Racism, Cultural Relativism and Women’s Rights
Panel Discussion on Racism, Cultural Relativism and Women’s Rights
In my speech, I will focus on the limitations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in relation to women’s rights and the UDHR’s promotion of cultural relativism. Before that, first let’s take a look at the situation of women in different countries; since the topic is wide and I have limited time, I will focus on women’s situation in Islamist countries.In the past two decades, we have seen the rise of Islamic regimes or Islamic movements in a number of Middle Eastern countries. In countries with Islamic laws, women are inferior; they are deprived of their basic rights in every aspect of their lives. In fact, in the beginning of the 21st century, and despite the long struggle for freedom and women’s rights, women in such societies live with no rights. In Iran, sexual apartheid exists and women can be stoned to death for having sexual relations outside of marriage. In Afghanistan, women are not even second-class citizens, and are deprived of working and studying. In Iraq, thousands of women have been killed in the name of “honor.” In Saudi Arabia and other countries with Islamic laws, women live in an oppressive and intolerable situation. Life for these women is not only unbearable in their home countries, but also in countries where they seek protection as refugees and asylum seekers. Many continue to face rights violations. Many times, laws in receiving countries do not support the women. Let’s take a look at a few examples.
- In December 1993 in England, a religious family and a mullah (Islamic clergyman) beat 22-year-old Farideh (I think she was originally Algerian) to death. The English court ruled that the family was practicing its religion and didn’t mean to hurt the girl.
- In Sweden, a Palestinian killed his 18-year-old daughter who refused to marry a man of his choice. The court convicted her father with second-degree murder stating that he was practicing his culture.
- In Germany, in August 1997, a father burned a young woman to death for refusing to marry a man of his choice. A German court gave him a reduced sentence, saying he was practicing his culture and religion.
These are only a few examples of the terrible situation of women under Islamic laws, which are excused in Western countries with secular laws as a result of the racist practice of cultural relativism.
These violations are supported by the UDHR. For example, according to Article 18 of the UDHR: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” Doesn’t this article which allows the “freedom of manifesting a religion” legitimize violations against women’s rights? When does it become unacceptable? If a man kills or abuses his wife or daughter, is it considered “practicing his religion in private”? If everyone is equal before the law, why are there different treatments in the courts? If everyone has equal rights why are for instance my rights as a woman who was born in Iran different from others?
Another example is Article 26 of the UDHR: “Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.” Again, the UDHR is defending “any kind of education” even if it promotes child abuse, inequality and homophobia for example? This means that if I was born into a religious family, which forces me to wear the “hijab” and attend an Islamic school in Toronto, they can do so because they are my parents and they want to practice their culture and religion. All of us have seen little girls in Toronto who are wearing the Islamic hijab, which deprives them of sports and play and a happy childhood. Or for example, sometime ago, some Muslims had argued in “NOW” magazine that schools should not be allowed to teach gay and lesbian issues to their children because this is against God and religion. Again, should these parents be allowed to forcibly veil their children, deprive them and encourage their children to be homophobic? Isn’t this what is meant by giving parents the right to choose the kind of education given to their children? According to Article 26, no matter what parents choose for their kids, they can. I believe this is again related to cultural relativism, which categorizes people’s rights base on culture and religion.
The reason that I am focusing on the effect of religious practices on girls and women is because they continue to be the cause of gross inequalities, oppression and violations. Human rights activists have a duty to defend women in such situations as much as they have in defending people against torture and execution. These are human rights violations. Women facing honor killings, abused because of religious laws, legally raped at the age of 9 under the guise of marriage, forcibly veiled, stoned and denied a life worthy of human beings must also be defended and their abusers condemned unconditionally. If not, what is the basic acceptable standard for all when we talk about universal human rights?
In countries under Islamic rule, religion is one of the main reasons for women’s slavery, for the misery and deprivation of children from a normal life and for sexual apartheid. To defend women’s rights, the root of their violations must also be addressed; not doing this helps preserve these abuses and is actually a violation of human rights in itself. Especially in the Middle East, a fundamental condition and first step in defending human rights is demanding the separation of religion from the state and educational system.
In the 21st century, and in light of the gross violations women face as a result of religion, you can’t defend human rights by supporting and remaining silent about religion and reactionary cultural practices, which I believe come primarily from religion as well. As I mentioned earlier, looking at all the misery that religion has created in countries like Iran, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Sudan and so on shows the direct relationship between religion and women’s slavery. Moreover, here in North America and in Europe, cultural relativism helps to preserve this abuse and suppression of women; the UDHR also supports and maintains cultural relativism.
Generally, we live in a class system that reproduces women’s rights abuses every day in different forms in different countries around the world; therefore, freedom and full equality for men and women can only come about when people’s needs and rights are put before capital and profit. Religion has a key role in the worsening situation of women in many countries. As defenders of women’s rights, we must strongly oppose any religion, idea or culture that promotes women’s abuse and violence against women. We must demand equal rights for women irrespective of their nationality. Only then can we begin to address violations and promote universal human rights for all.
The above was a speech given at a panel discussion organized by the Action Committee on Women’s Rights in Iran and Amnesty International’s Women’s Action Network in Toronto, Canada, August 14, 2001.