Empowering women, one oily wrestling match at a time

The U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, champion of the world’s great archeological treasures and natural and cultural sites, is now trying to protect some less likely artifacts. Among them: Turkish oil wrestling, Croatian gingerbread crafts, French needle lacing, and Spanish human towers. In Nairobi this week, UNESCO released its annual List of the Intangible ...

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The U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, champion of the world's great archeological treasures and natural and cultural sites, is now trying to protect some less likely artifacts. Among them: Turkish oil wrestling, Croatian gingerbread crafts, French needle lacing, and Spanish human towers.

In Nairobi this week, UNESCO released its annual List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, adding 47 new winners to its list of over 200 cultural practices that it deems deserving of international recognition and support: Everything from falconry, to the Mediterranean diet, to the Quechuan scissors dance of Peru.

The U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, champion of the world’s great archeological treasures and natural and cultural sites, is now trying to protect some less likely artifacts. Among them: Turkish oil wrestling, Croatian gingerbread crafts, French needle lacing, and Spanish human towers.

In Nairobi this week, UNESCO released its annual List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, adding 47 new winners to its list of over 200 cultural practices that it deems deserving of international recognition and support: Everything from falconry, to the Mediterranean diet, to the Quechuan scissors dance of Peru.

The effort includes a more intensive effort to save other worthy practices from extinction. For instance, entrees on a smaller List of Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding can tap into to a $4.5 million Intangible Heritage Fund to preserve watertight bulkhead technology used to prevent Chinese Junks from sinking if they take on water, or to ensure the future of the Croatia’s Ojkanje traditional singers.  We’ll let you decide just how much that Balkan warbling is worth preserving.

UNESCO has been the world’s chief advocate for heritage sites since the 1972 establishment of the World Heritage Convention, which set out a list of important archeological, architectural or cultural sites that merited special international protection.

In recent years, a number of states, particularly in Asia, began pressing for the creation of a convention that would protect expressions of countries cultural, religious and artistic heritage, said Lucia Iglesia, a spokeswoman for UNESCO.

In 2003, they reached agreement on the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, and began compiling lists of revered cultural activities. It has been ratified by 132 states. Cecille Duvelle, the secretary of the convention, said in a video statement that these cultural practices are under threat from the forces of globalization.

Each year, member states that ratified the convention present nominations for the intangible heritage lists. Governments are required to meet certain criteria. For instance, nominating states must document the approval of local practitioners of the culture in question, and they must demonstrate that they have developed a plan to protect the practice. An intergovernmental committee of 24 governments then decides whether to approve them. Iglesia said that some practices do not make the cut, but she said that UNESCO does not publish a list of the losers. “My colleagues tell me that this information is not public, so they don’t know (and me neither),” she wrote in an email.

In her address to the convention’s member governments in Nairobi, Irina Bokova, UNESCO’s executive director, characterized the effort to protect intangible heritage as “a tool of social cohesion and dialogue” — powerful enough, according to Bokova, to help the world achieve the Millennium Development Goals, preserve the environment, and empower women around the world. She also expressed concern that not a single African cultural practice has been added to the list.

For what it’s worth, the U.N. list also has no American cultural practices: The United States has never signed the intangible cultures convention, thereby denying the U.S. government the right to apply for recognition of square dancing, banjo picking, and big board surfing. The U.S. mission to the United Nations was not able to provide an explanation as to why the U.S. has demurred until now.

The United States’ absence has left the door open for other countries to dominate the list: China gained recognition for acupuncture this year; France got a nod for its “gastronomic meal”; and Iran had five cultural practices added to the list, including two forms of carpet weaving. But, contrary to Bokova’s claims, one Iranian practice that just joined the list, the Ta’ziye — a dramatic theatrical form that recounts significant religious or folk tales — can hardly be said to empower women: Only men can perform in the Persian drama.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch.

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

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