Difficult Generalizations: Feminism in Cultural Context

It’s been a bit dead around here over the holidays, so I thought I’d bring things back as we move into 2009 with some thoughts on cultural relativism, universal human rights, and feminism.  (I might be missing law school, can you tell?)  Bruce Robbins, a Harvard English professor, wrote “we do not need ‘easy generalizations,’ [but] we do need difficult ones.”  I find this idea very powerful, and I’d like to explore it a little.

In human rights studies, there is a strong focus on the tension between universalism and cultural relativism.   If human rights are “universal,” which is one of the fundamental characteristics of any human right, then theoretically cultural considerations have to be fitted to that universal conception of the right.  If thou shalt not do x, then the fact that an individual society’s religious, culture, social, or familial traditions dictate otherwise shouldn’t matter.  Cultural relativism, on the other hand, says that rights have to be viewed in context, and what’s appropriate in one culture is not necessarily appropriate to another.

In an article on feminist legal scholarship, Vasuki Nesiah looks critically at the trend in feminist circles to erase or obscure cultural considerations in order to proclaim the Holy Grail of universal feminism.  A white feminist American scholar (like myself) might say something to the effect of “yes, feminism is inclusive of all people, black or white, developing world or developed, but the central inquiry must revolve around the oppression of women.”  The problem with this analysis is that women can’t be generalized.  In the US, this is fairly easy for contemporary feminists to see–third wave feminism clearly emphasizes the difference between the experiences of white women and women of color, and to some extent other differences based on class, religion, nationality, culture, etc.  Internationally, however, the “liberating” tendency may obscure privileges enjoyed by certain females.  Nesiah uses the example of female factor workers belonging to the dominant ethnic group in Sri Lanka.  One can say that women in Sri Lanka deserve equal rights, but it is important to realize that women are not homogeneous–factory workers for transnational corporations in Sri Lanka work in horrible conditions, but the picture is more complicated, as more than 95% of TNC factory employees belong to the dominant ethnic group.  Women of other ethnicities work for less pay and have fewer social rights.

It is impossible to espouse rights for women without generalizing to some extent.  Feminists have to lump women together in some ways, or we will be backed into the corner of saying that some women should have rights, and others should not.  However, we need to avoid the “easy generalizations,” and instead try to make the difficult ones.  This means that in our scholarship and activism, we need to approach women’s rights from a culturally aware point of view.  Feminism has to fall within a complex cultural context, where a woman’s sex is only part of the picture.  This is a challenge for myself, and for any other academics who happen to be wandering around the blogosphere.  Eyes open, ladies.  (And happy New Year.)


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