The Excuse-making of Cultural Relativism

Foreign Policy has a superb series out now called The Sex Issue. In their own words, here is what it’s about:

When U.S. magazines devote special issues to sex, they are usually of the celebratory variety (see: Esquire, April 2012 edition; Cosmopolitan, every month). Suffice it to say that is not what we had in mind with Foreign Policy’s first-ever Sex Issue, which is dedicated instead to the consideration of how and why sex — in all the various meanings of the word — matters in shaping the world’s politics. Why? In Foreign Policy, the magazine and the subject, sex is too often the missing part of the equation — the part that the policymakers and journalists talk about with each other, but not with their audiences. And what’s the result? Women missing from peace talks and parliaments, sexual abuse and exploitation institutionalized and legalized in too many places on the planet, and a U.S. policy that, whether intentionally or not, all too frequently works to shore up the abusers and perpetuate the marginalization of half of humanity. Women’s bodies are the world’s battleground, the contested terrain on which politics is played out. We can keep ignoring it. For this one issue, we decided not to.

The articles’ criticisms are aimed squarely on the worst offenders in the oppression of women, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as commenting on discriminatory practices elsewhere such as sex-selective abortion in India.

An article by Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy called “Why Do They Hate Us” co-opts the question so often said to be asked by Americans, and asks it as a woman. Eltahawy is particularly forceful in her indictment of the misogyny so prevalent in the Middle East:

Name me an Arab country, and I’ll recite a litany of abuses fueled by a toxic mix of culture and religion that few seem willing or able to disentangle lest they blaspheme or offend. When more than 90 percent of ever-married women in Egypt — including my mother and all but one of her six sisters — have had their genitals cut in the name of modesty, then surely we must all blaspheme. When Egyptian women are subjected to humiliating “virginity tests” merely for speaking out, it’s no time for silence. When an article in the Egyptian criminal code says that if a woman has been beaten by her husband “with good intentions” no punitive damages can be obtained, then to hell with political correctness. And what, pray tell, are “good intentions”? They are legally deemed to include any beating that is “not severe” or “directed at the face.” What all this means is that when it comes to the status of women in the Middle East, it’s not better than you think. It’s much, much worse.

Eltahawy says not a word of a lie. She tells it like it is, merely describing practices and actions on the part of men towards women that are violent and depraved. When you read such descriptions, free of the sugarcoating so often slathered on by those who squirm at the very idea of criticizing other cultures, you realize just how rare it is to hear the devastating truth. In asking what is to be done, she warns:

First we stop pretending. Call out the hate for what it is. Resist cultural relativism and know that even in countries undergoing revolutions and uprisings, women will remain the cheapest bargaining chips. You — the outside world — will be told that it’s our “culture” and “religion” to do X, Y, or Z to women. Understand that whoever deemed it as such was never a woman.

She pre-empts all those whose defensiveness and apologism will kick in almost automatically at such a direct attack on misogyny in a specific region of the world, since it’s the fashion among university-educated elites to be respectful and polite at all cost when it comes to cultural differences, and always conscientious of the grave risk of being labeled a cultural imperialist.

And as predicted, it’s just not okay to criticize the appalling treatment of women in the Arab world, without at least an equal condemnation of, ideally, 1. the United States of America; 2. Israel, and 3. the Western world more generally, in that order.

Sherene Seikaly and Maya Mikdashi, in their response to Foreign Policy’s series, accuse Eltahawy of reviving “binaries”, and take issue on all of the predictable fronts:

its focus is almost exclusively on Iran, the Arab world, and China. Thus “the world” is reduced for the most part to Arabs, Iranians, and Chinese—not a coincidental conglomeration of the “enemy.” The current war on women in the United States is erased.

Well it is “Foreign Policy” magazine, so the lack of comment on the status of US women should not come as too big a surprise, and the focus on countries like Iran and China where the US has significant foreign policy interests (and challenges) would be expected. This is the classic relativist argument: you didn’t criticize all countries or cultures equally, so you’re mean and unfair. This argument’s fallacy lies in the reality that countries and cultures don’t all subjugate their women equally. So different doses of condemnation are quite justified.

Further, the article is about women in the Arab world, and specifically, Egypt. It’s not about American women. It’s not about Swedish women. It’s not about Bolivian women. Eltahawy knows and writes about women in the Arab world. She’s not obliged to comment on the status of women everywhere under the sun, and she’s not even obliged to add caveats, (“not withstanding that women in Country X are also demeaned, …”) in order to criticize what she sees around her, in the region she knows.

About Karim Sadjadpour’s terrific article, “The Ayatollah Under the Bed(sheets)” which points out the co-existence of a radical effort to suppress normal sexual behaviour alongside some both quirky and harmful perversions prevalent in Iran and the Muslim world at large, Seikaly and Mikdashi say:

Leaving aside his dismissal of the centuries old tradition of practicing Muslims asking and receiving advice on sexual and gender practices, the article assumes an unspoken consensus with its readers: the idea of a mullah writing about sex is amusing if a little perverted.

Again, Sadjadpour is being indicted for criticizing the obvious: a hypocrisy on the part of the Iranian clergy when it comes to human sexual activity that Iranians themselves routinely defy and poke fun at. And is this tradition of sexual advice-seeking from mullahs to be celebrated when it’s yielding such penetrating (pun intended) probing as this, a hypothetical situation deeply pondered by one Ayatollah Gilani of Iran?

Imagine you are a young man sleeping in your bedroom. In the bedroom directly below, your aunt lies asleep. Now imagine that an earthquake happens that collapses your floor, causing you to fall directly on top of her. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that you’re both nude, and you’re erect, and you land with such perfect precision on top of her that you unintentionally achieve intercourse. Is the child of such an encounter halalzadeh (legitimate) or haramzadeh (a bastard)?

Then they’re peeved with the magazine’s visuals, a series of photographs of a nude woman painted all in black except for her eyes:

She stares at us afraid and alluring. We are invited to sexualize and rescue her at once. The images reproduce what Gayatri Spivak critiqued as the masculine and imperial urge to save sexualized (and racialized) others. The photo spread is reminiscent of Theo van Gogh’s film Submission, based on Ayyan Hirsli Ali’s writings, in which a woman with verses of the Quran painted on her naked body and wearing a transparent chador writhes around a dimly lit room. Foreign Policy’s “Sex Issue” montage is inspired by the same logic that fuels Submission: we selectively highlight the plight of women in Islam using the naked female body as currency. The female body is to be consumed, not covered!

Both Foreign Policy’s photos and Hirsi Ali’s use of paint on a woman’s nude body is aimed at irony, a point lost on Seikaly and Mikdashi. The images are intent on provocation (and it certainly worked in the case of Seikaly and Mikdashi) in that they confront us not with the invitation to “consume”, but with what the mullahs try to hide: that underneath the niqab is a woman’s body. The message is that while misogynists want women to be covered up, they still sexually exploit them underneath. Covered up, they are still consumed.

The photos are somewhat less guilty of “sexualizing” women than the advice dispensed from the Ayatollahs who counsel that women have such sexual prowess that their hair alone has the power to render man forceless (and therefore must be covered up), or the snipers of the Basji in Iran who were reportedly specifically shooting beautiful women among the protesters thronging the streets of Tehran in 2009, as Sadjadpour points out. They are less guilty of sexualizing women than the men in Egypt who subjected women protestors to forced virginity tests, which Eltahawy called “rape disguised as a medical doctor inserting his fingers into their vaginal opening in search of hymens.”

This is the game of the Ayatollahs, and all the men who disguise their desire for the sexual submission of women under the veil of religion: their sexualization of women is violent and systematic, and it uses religious discourse to keep women’s bodies their unchallenged preserve. It’s easier to sexually exploit women when they are trapped in your home and under your command, uneducated, married young, with no political, social or economic rights. When women escape into the public sphere, their bodies are much less controllable, if still at risk in any society where the pulse of misogyny still beats on.

But it is here where Seikaly and Mikdashi show their true colours:

Of course, female genital mutilation and ages of consent are topics that require our careful attention. In the case of former, the reality is that women are often those that insist on the practice because of ways that gender and political economy regimes together make it a necessary rite of womanhood. In fact, critical thinkers have long argued that this practice has more to do with the lack of economic opportunity for women, the imperative to marry, and the hardening and modernization of tradition in response to colonial and neocolonial interventions (including rights frameworks) than some irrational and razor crazed “hatred.” The same insight could be extended to the question of ages of consent. A reductive framework of hatred makes these topics even more difficult to critically think about and work on.

There is the telltale euphemism: FGM requires “our careful attention”. Not our condemnation, not to be erased, not to be opposed, not to be deplored. It needs “attention”. And actually, it’s women’s choice to undergo FGM, so back off. And if it’s not that, then, well, it’s the fault of colonizers and neo-colonizers. So despite the fact that FGM has been practiced in Egypt since the time of the Pharaohs, it’s really perpetuated by some unidentified neocolonial intervention. If something bad is happening in the world, colonizers must have something to do with it.

Such dependency on the view of the world as nothing other than a post-colonial/colonial environment typically negates the internal causes and purveyors of misogyny, most of which pre-existed any experience of colonization. When the blame for all the ills of the developing world are consistently placed on “colonizers”, however many decades or centuries after de-colonization, it’s hard to get the governments and people of once-colonized lands to take responsibility for the changes that need to occur if the status of women is to be improved.

As for women’s participation in the abuses they suffer, certainly it’s true that many adult women are those holding little girls down on the table so that their genitals can be butchered in a procedure that cannot be called anything but cruel, traumatic and without reason. But they do this as part of a culture where the perimeters were laid by men long ago, men who want women and girls to know their place. It is still part of a hatred of women, even if women are participating in it.

Call it culture, call it divine, call it neo-colonialism, but the thread of hatred is always there and often shrouded in the language of God’s law. God wants you to be submissive. God wants you to give in to your husband’s sexual appetite. God wants you to endure beatings. God wants you to be punished for venturing out in public; that is why you experience sexual harassment, sexual assault, or rape. This religion-based justification is not imposed from outside powers; it comes from within, and so it’s from within that it must be destroyed.

But putting this all out on the table is unwarranted, it would seem to Seikaly and Mikdashi, or at least, the blame should be equally divided between colonized and colonizers, between men and women, between Americans and the rest of the world (and Israelis, since a photo of a Jordanian woman protesting outside the Israeli Embassy in Amman is inexplicably included with Seikaly and Mikdashi’s article). They are uncomfortable with the sexual advice doled out by Ayatollahs being mocked. Again, this reaction is anticipated by one of the Foreign Policy writers, Sadjadpour:

the sexual manias of Iran’s religious fundamentalists are worthy of greater scrutiny, all the more so because they control a state with nuclear ambitions, vast oil wealth, and a young, dynamic, stifled population. Yet for a variety of reasons — fear of becoming Salman Rushdie, of being labeled an Orientalist, of upsetting religious sensibilities — the remarkable hypocrisy of the Iranian regime is often studiously avoided.

Without voices like Eltahawy’s, those of us on the outside looking in would be able to drown ourselves in the excuse-making of cultural relativism: they like being abused, degraded, violated. Our own society isn’t perfect, so how can we criticize? At best, we might give “careful attention” to the most overt forms of misogyny, like FGM. At worst, we might just tell ourselves that the women are choosing it, so let it be.

But it’s the men who made the rules. As Eltahawy points out, “Our political revolutions will not succeed unless they are accompanied by revolutions of thought — social, sexual, and cultural revolutions that topple the Mubaraks in our minds as well as our bedrooms.”

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