Feminism and Cultural Relativism

BlogHer Original Post

The caption on the photo accompanying the May 13th New York Times article, "Love on the Girls' Side of the Saudi Divide," read, "Shaden, who is veiled at 17, spoke with her father as her younger sister looked on in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in March 2008." As I ate breakfast, I stared at the picture. My initial look revealed only a girl who was maybe nine or ten years old wearing a white shirt and black sweater and an older man with a silver mustache wearing white. Where was Shaden? I squinted, pulled the paper closer to my face, and finally noticed her. Covered in the shapeless black fabric of an abaya, I didn't see Shaden at first because to my Western eye she is an utter non-entity, a black void that fills the space between her dad and younger sister. Immediately, I felt sorry for Shaden for her lack of presence. Then I wondered how a different culturally trained eye would see the photo. Would someone from, say, Saudi Arabia notice Shaden first, then her sister and father? (And if so, does that make it OK that Shaden is not allowed to show her face in public, under any circumstances, ever again, because people there still "see" her?)

Melinda at Muslimah Media Watch brought my thoughts about cultural relevancy into sharper focus in her take on the photo:

Accompanying the article is a picture of “Shaden.” Her face covered in black cloth, she sits between her younger sister (whose face and head are bare, as though to contrast with her sister), and her father. Shaden is gesturing with her hands, and her sister looks solemn. Good way to make the father look like a bad guy right off the bat. The caption only identifies Shaden as “veiled at 17.” Interesting wording. First, “veiled” is imprecise. Not all women who “veil” cover all of, or even any of, their faces. (The only photo including a women’s face shows Sara al-Tukhaifi — looking depressed, of course. Unlike the slideshow of laughing men, there are no photos of happy women.)

Second, the photo makes it obvious what Shaden is wearing. What does the caption add by emphasizing her clothing? Well, the passive voice makes it sound like “veiling” was something done to Shaden, and the placement of “at 17” — instead of, say, “Shaden, 17, spoke with her father” — hints at the classic Orientalist tragedy. Veiled at 17, married off at 18 — you know the rest. (I don’t want to deny the reality of this experience, because it does happen. But as far as this article is concerned, it’s not Shaden’s story, so it’s not relevant.)

Cultural respect and relevance in respect to human rights is a very difficult issue. Article 1 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that, "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood." Despite the gender-specific terminology of "brotherhood," this is taken to mean that all men and women have "the right to life and liberty, freedom of expression, and equality before the law; and social, cultural and economic rights, including the right to participate in culture, the right to food, the right to work, and the right to education." So how does this work if your cultural rights are in direct conflict with your other rights?

I understand very well how Western values are often shoved down the throats of people in other parts of the world, and most times it makes me cringe. Clearly, we have a looooooong way to go before we achieve gender equality, so it is a bit obnoxious for me as a white, upper-middle class woman living in New York City to sit in my dining room bristling at the rigid sex roles people willingly enforce upon themselves in Saudi Arabia. If the women in Saudia Arabia like wearing abayas, what right do I possess to tell them that they are just giving into oppression, particularly if I don't have the same cultural reference point as someone like Melinda? Should I sit back, mind my own business, and not speak out about I perceive to be injustice?

Abayas are only one example of cultural issues that throw my feminist values into a tizzy. Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is another very important one. Muslim Hedonist at Passing in the Mid-West had to explain what female circumcision meant when her daughters heard the term when Fatima, a contestant on America's Next Top Model, admitted that she underwent the procedure while growing up in Somalia:

First of all, what terms do I use?

Do I stay with “circumcision”, as if “female circumcision” is the equivalent of the circumcision done on males? (which it isn’t)

How about calling it “female genital mutilation” (FGM), as some do? That’s more like it, in terms of its effects, but the implication is that the women in question are “mutilated.” What sort of a response does that imply that people should have to them–horror? pity? How many women have I studied alongside and talked with who are circumcised? Probably many, given some of the places I’ve been. But they were all people, not unidimensional “victims.”
Or how about “female genital cutting”? Less judgmental–but also far too sanitized. As if it is some sort of a harmless cosmetic procedure.

Better stick with circumcision for now, I think to myself. Just give them a straight answer for now.

“It means that her clitoris is cut off,” I respond.

I’m oversimplifying things again, I know. There are three basic kinds of female circumcision: the “sunna” kind, where the tip of the clitoral hood is cut off, excision of the entire clitoris (and sometimes parts of the inner labia as well), and the so-called Pharaonic kind, where the entire clitoris and inner labia are removed, and everything is stitched up, leaving a small opening for the passage of urine and menstrual blood. And, the last kind is quite commonly practiced in Somalia. But I don’t want to horrify them...

Why is FGM practiced, really? I don’t find the usual explanations entirely convincing. Is it an attempt to make real, to inscribe on women’s bodies the (straight male) fantasy that women’s sexualities exist only in relation to the penis? To try to do away with the possibility of women finding sexual pleasure without men? To do away with the very mystery of female sexualities–to reduce a boundless sea to the narrow stream of reproduction and satisfying the husband’s sexual “needs”?

What do I tell my daughters? Neither my upbringing nor my life as a practicing, conservative Muslim has given me any real answers.

As with the abaya, FGM is a practice that is ingrained in some cultures. It is usually performed on girls by other women. I can't read a description of the practice, like that supplied by Muslim Hedonist, without burning with anger at its injustice. Yet others will point out that my own culture's embrace of plastic surgery is potentially no less harmful to women than the alterations they perform, so who among us can cast the first stone? (Although believe me, when it comes to my own culture, I throw the stones frequently and with force.)

Joanna Chiu has a very long and interesting post specifically about feminism and cultural relativism that I found quite helpful in thinking through these culture-class issues. She ends by saying:

To conclude, although cultural relativism can bring up factors that complicate or deride efforts to create sustainable change, these factors would exist regardless of whether we acknowledge them. At this point in time, perhaps a re-evaluation is necessary in order to identify the best ways to reach cross-cultural understanding and enable critical analyses of our own culture, in order to stimulate global change from a local level.

I agree with Joanna. At the heart of the matter, I do think it is important to speak out against the abuse of women across cultures and around the world. At the same time, feminists and other human rights activists need to learn how to make our arguments and work against cultural practices that violate human rights through more culturally relevant lenses.

Suzanne also blogs about life at Campaign for Unshaved Snatch (CUSS) & Other Rants, about yogurt at Live Active Cultures, and about creating positive social change at Just Cause.

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