Tag Archives: cultural relativism

Polygamy, cheating husbands and wife-beating – is this still the fate for women in the 21st century?

10 Nov

I haven’t posted for ages – but wanted to come back to post the last blog entry I wrote for Times of Israel before we left Kenya earlier this year. This dates back to May this year when there was a big uproar in Kenya about a new polygamy bill of law that was introduced. Suffice it to say, the proud feminist that I am felt compelled to write in horrified response!

——————–

Polygamy, cheating husbands and wife-beating – is this still the fate for women in the 21st century?

Times of Israel, May 11, 2014

From the time I – white, Jewish, feminist, western woman – heard on the car radio a male DJ recommending his listeners to get a woman blind-drunk so as to be able ‘to bed her’ on a first date, I’ve been wondering about levels of equality between men and women in Kenyan society.

I received a confirmation to the negative recently when President Uhuru Kenyatta signed into law a bill legalising polygamy, with a particularly hostile-to-women amendment:

The bill “brings civil law, where a man was only allowed one wife, into line with customary law, where some cultures allow multiple partners.

Controversy surrounded an amendment to the bill, supported by many male MPs, allowing men to take more wives without consulting existing spouses. [my emphasis]

Traditionally, first wives are supposed to give prior approval.”

(BBC News, 29th April 2014)

What left me particularly speechless was this amazingly demeaning-to-women amendment. Not only does an existing wife apparently have no say in her husband choosing to take more wives, but he isn’t even obliged to have the courtesy to inform her that he is planning to bring into their home a second/third/fourth wife.

The BBC quotes a couple of male MPs who justify this amendment:

“When a woman got married under customary law, she understood that the marriage was open to polygamy, so no consultation was necessary.” (MP Samuel Chepkong’a, who proposed the amendment)

“When you marry an African woman, she must know the second one is on the way and a third wife… this is Africa,” (MP Mohammed Junet).

Kenyan female MPs stormed out of parliament in protest, but as they are a minority, were unable to stop the passing of the bill.

I’ve spoken to a few Kenyan women about this bill and they are horrified – but at the same time, feel utterly powerless to do anything about it.

Some local newspaper reports I read justified the developments by stating that polygamy is an effective way to combat men’s propensity to stray from their wives. In other words, if a man is allowed by law to take as many wives as he likes, he will no longer feel the urge to cheat on his partner.

Great news for women, then.

A Facebook group I joined for Nairobi mums has also opened up my eyes. Frequented by, from what I can tell, mainly middle-class Kenyan mums as well as expat (aka white, foreign) mums living in the Kenyan capital, what has struck me most is how much the Kenyan mums discuss straying husbands and issues of adultery. On Valentine’s Day, one woman posted a depressingly twee little poem giving all a blessing that their husbands should stay faithful to them on this ‘day of romance’.

At the same time, a Kenyan woman I know showed me scars on her wrist where her husband had attacked her with a broken bottle when he returned home after a drunken spree. She said he gets blind-drunk on almost a daily basis these days. And Kenyan newspapers are full of reports of drunken husbands turning violent.

As a white, Jewish, feminist, western woman, I’ve been caught in an ongoing philosophical battle with myself for the last I don’t know how many years. The two sides of my brain argue as follows:

Me A: Yes, I need to shout out against this treatment of my fellow women.

There are universal standards of justice and equality that all societies should strive towards.

Me B: No, the constraints of cultural relativism demand that I butt out and accept that ‘this is Africa’ [substitute Middle East, ultra-orthodox Jewish society etc etc], it’s not up to me to change other people’s cultural norms.

Luckily for Me A, the fact that Kenyan women themselves are angry gives me permission to express my own distaste at this anti-woman trend that hits me in the new culture I’ve found myself living in these last nine months.

In the meantime, as the wife of a rabbi of an orthodox Jewish synagogue here in Nairobi, I haven’t even broached the subject of how my feminism plays itself out in this communal role.

That will have to wait for another blog.

Advertisements

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: http://blogs.forward.com/sisterhood-blog/129308/

a feminist quandary

22 Jun

Thinking back on my last two posts condemning the prohibition on women drivers in some parts of the Jewish and Muslim worlds, I realized that ever since, I’ve had a strangely guilty conscience for having voiced my opinions on this issue.

There’s a small, persistent voice in me that’s saying: Maybe it’s their culture, their tradition, maybe I just don’t have the right to criticize and impose my feminist objections on them.

But then my more dominant voice argues back: No, of course, as a woman, I DO have the right to criticize and demand change for my fellow women denied a basic human right – the right to drive a motorized vehicle. We’re talking about a basic and very real injustice against women, which should override any cultural sensitivities.

And then, by chance I came across Nomad, a new memoir by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali campaigner, feminist and outspoken critic of Islam, who raises these very questions when discussing the muted response of Western feminists to issues of female circumcision, honour killings and other injustices to women that are most commonly associated (but, by no means, exclusively) with the Muslim world:

When I read about honor killings, I am haunted by the certitude that something, many things, could have been done…Is there an urgent need to try to recognize this pattern and prevent these killings? Yes. Are we talking about how to do this? No.

Why not? Why the hell not?

When Muslim women face not just oppression but violent death, why aren’t the feminists out protesting these abuses? Where are the great European and American campaigners who powered the contemporary movement for women’s equality in the West? Where, to take just one example, is Germaine Greer, author of such classics of Western feminism as The Female Eunuch? Greer believes the genital mutilation of girls needs to be considered in context. Trying to stop it, she has written, would be ‘an attack on cultural identity’.

It is unconscionable for her to refrain from speaking out against honor killings because it would be “tricky” to challenge the culture that condones it.

Hirsi Ali is furious at the failure of Western feminists to openly condemn these forms of women’s oppression in the Muslim/developing world she has left behind. She goes on:

Because Western feminists manifest an almost neurotic fear of offending a minority group’s culture, the situation of Muslim women creates a huge philosophical problem for them.

So what’s the right answer here? What’s it to be – cultural relativism/multicultural tolerance or a purist, non-hypocritical brand of feminism? It’s clear which the powerful Hirsi Ali advocates, but how do the rest of us mortal feminists square our desire to fight for women’s equality with a niggling fear that we should only be criticizing our own?

This post was republished on The Jewish Daily Forward website, in The Sisterhood blog – see: http://blogs.forward.com/sisterhood-blog/129050/

%d bloggers like this: