It’s interesting to see that my previous post on Ayaan Hirsi Ali and the thorny issue of condemning women’s oppression in cultures other than our own sparked an insightful response from Sisterhood contributor Elana Sztokman.
Elana argues persuasively as to what the right choice should be in the feminism vs. cultural relativism quandary that I wrote about here:
She argues that women who suffer from various forms of oppression within religious groups are not the ones telling Western feminists to “butt out.” But I’m not sure if this is always the case.
Here’s what she says:
Rebecca found herself stumbling over these issues of cultural relativism. “What is the right answer?” she asks. “How 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.
But we can’t ignore that fact that there are women within Islam who will passionately advocate their “right” to cover themselves from head to toe with a burqa — just as there are many Jewish women who willingly submit themselves to increasingly restrictive laws pertaining to their modesty,, and just as there are women in communities in Africa who still encourage their female offspring to undergo genital cutting. It is these women — whom we claim are oppressed, but who themselves advocate that these practices are actually an expression of their own religious freedom, that I worry about when I feel the urge to give a blanket condemnation.
More questions to consider: Does Hirsi Ali’s association with controversial figures of the right in The Netherlands, such as the fiercely anti-Islam Dutch MP Geert Wilders, or the slain filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, who publicly referred to conservative Muslims as “goat-fuckers” discredit her? (Van Gogh was murdered by a Dutch-Moroccan Muslim following the release of a film he made with Hirsi Ali about what they see as the misogyny inherent in Islam.)
And does this mean that if we feminists condemn the treatment of women in other societies, particularly in the Muslim world, we risk inadvertently allying ourselves with the xenophobic right, whose critique of the treatment of women in Islam forms only a small part of a much wider politics of religious intolerance.
Just last week in France, a lawyer “allegedly ripped off another woman’s burqa in a clothes shop — and told her to ‘clear off to your country,’” in what has been called the first case of “burqa rage.” This kind of ugly incident just confirms all of my worries about the repercussions of blanket condemnation of women in other cultures.
Rebecca Schischa blogs at RebeccaInSpace, where a version of this post originally appeared.