a 2004 issue of MUSEUM International, in the context of nominations to the international lists of the 2003 Convention, the impression may be given that the Convention tends to reduce ICH to ‘a list of largely expressive traditions, atomistically recognized and conceived’, and the safeguarding actions proposed may miss a larger, holistic aspect of culture of which its gender dynamics form a part. This holistic character – ‘the intricate and complex web of meaningful social actions undertaken by individuals, groups, and institutions’, is the very characteristic that makes culture intangible. This is not surprising in that negotiating an international treaty does not easily allow for a sufficiently nuanced approach that can take into account complex gender dynamics. However, given the dangers of dealing with ICH in a ‘gender-blind’ fashion and unintentionally reproducing or reinforcing gender-based discrimination and exclusion, it is essential to develop safeguarding strategies that take account of gender as far as possible.

With regard to specific safeguarding actions, a gender bias may well be built into the process of identifying ICH, resulting in the heritage of gender-based groups being ignored. Those active in ICH research and documentation researching ICH also need to be aware of any possible gender bias in the design of their research, including in the activities of community- based investigators, while differences in gender roles vis-à-vis ICH are themselves an important area for research. The question of how to approach gender cannot be ignored even when selecting elements for international inscription and cases that may merit further exploration include elements that demonstrate clear gender-based divisions of labour, single-sex elements and those which bind the whole community while expressing traditional gender roles. In this regard it is noteworthy that upon the request of the 2003 Convention’s Intergovernmental Committee, UNESCO recently revised the forms for inscription to guide submitting states to be explicit about gender.

Gender-based skills

ICH-related knowledge, skills and know-how frequently rely on informal gender-based modes of transmission, and this raises important questions as to the potential impacts of safeguarding measures on the bearers and the ICH itself. Falconry, for example, inscribed in 2012 as a multinational element, is almost exclusively transmitted through a male master/pupil apprenticeship, whereas the pottery art of the Mangoro in Côte d’Ivoire (referred to in the Periodic Report submitted to the ICH Intergovernmental Committee in 2013) has been transmitted by women to girls

for centuries. In some cases, in contrast, the mode of transmission has evolved over time from a single-sex one to a more open form of transmission. It is worth considering whether gender-bound attitudes may contribute to problems in transmission and how these might be addressed. It is also important to examine how far gender issues are considered when designing ICH safeguarding and management plans. As gendered forms of ICH can serve important social and cultural needs, for individuals and groups as well as the wider community, it is important to take this into account in safeguarding.