Last week I read about a case in Germany that turned my stomach. On Wednesday, the German Ethics Council, a government-backed committee, recommended that the government abolish laws criminalizing incest between siblings, arguing that such bans impinge upon citizens’ rights to sexual self-determination. This after a man named Patrick Stuebing had four children with his sister, Susan Karolewski.

The two did not grow up together and met when Stuebing was 24 and Karolewski was 16, and had been romantic partners for several years. Stuebing was convicted of incest in 2008 and attempted to appeal his case to the European Court of Human Rights, to no avail. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party isn’t having it; a CDU spokesperson is quoted saying “abolishing criminal punishment against incestuous actions within a family would go completely against protecting the undisturbed development of children”.

My first instinct was to dismiss the entire affair as a strange example of Western über liberalism; kind of like the Ontario law that allows women to walk around bare- chested if they so wish, without fear of arrest for public indecency. But the longer I thought about what the Council’s decision, the more I realized that very little of my disgust or discomfort was based on any actual reasoning; or rather my instinctual ‘yuck’ wasn’t based on biological or ethical reasons. I just found it weird, disgusting and vomit inducing. The strength of my gut reaction took me aback, it made me realize that I wasn’t as culturally liberal as I had thought.

Rwandan culture once

I’m proud of my laissez-faire attitude to most things. I believe that laws shouldn’t govern what adults do to make themselves happy, especially when it comes to acts carried out in the privacy of their own homes. As long as there is mutual consent. But that begs the question, how far can individual freedoms go before they run counter to societal norms and rules? And further, who defines what societal norms and rules are? While some might call this simply an academic discussion without bearing to ‘real life’, I would beg to disagree.

Here in Rwanda I feel like we are going through monumental changes in the fabric of our society. For example, lets look at how gender roles are changing. What defined a ‘munyarwandakazi’ (Rwandan woman) only three decades ago would be sneered at today.

Women were supposed to be demure, virginal and soft spoken. They were certainly not supposed to leaders, either in their homes or in the workplace. And the law of the day mirrored that reality; married women were not allowed to start businesses without their husband’s explicit permission. That was the culture of the day and I’m sure that if someone told the lawmakers of the day that Rwanda would sweep their attitudes and laws into the dustbin of history, they’d have laughed them out of the room.

Culture is constantly changing

What constitutes Rwandan culture and norms is constantly changing in my opinion and two factors, the country’s younger generation and Rwanda’s embrace of the global community, are leading that. Perhaps its one and the same thing. What I wonder is whether those who institute our laws and govern our cultural life (I call them the ‘moral police’, you can identify them by their overuse of the word ‘umucyo’-culture) know just how fluid culture is today. What is ‘yucky’ today isn’t necessarily what will be ‘yucky’ today.

Perhaps that’s what we should take from the German case. And I’m not talking about the legality or otherwise of incest. We must constantly question our cultural beliefs and norms. We must always ask ourselves the question, ‘why do we believe what we believe? Are those beliefs relevant in today’s world? Should we not challenge our own prejudices more?

First published: Only a culturally liberal Rwanda can survive the coming decades