Dossier 14-15: The Hidden Politics of Cultural Relativism

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International Campaign for the Defence of Women's Rights in Iran
September 1996
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Editor’s note

Women migrants in Europe or North America have long started to denounce the dangerous softness with which oppressive laws, customs and practices against women, imported from our countries and cultures, are tolerated or encouraged in the host countries, - in the name of tolerance, of respect of the Other, of the right to difference, of putting at par different cultures or religions, etc...

Like our own governments, governments of the countries of immigration are prepared to sell out the well being, the human rights and the civil rights of women, for the sake of giving in to the migrant community, solely represented, everywhere in the world, by its male members.

The collusion of patriarchies transcends most of the bones of contention between migrants and hosts.

This is why, amongst the many laws and customs that could have been imported from the migrants' culture, only those pertaining to women, the family and the private sphere are viewed with such tolerance.

For instance, no host country will tolerate the amputation of the limbs for thieves (as is the law in countries such as Sudan, Pakistan and the Gulf countries), while, a few years ago, the Dutch Parliament went so far as discussing the possibility of allowing female genital mutilation on the Netherlands' soil for those migrants who practice it in their home country! FGM has been tolerated and performed in hospitals in Italy and in Britain.

One of the major problems women face in their country of immigration is that liberals and progressive people, for fear of being accused of racism and of imposing their own cultural values, fail to take a feminist and human rights stand on such issues - thus unwittingly participating in the construction of Otherness (in our case “Muslimness”). By doing so they fit perfectly in the agenda of fundamentalist forces whose major task at the moment is the construction and imposition of a single uniform (be it religious, ethnic or cultural) identity amongst the migrants.

We present here two pieces: a declaration by Iranian women in Sweden which is an outcry against cultural relativism in Europe. It is followed by a short ironical piece, starting as a tale, in response to a special issue on racism of a German feminist journal published in 1993.

Their Culture, Our Culture
Muslim Migrant Women in Europe Condemn Cultural Relativism

A thirteen-year old girl is murdered by her parents in Egypt because she did not wear the veil properly. A teenage girl was killed by her Muslim father and brother in Sweden because she would not marry the man chosen by her family. Taking into account the cultural background of the family, the Swedish judicial system gives the offenders a milder punishment. A girl is beaten to death by her mother, sister and brother in Britain because a Muslim witch-hunter decided that she was possessed by evil spirits. The British court ruled that the family of the girl did not intend to kill her, they wanted to help her! There are many such horrendous events happening against women all over the world daily.

The issue is not that people do not know about them. The news of atrocities of all kind, from war, starvation, mass murder to suppression of most basic human rights reaches homes every day through the mass media. Who does not know that women in Iran, for example are forced to obey Islamic rules which mean suppression, humiliation and lack of rights for them?

Who does not know that women are less than second class citizens in Islamic countries?

The issue is not even feeling sorry and sad for the people subjected to these atrocities. The issue under question is the attitude that accepts these crimes as part of today's reality and further justifies them by saying that "these people have chosen their own destiny"; "This is how they want to live"; "It is their culture"; "We have our own culture and they have their own"; "We should respect their culture and do not interfere in their affairs". In other words they say women in Iran enjoy not having the right to divorce, the right of custody of their children, or having to wear the veil, or getting permission from their husbands or fathers to get a job or travel abroad! They are thrilled about the law which punishes them with stoning or execution if they do not obey the anti women laws!

The Islamic Republic of Iran sends its representatives to China to tell the world that 1) women in Iran are as active and equal, if not more, as women in other parts of the world; 2) even if there are some issues that show a view contrary to the former, it is because of tradition and culture of the country. The question here is who benefits from respecting different cultures? Is it the woman who do not have rights or the State which relies on it medieval laws for survival? Is it the 9 year old girl who, according to this "culture", is mature enough to marry, or the representatives of the respecting government who sit in the conference hall right now? We need not go further. Let us look at the issue from another angle. If we are not supposed to interfere in other people's affairs, it means that for example, when the government of a European country closes nurseries or lowers wages, we should not protest and should accept it as their business and culture! Who benefits from this passivity? Have you ever seen parents of these kids cheer for the government or the workers thanking it for less income? Obviously not.

Introducing and defending any reactionary and suppressive measure against people in any circumstances and especially under the name of respecting different cultures is condemned because it is against humanity at large. One can not regionalize basic human rights. One can not have thousands of sets of standards for women's rights. One can not approve the provision of maternity leave as a progressive demand and right in one country and believe that such right does not suit the people of another country. One can not say war is bad but as long as I and my family are not involved, the warring parts can fight as long as they want. One can not say wearing the veil is a terrible thing but if these people want their little girls wearing them, it is their business. Human rights and in its light, women's rights, are international and character and substance. Why is it that technology, spread of business and capital soon find their international role and place even in the most backward tribal village but welfare, high standard living, education etc. linger on for many years if introduced at all? When some people in Europe are treated differently and excused because of their "culture" not to follow general norms on non-segregation at schools and swimming classes, then one can expect that women's rights are trampled on in their countries of origin as a matter of routine. The victims of such policies are not restricted to those who are involved directly, it is offensive to the whole humanity. In this sense, violation of women's rights in Iran is a blow to women's rights internationally.

It is in this spirit that we:

• Condemn cultural relativism and demand universal rights for women in Iran and all over the world;

• Condemn the Islamic Republic of Iran for its systematic harassment of women. So long as this government is in power women are denied any rights in Iran;

• Demand separation of religion from the State.

International Campaign for the Defence of Women's Rights in Iran, Beijing, September 1995

Source: International Campaign for the Defence of Women's Rights in Iran
KFKI, Box 3162, 145 03 Norsborg, Sweden.