the debate on feminism vs cultural relativism rumbles on

6 Jul

Interesting to see that my previous post on Ayaan Hirsi Ali and the thorny issues surrounding condemning women’s oppression in cultures other than our own, republished in the Jewish Daily Forward‘s Sisterhood blog, has now sparked off an insightful response by Elana Sztokman -see this link.

Sztokman is quite emphatic in her response to my feminist quandary:

Rebecca S… had an argument in her own head about these issues, which she shared here on The Sisterhood. She had just read one of my favorite authors and real-life heroines, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a woman who has one of the most powerful voices on behalf of protecting women from violence and harm.

Rebecca found herself stumbling over these issues of cultural relativism. “What is the right answer?” she asks. “[H]ow do the rest of us square our desire to fight for women’s equality with a niggling fear that we should only be criticizing our own?

I would like to say to you, Rebecca, that you should stick you to your guns! Your initial reaction, which is to condemn the mistreatment of women outside of your own culture, is the right one. The voice of “cultural relativism” is a smokescreen. It is the argument put forward by people who really do not want feminist interference. And who would that be? It’s not the women who are suffering from genital mutilation or honor killings who are asking you to butt out. It’s not the women who face violence, polygamy, and corporal punishment for showing ankles and wrists who are demanding that you step aside in the name of some abstract, twisted notion of intellectual consistency. The ones asking feminists to be quiet are the ones who want to continue harming women. And those are voices that do not deserve to be heeded.

Her arguments are compelling, persuasive. But there’s still a part of me that’s wavering. Here’s an initial comment I wrote underneath Sztokman’s post:

Hi Elana – thank you for your response to my blog post about my feminism vs cultural relativism dilemma. I find your arguments insightful and I’m glad that my post enabled this debate to be opened up!
The thing I’m still worried about is that although you say that women who suffer from various forms of oppression within religious groups are not the ones telling western feminists to butt out, I’m not sure if this is always the case.
There are many women within Islam who will passionately advocate their ‘right’ to cover themselves from head to toe with a burka or niqab, just as there are many women within communities in Africa who may still passionately encourage their female offspring to be circumcised, even in this day and age.
It is these women – who we claim are oppressed, but who themselves argue that these forms of oppression are actually a form of religious freedom, that I worry about when I feel the urge to give a blanket condemnation.

I also wanted to quote a response from a well-informed friend who questioned my wisdom in citing Ayaan Hirsi Ali in the first place. Here’s what she has to say:

She [Hirsi Ali] is, I guess, the most well known face of the common cause formed by (absolutely well-meaning but ignorant) western feminists and islamophobes. I can’t really see her as brave. Megalomaniac and self-promoting and full of righteous zeal, yes. But don’t forget she has an awful lot of adoration and support from the right wing (and the pretty far right wing in Holland).

More questions to consider. Can someone like Hirsi Ali be trusted in her condemnation of the oppression of her fellow Muslim women, or does her cosying up with the European right discredit her? Is there anyone who can be considered a trustworthy and neutral (I use these qualifiers with caution) enough feminist, whose credentials are such, that s/he can stand up and condemn oppression against women in ANY culture and not have an underlying agenda?

A version of this blog post was republished on The Sisterhood blog on the Jewish Daily Forward’s website. See:


2 Responses to “the debate on feminism vs cultural relativism rumbles on”

  1. Elana July 7, 2010 at 07:18 #

    Hi Rebecca
    This is no doubt a huge, complex, thorny question. So a few quick responses:
    (1) I recommend that you read Martha Nussbaum’s “Women and Human Development.” She addresses these issues of choice and morality in the context of her work with poor women in India. It’s hard for me to do this issue justice in a talkback. But I would be happy to discuss it in light of Nussbaum’s arguments.
    (2) About Ayaan Hirsi Ali — she was indeed taken on by the conservative right in Denmark. They found her. It’s not that she is a right wing conservative but that particular party sort of used her as a critical insider. That’s a criticism of the politics, but i don’t think it’s a fair criticism of her. I consider her trustworthy, and i don’t consider “neutral” a meaningful criteria. There is no such thing as neutral, and taking a stand is not a bad thing.

    In general the whole issue of women’s “choice” to cover up is a huge one. My laptop battery is going to die soon, so I’m going to stop here, but i’m happy to continue the conversation

  2. rebeccainspace July 13, 2010 at 22:00 #

    Hi Elena,

    Thanks so much for your book recommendation -the Nussbaum sounds like a key text I should get my hands on – I’ll try and track it down at the public library.

    Yes, I see your point regarding ‘neutrality’.

    The truth is I’m really sounding out my thoughts on the matter – I’m really no die-hard cultural relativist – more tending towards your stance, but as you will see from my latest post on The Sisterhood (an adapted version of this post), I’m still worrying about the consequences of us openly condemning other women’s religious choices, however oppressive they may be………

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