The Universality of Women’s Rights and Post - modernism
By Azam kamguian
Until the mid-1970s, women’s rights concepts were not considered as culturally specific and were not divided into eastern or western, rather they were seen as something universal, and secularism and the separation of religion from the state were seen as pre-conditions for women’s liberation.
In the mid-1970s, the idea of cultural Imperialism became a dominant discourse amongst nationalist/ anti-imperialist intellectuals and political and cultural circles in the west and the so –called Third World countries alike.
The idea of cultural Imperialism supposedly had a progressive and militant guise: as part of the populist struggle in the so-called Third World countries against imperialism. In the Middle Eastern countries, opposition to ‘imperialist culture’ has been considered as an element of the fight against imperialism. Women have been the victims of the struggle against ‘imperialist culture’ and “Westernism”. This is because women’s liberation and women’s rights were seen as imperialist and western concepts. Traditionalist, religious and reactionary forces opposed women’s liberation in the name of fighting Imperialism and the West.
The idea of cultural Imperialism was the beginning of revising the idea of universality of women’s rights. The rise of political Islam and the anti-secularist backlash in the 1980s and 1990s imposed serious setbacks on civil rights especially on women’s rights in the so-called Islamic countries. These setbacks laid the framework for the idea that women’s rights in the Middle Eastern countries are culturally bound and should be defined according to religious and traditionalist values. This reactionary trend stamped on the concepts of women’s rights and equality in those societies in Ideology, thoughts and discourse.
During the 1990s, post-modern theories particularly the theories of identity politics and cultural relativism, became the dominant discourse in academia and various Middle Eastern study centres in the West. Under the guise of avoiding orientalism, racism and Euro-centerism, these theories have justified and continue to justify the attacks on women’s rights, and have been haunting studies of the Middle East and particularly the study of women’s experiences in various Middle Eastern countries.
Post-modern theories emerged in the 1980s; at the time of the rise of conservatism, the attacks of capitalist market economy, the international ideological shifts and imbalances, the anti-secularist backlash and the rise of political Islam. These theories were the by-products of a time of uncertainty, darkness, setbacks and backlash.
Post-modern theories have increasingly questioned the project of Enlightenment. These theories criticize the ideals of truth, rationality, system, foundation, certainty and coherence. They refute a universal view on history, the world, and society as a whole and believe in fragmentation and differences, since according to these views, the history of humanity does not evolve in a universal direction toward modern and secularist norms and values. These theories doubt system and a universal truth, and base their essence on differences and fragmentation. From this standpoint the history has reached to its end, modernism failed to achieve its commitments, and secularism and universalism, all became empty words and terms. According to post-modern views, the dichotomy of oppressed and oppressor, oppressive regimes and people under their rule, backward cultural and religious values and women’s liberation, are invalid and do not exist anymore.
These theories tell us that the universality of women’s rights, modernity and secularism are all products of the evolution of western societies and therefore inapplicable and incompatible to non-western societies where indigenous cultural and religious values and norms are different than the West. Therefore, dominant secularist ideologies must be questioned and resisted where the viable traditions of social organization such as Islam can lay the framework for a more humane and egalitarian society.
John Esposito formulates this view as follows:
“At a time when the ideology of capitalism has desacralised all of human life for the sake of a destructive acquisitiveness, the need to open up non-capitalist spaces is more urgent than ever. The insistence on establishing alternative social imagery sakes Islam appears as the perennial threats it has always been. Especially because Islam may well be the most authentic voice of the South in its struggle against the western inspired and racially informed hegemonic aims of trans-national capital. Whatever the case, it has become quite clear that the nationalist secularist model of the post- independence period has utterly failed to emancipate the people and is now seen as a dismal failure.”
And he continues:
“Secularism is not a separation between religion and the state, as propagated in both western and Arab writing. Rather, it is the removal of absolute values-epistemological and ethical- from the world such that the entire world-humanity and nature alike- becomes merely a utilitarian object to be utilised and subjugated. From this standpoint, we can see the structural similarity between the secular epistemological vision and the imperialist epistemological vision. We can also realize that imperialism is no more than the exporting of a secular and epistemological paradigm from the western world, where it first emerged to the rest of the world.”
According to identity politics and cultural relativism, women’s quest for legal, political and economic equality is considered as culturally specific. It permits the justification of practices that oppress and dehumanise women in non- western cultures, when similar practices would be condemned as outrageous, unacceptable and barbaric in western culture.
What is disturbing in reflecting women’s demands and struggle in the study of and by women in the Middle East is the attempt to refute women’s rights concepts and theories altogether as western ideas and incompatible to women’s situation in non- western countries. The suggestion is that the ideas of women’s rights and equality essentially functioned to provide moral justification for the attack on native societies or their indigenous culture and traditions.
The pressure on women living in the Middle Eastern countries to denounce concepts of women’s rights as western, as ethnic specific and irrelevant to non- western contexts is one of the destructive and damaging consequences of these views. Sometimes even the previously accepted minimal elements of women’s rights in a non- western context are called into question. For example Patricia Higgins suggested that the plight of women in Iran concern only middle – and upper – class women, implying that the horrendous consequences of Islam in power were not significant for most Iranian women.
Others have questioned maturity of Middle Eastern societies, and their women to enjoy such rights as sexual equality. Juliette Minces has argued that they are not ready “to undergo an emancipation which throws into question a non - secular equilibrium which has the full backing of religion”
One dramatic example is the silence of feminists in the West in face of systematic suppression of women’s basic human rights in Iran and countries under the rule of Islamic regimes and under the pressure of Islamic movements. Another example is the denial of asylum rights to people especially women fleeing oppression and gender-based persecution such as honour killing, forced marriage, stoning to death, veil and other Islamic practices and oppressive customs, under the name of respecting indigenous culture and religion. The third example is the way Western governments and their judicial systems treat the basic human rights of women and girls in the Islamic families and Islamic communities in the West, in face of forced marriage, honour killing, imposing the veil on girls under 16 which deprives them from social activities and enjoying their basic rights.
Presumably what is happening to women in those countries and communities is what they deserve and is more than enough for them. Why should geographic borders and the oppressive ruling reactionary culture and religion make what is conceived as oppressive in one culture an acceptable cultural norm in another? In fact none of women’s rights would have existed in the West if the concept of women’s equality were defined as and limited to Christian values and backward Victorian norms in Europe. Cultural relativism suggests that it is not acceptable to criticise the misogynist, sexist and derogatory religious and nationalistic culture and traditions that have been preserved, celebrated and reproduced as part of an untouchable national or cultural heritage generation after generation.
If Islamic beliefs and the indigenous national culture in the Middle Eastern countries are not oppressive and therefore important barriers against development in women’s rights and liberation, why are women’s individual rights and social position worse in those countries than anywhere else?
The conceptual frameworks laid by identity politics and cultural relativism prevent many western intellectuals including women’s rights activists from seeing and appreciating the diversified women’s movements in the Middle East. The hegemonic influence of the western image of Middle Eastern women as veiled, obedient, subservient and backward, overshadows the mounting evidence of their intellectual, cultural and political changes in the region. This distorted understanding of women’s life experiences, concerns and expectations is reproduced and repeated in this stereotype. The idea is that, because socio - economic problems are more pronounced in the region and because traditionalist gender roles and male dominance are more rigidly maintained and reproduced, issues of concern to western women such as freedom from sexual oppression and women’s complete equality with men are irrelevant to Middle Eastern women.
Identity politics and cultural relativism are covers to create a comprehensive social, legal, intellectual, emotional, geographical and civil apartheid based on distinctions of race, ethnicity, religion and gender. This complete system of apartheid attacks women’s basic rights and freedom and justifies savagery and barbarism inflicted on women by Islamic movements and Islamic governments in the region.
The idea of women’s liberation and equality for women is a universal one. There should not be any cultural or religious restriction on it. Any attempt to restrict these rights in the name of culture and identity and religion, or defining freedom and equality according to different cultures and religions, puts a major obstacle in the way of women’s liberation.
Egalitarianism, secularism and modernism are important elements of people’s values and experiences in the Middle Eastern countries. The efforts made by women in those countries to struggle for a secularist family law in Egypt, Lebanon and Morocco, in Sudan to secure women’s employment in a mixed public sphere, women’s struggle in
Jordan to abolish the law of honour-killing, Kuwaiti women’s fight for getting the right to vote and the most significant of all, women’s movement in Iran are all the signs of a powerful egalitarian and secularist women’s movement in the region. The development of this powerful movement would definitively shake the basis of these societies and revolutionaries men and women’s lives alike.
Total failure of post- modern theories is one of the significant consequences of this movement’s advancement. While women are fighting against traditionalist, religious and reactionary laws, rules and customs, there would be no legitimacy and space for these theories to justify the reactionary and misogynist religion and culture under the name of closure, expansion, linguistic turn, discourse, and dichotomy, identity politics, and cultural relativism.
Women’s rights are universal and women’s liberation can only be achieved under an egalitarian, progressive and secularist form of government. These are the basic prerequisites of women’s liberation in the Middle Eastern countries. These are what women and progressive movements in those societies struggling and fighting for.
S. Best & D. Kellner, Post-modern Theory. MacMillan, London, 1991
Esposito, J. The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality? Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
P. Higgins, Women in the Islamic Republic of Iran: Legal, Social and Ideological Changes, in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 10,31 (1998)
J. Minces, The House of Obedience. London & New Jersey. Zed Books, 1982.
Azam Kamguian's speech given at the First Annual Conference of the Middle Eastern Centre for Women's Studies - 10th December 2000 - London, UK, and also at seminars held by IWD committees in Vancouver and Victoria - BC Canada, 8 March 2002