“Islam is the world’s most feminist religion”, Australian Muslim woman Abdel-Magied claimed on the ABC’s Q&A program on 13 February, 2017. Her controversial thesis has been shot down as ridiculous by many conservative writers and politicians across the nation. However, Abdel-Magied’s claim that Islam is “the most feminist” of all religions is not entirely wrong. It is not wrong however if one considers it through the lens of a particular variant of radical feminist ideology—cultural feminism.
Abdel-Magied’s controversial observation about women under Islam is typical of cultural feminists who demand that individual members of “societal cultures” be endowed “with meaningful ways to live across the full range of human activities, including social, educational, religious, recreational, and economic life, encompassing both public and private spheres”. Since cultural identity is said to play a more pervasive role in the lives of certain minority groups, cultural feminists argue that the individual members of such groups should be accorded special rights (privileges) lest their minority status be endangered by the dominant culture. As such, any criticism of cultural or religious practices—including female genital mutilation and forced marriage—is summarily dismissed and cast aside as a form of “colonialist imperialism”, one which is somehow disrespectful of the more deep-seated traditions of non-majoritarian ethnic and/or religious groups.
Above all, cultural feminism advocates that special consideration must be given not just for the legal status of individual women in western societies, but also for the position of individuals belonging to minority groups within the context of broader western societies. Since the alleged deprivation experienced by certain minority groups is perceived primarily as a result of “white male oppression”, cultural feminists generally support state-imposed measures which attempt to correct “past injustices” in the workplace and other spheres of social activity.
From a human-rights perspective, however, there are serious problems with the ideology of cultural feminism. By prioritising collective rights at the expense of basic rights of the individual, cultural feminists risk themselves justifying the ill-treatment of individual women, both within and without the context of western societies.
The issue of genital mutilation is perhaps an excellent example. Although the amputation of the clitoris (sometimes the entire vulva) from a woman’s genitalia is commonly practised in several Muslim-majority countries, Germaine Greer and other like-minded feminists contend that this brutal mutilation of girls as young as five years old “needs to be considered in context”. Hence, any attempt by western governments to eliminate such a heinous practice has been perceived as “an attack on cultural identity”. Greer, the author of The Female Eunuch (1971), has notoriously supported some of the most appalling actions of radical Islamic groups. In 1989, after Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa condemning to death Salman Rushdie for writing Satanic Verses (1988), Greer saw nothing wrong with Khomeini’s fatwa. She actually called Rushdie “a megalomaniac” and then added: “I approve of the behaviour of the Muslims”.
Have young girls in Muslim communities benefited from the sentiments expressed by such cultural feminists? In Britain, for example, hospitals are reporting an average of 15 cases of female genital mutilation each day, yet there have been no successful prosecutions despite the practice being illegal since 1984. Where are the feminists on this and other issues such as forced marriages and honour killings? Nowhere, it seems, with a handful of honourable exceptions. But generally speaking it appears to be a total silence, since for many such feminists there is a hierarchy of “correctness” and the notion of “cultural respect” apparently trumps the fundamental rights of women.
Cultural feminists are on the record linking any criticism of female genital mutilation to a form of so-called “cultural imperialism”. For instance, U.S. law professor Leti Volpp has written several articles in leading law journals to argue that any attempt to outlaw such heinous practices apparently underlies a “racist ideology” which portrays non-white women as “requiring liberation into the … social mores and customs of the metropolitan West”. Volpp thinks it is morally wrong for western democracies to prioritise women’s rights at the expense of group rights and “race consciousness”. Hence she deliberately downplays the need to create any law which might assist non-white western women to escape such “cultural practices”—including forced marriage, clitoris mutilation, polygamy, honour killings, etc. As noted by Professor Volpp so candidly:
We need to abandon the ethnocentric notion of the inferiority of certain cultures, and to understand that all communities are characterized both by patriarchal formations as well as by resistance to those formations. We also must acknowledge that posing multi-culturalism as antithetical to feminism is a false opposition and one that is predicated on racism. Further, refusing an explicit consideration of “race” or “culture” within our legal system will not result in “colorblind” and “cultureblind” meritocratic justice, but in a replication of dominant patterns of dispersal of power. These are the premises that need to be understood if we want to move forward in scholarship examining the relationship of culture and the law.
Women from minority cultures often protest about such double standards applied by these western feminists. They claim their radical advocacy of “cultural diversity” denies the recognition of equal rights for every individual. Since the postmodernist dogma of moral relativism has been accepted with no proper critical reasoning, it really does not matter that, at least within some cultural groups, so many women will never enjoy the same level of legal protection that is normally afforded to western women within the mainstream group. As noted by philosophy professor Michael Freeman,
This debate inevitably throws up a conflict between women’s interests and those of a racial or cultural group. It is an issue addressed by critical race theory. For Volpp, prioritising women’s rights embraces gender consciousness at the expense of race consciousness. But can it not be argued that allowing a cultural defence enables the rights of a group to prevail over the interests of female members of that group who are likely to have had little input into the formulation of its norms?
What Professor Freeman says about Professor Volpp applies to any other legal scholar who believes that minority groups have a right to be “left alone”, even if such groups violate the basic rights of women by requiring them to conform to illiberal beliefs or norms. As mentioned above, cultural feminists contend that “sensibility” to human rights abuses against non-western women might be a disguise to “cultural imperialism”. After downplaying the values of western civilisation and its focus on the legal protection of individual rights—as only one possible cultural approach among numerous other approaches by which human life can be organised—such feminists advocate that our laws should tolerate and accommodate even cultural/religious practices that westerners traditionally find repulsive and denigrating to the dignity of women. Such people no doubt agree with Bhikhu Parekh (a British political theorist and Labour member of the House of Lords) who notoriously claimed that “to insist that these groups should abide by our fundamental rights is to expose ourselves to the same charge of fundamentalism that we make against them, and to rely solely on our superior coercive power to get our way”.
Some feminist scholars go even to the point of contending that non-white male violence against women is not the perpetrator’s fault. Rather, they claim that non-white male violence against women apparently is actually a by-product of the abuser’s lack of a “sense of self-worth and empowerment”. According to such cultural feminists, it is not really the person’s fault that he physically or emotionally abuses his wife and children. Such fault, so they say, lies primarily on western democratic governments which have failed to empower the abuser and to better persuade him that violently attacking members of his own family perhaps it is not a good thing. This is how such a cultural feminist typically downplays male domestic violence against women in the context of cultural values and “minority rights”:
Power and control are fundamental values for the men in some African communities, and this plays a role in the domestic violence that occurs post-settlement here in Australia. In a sense, it is unjust to prosecute an offender without also prescribing education about the more equal value system that Australia has in regards to women and their place within the home. The offenders in this case need to develop a sense of self-worth and empowerment that does not rely on abusing their spouses.
Given such a moral relativism it is no wonder why “cultural excuses” are a common strategy of litigation in the vast majority of criminal cases involving non-white male violence against women and children. These criminal cases relate to “cultural” practices such as honour killings, child molestation, forced marriage, and polygamy. In such cases the notion of “cultural defence” has been successfully applied in a variety of criminal trials in the United States, including (1) the kidnap and rape of women by men who claimed that such actions are part of their cultural practice; (2) wife murder by immigrants from Asian and Middle Eastern countries whose wives have either committed adultery or treated their husbands “inappropriately”; (3) the murder of children by Japanese or Chinese mothers who also tried but failed to commit suicide, claiming that the shame of their husband’s infidelity drove them to the culturally condoned practice of mother–child suicide.
Such cases involve the successful application of criminal defences arguing that within the perpetrator’s cultural group wives and children are not of equal worth but subordinated to men socially, sexually and domestically. In each of these criminal matters expert testimony concerning the cultural background of the male perpetrator resulted in dropped or considerably reduced sentences. Of course, such “cultural defence” overemphasises the more excessive aspects of particular cultures, thus grossly distorting broader perceptions within the mainstream community about these non-western cultures.
Some cultures are clearly not good for women since they might be suffused with practices that both endorse and facilitate male oppression. And yet, as U.S. law professor Susan Moller Okin points out, far too many contemporary feminists “have been too quick to assume that feminism and multiculturalism are both good things which are easily reconciled”. She reminds us that within these different minorities groups there are “clear disparities in power between the sexes, such that the more powerful, male members are those who are generally in a position to determine and articulate the group’s beliefs, practices and interests”.
Unfortunately, however, today’s feminism accords very little recognition to the fact that certain cultures may contain within themselves a substantial power imbalance between men and women. That being so, securing “cultural diversity” and preserving the basic rights of women may be actually impossible, since enforcing diversity and protecting individual rights may be competing principles that might have to be traded off against each other depending on the context. Therefore, as Ibn Warraq correctly points out,
Multiculturalism often ends up providing cover for the most reactionary beliefs and practices of other cultures, rather than encouraging the more liberal strands to develop. An attentive ear is given mostly to the community elders and traditionalists, who often are the least educated and most determined to preserve their power in the status quo. Thus we essentially defend the most oppressive beliefs and practices of a minority culture, ignoring the denial of rights to its women or children.
This is why cultural feminists may be fairly accused of ignoring or downplaying the basic rights of women. Their appeasement generates horrendous human-rights consequences for women. It means, for example, that almost 4,000 cases of female genital mutilation were reported in Britain in 2014 and 11,000 cases of so-called honour-based violence between 2009 and 2014. Such a disturbing outcome is also demonstrated in a well-known research about family violence in the UK carried in the 1990s, which found that British women married to men of Muslim background are eight times more likely to be killed by their husbands than any other married women. And yet, as noted by Geraldine Brooks,
Presented with statistics on violence towards women, or facing the furore over the Rushdie fatwa … Muslims … ask us to blame a wide range of villains: colonial history, the bitterness of immigrant experience, Bedouin tradition, pre-Islamic African culture. Yet when the Koran sanctions wife beating and the execution of apostates, it can’t be entirely exonerated for an epidemic of wife slayings and death sentences on authors. In the end, what they … are proposing is as artificial an exercise as that proposed by the Marxists who used to argue that socialism in its pure form should not be maligned and rejected because of the deficiencies of “actually existing socialism”. At some point, every religion, especially one that purports to encompass a complete way of life and system of government, has to be called to account for the kind of life it offers the people in the lands where it predominates.
There should be no compromise when it comes to the protection of basic human rights. Regrettably, it actually appears that for far too many feminists it is much easier to attack the “gender pay gap” than female genital mutilation or child brides or so-called honour killings, which logically “may require you to make judgements about cultures that oppress women”.
This sort of cultural feminism is anti-western and it has become the natural ally of retrograde forces which deny the elementary fact that, in a truly free and tolerant society, everyone must have the same rights to life, liberty, and property legally enforced and preserved; that in a true democracy every person should be treated equally and fairly before the law, regardless of gender, ethnic or religious identity. So it looks like Abdel-Magied’s claim is not entirely wrong after all.
Dr Augusto Zimmermann is Law Reform Commissioner, Law Reform Commission of Western Australia; President of the Western Australian Legal Theory Association (WALTA); and Professor of Law (Adjunct) at Notre Dame University, Sydney. He wishes to thank Mr Heath Harley-Bellemore for comments about an earlier draft of this paper.