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Apr 06 2013

Attempting to impose white western “feminism”

Still arguing about Amina and the protests and white-imperialist-Orientalist feminism. On Twitter for one.

this is where an intersectional approach is so vital. Attempting to impose white western “feminism” w/o listening to the very ppl they’re trying to “liberate” = doomed & counterproductive enterprise.

Sigh. “White western feminism” as opposed to the brown eastern kind which is just fine with arresting and whipping or stoning a woman who takes a picture of herself with her shirt off.

Don’t do that. Don’t pretend there’s “white western” feminism or human rights or liberalism as opposed to brown eastern ones. Human rights are universal; that is the whole point. The whole point is to make them exceptionless, because if we don’t we’re right back where we started – with “we have to kill all the Jews/Tutsis/Bosnian Muslims/gays/apostates/Hindus/whatever it is this weeks.”

because Femen are “protesting” Islam so listening to Muslims is indispensable.

It is? Why? When I’m protesting Catholic interference with health care is listening to Catholics indispensable?

No. We get to protest and dispute and criticize institutions and systems of ideas without “listening to” their adherents. We may want to listen or we may not, but it’s certainly not a requirement, or indispensable.

And then, what would that even mean? What would “listening to Muslims” mean? There are a lot of Muslims. How do we go about “listening to” them?

We don’t. We just choose a particular set we want to listen to and then refer to them as “Muslims” and what we’re doing as “listening to Muslims” so that everyone will think we have our finger on the pulse of “the Muslim community.” It’s all bullshit. This particular person was listening to some Muslims who dislike Femen and the protest about Amina’s arrest or kidnapping, and treating them as if they were all Muslims.

I challenged her in fewer words on Twitter.

Oh? So when protesting fascism, “listening to” (i.e. agreeing with) fascists is indispensable?

Omigod how dare I, fascism is totally different from Islam.

oh ffs listening =/= “agreeing”. & p big diff between Nazism as ideology & Islam as a religion with c.1bn adherents, numerous sects, wildly differing practices from person to person.

But person to person isn’t the issue, or relevant. The issue here is Islam joined to state power. (Also I didn’t say Nazism, I said fascism.) Islam joined to state power is not all that radically different from fascism.

& while fascism and feminism are utterly incompatible, Muslim feminists most certainly exist!

Yes, but they are mostly making a mistake. Islam is not their friend. Islam is not feminist. Being both is making a mistake, just as being a Catholic feminist is a mistake. I know the idea is to liberalize the religions from within, but I think that’s a mistake; I think it’s much better to get out of them, so that they will have less power and influence instead of more.

No, sorry, we are allowed to choose, and I choose universalist secular liberal feminist egalitarian values over reactionary theocratic ones. I choose universalist secular liberal feminist egalitarian allies over reactionary theocratic ones.

There’s a Facebook page, Muslim Women Against Femen. It’s as gruesome as you’d expect.

 Photo

Right, nothing like a cool pair of shades to negate the yards of black cloth wrapped around the head.

68 comments

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  1. 1
    The Mellow Monkey: Non-Hypothetical

    oh ffs listening =/= “agreeing”. & p big diff between Nazism as ideology & Islam as a religion with c.1bn adherents, numerous sects, wildly differing practices from person to person.

    I was unaware that when a religion controls the state, the law somehow differs from person to person. Oh, that isn’t the case? Then you’re spouting nonsense, because how individuals practice their religion is irrelevant to how the state imposes that religion.

    How individuals practiced Christianity in sixteenth century England differed from person to person, but that didn’t stop people from being burned alive for practicing it wrong, now did it?

  2. 2
    Ace of Sevens

    I don’t think the objection is that people shouldn’t be doing anything to support Amina. It’s that a lot of the specific things people are doing are grounded in racist stereotypes rather than an understanding of the situation. Promoting ideas from anti-immigrant types like Pam Geller and Nick Griffin to promote women’s rights is not net progress. A couple wars were sold to the American public on this kind of bullshit.

  3. 3
    Daffyd ap Morgen

    Oh, I wish I had the time to “detourne” the “cool shades” image: either redo it as a the folds wrapped around a mannequin head with the shades, or else photoshop to remove the woman’s face, leaving only the folds and the shades: it doesn’t matter how cool or awesome you are as a woman, you are still not a *person,* just a female wearing the ritual garb.

  4. 4
    Ophelia Benson

    Ace – that may be true, but the terms in which that particular person was doing it were very illiberal and bad.

  5. 5
    Dave

    Attempting to reconcile the belief that everyone is entitled to their own identity with the notion of exceptionless universal enumerated rights is the Sisyphean labour of the post-modern age.

  6. 6
    NateHevens, resident SOOPER-GENIUS... apparently...

    This is the conflict in anthropology: how do you reconcile fighting for social justice with cultural relativism?

    My response as a cultural anthropology student?

    When it comes to social justice, cultural relativism can go straight to hell.

  7. 7
    MEFoley

    Duh. If what you feel good about doing/wearing/whatever happens to be what’s permitted, and people who don’t comply are punished or persecuted, then your “freedom” is illusory.

    If society says “if you show your hair we will throw stones at you”, then it isn’t freedom to wear a headscarf, even if you like it; it’s simply your good luck that what pleases you is allowed.

    Do these women not have the imagination to put themselves in the shoes of women who don’t want to cover their heads? What if you change your mind and decide you want to uncover — where has your freedom gone?

    It’s truly sad that women who choose to cover themselves feel that this is freedom. How can they not see that their freedom stretches as far as the rules, and no farther?

    They are free to comply; what kind of “freedom” is that?

  8. 8
    Ophelia Benson

    Dave – isn’t it just.

    Call me Sisyphus.

  9. 9
    brucegee1962

    Sigh. Multiculturalism started out so well. Here’s the interpretation of it that I like to use: “Every culture has admirable things that other cultures can learn from, but also areas which could be improved.” But somehow along the way, it seemed to morph into “No culture should ever be criticized by anyone for any reason.” How did that come to be thought of as a good idea?

  10. 10
    Rebekah, the Wily Jew

    Ace of Sevens engages in a very typical act of disruption on behalf of Islamic conservatism.

    …a lot of the specific things people are doing are grounded in racist stereotypes rather than an understanding of the situation.

    My, my, the charge of full-blown “racism” is being brandished right out of the gate. There is a difference between cultural/religious stereotypes and “racism”, but you would never appreciate that distinction from many leftwing Islam apologetics. The association of criticism of Islam with racism is the sine qua non of silencing debate without actually having to defend Islam in and of itself.

    Still the vague phrase “understanding the situation” offers the implication there is an acceptable to do this, but of course Ace of Sevens makes no clarification of what that might entail (almost as if obscruantism seeks to disrupt, not channel debate). It is really just the “listening” trope dressed up in a different fashion. My guess is you will achieve “understanding” about the time you find some way to claim to be on liberal-left while openly accepting Islamic (or occasionally other traditionalist, non-white) patriarchy for the sake of politics.

    And in case Ace had not driven home the unacceptabiiity of such criticism enough, here is an added dose of guilt by association:

    Promoting ideas from anti-immigrant types like Pam Geller and Nick Griffin…

    So now criticism of Islam is associated with being “anti-immigrant” in general. One might think the large number of prominent immigrant critics of Islam (two of whom, Namazie and Nasrin are on FTB) would slow this sort of wild accusation, but obviously not. Sigh.

  11. 11
    Enzyme

    That FB group is weird.
    It’s the word against that does it for me. “Muslim Women who Disagree with Femen”, fine. “Muslim Women who Prefer to Keep their Clothes On”, fine. “Muslim Women who would Prefer that Femen Keep their Clothes On”, fine – a bare description of a preference.

    But the word against means more than that. It means “Shut up. You must keep your clothes on”. An important distinction.

    Odd.

  12. 12
    Will

    I hesitate to join this discussion as I fear all the nuance and subtlety will be ignored (for example, Ace makes a good point that Ophelia tentatively agrees with, so she tries to shift goal posts–now it’s that she is responding to a particular person despite her post being quite broad and general and dismissive of the role of racism and colonialism in international feminist discourses).

    Anyway, this is the second time in recent weeks I’ve seen “cultural relativism” tossed around here by commenters. So once again, I feel the need to ask (since my question was ignored by the commenter who brought it up last time):

    NateHeavens, what do you mean by cultural relativism? Why do you see it as incompatible with social justice?

    Ophelia, you said:

    Being both is making a mistake, just as being a Catholic feminist is a mistake. I know the idea is to liberalize the religions from within, but I think that’s a mistake; I think it’s much better to get out of them, so that they will have less power and influence instead of more.

    I’m curious, could we not replace “capitalism” or “neoliberalism” or “American” in there and make the same point? Why is it okay to remain in such ideological systems that replicate inequality in horrendous ways and call oneself a feminist if it is not okay for someone to remain Muslim or Catholic to do so? Why is being a capitalist feminist not “a mistake?”

    This kind of feels like “no true feminist” to me, wherein you’re declaring that the only real feminism is the one you adhere to. If that’s not your intention, great, but that’s certainly how it reads.

  13. 13
    Ophelia Benson

    I try to shift goal posts? No I don’t. The tweets in the post are all from one person – that was one argument, not a scattering of tweets. Other people might have a better case, and Ace might be representing them well, but I was talking about the tweets I was talking about and what they represent.

    If you want nuance it would probably work better not to start by saying I tried to move the goal posts.

    And no. Maybe you could replace “capitalism” or “neoliberalism” or “American” and make the same point, but it wouldn’t be the point I was making, and I couldn’t replace what I said with any of those and make the same point.

  14. 14
    Rebekah, the Wily Jew

    @Will

    If you reject a basic principle of gender equality and willingly accept elements of patriarchal submission you are not a feminist, full stop. Islam’s separate but equal argument holds no more water than it did in 19th and 20th Century America.

    I know postmodernism hates any boundaries that allow an actual debate to proceed, but the overt opposition to female sexual liberation in Islam and Catholicism is enough in and of itself to disqualify those religions as compatible with feminism. The fact you can find someone claiming to be “Catholic” and/or (because I am sure someone, somewhere claims to be both) “Muslims” is just obscurantism meant to hamper debate.

    …dismissive of the role of racism and colonialism in international feminist discourses

    The fact some traditionalists scream “racism” and “colonialism” at the notion of tearing down patriarchal systems does not actual make that effort either “racism” or “colonialism”. It is actually quite disturbing how utterly credulous some people on the left are at mere mention of those words. It precisely why the concept of “listening” has now become a short for agreeing ipso facto with claims of oppression, reason and evidence be damned.

    The fact European colonialism in practice did virtually nothing to advance the cause of women in colonial societies other than a few half-hearted laws banning the most extreme manifestations of patriarchy, e.g. sutee or FGM, exposes this alleged connection as a farce. Even further, the fact other parallel colonial/imperialist powers like China, Russia, Japan and the Ottomans did absolutely nothing to advance women’s equality whilst in power further underscores the absurdity of this charge.

    I guess I also missed the part where South Africa, Nazi Germany, the “Jim Crow” America, Imperial Japan, Malaysia and other overtly, de jure racist nations were advancing women’s equality. In turn white supremacists, Hindutva, and other racist movements are not noted for their advancement of women either. The actual history of racism shows it to correlate strongly with opposition to feminism, but again don’t let facts slow down your political rhetoric.

    Your comment is just a smear job to associate any sort self-confident, assertive feminism with prejudices that have no connection coming or going. And in turn this is really about the power base of the left telling us how equality for women and LGBT people is supposed to come after we solve the ‘real’ issues of “racism”, “colonialism”, “capitalism”, “America”, etc.

  15. 15
    Will

    Your post reads as using an argument on Twitter to dismiss the ways that feminism can be employed in racist, xenophobic, and colonialist discourses. In your response to Ace of Stevens, you say that you’re responding to a single person. To me, this approach means you can shift between criticizing one person’s position with criticizing the broader positions depending on how people are responding your argument. This allows for evasion of criticism on your part.

    So, are you arguing against one person’s or a few people’s criticisms, or are you arguing that there is a universal feminism that should be applied uniformly to all people everywhere?

    And no. Maybe you could replace “capitalism” or “neoliberalism” or “American” and make the same point, but it wouldn’t be the point I was making, and I couldn’t replace what I said with any of those and make the same point.

    I don’t see how that’s the case unless you’re trying to limit your criticism only to religion–if you are, then it’s problematic to bring in fascism as a point of comparison. Or maybe I’m just missing your point completely.

  16. 16
    Rebekah, the Wily Jew

    That should have read:

    The fact you can always find someone claiming to be “Catholic” and/or (because I am sure someone, somewhere claims to be both) “Muslims” and who supports abortion rights, LGBT equality, etc. is just obscurantism meant to hamper debate.

  17. 17
    Rebekah, the Wily Jew

    Will just admit that “racist, xenophobic, and colonialist discourses” bother you more than the actual day-to-day oppression of women. This is why we never prosecute FGM in the UK, because people like you are so fucking worried about someone, somewhere perceiving actual action as ‘racism’ that it trumps preventing girls from having their bodies mutilated for life.

  18. 18
    NateHevens, resident SOOPER-GENIUS... apparently...

    Will… this is not against you, but I’m an admitted spelling/gramar Nazi, especially when it comes to my name, so… there’s no “a” in the Hevens.

    NateHevens, what do you mean by cultural relativism? Why do you see it as incompatible with social justice?

    As an anthropology student, I was taught cultural relativism as Franz Boas explained it:
    “…civilization is not something absolute, but … is relative, and … our ideas and conceptions are true only so far as our civilization goes.”

    In other words… ethnocentrism is when you judge a different culture by the standards of your own. Cultural relativism, by contrast, is when you judge a culture by the standards of that culture.

    Why do I see it as incompatible with social justice?

    Because under the banner of cultural relativism, we should not do or say anything if we stumble upon a culture that, for example, still practices human sacrifice and tends to sacrifice babies using slow and frankly torturous methods.

    That is an extreme and no longer realistic example, to be sure, but I used it to illustrate the point.

    If we were to stumble upon such a society, cultural relativism would basically say that we don’t have the right to stop them, because that’s their culture… which is complete bullshit.

    To get more realistic, we get this all the time when fighting genital mutilation (like that article written by… who was it again?… saying we should stop calling Female Genital Mutilation that and refer to it as Female Circumcision because it’s offensive to the cultures that practice it and so on). And we’re seeing this now.

    As far as I’m concerned, the rights of human beings trump the rights of cultures. Once cultural relativism and basic human rights come in to conflict (such as in the case with Amina and these protests), as far as I’m concerned, you have to throw cultural relativism out the window and judge the culture based on how they are treating people. The way these fanatic Muslims treat women is unacceptable, and I don’t give a flying fuck about the “culture”. The culture needs to change or go away… either way, the rights of people are more important than the culture.

    And the “I chose to wear this hijab” is a red herring in this case. In those countries (including the country Amina lives in), they didn’t choose to wear the hijab because if they dared not to, they’d be arrested or even killed. Of course, if these are US Muslim women, then I’m sure they probably did choose to wear the hijab, with no (or few, or at least minor) consequences for choosing not to. But if these Muslim women posting those pictures are US citizens, aren’t they being just as ethnocentric, if not moreso, in their attacks on those protesting in support of Amina?

    As to FEMEN… in my humble opinion, yes, FEMEN can sometimes go too far. And certain FEMEN groups (especially in France) tend to be transphobic, and they also tend to ignore the voices of actual sex workers when protesting sex work.

    However… this is one of those cases where I believe even FEMEN’s extreme voice is valuable.

    As for the whole racism thing… since Islam is a religion, and not everyone who’s a Muslim is Arabic, it’s not racism.

    I said this in one of the other posts Ophelia wrote on this, but I’m starting to become weary of the “Islamophobia” charge, because it’s starting to become as diluted and meaningless as the charge of “antisemitism” thrown at anyone who dares to even mildly criticize Israel.

    That doesn’t mean I think the charge has no merit. Just like anti-Jewish bigotry, Islamophobia does, indeed, exist. And I’ll even go so far as to say that it’s more common than rare (just look at the fear of Islam spreading amongst the Tea Party and other conservatives in this country, especially after 9/11… they’ve killed fucking Sikhs because they’re either too stupid to know the difference or don’t care).

    But what’s happening to Amina, all because she dared to show personal agency and independence, is utterly and completely unacceptable, and I don’t give a flying fuck about the culture. This is something about the culture that not only needs to change, but has to change… or be phased out and relegated to a historical note just like the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome.

    Period.

    This is NOT Islamophobia. It is a realistic picture of the culture as it stands; the way it treats women is fucking misogynistic, disgusting, and backwards. It’s time to change that. And the sooner, the better.

    And to all of you tone-trolling those of us pissed off about this… go to hell. There is every reason in the fucking world to scream as loud as possible about this, and we won’t be silenced. Amina will get justice and freedom, no matter how crass we have to get to get it for her.

  19. 19
    Ace of Sevens

    Rebekah, it’s not some theoretical racism vs real harm to real women. Racism does harm, too. For instance, discourses about how Muslims are savages lead to anti-immigrant pushes that make it harder for peopel to escape oppressive societies. Just because some unspecified person has used charges of racism to avoid the substance of criticism is no reason to dismiss racism. You might as well use Lousy Canuck’s unstabel high school girlfriend as a reason to dismiss rape claims.

  20. 20
    Will

    @Rebekah, the Wily Jew

    Glad to see you hit most of the typical dismissive/silencing points (postmodernist? CHECK. Accusing dissent of being overly emotional? CHECK. Monolithizing? CHECK. Scare quotes? CHECK. Accused of trying to stop debate (despite the fact that I’m responding to have a conversation)? CHECK. And so on and so forth.) Hopefully now that that’s over you can respond to the substance of my comments instead of setting up straw arguments using boogey-words.

    If you reject a basic principle of gender equality and willingly accept elements of patriarchal submission you are not a feminist, full stop.

    This is way over-simplistic (and exactly the kind of thing I was talking about when I said there would be little nuance in this discussion). Is it your position that a woman who wears a bra, or high heels, or a bikini, or whatever else is not a feminist because they willingly accept elements of patriarchal submission? The problem with your position is that feminists willingly accept elements of patriarchal submission all the time because they don’t realize they’re patriarchal.

    the overt opposition to female sexual liberation in Islam and Catholicism is enough in and of itself to disqualify those religions as compatible with feminism.

    I don’t disagree, and I would strongly disagree with anyone who claims that they are feminist religions (which I don’t think many people have). Where I disagree is with the claim that therefore people who follow those religions cannot be feminists. This is like saying if you are a part of any system of oppression, you cannot be against the oppression that that system imposes. That is patently false.

    The fact some traditionalists scream “racism” and “colonialism” at the notion of tearing down patriarchal systems does not actual make that effort either “racism” or “colonialism”.

    Conversely, the fact that you’re saying it’s not racism or colonialism does not make it not racist or colonialist.

    It is actually quite disturbing how utterly credulous some people on the left are at mere mention of those words. It precisely why the concept of “listening” has now become a short for agreeing ipso facto with claims of oppression, reason and evidence be damned.

    I don’t find the concept of listening to mean that at all. I find the concept of listening to be meant to learn how other people experience and view the world. If you’re unwilling to listen to people, why should they be willing to listen to your ideas of feminism?

    The fact European colonialism in practice did virtually nothing to advance the cause of women in colonial societies other than a few half-hearted laws banning the most extreme manifestations of patriarchy, e.g. sutee or FGM, exposes this alleged connection as a farce.

    I’m not quite sure what you mean by this statement. Can you please clarify?

    I don’t think anyone is arguing that colonialism pushed women’s equality, so I’m not sure how it exposes anything as a farce.

    The actual history of racism shows it to correlate strongly with opposition to feminism, but again don’t let facts slow down your political rhetoric.

    Again, I’m not sure what you’re referring to as I’ve never made the argument that colonialism or racism have advanced feminism.

    Your comment is just a smear job to associate any sort self-confident, assertive feminism with prejudices that have no connection coming or going. And in turn this is really about the power base of the left telling us how equality for women and LGBT people is supposed to come after we solve the ‘real’ issues of “racism”, “colonialism”, “capitalism”, “America”, etc.

    I have no problem with self-confident, assertive feminism. I do have a problem with the idea that there is one single universal feminism that should be imposed all around the world without any regard to cultural difference.

    It’s also not about prioritizing oppression or playing oppression olympics. I do not see those things you listed as being disconnected; rather, it is the same sorts of exercises of power that underly sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, colonialism, capitalism, and so on. They are all interconnected, and working towards ending oppression in one area should be connected to working to solve oppression in all of those areas. But doing so should be done with an attention to local needs and not based on whatever we American or Western feminists find to be the most pressing issues. Because those issues are often not the most pressing issues faced by people at local levels.

    I hope I’ve made it clear that I am not seeking to hamper debate. I’m actually quite interested in having a conversation about these issues, otherwise I wouldn’t have commented. I hope you will stop ascribing motivations and values to me without knowing anything about me.

  21. 21
    Rebekah, the Wily Jew

    No one is disputing that racism harms people. The fact you start of whacking at a strawman like that and then go right back to your “anti-immgrant” baiting exposes how empty your position is.

    Like WIll, you care more about some hypothetical general effect* of Pam Geller’s ad campaign, than the actual unequivocally documented harm being done to girls under cultural and religious traditions.

    Your bête noir Pam Geller is not carving off a girl’s genitals, forcing her to marry, shooting her for going to school, etc. She is just a big mouth whose stunts actually receive a lot of condemnation and probably hurt her cause far more than they aid it. On that note the “anti-mmigration” effect you allege is totally at odds with the move to liberalise immigration law in the U.S. But again don’t let reality get in the way of political rhetoric.

  22. 22
    Ace of Sevens

    Yes, there’s actual documented harm to women from religious traditions. There’s also actual, documented harm to people from racist discourse. That’s what I was getting at and you seem to be downplaying or denying.

  23. 23
    Will

    @NateHevens,

    Sorry about the misspelling! Thanks for pointing it out.

    As an anthropology student, I was taught cultural relativism as Franz Boas explained it:
“…civilization is not something absolute, but … is relative, and … our ideas and conceptions are true only so far as our civilization goes.”
    In other words… ethnocentrism is when you judge a different culture by the standards of your own. Cultural relativism, by contrast, is when you judge a culture by the standards of that culture.

    I would say that you were taught half of what cultural relativism is. As it was elaborated by Boas’ students, it was also a method for learning. In this way, it’s not about judging at all–it’s not about making moral or ethical judgments. It’s about suspending moral/ethical judgments in order to learn and understand the emic perspective.

    Why do I see it as incompatible with social justice?
    Because under the banner of cultural relativism, we should not do or say anything if we stumble upon a culture that, for example, still practices human sacrifice and tends to sacrifice babies using slow and frankly torturous methods.

    I don’t agree with this assessment. There are plenty of examples of anthropologists seeing things happen in the field that they find ethically questionable and speak out against. It’s often a problem of having no recourse–for example, if you’re Bruce Knauft in a village in the middle of the forest in Papua New Guinea, who do you appeal to to stop people from murdering? It’s not that he should not or did not say anything, it’s that (a) whatever he said matters little to the people or (b) he has no one to tell who can do anything about it.

    To get more realistic, we get this all the time when fighting genital mutilation (like that article written by… who was it again?… saying we should stop calling Female Genital Mutilation that and refer to it as Female Circumcision because it’s offensive to the cultures that practice it and so on). And we’re seeing this now.

    Well, many anthropologists and others have written on the topic and called for the use of a word other than mutilation because of the possible stigmatizing effects the word can have on women. But you bring up a great example of how cultural relativism has actually been used to further social justice–see the work of Ellen Gruenbaum. She uses cultural relativism to better understand genital cutting in Sudan, and by doing so she is better able to help local women who want to fight the practice.

    The use of cultural relativism to improve people’s lives is highly visible in medical anthropology. And the times I’ve seen it used in these cases (I’m also thinking of Hewlett and Hewlett’s work on ebola outbreaks in Africa–a great book if you havent’ read it) it’s been about setting aside our own views of how the world operates to improve people’s lives.

    Frankly, I find the idea of cultural relativism you’re talking about repulsive–and a caricature of how it’s actually used in anthropology. Which is why I asked, because I find that most people I talk to about cultural relativism think it’s valueless and incompatible with advancing social justice and human rights. It’s really not–it’s just about doing the work in ways that are meaningful and sensitive to the people you’re trying to help (as opposed to being a paternalistic, colonialist-type anthropologist who goes in knowing what’s best for everyone. This approach never works out well!).

    As far as I’m concerned, the rights of human beings trump the rights of cultures. Once cultural relativism and basic human rights come in to conflict (such as in the case with Amina and these protests), as far as I’m concerned, you have to throw cultural relativism out the window and judge the culture based on how they are treating people. The way these fanatic Muslims treat women is unacceptable, and I don’t give a flying fuck about the “culture”. The culture needs to change or go away… either way, the rights of people are more important than the culture.

    I doubt you’d find many cultural anthropologists arguing that cultures have rights as that is reifying culture and something that cultural anthropologists generally avoid doing. When we see culture as a process of meaning making (and not as something people possess and not as a synonym for society), it becomes easier to see how cultural relativism is misunderstood in the way you’re using it.

    You also have to realize that trying to fight against the “fanatic Muslims” and impose what Ophelia terms a “universal” feminism upon them is white knighting in the extreme. This is why I find the dismissal of listening so troubling–because it’s important to listen to the women who are affected.

    And the “I chose to wear this hijab” is a red herring in this case. In those countries (including the country Amina lives in), they didn’t choose to wear the hijab because if they dared not to, they’d be arrested or even killed.

    This completely strips women of any agency. Women can still CHOOSE to wear a hijab even if they are in countries that require it–they can agree with the requirement. This is not to say that I like or agree with such laws, but I also don’t like the stripping of agency from women. All choices are made within a structure and are constrained and enabled by that structure (certainly to varying degrees).

    But if these Muslim women posting those pictures areUS citizens, aren’t they being just as ethnocentric, if not moreso, in their attacks on those protesting in support of Amina?

    Maybe, but not necessarily. Their bodies are also being used in this discourse.

    As for the whole racism thing… since Islam is a religion, and not everyone who’s a Muslim is Arabic, it’s not racism.

    This does not preclude the use of racist rhetoric against Muslim people.

    But what’s happening to Amina, all because she dared to show personal agency and independence, is utterly and completely unacceptable

    I agree. Ultimately, this is a disagreement about rhetoric and discourse, some of which I find to be counter-productive.

  24. 24
    Rebekah, the Wily Jew

    I’m not quite sure what you mean by this statement. Can you please clarify?

    Will, just stop with this constant feigned ‘thoughtfulness’. Almost all your ‘questions’ are obscurantist rhetorical devices. You know bloody well what I meant or you would not turn around and claim a few sentences later “I’ve never made the argument that colonialism or racism have advanced feminism”.

    You clearly tarred feminism and then are pissed off when I use historical reality rather than your mere allegation of certain “discourses” as a basis for defending universalist feminism.

    I do have a problem with the idea that there is one single universal feminism that should be imposed all around the world without any regard to cultural difference.

    And that is the chilling face of postmodernism and moral relativism. You are so endlessly fucking worried about things being “imposed” that you will openly make peace with patriarchal oppression (as long as it is some exotic non-white culture doing it of course). It is a good thing yammering, guilt-ridden Western clowns like you were not whispering in the ears of Sun Yat-sen and Mao, or one of the great patriarchal horrors of all time, foot-binding, would never have been stomped out completely.

  25. 25
    Will

    @Rebekah at #21 & #24,

    I am beginning to question your intrest in discussion since you continue to ascribe motivations to me that I do not have. I find it ironic (and troubling) that for all your accusations of trying to hamper debate, the only person so far in this thread who has hampered debate is yourself.

    I was asking you to clarify in good faith–I genuinely do not understand what you meant by the things I asked you to clarify. They made no sense because I was not arguing any of the things you seem to think I was. If you refuse to clarify, fine, I will just move on.

    And that is the chilling face of postmodernism and moral relativism. You are so endlessly fucking worried about things being “imposed” that you will openly make peace with patriarchal oppression (as long as it is some exotic non-white culture doing it of course). It is a good thing yammering, guilt-ridden Western clowns like you were not whispering in the ears of Sun Yat-sen and Mao, or one of the great patriarchal horrors of all time, foot-binding, would never have been stomped out completely.

    Not a single piece of substantive response there. I find it quite hilarious that you’re accusing me of these things. You clearly know nothing about me at all.

    Something tells me you’ll just continue to throw out baseless insults, but if you want to have an actual dialogue based on some substance, I’ll be happy to reply. Otherwise, I’m done engaging with your hyperbolic posturing.

  26. 26
    Rebekah, the Wily Jew

    Will, you can posture all you like about how you were sincerely interested in understanding and debate. The fact is yous said yourself that you reject universal human rights and equality for women (which is what universalist feminism seeks) and I have nothing but contempt for people like you.

    You say how I “know nothing about [you] at all”. Yet by your name and photo you clearly appear to be a white male, statistically-speaking almost certainly heterosexual, who has clearly had at least some university-level education, who has access to the Internet, and the leisure time to debate others.

    All of that adds up to more or less the typical image of the Western “cultural relativist”: someone so smug and secure in their privilege that it is easy to turn “cultural differences” into both a an object of fetish and an excuse to do nothing. Better a little girl be subject to FGM than someone calling you a racist.

  27. 27
    Will

    @ Rebekah, #26,

    This will be my last response to you.

    Will, you can posture all you like about how you were sincerely interested in understanding and debate. The fact is yous said yourself that you reject universal human rights and equality for women (which is what universalist feminism seeks) and I have nothing but contempt for people like you.

    I’ll try to clarify this for you, since you seem utterly incapable of understanding nuanced perspectives. I’m not against human rights and equality for women. I’m against the idea that there is only one way to achieve them.

    You say how I “know nothing about [you] at all”. Yet by your name and photo you clearly appear to be a white male, statistically-speaking almost certainly heterosexual, who has clearly had at least some university-level education, who has access to the Internet, and the leisure time to debate others.

    Haha, okay. So by my picture you can tell that I am a white, male-bodied person. By my words you can tell that I have a higher education. How does that tell you anything about my character and motivations? Only by stereotype.

    Also, I’m not heterosexual. I’m queer. So much for statistics, and thanks for the misrecogition! And I write for Skepchick and am the admin for Queereka. I promise you that you’re making an enemy out of me for no reason at all based completely in stereotype and ignorance, and your ascription of values and motivations to me is unfounded and unnecessary. But, if you refuse to see past your own preconceptions, there’s nothing I can do about that.

    All of that adds up to more or less the typical image of the Western “cultural relativist”: someone so smug and secure in their privilege that it is easy to turn “cultural differences” into both a an object of fetish and an excuse to do nothing. Better a little girl be subject to FGM than someone calling you a racist.

    This is just completely absurd. I never said I supported genital cutting (in fact, in my response to Nate Hevens, I cited an anthropologist that I admire who works to end the practice by working with local women–you know, as opposed to calling people names on the internet, because that has such a huge impact). I also never called you a racist. What I’ve called for is a more nuanced and sensitive understanding of the rhetoric and discourse that flies around these topics. If you want to continue on with the crap you’re spewing, have at it. I’ll just ignore you because it is now crystal clear that you have no interest in discussion despite your apparently feigned concern for debate being shut down.

  28. 28
    Rebekah, the Wily Jew

    I’m not against human rights and equality for women.

    But you are. You said yourself that “cultural differences” trump our “one single universal feminism” (the horror, the horror). Since 99% of cultures are patriarchal, you genuflect to the very prejudice at work before you even begin.

    You can pat yourself on the back all you want for your “nuanced and sensitive understanding” but at the end of the day your cultural relativist schtick (to borrow a phrase from my Ashkenazi cousins) is harming human progress, given succor to conservative cultural traditions over moderising forces.

    I am sorry if I do sugar-coat my utter contempt for your position.

  29. 29
    theoreticalgrrrl

    @Rebekah,
    I agree with you completely. I’m sick of this nonsense about women’s rights being ‘nuanced’ and not clear cut human rights issues.

    Will calls it ‘genital cutting’ and not the mutilation that it is. Because that gives girls agency? They can’t say no if they wanted to, and they try. They’re usually held down screaming and fighting with no anesthetic or anything for the pain. How is that agency?

    Sharia Law is only taken seriously in the U.K. and other Western countries because women are also not seen as fully human in any of those countries. Denying basic human rights and reducing them to ‘a cultural issue’ only happens when it’s women we are talking about.

  30. 30
    Will

    Actually, I call it genital cutting because I have had women tell me that calling it mutilation makes them feel stigmatized. If you don’t care that it bothers some women, fine, you can deal with that in your own way. I have not been the one to lecture people about using the word “mutilation” here. You don’t have to agree with my word choice, but I’d appreciate it if you’d stop pretending that you know my motivations.

    I also never said anything about girls undergoing genital cutting having agency through calling it one word or another. You’re conflating my arguments to try to make a point–you’ve built a straw argument there.

    Calling it cutting or mutilation doesn’t change the fact that it is often done without informed consent and against her will. I’ve never claimed that, and I never would. What I have said is that some women have expressed that the word “mutilation” makes them feel stigmatized.

    Where I brought up agency was in head covering, when it was claimed that women have not made a choice if they agree to go along with the status quo of their society. Sometimes they are not making a choice and it is forced on them, other times they are choosing to go along with the status quo. A woman who makes a patriarchal bargain is still making a choice, even if we don’t like the choice she’s made. To say that they cannot possibly choose to wear it because society enforces it is stripping them of agency.

    Denying basic human rights and reducing them to ‘a cultural issue’ only happens when it’s women we are talking about.

    That’s complete bullshit. First, that’s not what I’m doing; neither of you seem to grasp the difference between advocating culturally sensitive action (which, empirically, is demonstrated to be more successful than colonialist/imperialist imposition of rules without regard to local cultural norms–I’ve already cited two examples in previous comments, and I’m sure you can locate some more if you go look) versus advocating inaction and nihilism. I am advocating the former, and I would appreciate if you would stop claiming that I’m advocating the latter.

    Second, that you think this is an issue that only comes up with regards to women is a cognitive bias on your part and not reflective of reality. This issue of cultural sensitivity comes up quite often in more general discussions of Islamic traditions, indigenous rights, practices of superstition, biomedical interventions in undeveloped places, neoliberalist development projects, and so on. That you only choose to recognize it in relation to discussions of women does not mean that it “only happens” when the topic is women’s rights.

  31. 31
    theoreticalgrrrl

    I was talking about why Sharia Law is actually being taken seriously in democratic countries. When it’s about women’s rights, respect for culture and religious tradition usually trumps women’s rights.

  32. 32
    NateHevens, resident SOOPER-GENIUS... apparently...

    Will @ #23:

    Before I start, I want to explain the profanity: I’m angry about these issues. I’m angry as an anthropologist, as a feminist, and as a human being. It doesn’t just piss me off… it sends me on a rage. I don’t approve of taking a “balanced” approach to these issues, because the basic human right to bodily autonomy is NOT NEGOTIABLE, culture be damned.

    I will go ahead and apologize for the profanity, but I’m not going to censor myself, either. Please understand that.

    Thank you.

    I would say that you were taught half of what cultural relativism is. As it was elaborated by Boas’ students, it was also a method for learning. In this way, it’s not about judging at all–it’s not about making moral or ethical judgments. It’s about suspending moral/ethical judgments in order to learn and understand the emic perspective.

    So it’s impossible for the emic perspective to be just plain wrong (human sacrifice, for example)?

    Let me give an example of where there is simply no way for me to hold to a cultural relativistic perspective. This example is unrelated to our topic of conversation, and instead deals with superstition, science, and confirmation bias:

    When I took Anthropology of Religion (with a horrible teacher who espoused New Age beliefs… she actually fucking extolled the virtues of homeopathy… in class… I mean, are you fucking kidding me?… she also took an immediate disliking to me on the first day when I admitted in class that I’m an atheist, a skeptic, and a naturalist, thus don’t believe in the spirit, so I don’t consider my “spiritual health” when I’m trying to stay healthy), we watched a documentary on this culture that somehow manages to practice both Catholicism and Vodun.

    Now, that inandof itself is fine… I find it weird, but there’s nothing specifically wrong with that.

    The problem I had was this:

    They had these things called “oracles” they used when they were trying to settle a dispute. One of those oracles is, basically, feeding some kind of poison (like arsenic… I think… I don’t remember) to a chick (baby chicken).

    In the case highlighted in the documentary, they were trying to solve whether or not a couple was guilty of adultery.

    So they fed this chick some poison and said “if this chick dies, then the couple is guilty” (or something like that).

    Now… please explain how this is anything other than confirmation bias? I would have been fascinated if they had said “if this chick lives, then this couple is guilty”, and the chick actually lived.

    But that’s not what happened. What happened was exactly what everyone knew would happen; the chick frickin’ died, because they fed it poison.

    The “culturally relativistic” stance would be to say “that’s interesting”. Of course, my teacher took it further than that: “this, to them, is exactly the same as science is to us. This is their science.”

    Um… no. Sorry. It’s not.

    I don’t agree with this assessment. There are plenty of examples of anthropologists seeing things happen in the field that they find ethically questionable and speak out against. It’s often a problem of having no recourse–for example, if you’re Bruce Knauft in a village in the middle of the forest in Papua New Guinea, who do you appeal to to stop people from murdering? It’s not that he should not or did not say anything, it’s that (a) whatever he said matters little to the people or (b) he has no one to tell who can do anything about it.

    I don’t think Bruce is a good example, to be honest. I read his book about the Gebusi, and I think he’d look more in favor at the general support of Amina around the world.

    The other difference is that the Gebusi were, at least in 1983, an isolated population. The Muslims are not. Though kept in a third-world state, absent the fanatics they would have access to first-world technology. They have no excuse.

    Well, many anthropologists and others have written on the topic and called for the use of a word other than mutilation because of the possible stigmatizing effects the word can have on women. But you bring up a great example of how cultural relativism has actually been used to further social justice–see the work of Ellen Gruenbaum. She uses cultural relativism to better understand genital cutting in Sudan, and by doing so she is better able to help local women who want to fight the practice.

    It’s called mutilation because that’s what it is:

    1: to cut up or alter radically so as to make imperfect
    2: to cut off or permanently destroy a limb or essential part of

    Unlike with boys, with girls, it is the removal of the entire outer section of the clitoris, the sole purpose of which is to totally destroy any sexual sensations.

    It quite literally is mutilation, by definition.

    If it talks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and looks like a duck, please explain why it should be called anything other than a duck.

    And “calling it mutilation is stigmatizing to women” is absolute bullshit. It stigmatizes the misogynistic men who force (yes, force) 13-year-old girls (not even babies!) into this disgusting procedure.

    As for Ellen Gruenbaum… I don’t actually know enough of her work to comment on that, so I’ll refrain for now…

    The use of cultural relativism to improve people’s lives is highly visible in medical anthropology. And the times I’ve seen it used in these cases (I’m also thinking of Hewlett and Hewlett’s work on ebola outbreaks in Africa–a great book if you havent’ read it) it’s been about setting aside our own views of how the world operates to improve people’s lives.

    Again, you’re calling up something completely unrelated to compare to this situation.

    The Middle Eastern Muslim cultures are not plagued by a forgivable ignorance, like many isolated populations in Africa. The situations are wholly and completely different.

    A better example would be this: how do we deal with Uganda, where they just passed a law making homosexuality punishable by death? That’s another area where cultural relativism will only hurt matters…. at least in my opinion.

    Frankly, I find the idea of cultural relativism you’re talking about repulsive–and a caricature of how it’s actually used in anthropology. Which is why I asked, because I find that most people I talk to about cultural relativism think it’s valueless and incompatible with advancing social justice and human rights. It’s really not–it’s just about doing the work in ways that are meaningful and sensitive to the people you’re trying to help (as opposed to being a paternalistic, colonialist-type anthropologist who goes in knowing what’s best for everyone. This approach never works out well!).

    Understood, but you also have to balance what’s good for the world. And again… this is an issue of human rights and bodily autonomy.

    I doubt you’d find many cultural anthropologists arguing that cultures have rights as that is reifying culture and something that cultural anthropologists generally avoid doing. When we see culture as a process of meaning making (and not as something people possess and not as a synonym for society), it becomes easier to see how cultural relativism is misunderstood in the way you’re using it.

    You also have to realize that trying to fight against the “fanatic Muslims” and impose what Ophelia terms a “universal” feminism upon them is white knighting in the extreme. This is why I find the dismissal of listening so troubling–because it’s important to listen to the women who are affected.

    Can you do us a favor? You’re on a feminist blog… don’t use the term “white-knighting”. That term is extremely loaded with ragingly misogynistic baggage. And we here are quite big proponents of words having meanings… that phrase is a slur.

    I’m not condemning you for it… I’m assuming you didn’t know.

    And of course, it is absolutely important to the voice of women. But the women we’re trying to help here are women like Amina… and right now she doesn’t have a voice. This is what we’re trying to give her.

    And I have to say… if we find out she’s been brutalized and/or killed… I will very happily show the world what Islamophobia can really look like… I just want to say that now. I’m already enraged that she’s disappeared, supposedly for “her safety” (yeah… right)…

    We find out it’s even worse than that…

    Yeah…

    This completely strips women of any agency. Women can still CHOOSE to wear a hijab even if they are in countries that require it–they can agree with the requirement. This is not to say that I like or agree with such laws, but I also don’t like the stripping of agency from women. All choices are made within a structure and are constrained and enabled by that structure (certainly to varying degrees).

    I’m sorry, but what kind of choice is “you can wear the hijab or be killed”? That, BTW, is the reality in most of these countries… Muslim women can either wear the hijab, or they can be brutalized and killed.

    I really don’t mean any offense by this, but you sound like those Born Again Christians who say “God gives you a choice!” Yeah… believe in Jesus or burn in hell for eternity.

    That ain’t much of a fucking choice.

    This does not preclude the use of racist rhetoric against Muslim people.

    Obviously not. I’m just saying that there needs to be a distinction. Islamophobia is NOT racism.

    It is bigotry; just not racism.

  33. 33
    NateHevens, resident SOOPER-GENIUS... apparently...

    Will @ #30:
    I know this one wasn’t to me, but I want to respond to it if you don’t mind:

    Actually, I call it genital cutting because I have had women tell me that calling it mutilation makes them feel stigmatized. If you don’t care that it bothers some women, fine, you can deal with that in your own way. I have not been the one to lecture people about using the word “mutilation” here. You don’t have to agree with my word choice, but I’d appreciate it if you’d stop pretending that you know my motivations.

    That’s… new. Have they explained why it’s stigmatizing to them?

    I don’t see how it can be stigmatizing to the women? I can understand how it’d be stigmatizing to the men, but not the women.

    Where I brought up agency was in head covering, when it was claimed that women have not made a choice if they agree to go along with the status quo of their society. Sometimes they are not making a choice and it is forced on them, other times they are choosing to go along with the status quo. A woman who makes a patriarchal bargain is still making a choice, even if we don’t like the choice she’s made. To say that they cannot possibly choose to wear it because society enforces it is stripping them of agency.

    Again… the “choice” they are making is, essentially, “hijab or death”. The choice should be more along the lines of “hijab or no hijab… it’s whatever you want with no consequences either way”.

    I am personally not against the hijab. I know plenty of Muslim women on my campus at FAU who were given a choice without such serious consequences and chose to wear it anyway. And I’m totally cool with that.

    What I’m not cool with is when the choice of “no” comes with such punishments as “death”. That very simply is not a choice. Those women were offered a choice, yes, but it’s a choice designed so that only one option can be chose, because the other option is not one most people are willing to pick.

    That is not a choice.

    Denying basic human rights and reducing them to ‘a cultural issue’ only happens when it’s women we are talking about.

    That’s complete bullshit. First, that’s not what I’m doing; neither of you seem to grasp the difference between advocating culturally sensitive action (which, empirically, is demonstrated to be more successful than colonialist/imperialist imposition of rules without regard to local cultural norms–I’ve already cited two examples in previous comments, and I’m sure you can locate some more if you go look) versus advocating inaction and nihilism. I am advocating the former, and I would appreciate if you would stop claiming that I’m advocating the latter.

    Actually, both do make a good point. You are right that it’s not always when women’s issues are discussed, but it does appear to happen then much more often.

    And, for the record, are you right for a lot of cases. One of the biggest reasons I’m in favor of drug legalization and I’m pro-choice and so on is because legal prohibition doesn’t always work; we learned that with alcohol prohibition, and the War on Drugs continues to affirm this fact on a daily basis.

    Anti-Choicers want to make abortion illegal because they don’t like the easier, more permanent way to cut down on abortion: lose our Victorian attitudes towards sex, teach comprehensive safe-sex education in all schools at all grades (including “consent is sexy” and “sex is for more than procreation” and “attraction does not exist on a binary” and “sex and gender are two different things and gender also does not exist on a binary”), and provide cheap or even free access to birth control. Add on to that cheap and safe access to abortion with state-of-art clinics, and I guarantee you the rate of abortions would drop like a stone in one generation. They will never go away, but we’ll see a sharp decline.

    This does not, however, work in all cases. Murder should not be legalized because, unlike abortion, we need a short-term solution to stem the tide while working on a long-term solution.

    As far as I’m concerned, the same must be applied to what happened to Amina and many women like her. We need both a short-term and a long-term solution. The long-term solution should be culturally sensitive, yes, but the short-term solution needs to care only about the safety of women like Amina and nothing else. We can worry about the culture when we’ve stemmed the tide of brutalization against women, and not before.

  34. 34
    Rebekah, the Wily Jew

    I want to call out Will and Ace to provide at least three unique examples of these alleged “racist” and “colonialist” elements to “international feminist discourses”.

    And I want bona fide, self-identified feminists, quoted in context, not merely accusations from others or some conservative you catch appropriating a bit of language about gender equality. A rising tide lifts all boats and many of feminism’s victories of the past have now become embedded as societal norms, even for conservatives who continue to fight abortion rights.

    You can quote from any era, but the older the quote the less and less relevant it become to current issues.

  35. 35
    Will

    @NateHevens, #32,

    No need to apologize for profanity. I’m rather unfazed by it and read past it to the substance–as long as there is substance (which there is in your comment). I also understand what it feels like to be angry and I don’t mind at all your expression of it.

    So it’s impossible for the emic perspective to be just plain wrong (human sacrifice, for example)?

    Well, it depends. It’s not wrong from an emic perspective, obviously. It is possible for it to be wrong from an etic perspective. But if the goal is to understand the emic perspective–which it is for cultural anthropology–then declaring something right or wrong is of little value. That is of value in the etic analysis and any calls for action or advocacy that might be appropriate.

    Regarding your example from your anthro of religion course:
    1) That teacher sounds pretty bad. That sort of thing would be highly problematic in my department.
    2) Tangent: Vodun is a syncretic practice that incorporates indigenous beliefs with Catholic beliefs, so it’s not surprising that they are both present. Finding it “weird” tells me what you’re unfamiliar with how Vodun came about and why syncretism happens.
    3) I do not agree with your professor that their system of oracles is “the same as science.” I would say it serves a similar social role as science does in our society, but they are obviously radically different systems of knowledge production.
    4) The cultural relativist stance would not simply be “that’s interesting,” it would seek to explain why they use this system as opposed to other systems and what kinds of meanings they make from it. What your teacher said about it being science is an etic analysis, not an emic analysis.

    So, really, I do not agree with your assessment of what cultural relativism is, and it sounds to me like your department has done a disservice in teaching you about it.

    Re: Bruce Knauft, I was using him as an example of someone who doesn’t just accept what’s going on due to cultural relativism but who was literally in a position incapable of acting. This was in response to your claim that cultural relativist anthropology should not do or say anything about ethically and morally questionable practices. This is not true, and you’d be hard pressed to find anthropologists who agree subscribe to that view.

    Re: mutilation, I’m aware of what the definition is and why it’s used. I’ve read widely on the topic. As I’ve already stated, the reason I don’t use it is because of women I’ve talked to who have asked me not to use the word. Further, there are multiple practices that range in severity–they are not all the same practice as you seem to imply.

    And if you think the men who force little girls to undergo this are stigmatized by calling it mutilation, I think you should produce some evidence of that. I can certainly produce evidence of women who have said the word makes them feel stigmatized. I’d be interested in seeing some men from those societies who give a shit about what we call it.

    A better example would be this: how do we deal with Uganda, where they just passed a law making homosexuality punishable by death? That’s another area where cultural relativism will only hurt matters…. at least in my opinion.

    Well, you have yet to establish that cultural relativism actually has hurt matters. That assertion is not supported by the empirical evidence. When activist work is done in ways that are sensitive to (let me be clear: I mean that pays attention to them and finds alternatives that can work along with) local cultural norms, it is easier to encourage people to change their cultural practices.

    Can you do us a favor? You’re on a feminist blog… don’t use the term “white-knighting”. That term is extremely loaded with ragingly misogynistic baggage. And we here are quite big proponents of words having meanings… that phrase is a slur.
    I’m not condemning you for it… I’m assuming you didn’t know.

    I’m aware of what blog I’m on and what it’s about. I am also well aware of what the term white knighting means, and I used it intentionally. Because that’s how I read it. There is a soteriological aspect underlying this call for universalist feminism that is disturbing to me. It is not a slur, it describes an idea or behavior.

    And of course, it is absolutely important to the voice of women. But the women we’re trying to help here are women like Amina… and right now she doesn’t have a voice. This is what we’re trying to give her.

    I understand that. And I don’t have a problem with helping her have a voice. I have a problem with the idea that there’s only one way to do that.

    I’m sorry, but what kind of choice is “you can wear the hijab or be killed”? That, BTW, is the reality in most of these countries… Muslim women can either wear the hijab, or they can be brutalized and killed.

    It’s a matter of degree, not kind. What kind of a choice is “wear clothes or go to jail”? Choices are enabled and constrained by structures. That’s my point. You can make choices within an oppressive structure and choose to go along with the oppression. It may not appear as much of a choice, but it’s a choice nonetheless.

    Again, this is not to say that I agree with their choice or that I agree with the structure. I just don’t think it’s right to strip women of agency, either. We can acknowledge that some women make choices like those that we find extremely constrained without saying it’s not a choice.

    I agree that it’s not much of a choice–but it’s still a choice.

    In response to #30,

    That’s… new. Have they explained why it’s stigmatizing to them?
    I don’t see how it can be stigmatizing to the women? I can understand how it’d be stigmatizing to the men, but not the women.

    One of them told me that it made her feel ashamed of her body because of something that was done to her that was beyond her control. She referred to it as circumcision. I did not ask the other women why, I just took them at face value. There’s writing on this out there on the internet if you search for it.

    What I’m not cool with is when the choice of “no” comes with such punishments as “death”. That very simply is not a choice. Those women were offered a choice, yes, but it’s a choice designed so that only one option can be chose, because the other option is not one most people are willing to pick.
    That is not a choice.

    I’m not cool with that, either. I’ve never claimed to be, and I never said that that was a choice. I’ve been pretty clear that sometimes a choice is involved and other times a choice is not.

    As far as I’m concerned, the same must be applied to what happened to Amina and many women like her. We need both a short-term and a long-term solution. The long-term solution should be culturally sensitive, yes, but the short-term solution needs to care only about the safety of women like Amina and nothing else. We can worry about the culture when we’ve stemmed the tide of brutalization against women, and not before.

    I don’t necessarily disagree with you, but I don’t see the long-term and short-term solutions as so mutually exclusive. I think we can speak out against these sorts of things in ways that do not do more harm than good. If we are to stem the tide as you put it, there has to be attention to culture. We cannot worry about the culture “later” because later will never come if we don’t start fixing it now. Fixing it now can be both a short-term and long-term goal. But, yes, people’s safety should be a top priority. Racist, colonialist rhetoric (which, by the way, I’m not accusing anyone here of doing–it just happens quite often in the broader discourse) does nothing to make Amina any more safe, though.

  36. 36
    doubtthat

    @30 Will

    Sometimes they are not making a choice and it is forced on them, other times they are choosing to go along with the status quo

    It is impossible to ever tell if someone is going along with the status quo by choice or by force (either overt or through the sort of cultural extortion that never presents any opportunity to choose otherwise) by just observing the conformists.

    If it was 1850, you can bet that there would be plenty of people pointing out that slaves were actually happier without responsibility. All their needs were provided, it’s a pretty great life. Look at them dance! They’re such a happy people, they’re going along with the status quo because they prefer it. Those that get whipped are just the bad seeds. Notice there aren’t any revolts.

    And you can also bet that it wouldn’t be difficult to generate the equivalent facebook page of happy slaves demanding that the rabble rousing abolitionists stop ruining it for everyone else. Hey, that’s their culture, they’re used to it, who are you to judge?

    The only way you can tell whether the status quo is such by choice or coercion is to study what happens to the folks who act contrary to the preferred option. Hey look, we have one such case, and what happened? She was tossed in a mental institution.

    It is absolutely impossible for you, even as a cultural relativist versed in their unique snowflake morality, whether the anti-FEMEN backlash is an expression of free choice among voluntary hijab wearers or another expression of oppression. Until the counterculture is free, there is no way to determine oppression vs. tradition by choice.

  37. 37
    doubtthat

    Well, you have yet to establish that cultural relativism actually has hurt matters. That assertion is not supported by the empirical evidence. When activist work is done in ways that are sensitive to (let me be clear: I mean that pays attention to them and finds alternatives that can work along with) local cultural norms, it is easier to encourage people to change their cultural practices.

    What I find ironic about these discussions is that this is the super-condescending view. What makes Ugandans different from Americans such that we need to tip-toe around their stupid ideas?

    Is that how we approach Civil Rights issues in America? Was a sensitivity to white southerners that ended slavery and passed the Voting Rights Act?

    Why are FGM and “death penalty for gays” things that require cultural understanding, but Prop 8 is combated by calling it bigotry?

    Now, I suppose you could make the purely practical argument that says indulging idiotic ideas in order to change them is more effective, so I’d be curious to see how that type of progress matches human rights movements in the Western world that largely involve calling regressive bigotry exactly what it is.

  38. 38
    Will

    @doubtthat, #36,

    Once again, I’m not advocating for a system of oppression. I’m advocating for not stripping women of agency by saying they cannot make any choices within such systems.

    Further, it seems to me you’re making a self-defeating argument. If it truly is impossible to tell whether someone is making a choice or being forced within such systems (which, I’m not sure I agree with you that that is the case), the default position cannot be “they are being forced.” And I certainly have not said that the default position is “they’re making a choice.” I’ve said that some of them are making a choice and others are not.

    #37,

    What makes it different is that I am an American. I am arguing against the system within which I live my everyday life. I understand the system from an emic perspective.

    I would expect non-queer non-American people who want to understand what it’s like to be a queer American to talk to queer Americans and find out instead of coming in with their own ethnocentric perspectives about who I am and how I live my life and how the system affects me.

    It’s not condescending to want to understand people’s lives as they live them while seeking to help them on their own terms.

    Also, as you all seem to be utterly incapable of understanding–perhaps willfully ignorant at this point–my position, which I have stated numerous times, let me state it one last time. I am not advocating for “tip-toeing” or indulging or inaction. I am advocating for action in terms that will be amenable to local people who are being oppressed and not replicate the systems of colonialist oppression that they’ve experienced. Just yelling at them that they’re backwards and have to change does not solve anything. In fact, evidence shows that such attempts to impose such rules and laws have the effect of driving practices underground, not stopping them (e.g., see Susan Pedersen’s “National Bodies, Unspeakable Acts: The Sexual Politics of Colonial Policy-making”) (not to mention the problem of trying to enforce such laws in rural areas).

    I am also advocating for viewing their lives in broader contexts. Just yelling at Ugandans DO NOT KILL GAY PEOPLE!!!! will not solve much (though it might make you feel better). Political sanctions may help, or may not. But finding out what sorts of problems are going on in that society, helping to solve those problems, and changing the cultural climate from the inside out by helping local activists do it on their own terms can work. It has worked in other contexts.

    Again, there’s not only one approach. I’m not saying this is the ONLY way to go about solving such problems. Political pressure from the outside can and does sometimes make a positive change. What I’m saying is that the rhetoric and discourse we use matters, and we should be sensitive to how our actions and language can be counter-productive.

    My original issue with Ophelia’s post was the idea of a universal feminism. There is no room for intersectionality in such a feminism–this idea is straight out of the 2nd wave. Universal feminism ignores the other sociocultural factors that further women’s oppression–factors that they might find more oppressive than gender. This is all very clear for anyone who reads in postcolonial feminism and womanism. Imposing a universal feminism that is the same for all people will not solve these problems.

  39. 39
    doubtthat

    I would also add a general point about the discussion.

    Folks seem to be conflating “Cultural Relativism” with “Moral Relativism.” The two are distinct concepts.

    Cultural Relativism is process of study, as WIll has described. That methodology is pretty much universal, and though it could provide information or data to support a moral relativist position, it doesn’t necessarily make value judgments — in fact, in many ways it works to counter the endless value judgments inherent in the older cultural imperialist views.

    Moral Relativism is the position that provides for the argument that there’s no right or wrong, just different strokes for different folks.

    That’s a sloppy summary, but I think some of the argument resulted in cross-talking because of that conflation.

  40. 40
    doubtthat

    @Will 38

    Once again, I’m not advocating for a system of oppression. I’m advocating for not stripping women of agency by saying they cannot make any choices within such systems.

    Theoretically, I agree with you. We have a specific case, however, with a specific group of people arguing that they have agency. I’m simply saying that (1) every oppressed group ever would say the same, even slaves in the US, so (2) it’s impossible to tell whether that’s true or not.

    Further, it seems to me you’re making a self-defeating argument. If it truly is impossible to tell whether someone is making a choice or being forced within such systems (which, I’m not sure I agree with you that that is the case), the default position cannot be “they are being forced.” And I certainly have not said that the default position is “they’re making a choice.” I’ve said that some of them are making a choice and others are not.

    Well first, we really do know that some number of them are being oppressed. We know this because when someone tries to go against the prevailing current, they’re severely reprimanded.

    I’d say that so long as you agree with the premise that “people are people,” it’s pretty easy to determine that some number of women really wouldn’t choose that life. But we don’t need to make that assumption because we have endless examples of women in that situation telling us they’re unhappy. Liberate them, you haven’t affected the hijab wearers, so that’s where the energy should go.

    It’s a sort of bizarre naiveté to think hat “culture” is such a powerful force (which it isn’t–it’s infinitely variable and infinitely mutable even within a discreet group), that some human would wish to live in a totally alien way.

    What makes it different is that I am an American. I am arguing against the system within which I live my everyday life. I understand the system from an emic perspective.

    I enjoy when disciplines concoct terminology to imply something technical when it’s just free-wheeling gibberish. Is the anti-slavery movement emic? Or was the South so different that it couldn’t be considered the same culture? How about Germany vs. France in WWII? Was the US such an outsider with respect to Germany that we needed to study the cultural norms before declaring Nazism wrong? How about the behavior of the Japanese in WWII?

    I would argue that the difference between someone growing up in Canada in 1850 and someone growing up in Mississippi was roughly as “culturally” different as someone born in London is from someone born in Saudi Arabia.

    It’s cool that anthropologist have neat words, but they contain nothing meaningful. It’s so malleable that any time you want to say that cultural criticism is “ok” you just say it’s emic — how about drug violence in Mexico? Are the cultures close enough? How about the intense misogyny in Italy? The repression of dissidents in China?

    As I said in the previous post, I think people are conflation moral and cultural relativism. There’s always value in the study of other cultures, and obviously that could lead to practical outcome, but it’s the assertion that it’s necessary in certain cases to make moral judgments that I find troubling.

    I don’t need to study the Nazis or Pol Pot or the Aztecs to conclude that mass murder ain’t cool. Now, maybe by gaining some special insight into their cultural habits, I can bring about the end to that behavior, but I need to be operating from a position running completely contrary to moral relativism based on cultural differences to think that’s a worthwhile task in the first place.

    I think you agree with all of us on the substance — FGM is something that needs to stop — which makes you very much not a moral relativist.

  41. 41
    doubtthat

    I am also advocating for viewing their lives in broader contexts. Just yelling at Ugandans DO NOT KILL GAY PEOPLE!!!! will not solve much (though it might make you feel better).

    Well, this is just a dumb thing to say. It reminds me of all my facebook friends who tried to adopt the hip, counter-the-masses position of arguing that using the equal sign on your facebook profile isn’t going to lead to marriage equality by itself.

    Really? What an awesome observation.

    You know what would make a big difference with Uganda? Perhaps saying DO NOT KILL GAY PEOPLE and backing that with an elimination of foreign aid. Part of that obvious claim is directed at our own politicians, and, as I’m sure most people are aware, that Ugandan bill was the result of a cozy relationship between their political class and a bunch of evangelical Republicans in the US:

    http://scienceblogs.com/dispatches/2009/11/30/the-familys-ties-to-ugandas-an/

    But maybe it makes you feel better to consider that the people arguing against you think that claims on the internet are enough. Certainly there were plenty of Keyboard Commandos claiming to be supporting the war effort in Iraq with their blogposts. I would just hope you had the basic decency to not associate us with that line of thinking.

  42. 42
    Rebekah, the Wily Jew

    Brilliant message and examples, doubtthat.

    The “why” of all this is in my view that people like Will are racists, but of the paternalistic rather than hateful variety. Treating people from the developing world (who of course are almost wholly non-white) as less morally capable and responsible is a constant and disturbing theme. That is why I chided Will for his use of the telling word, “imposed”. Non-whites are cast in their worldview as primarily acted upon, rather than held responsible to the same degree as people from developed societies.

    Take the Uganda example. Have you ever noticed how much of the talk on the left has been about the involvement of American evangelicals there. It is deplorable, of course, and definitely newsworthy. However, literally a handful of predominantly white Americans are involved, and yet Western narratives will all but strip Ugandans of their moral agency in violent homophobia. There is a not so subtle implication that black people are simply just doing what the whites tell them as if they had no ability to tell some fanatical foreigners to ‘get bent’.

    On this topic note this stunning quote from The Guardian (“US evangelical Christians accused of promoting homophobia in Africa” 23.07.2012):

    “The religious right [in effect] claims that human rights activists are neocolonialists out to destroy Africa,” the report states.

    Each of these “frame their agendas as authentically African, in an effort to brand human rights advocacy as a new colonialism bent on destroying cultural traditions and values”, the report says.

    In other words the rightwing Christian evangelical Westerners are using the exact same rhetoric of “cultural differences” and “colonialism” argument against universals human rights as supposed leftists (and LGBTQ) like Will. And yet Will wonders why I am so hostile to him?

  43. 43
    NateHevens, resident SOOPER-GENIUS... apparently...

    Rebekah, as a cultural anthropology student, I have to take issue with your post at number 42. Cultural relativism is not any kind of benevolent racism (I’ll grant that it’s been misused as such, in much the same way that Darwinism was misused in societies [Social Darwinism], but that doesn’t make them inherent in each other). Culture is a real thing and when you’re trying to make such large systematic changes, working in the culture is the only right way to make those changes.

    Again, look at abortion and sex in the US. You don’t change the cultural attitudes towards abortions and sex by passing laws; you do it by working within the culture… that is, by educating the younger generations.

    That is the very essence of cultural relativism. Emic and etic perspectives are extremely important when it comes to long-term change.

    I think where Will and the rest of us disagree is that Will thinks such a perspective will work in the short-term, as well… and I don’t believe that’s true.

    Now, on to Will…

    Will @#35:

    I need to apologize. I think we’ve been talking past each other because I’ve been talking about cultural relativism as a system of action (ie: moral relativism [as doubtthat pointed out]) while you’ve been talking about it as a system of… erm… learning/education of different cultures… for lack of a better descriptor…

    I have no problem with cultural relativism as the latter. In fact, I’m quite convinced that it is impossible to interact on the world stage without cultural relativism in the sense of the latter. If you’re trying to sell products, change understandings, make friends, talk or even change politics, etc, then yes, cultural relativism is required.

    But as a system of action, I think it can be a hinderance rather than a help. I think when it comes to cases like Uganda and Amina and (to bring in yet another issue) the Muslim persecution of atheists in Bangledesh, cultural relativism will not help the victims at all, and indeed will likely delay any aid we can possibly bring to them because we’re so worried about not offending the cultural sensitivities that we let that blind us to the fact that there are actual victims who actually need our help right now. In other words, my argument is that there simply is no time for cultural relativism. We need to save the victims (Ugandan homosexuals, Amina and women like her, atheists in Bangledesh). After we’ve done that, then we can start working within the culture to change it from the inside.

    But we can’t do that until we save the lives that are now in immediate danger.

    That’s been my argument all this time.

    Well, it depends. It’s not wrong from an emic perspective, obviously. It is possible for it to be wrong from an etic perspective. But if the goal is to understand the emic perspective–which it is for cultural anthropology–then declaring something right or wrong is of little value. That is of value in the etic analysis and any calls for action or advocacy that might be appropriate.

    Actually, my above is a good response to this, so… see that. :D

    1) That teacher sounds pretty bad. That sort of thing would be highly problematic in my department.

    Oh, she is quite unpopular with students… but she also has tenure and connections that keep her there.

    2) Tangent: Vodun is a syncretic practice that incorporates indigenous beliefs with Catholic beliefs, so it’s not surprising that they are both present. Finding it “weird” tells me what you’re unfamiliar with how Vodun came about and why syncretism happens.

    That’s odd. In the documentary I saw, they presented Vodun as being in the culture before Catholicism. That is, the people practiced all these sorts of rituals for many generations, while Catholicism was not brought to them until the early 20th century.

    What would it have been called before Catholicism came along? Just Paganism?

    3) I do not agree with your professor that their system of oracles is “the same as science.” I would say it serves a similar social role as science does in our society, but they are obviously radically different systems of knowledge production.

    That’s what a couple of us tried to argue, actually. She wouldn’t hear it.

    4) The cultural relativist stance would not simply be “that’s interesting,” it would seek to explain why they use this system as opposed to other systems and what kinds of meanings they make from it. What your teacher said about it being science is an etic analysis, not an emic analysis.

    So, really, I do not agree with your assessment of what cultural relativism is, and it sounds to me like your department has done a disservice in teaching you about it.

    That’s largely my fault. I’ve never been good with words to begin with, and my anger over this has made me even less clear. See my intro to this response to you… as I said, I think we were using the term in two different ways and that’s why we’ve been at a stalemate over this.

    It’s also possible I’m still not being clear (again, that’d be my fault, not yours), so if you’re still unclear, just ask.

    Re: Bruce Knauft, I was using him as an example of someone who doesn’t just accept what’s going on due to cultural relativism but who was literally in a position incapable of acting. This was in response to your claim that cultural relativist anthropology should not do or say anything about ethically and morally questionable practices. This is not true, and you’d be hard pressed to find anthropologists who agree subscribe to that view.

    See above… :D

    Re: mutilation, I’m aware of what the definition is and why it’s used. I’ve read widely on the topic. As I’ve already stated, the reason I don’t use it is because of women I’ve talked to who have asked me not to use the word. Further, there are multiple practices that range in severity–they are not all the same practice as you seem to imply.

    And if you think the men who force little girls to undergo this are stigmatized by calling it mutilation, I think you should produce some evidence of that. I can certainly produce evidence of women who have said the word makes them feel stigmatized. I’d be interested in seeing some men from those societies who give a shit about what we call it.

    I got into an argument on Skype about a year ago with a Muslim cleric who had overseen such cutting numerous times. It was always 13-year-old girls, and he told me he’s dragged some of them in kicking and screaming… he was quite proud of the fact that he gave them no choice. He yelled at me for calling it mutilation because “what I do is for the grace of Allah. Allah does not mutilate, he saves.” He wanted it to be referred to as “saving the women from a lifetime of perversion.”

    I refused, so he ended the conversation.

    Well, you have yet to establish that cultural relativism actually has hurt matters. That assertion is not supported by the empirical evidence. When activist work is done in ways that are sensitive to (let me be clear: I mean that pays attention to them and finds alternatives that can work along with) local cultural norms, it is easier to encourage people to change their cultural practices.

    When saving the lives of the victims is more important than informing the culture, then cultural relativism can hurt.

    Basically, I think making sure Amina is safe is many times more important than worrying about their culture. As I said before… we can work within the culture after we ensure the immediate safety of victims now.

    Is understanding and working within the culture more important than ensuring Amina’s safety?

    I’ve no doubt even you would say “no” to that.

    I’m aware of what blog I’m on and what it’s about. I am also well aware of what the term white knighting means, and I used it intentionally. Because that’s how I read it. There is a soteriological aspect underlying this call for universalist feminism that is disturbing to me. It is not a slur, it describes an idea or behavior.

    Then you made a mistake. White-knighting, like mangina, is a childish term thrown around by misogynists to shutdown those men who try to support feminism as best as men can.

    What’s going on here is not white-knighting, especially not when oppressed vouices are quite literally in mortal danger.

    I understand that. And I don’t have a problem with helping her have a voice. I have a problem with the idea that there’s only one way to do that.

    There is only one way to do it when her life is immediately at stake.

    It’s a matter of degree, not kind. What kind of a choice is “wear clothes or go to jail”? Choices are enabled and constrained by structures. That’s my point. You can make choices within an oppressive structure and choose to go along with the oppression. It may not appear as much of a choice, but it’s a choice nonetheless.

    Again, this is not to say that I agree with their choice or that I agree with the structure. I just don’t think it’s right to strip women of agency, either. We can acknowledge that some women make choices like those that we find extremely constrained without saying it’s not a choice.

    I agree that it’s not much of a choice–but it’s still a choice.

    I disagree.

    It’s a “choice” designed in such a way that you can only choose what they want you to choose, because most people will not choose the other option.

    “Cake or death” is a funnier example of what I mean. Of course people are going to choose cake.

    The same goes for this situation. It creates an illusion of choice, yes, but an illusion of choice is not the same thing as an actual choice.

    One of them told me that it made her feel ashamed of her body because of something that was done to her that was beyond her control. She referred to it as circumcision. I did not ask the other women why, I just took them at face value. There’s writing on this out there on the internet if you search for it.

    Interesting. I’d think she’d be vociferous about calling it mutilation. I’ll be sure to be more thoughtful when I’m around Muslim women, but it honestly seems counter-intuitive to me.

    But it also smacks of another issue for atheists:
    There are so many atheists out there who refuse to identify as such because they associate it with baggage it doesn’t have to have. So they looks for words that don’t actually describe them in order to avoid the label that, by definition, actually does describe them.

    This is not something I think we should be okay with. This is something we should fight to change.

    I’m not cool with that, either. I’ve never claimed to be, and I never said that that was a choice. I’ve been pretty clear that sometimes a choice is involved and other times a choice is not.

    And my argument is that, in many (if not most) Muslim countries in the Middle East, there is no choice.

    I don’t necessarily disagree with you, but I don’t see the long-term and short-term solutions as so mutually exclusive. I think we can speak out against these sorts of things in ways that do not do more harm than good. If we are to stem the tide as you put it, there has to be attention to culture. We cannot worry about the culture “later” because later will never come if we don’t start fixing it now. Fixing it now can be both a short-term and long-term goal. But, yes, people’s safety should be a top priority. Racist, colonialist rhetoric (which, by the way, I’m not accusing anyone here of doing–it just happens quite often in the broader discourse) does nothing to make Amina any more safe, though.

    It’s not that they’re necessarily exclusive. It’s that if we’re going to save Amina’s life and the lives of women like her, we don’t have time to be culturally relativistic. Cultural relativism takes too long. While we’re busy trying to understand the culture and change it from within, people who are in severe danger could be tortured and/or killed, and that is at least partially our fault if we had the ability to get them out and didn’t.

    So my argument is this: let’s worry about the victims first; then we can worry abut the culture.

  44. 44
    Will

    @doubtthat,

    I have not argued that people are not being oppressed. In fact, I’ve acknowledged that that is occurring. I have argued that to say women are incapable of making choices within oppressed systems is wrong. That’s it (at least as far as agency and choice is concerned).

    I enjoy when disciplines concoct terminology to imply something technical when it’s just free-wheeling gibberish. Is the anti-slavery movement emic? Or was the South so different that it couldn’t be considered the same culture?

    Actually, the word comes from linguistics and was adopted into anthropology. You know, phonetics and phonemics? Not exactly “free-wheeling gibberish” as you put it. Perhaps you should go read up on the history of the terms before being so dismissive simply out of ignorance.

    “Is the anti-slavery movement emic?” is a bad question. Emic refers to an insider’s perspective. Your question asked “Is the anti-slavery movement an insider’s perspective?” It’s non-sensical.

    I’ve also not argued that an emic perspective is necessary before declaring something “wrong.” As I pointed out in my response to NateHevens, the goal of cultural relativism and cultural anthropology is not to determine whether something is right or wrong, it’s to understand the emic perspective. This does not preclude making judgments about the practices (given that we often analyze the emic perspective using an etic, or outsider’s, perspective), it just seeks to ground our understandings outside of our own ethnocentric frameworks.

    Also, despite your correctly pointing out the conflation of cultural relativism and moral relativism, you’re still doing it yourself. For example, you said:

    It’s cool that anthropologist have neat words, but they contain nothing meaningful. It’s so malleable that any time you want to say that cultural criticism is “ok” you just say it’s emic

    That’s confusing cultural and moral relativism. Cultural relativism is not about making value judgments. It’s not about saying a practice is okay or wrong, it’s about understanding why that practice happens from the perspective of the people who do it.

    There’s always value in the study of other cultures, and obviously that could lead to practical outcome, but it’s the assertion that it’s necessary in certain cases to make moral judgments that I find troubling.

    I don’t think it’s necessary–I think it makes for better informed moral judgments and better informed and more efficacious activism much of the time and depending on what the issue is. I’m not the one issuing calls for a universal approach to problem solving here. I’m the one advocating for multiple paths to the same goals.

    I think you agree with all of us on the substance — FGM is something that needs to stop — which makes you very much not a moral relativist.

    You’re correct. Thank you for acknowledging that.

    As you can see, I’m not–as I’ve been accused by you and others–arguing that we should not make a moral judgment about FGC. It’s wrong. What I’m arguing is that, now that we’ve established that it’s morally problematic, how do we go about changing the practice? This is where I think I part ways with others here. I do not think it is simply enough to yell at people, call them names (“backwards” for example), and pass laws or decrees from the UN. I think it’s necessary to support local activists and help them enact their own solutions (not our own “universal” feminist ideas that focus on gender to the exclusion of other axes of oppression that the women may want to focus on). I really don’t know why this is such a controversial idea.

    Well, this is just a dumb thing to say. It reminds me of all my facebook friends who tried to adopt the hip, counter-the-masses position of arguing that using the equal sign on your facebook profile isn’t going to lead to marriage equality by itself.

    Simply putting that image on your Facebook profile isn’t going to lead to marriage equality by itself. It’s an indication that you support marriage equality, but it’s slacktivism and most of the people doing that are likely uninvolved in other forms of activism for marriage equality. Yet, they feel that they’ve done something by changing an image on their FB page. In this case, it’s not really UNhelpful, it’s just not really helpful either except in making people feel good and feel like they’ve contributed.

    I don’t know what kinds of work people who have commented here have engaged in concerning these topics. Perhaps they are out working with women on the local level to curb genital cutting practices–in fact, I hope they are! But I highly doubt it considering that no one has claimed to do so. I’m happy to be proved wrong on that.

    You know what would make a big difference with Uganda? Perhaps saying DO NOT KILL GAY PEOPLE and backing that with an elimination of foreign aid.

    I agree that sanctions can work, as I said in my last comment. But we should also be working with local activists to change the culture such that sanctions won’t be necessary, yes?

    But maybe it makes you feel better to consider that the people arguing against you think that claims on the internet are enough. Certainly there were plenty of Keyboard Commandos claiming to be supporting the war effort in Iraq with their blogposts. I would just hope you had the basic decency to not associate us with that line of thinking.


    It does not make me feel better at all (which, by the way, if you’re going to ask me for the basic decency to not associate you with that line of thinking, how about not associating me with a vindictive, “gotcha” line of thinking?). I hope people are out doing the hard work of activism and are not thinking that arguing in the comments section of a blog post is enough. I also wish that people would take seriously the criticisms made by postcolonial feminists and womanists concerning the rhetoric and discourse coming from mainstream feminist sources.

  45. 45
    Will

    @NateHevens,

    I think you and I are mostly on the same page. We just have differences in opinion about how to proceed and some different understandings of various words and terminologies.

    I do not think it is necessary to only think about ensuring Amina’s safety versus only thinking about culture change. I think we can consider both at the same time. In fact, I think it’s necessary to do so. If we only ever think about victims first and put off thinking about culture until later, we will never get to the thinking about the culture because there will always be victims. By thinking about both, we can change the culture to diminish the number of victims (with the idealistic aim of having no victims at all) that need our help. And, knowing that there are many people seeking to ensure Amina’s safety, I do not feel that it is taking away from her safety to discuss the broader cultural issues. It is not as if by us having this conversation and me pushing for more culturally sensitive activism that we are taking away resources from ensuring Amina’s safety.

  46. 46
    Ophelia Benson

    This is where I think I part ways with others here. I do not think it is simply enough to yell at people, call them names (“backwards” for example), and pass laws or decrees from the UN.

    That’s insulting.

  47. 47
    Will

    Also, Nate, come find me at WiS2! I’ll be hanging out with the other Skepchicks most of the time probably. I’d love to chat and hear more about your program and experiences as an anthro student.

    I’m going to kick in some money to your campaign in a minute. Hope to see you there!

  48. 48
    Will

    @Ophelia,

    If I could rephrase that, I would say, “This is where I part ways with some others here,” as I certainly don’t think everyone who disagrees with me thinks that way. Sorry for not being more precise with my word choice.

    That being said, it does come across as though some people think those sorts of things are enough to stop FGC (despite evidence to the contrary). And I’m still extremely uncomfortable with the absence of intersectionality in your approach to feminism.

  49. 49
    Ophelia Benson

    Well, as you said, my feminism is “straight out of the 2nd wave,” i.e. old and of the past and nearly dead.

  50. 50
    doubtthat

    @44 Will

    Actually, the word comes from linguistics and was adopted into anthropology. You know, phonetics and phonemics? Not exactly “free-wheeling gibberish” as you put it. Perhaps you should go read up on the history of the terms before being so dismissive simply out of ignorance.

    Haha, well, that totally irrelevant history certainly proved your point. Oh wait, the term that has totally malleable application depending on how you want to justify your position has a “history?” Well, I guess that settles that.

    I wonder what happens if we study the etymology of “arbitrary…”

    “Is the anti-slavery movement emic?” is a bad question. Emic refers to an insider’s perspective. Your question asked “Is the anti-slavery movement an insider’s perspective?” It’s non-sensical.

    Yes, that was poorly phrased on my part, but you’ve just decided to evade the point.

    Here it is again:

    In comment 38 you argued that it was appropriate for you to criticize (however we’ve defined that) prop 8 because you’re American — it’s emic criticism. This is an incoherent standard — requiring one to be an insider. The reason for this is that we can define “insider” any way we want to suit our argument.

    Is my criticism of Catholic pedophiles appropriate? I’m not Catholic. Does Bill O’Reilly whining about the location of the belt line of young black males meet the criteria? Is the cultural divide between North and South great enough to require me to “study” Southern culture before complaining about their racism? Is “the West” sufficient to warrant emic criticism of Nazi Germany by the French? Americans?

    It’s a useless criteria. Again, it may have some value in terms of efficacy: groups will tolerate criticism from persons they perceive to be “insiders.” But that gives no guidance in terms of deciding what sorts of behavior is appropriate nor when criticism should take place.

    “Is the anti-slavery movement emic?” is a bad question. Emic refers to an insider’s perspective. Your question asked “Is the anti-slavery movement an insider’s perspective?” It’s non-sensical.

    I’ll put an end to the cultural/moral relativism debate from my end. I saw you making that argument (and I think you were sloppy about that divide — arguing about “universal feminism” which is totally compatible with cultural relativism, for example). The portion where you accuse me of conflating the two was meant as a criticism of you conflating the two, so I think we’re butting heads at a point of confusion.

    Cultural Relativism is not Moral Relativism. Arguing for Cultural Relativism in an approach to a problem is not the same as excusing behavior based on cultural norms in a given area. If we both agree on that, we shouldn’t have an argument on that point.

    I think it makes for better informed moral judgments and better informed and more efficacious activism much of the time and depending on what the issue is.

    This is such a qualified argument that no one could possibly disagree.

    Simply putting that image on your Facebook profile isn’t going to lead to marriage equality by itself.

    What?!?! You mean Scalia doesn’t see my Facebook profile?

    I think you missed my point completely. Again, no fucking shit. When you’re done here, could you give me a run down on shoe-tying and toilet use? I feel that the conversation isn’t sufficiently pedantic.

    I hope they are! But I highly doubt it considering that no one has claimed to do so. I’m happy to be proved wrong on that.

    Yes, because as we all know, one cannot have an opinion on an issue unless they are activists on that specific issue. This is meaty analysis.

    (which, by the way, if you’re going to ask me for the basic decency to not associate you with that line of thinking, how about not associating me with a vindictive, “gotcha” line of thinking?

    Your lack of self-awareness is stunning. Observe what you wrote:

    Just yelling at Ugandans DO NOT KILL GAY PEOPLE!!!! will not solve much (though it might make you feel better).

    You made a stupid, smarmy, shitty little jab hidden a fucking idiotic…”argument” would be too strong. More of a sanctimonious little lecture. Your shitty, snide words were repeated back to you, and now we need requests for civility.

    I hope people are out doing the hard work of activism and are not thinking that arguing in the comments section of a blog post is enough. I also wish that people would take seriously the criticisms made by postcolonial feminists and womanists concerning the rhetoric and discourse coming from mainstream feminist sources.

    Writing like this makes it very difficult for me to take you seriously.

  51. 51
    Ophelia Benson

    Just this one thing from Will @ 30 (I haven’t had time to read all his comments) -

    Actually, I call it genital cutting because I have had women tell me that calling it mutilation makes them feel stigmatized.

    But what about women who say that calling it cutting makes them feel insulted, disregarded, minimized, betrayed?

    Calling it cutting makes it seem a small and acceptable thing. To many women, it is very far from that.

    We could call footbinding “foot improvement,” too, but it would be an insult.

    In general, it’s bad to call a bad thing by a nicer name to spare the feelings of people who do or have done the bad thing. It’s reminiscent of calling genocidal actions in Vietnam “pacification.”

    Are there a lot of survivors of genocide, say, who would prefer it to be called “population reduction” or “demographic adjustment” or some such? Not that I know of.

    FGM of course is done both to and by women. It’s done to them as children and then by them as mothers and grandmothers. Well, so it goes. The thing done remains a bad thing. Calling it something milder just makes it that little bit easier to go on doing it. It makes me feel sick when I see people advocating for that.

  52. 52
    doubtthat

    I will also point out that the rhetoric on this blog cannot simultaneously be totally useless and really dangerous. It’s either a source of slacktivism or it’s generating dangerous feminist rhetoric that’s harming the noble efforts of well-meaning folks overseas.

    As for the Western Feminists, recall how this started. It wasn’t Western Feminists ginning up controversy for no reason, nor are the protesters limited to the commentariate at Jezebel.

    Finally, I will point out that many of the same cultures we’re discussing have intense prohibitions on usury and charging interest, in general. Yet exactly zero of their culture beliefs are indulged when it comes to international finance. Did the West study their cultures to determine how to slowly sway them to the side of compound interest? Nope, they just said, “You want to do business with us, you do it this way.”

    Yet for some reason we think it will be more efficacious to indulge them on their treatment of women. I find this interesting. Culture changes FAST when there’s a need.

  53. 53
    Will

    @doubtthat,

    I was writing out a whole long response, but I think there’s no point to carrying on. We’re arguing past one another. We’ve made our points; we agree on some things and disagree on others. C’est la vie.

    @Ophelia,

    I understand that perspective, too. It does shed light on the fact that this is not a simple issue, and obviously different women feel different about the terminology. I’ll err on the side of not making women I interact with in person feel stigmatized as that’s what I’ve been asked to do by them. If in the future other women who have gone through FGC encourage me to use the word “mutilation,” I will reconsider my choice to use “cutting.”

    By the way, I haven’t been advocating for one term or another (though I did point out that some anthropologists advocate certain terms). All I’ve done is explain why I use “cutting” over “mutilation.” I understand why people use “mutilation,” and that’s not something that I would try to control. But I can choose which words I will use myself, and I’ll do that based on the conversations I’ve had in real life.

  54. 54
    Rebekah, the Wily Jew

    …working in the culture is the only right way to make those changes.

    Nate, I realy like your responses overall, but the fact you say “only” is what disturbs me about that sentiment.

    The Communist regimes of the 20th Century blew away some awful cultural traditions by strong-arming them into submission. Foot-binding was not ended by respectful dialogue but by unequivocal condemnation as “feudalist” with a viable threat (up to summary execution) to back it. And foot binding was so horrific that that was clearly justified. Given how multi-ethnic and pluralistic China is (and the USSR was) they cared fuck all for “culture”. Of course the NATO block more or less put down the Communists across the board in the Muslim world, the one intra-cultural group who might have done what was necessary.

    The ‘respectful’ solutions may assuage fashionable Western guilt but they come at a horrific human cost. Every day you fail to halt FGM more girls are cut. I do not claim to have the solution, but saying the cultural outreach solution (which I partake in by the way with two anti-FGM NGOs) is the “only” viable method is not substantiated by history and is itself a moral compromise with massive human suffering behind it.

    Again, look at abortion and sex in the US. You don’t change the cultural attitudes towards abortions and sex by passing laws; you do it by working within the culture…

    Well, the States are the exception not the rule. While not imposed by judicial decree, European states simply passed laws that reflected the will of the party leadership whether democratic (e.g. Labour in the UK) or totalitarian (e.g. USSR). There was no cultural outreach.

    And further William Saletan has studied the issue of why abortion remains controversial in the U.S., again unlike Europe, Canada, East Asia, etc. It is largely a matter of propaganda. The American right out manoeuvred the liberals consistently between 1980 and 2012 in rhetoric and media spin. Hopefully Romney’s defeat has broken them for good.

  55. 55
    Ophelia Benson

    Will – Oh, ok, I see what you’re saying. I would do the same – I wouldn’t say mutilation in someone’s face if she disliked it. (Other things being equal. If it were an argument about her daughter, I might…but I’m not an activist so that’s not going to happen.)

  56. 56
    Delft

    Thanks for the great post. I am so sick of the *culture* card being used to defend human rights violations.

    As far as I’m concerned, the rights of human beings trump the rights of cultures. Once cultural relativism and basic human rights come in to conflict (such as in the case with Amina and these protests), as far as I’m concerned, you have to throw cultural relativism out the window [...]

    This. (NateHevens@18)

    Finally, I will point out that many of the same cultures we’re discussing have intense prohibitions on usury and charging interest, in general. Yet exactly zero of their culture beliefs are indulged when it comes to international finance. [...] Culture changes FAST when there’s a need.

    And this. (doubtthat@52)

  57. 57
    theoreticalgrrrl

    Will to Ophelia: “And I’m still extremely uncomfortable with the absence of intersectionality in your approach to feminism.”
    That’s total bullshit.

    Rebekah said, “The ‘why’ of all this is in my view that people like Will are racists, but of the paternalistic rather than hateful variety. Treating people from the developing world (who of course are almost wholly non-white) as less morally capable and responsible is a constant and disturbing theme. That is why I chided Will for his use of the telling word, “imposed”. Non-whites are cast in their worldview as primarily acted upon, rather than held responsible to the same degree as people from developed societies.”

    Yes. I think that is much more insulting. Talk about stripping people of agency.

    After his sanctimonious little lectures to us ignorant ‘colonialist feminists’ on how we are too racist or clueless to understand it’s a woman’s free choice to choose to obey *even if the penalty for ANY OTHER choice is to be beaten, have acid thrown in your face or being murdered, I was trying to think of a way to describe Will’s brand of feminism.
    I think Hipster Feminism is good.
    Can’t stand Hipster Feminists.

  58. 58
    NateHevens, resident SOOPER-GENIUS... apparently...

    Rebekah @ #54:

    And yet again, I fail with words… I’m talking about long-term changes, not short-term. Again… when cultural relativism and human rights come into conflict, human rights win every time. Those states that have gone to the lengths they have to outlaw abortion? Those laws won’t stand up in court, and if nobody’s planning on suing the states, I think Planned Parenthood and the ACLU should do just that.

    But once we’ve won the human rights battles, we can’t win the controversies without cultural relativism. So what I said to you… that was meant for after human rights are secured in the short term.

    After Amina and women like her have been helped. After pressure forces Uganda to repeal those laws. After we stop the severe persecution of atheists in Bangladesh. After we’ve protected bodily autonomy here in the States.

    Then we need to focus on changing the culture, and that can only be done with a culturally relativistic perspective. Take care of the immediate harm first, then work on the culture from the inside.

    Protecting the victims obviously comes first.

    It should be noted, however, that as long as the culture remains unchanged, there will be victims, as Will pointed out. We need to help the victims who are in immediate danger now. We’ll help future victims by changing the cultures from within, starting with giving those future victims agency.

    The immediate solution cannot be bound by cultural relativism. But the long-term solution has to be… it’s the path of least resistance, because what we want is for the people to decide that the way their culture is is wrong. We can’t just tell them this; we have to let them figure it out for themselves… or at least make them think they’ve figured it out for themselves. Why do you think education is the most powerful and dangerous weapon any force can wield?

    But, as I said… that comes after we secure the human rights and safety of the current victims. In other words, our priority should be on helping Middle-Eastern women and atheists and homosexuals and victims here in the States as well. Changing the culture can wait until we’ve done that.

    ———————————————————

    Will…

    All of your reasons for wanting to take a culturally relativistic approach are right. If we are going to help all generations of the oppressed around the world, your method, the culturally relativistic method, is the one that will work. If we want to teach them that it’s okay to give women agency, we have to do that through the methods you espouse.

    The point we’re all making here is that this will not help Amina. Amina is in immediate danger. She doesn’t have the luxury of waiting on the cultural zeitgeist. The same goes for atheists in Bangladesh, homosexuals in Uganda, women here in the States being affected by the War on Women (anti-abortion laws, birth control controversies, rape culture, etc), and so on. These are victims now. They are not future victims.

    The cultural zeitgeist is slow. Culture never changes overnight. And these victims now, who need our help now, don’t even have overnight.

    I said it before and I’ll say it again: human rights trumps cultural relativism every time. When somebody’s life is on the line, cultural relativism needs to be put on hold, and helping that person needs to become the priority.

    So… again, you are absolutely right. There needs to be a sea-change in the culture of the Middle East and here in the States. A zeitgeist needs to be instituted there, and here, and elsewhere, and the easiest… in fact, I’d argue the only… way to begin a zeitgeist is through a culturally relativistic perspective.

    But not when there is immediate danger to people now… and there is. We need to help those who need it now. We cannot ask them to wait for the cultural zeitgeist, because they do not have the time. They are in danger now, and helping them has to be our first priority. We can initiate the cultural zeitgeists when the immediate victims are no longer in danger.

    And yes, you’re right… as long as the cultures remain the same, there will always be victims. But the cultural zeitgeist can help the future victims. It cannot help the current victims… and they are more important. Amina is more important. Atheists in Bangladesh are more important. Homosexuals in Uganda are more important. Women here in the States are more important.

    Forget about the cultures… help the victims who need it now. Then we can get back to changing the cultures.

    I will grant that I don’t know how to help the immediate victims. In this I’m floundering in an open sea with nowhere to turn and no land in sight. Sadly, we don’t live in comic books and don’t have the Justice League and/or the Avengers and/or the X-Men at our disposal.

    This is not my area of expertise.

    But I still believe that the immediate danger is more important than fixing the culture at this time, and that’s how this whole thing has to be looked at.

  59. 59
    Rebekah, the Wily Jew

    Then we need to focus on changing the culture, and that can only be done with a culturally relativistic perspective.

    And I reiterate my point that the history of multiple Communist states disprove that position.

  60. 60
    Delft

    @NateHevens

    [...] in fact, I’d argue the only… way to begin a zeitgeist is through a culturally relativistic perspective.

    Forget about the cultures… help the victims who need it now. Then we can get back to changing the cultures.

    Franky I’m confused by what you’re saying, also the distinction between future and current victims. Take honour kilings. To help those at risk today, we do X, but then at some point we have to stop that because “the only way” to institute longterm change is culturally relativistic?

    Both the “foot binding” and the “usury” examples above prove that change can be imposed, overnight, and no returns. For human rights, unlike for economic rules, we seem to be too squeamish to do that.
    It takes a new generation to effect a sea-change. Impose rules from the outside (e.g. by making trade conditions and economic support 100% dependent on human rights) also use the propaganda machine to get across the message that treating women like chattel is not just foul, but culturally backward – and the next generation will very likely think very differently.
    And it’s the “backward” that does the trick: never underestimate people’s desire to be modern. Which is exactly why the culturally relativistic approach is counterproductive. Saying “it’s OK for you to do … because of your traditions” reinforces the status quo because it cuts the incentive for the next generation to think differently.

  61. 61
    NateHevens, resident SOOPER-GENIUS... apparently...

    Cultural relativism doesn’t say “it’s okay to do that”. Also, you never stop helping the immediate victims.

    It’s a balancing act.

  62. 62
    NateHevens, resident SOOPER-GENIUS... apparently...

    In other words, you aren’t going to make any changes at all by being ethnocentric. You have to work with the people, not against against them.

    But again, and I stress this: when human rights and cultural relativism clash (and they are here), human rights win every single time.

  63. 63
    Ophelia Benson

    But what is “the people”? What is “ethno”?

    Amina is clearly in some ways at odds with “the people” herself. It’s not really possible to support her while also supporting “the people” – depending as always on how those are defined.

  64. 64
    NateHevens, resident SOOPER-GENIUS... apparently...

    “Ethnocentrism” – Judging a culture by the standards of your own culture.

    Amina is quite clearly at odds with her own culture, and you’re right. It isn’t possible to support her while supporting the culture. And so I say it again: human rights trump cultural relativism.

    Also… Rebekah? Those “Communist” states you refer to weren’t communist at all… they were Authoritarian.

    But to make the culture safer for future people, what is the ultimate path of least resistance?

    Get those within the culture to agree with you.

    How do you do that?

    You infiltrate the culture.

    And how do you do that?

    You understand it.

    Cultural relativism.

    The victims are more important than the culture and that’s where these “imperialist” fools are going wrong. We need to focus on the victims now. The culture can wait.

  65. 65
    NateHevens, resident SOOPER-GENIUS... apparently...

    As to those who gained power… no one ever gained power through fear/intimidation. Many consolidated power that way, but they didn’t gain it that way.

    They gained their power through popularity, and they gained that popularity by identifying a cultural zeitgeist and latching on to it, making themselves a sort of “hero” of the majority of the people they wanted to rule. They worked within the culture.

    Cultural relativism is largely a learning tool. Why is it so important to Muslims to treat women the way they do, and how can we change that? If you do it head on, you’re going to meet the most resistance and ultimately be the least effective. But if you get the Muslims to agree that it’s wrong… that’s the path of least resistance.

    And you can get them to agree to that. After all… a majority of Jews don’t think that way about gender relations anymore, and more Christians are finally coming ’round to it, too… painfully slowly, but they are. The Republicans are actually losing favor with their War on Women. Muslims have to come around to it, too.

    Of course, it isn’t enough to just wait for that, either. You have to jump-start it by infiltration. Plant a seed and force it to grow.

    You always want to search for the path of least resistance when instigating a cultural zeitgeist, because that’s the most effective way to go.

    But again, you can’t do any of that while people are actually in danger. That has to be removed first… by whatever means necessary.

  66. 66
    Delft

    @NateHevens
    Please both my questions @60, which were previously asked by several others, and you’ve failed to answer them too.
    When do we stop helping the current victims in favour of helping the future ones? As you are arguing the two are incompatible.
    And both the footbinding an the usury examples disprove your position that cultural relativism is the only way to institute change. So how can you stick with this statement?
    .
    If you sidestep the questions with the nonsense-verse-type stuff from above once more, I’ll conclude you simply cannot answer them, and are just talking through your hat.

  67. 67
    NateHevens, resident SOOPER-GENIUS... apparently...

    When do we stop helping the current victims in favour of helping the future ones?</blockquote?

    When the current victims have been helped. Not before then.

    But then…

    If…

    You can't use cultural relativism to help current victims…

    But to force a change… you want to go with the least resistance and…

    Fuck. I'm in a knot and can't untwist…

    Can I start over?

  68. 68
    NateHevens, resident SOOPER-GENIUS... apparently...

    In an attempt to untwist myself here…

    I started with what I (incorrectly) read as an attack on my chosen profession (anthropology). Namely, Rebekah’s post at # 42.

    As an anthropology student, I am obligated to hold to a culturally relativistic point of view. Anthropology would, I think, be impossible without it. To be honest, I think cultural relativism has helped alleviate the field of anthropology from historical racism born of an ethnocentric viewpoint (anthropologists wanted to study the “barbarians” and “savages” to understand why they weren’t more like us here in the West… cultural relativism was thought up to try and put a stop to that point of view).

    But I completely misunderstood Rebekah’s point and was arguing against a perspective that wasn’t there. In other words… Rebekah, I’m sorry for strawmanning you and advancing a twisted argument in this process.

    I hold, and will always hold, that human rights trumps cultural relativism. I’m gonna stick with that from here on out.

    Now that I think about it, cultural relativism is useful as a learning tool, but not as a tool of action. So delft and Rebekah are right. There will always be current victims, and their rights will always be more important than the culture. Cultural relativism is useful when you want to understand a culture; it’s not so useful when human rights violations need to be dealt with, because these are not culturally isolated things. They affect everyone, either directly or indirectly.

  1. 69
    Femen | Marie-Thérèse O'Loughlin Goldenbridgeinmate39

    [...] blog, that gave immense information from an African mindset. See:  Awesome on a skateboard      Attempting to impose white western “feminism”             Contributor: Maryam Kazeem [...]

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