Using the arts to connect human rights to local culture and tradition


Tactical Aim: 
Country or Region: 

The Cairo Institute of Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) in Egypt uses arts and literature to demonstrate that human rights are, and have long been, celebrated in Arab cultures. Although many Arab states supported the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), several have since portrayed the UDHR, and human rights protection more generally, as a Western concept.

CIHRS uses a variety of approaches to illustrate the roots of human rights in Islamic Arab societies — in their folklore, literature and film. Artists are invited, for example, to monthly film screenings at which guest speakers discuss the films within the context of human rights. The film director or critics are often present at the screen­ings. This Cinema Club for Human Rights is one of the first experiences of its kind in the Arab world.

In addition, CIHRS publishes a series of booklets entitled Human Rights in Art and Literature that highlights the role of art and literature in disseminating the concepts of human rights; they have so far published ten books. Art­ists are always encouraged to present, in an engaging manner, their own experiences related to positive human rights values.

Through the Cinema Club and booklets, CIHRS has built a network of artists with an interest in promoting human rights, encouraging them to create projects that promote human rights in contemporary society. At times CIHRS also chooses a specific theme or issue, identifying how artistic approaches could play a role and then approaching network members who could successfully address that theme through a variety of artistic media.

Through all of these approaches, CIHRS has contributed to a greater awareness of the cultural relevance of hu­man rights in Egypt and the Arab world.

New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.

What we can learn from this tactic: 

Human rights may seem like something imposed from outside or above. A regional human rights institution at work in the Arab world is strengthening human rights by demonstrating that they are already a part of the region’s cultures.

CIHRS is using film, art and literature to help people throughout the region claim ownership of the principles of human rights, refuting claims that human rights is foreign and making it possible to build a base of wide­spread support for a human rights movement.

This approach is long-term and unlikely to cause any rapid changes in a community, and it is most likely to appeal to people already drawn to the arts. But if deeply-rooted cultural examples are chosen — ones to which most of the population feels directly connected, such as national epics and children’s stories — it could reach a larger segment of the population.

Local cultural traditions, myths and text can also be used as educational tools, as readily understood examples of the principles of human rights. The Sisterhood is Global Institute (SIGI), currently based in Canada, uses an informal education model that helps Muslim women easily identify universal human rights concepts in local cultural terms. SIGI developed a series of manuals that can be used anywhere women gather, both in public and in private. The manuals encourage discussion of human rights concepts in terms that have relevance in the women’s daily lives.