March 3, 2009 / Uncategorized

The New Feminism: Breaking the Multicultural Relativism Taboo


The following is the opinion of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The New Agenda.sweepunderrug

When American feminists have broken their silence about the beheading of Aasiya Hassan, their reactions have tended to emphasize the commonalities in male violence against women across cultures and caution that it not distract our focus from this bigger picture. But in dismissing the importance of making distinctions among the cultural contexts in which such violence take place, are they playing into the hands of the politically correct crowd who don’t want us to talk about this subject at all?

What are the challenges for feminists as we try to navigate not only honor killings (as this beheading appears to be) taking place on American soil, but also the complex issues to which they open? Do they not point in two directions at once—the commonalities in male violence against women and their socio-cultural specificity? I suggest it is both/and, not either/or.

Assuredly, male degradation of and violence toward women is of pandemic proportions, and we must raise awareness and outrage in order to make unacceptable all forms of male violence against women (VAW). The media routinely erase that reality by locating the problem in the personal failings and pathology of individual men. But when at least one in three women in this country can expect to be sexually and/or physically assaulted during their lifetimes, some on a repeated or ongoing basis (as is often the case with the sexual abuse of girlchildren and the battery of women), it should be obvious that such behavior is neither exceptional nor deviant. If we are to change this behavior, we must first recognize that male violence against women is built into the structure of our asymmetrical sex/gender system even when it is not acted on.

(For the record, its structural nature in no way diminishes the accountability of men for their abusive and violent behavior toward women. It merely identifies the primary level at which the problem must be addressed.)

Yes, there are common denominators driving all male violence toward women. Male entitlement to appropriate, use, degrade, and discard women is part of that gendered structure, as is women’s de facto status as object, property, possession. Male entitlement is fed by a pornified misogyny which has innumerable channels of distribution, especially in our multi-media age.

Despite commonalities among all forms of male violence against women, we ought not simply disappear honor killings into the general VAW category by dismissing the importance of making distinctions that derive from their cultural or religious context. Why not?

Context Matters. When we say that male violence is all the same, we bypass the fact that it is informed by, and expressed through, specific cultural, societal, and religious contexts. Understanding behavior in its cultural context is one of the principles drilled into social scientists and ethnographers—with good reason. As Violet Socks writes in her February 19 TNA post, “We can’t stop honor killings unless we know why they happen—and I mean exactly why they happen. What are the social and religious codes at work there?” We cannot change what we do not understand, and we cannot understand something that we don’t discuss openly and honestly.

In her comments at TNA to Amy Siskind’s February 21 Daily Beast post, attorney Elizabeth Kates suggests one aspect of how this plays out. She has observed that the common thread among Western batterers is their “focus on themselves.” An individual sense of grievance and victimization is used to justify his behavior to himself while maintaining a belief in his own personal goodness. The honor killer, by contrast, does not feel he has to justify his behavior. He can perceive himself as a “neutral actor” doing something that in his social world is seen as “objectively necessary.” We need to understand such differences in order to address each of them effectively.

I would add that what Kates is pointing to in both instances is not reducible to psychological causation. She is pointing to sociological phenomena that manifest themselves through the structuring of men’s psyches and behaviors in their respective cultures. “Social structure” is not visible as such, but it is real, and it is powerful.

Drawing the Line. Second, If we lump honor killings in with all VAW, we beg the question of the exportation of Sharia Law to non-Muslim countries. (Most, not all, honor killings in the U.S. are committed by Muslims.) Not only are honor killings migrating to many parts of the world, but so also are demands for a dual legal system that accepts and glorifies rather than punishes the perpetrators. As we observe this process in Europe, we can be sure that these demands for a double standard in our laws are coming to a neighborhood near you.

This is a critical question for Americans, for women, for feminists—a question few of us ever dreamed we would be thinking about a decade or so ago during which only one American feminist voice, Phyllis Chesler, stands out for calling our attention to Islamic gender apartheid and its migration.

Sharia Law makes no apologies for absolute male entitlement to subjugate women and to punish them for infractions or alleged infractions of the shame-honor system—the social structure governing gender relations and sexual relations in Islamic and some other cultures. We need to gain clarity in our own minds and be able to articulate where the line must be drawn when religious fundamentalists, Islamic or otherwise, claim the right to practice behaviors that are antithetical to the premises on which we operate (at least in theory and in aspiration) and lead to harm against others—specifically against women.

  • We need to draw a line when respect or tolerance for other cultures and religions turns into accepting practices which harm women.

  • We cannot accept a dual legal system or cultural practices that subordinate or erase the rights of women to self-determination and bodily integrity.

The rubber meets the road here, folks.

Breaking the MCR Taboo. So what stops us from having absolute clarity that we will not accept a double standard or dual system of laws, and that we must have free and open discussion about Islamic shame-honor systems and their consequences? The politically correct orthodoxies of multicultural relativism (MCR) that have infused the consciousness of progressives—including most progressive/Leftist feminists.

Multiculturalism was intended as an antidote to racism and imperialism. Its relativism accepts all cultures as equal—especially if they have ever been colonized, and its people are people of color. Sounds good on first hearing. But here’s the catch. Subscribers to MCR enforce their orthodoxy by attacking as “racist” anyone who criticizes men of color or their male-dominated cultures.

MCR has two fatal flaws. It eschews standards for truth and ethical judgment—something we see reflected every day in the mainstream media, most of whom have abdicated the search for truth and holding public figures accountable to those standards. Edward R. Murrow would roll over in his grave at this abdication, and by the pretensions of one its most flagrant violators to co-opt his sign-off line.

The second fatal flaw is that it blocks women and their male allies from challenging the women-harming practices of non-Western, patriarchal cultures, including the shame-honor system that organizes gender relations in Islamic and some other societies. Toeing the MCR line not only means that race and ethnicity always trump gender, but also stifles feminists’ speaking out vigorously and unequivocally on behalf of women.

The new feminism must not unwittingly align with the politically correct thinking fostered and enforced by the Left, including Leftist feminists. Sweeping honor killings into generalized VAW falls right into that trap.

To stay out of the trap, we cannot be intimidated and silenced by the fear of being called “racist” or “anti-Islamic.” Being pro-women is not anti-anything-else. We must break multicultural relativism’s silencing taboo or it will break us.

The New Feminism—a Third Way. There is a way out of the self-defeating relativism that leaves women behind and subjugated. The new feminism must stand on the higher moral ground of universal human rights—formulated so as to include abuses specific to women, both in war and in peace. With firm ground under our feet, we can see the limits of relativism, and insist that women’s right to full humanity override all claims that legitimate men’s entitlement to subjugate women. Two cardinal principles would be that:

  • Women’s rights to self-determination and bodily integrity are universal human rights.

  • Our rights to self-determination and bodily integrity must always trump cultural and religious practices that harm women. Our rights cannot be subordinated to any brand of female subjugation.

Standing by this position reflects the new feminism’s being a creature of neither the Left nor the Right. The old feminism was demonized, caricatured, and ridiculed by the far Right, while establishment feminists allowed themselves to be incorporated into the Democratic Party. Women’s interests have not been well served by the male-centered priorities of either the Left or the Right. The new feminism must reinvent itself from its own roots, its own priorities, and its own perspectives, creating a Third Way.

© 2009 by Artemis March, PhD