Universalits vs Universalism

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Universalists versus Universalism

Edip Yuksel, J.D.
www.19.org
1998

“Ironically, cultural relativists have accused feminist human rights activists of imposing Western standards on non-Western cultures in much the same way that feminists have criticized states for imposing male-defined norms on women.”(1)

Universalists rely heavily on human reason to solve the disagreements over human rights. According to Universalits, “Disagreements over human rights are errors in reason, logical mistakes which can be resolved through better thinking.”(2) Universalists accuse Cultural Relativists of using culture to justify the continued subjugation of women.(3)

Universalists or global feminists are blamed by Relativists to be Western imperialists who are trying to impose their values or cultures on the rest of the world. Relativists are accused of being nihilists who might justify every moral corruption and oppression. The different diagnosis and remedy proposed by Western feminists and the feminists of the Third World countries is an ongoing controversy. While the feminists of the Third World countries accuse the “global feminism” movement of lacking a deep understanding of women’s issues in non-western countries, Western feminists dismiss their arguments as falsely conscious.(4)   Non-Western women criticize Western feminists for their portraying women from other cultures “as perpetual victims and project their protection as a signifier for establishing a good society.”(5)   A non-Western feminist, Nawal el Saadawi deplores how Western feminists “see only clitoridectomy, but never notice the economic exploitation by multinational corporations and the like.”(6)

As a person who is familiar with the philosophical discourse and has developed a fair sense of smelling contradictions and logical fallacies, I think that relativism is a lousy idea doomed to commit suicide. As for the competing theory, universalism, it is either destined to become a tool of cultural imperialism or destined to accept a healthy dose of pragmatism seasoned with some relativism.

Relativism is inconsistent, since it cannot reject universalism without contradicting its premises (I abstain from saying principles, since the only principle in a really relativist world is the principle of not having principles). Accusing universalistic approach to women’s rights as dominating or being another form of Western Imperialism contradicts relativism, since the imperialistic character of universalism can be considered an element of Western culture. How can relativism reject or accuse one culture against other? Who can say that the cultures which are locally aggressive should have better chance to survive than the cultures who are universally aggressive, since defining the boundaries for aggression in a moral world is also cultural. The moment when relativists start using reason to disqualify universalist feminism they betray their core premises. In fact, any attempt to rationalize radical relativism will run into self-negation.

Similarly, Universalists cannot prescribe comprehensive uniform norms for all human societies as long as reason is their guide. Reason based on human experience dictates that some norms are strictly relative to the geography, condition, life-style, culture, history, technological advancement, time, mood, and population of societies. Some norms, on the other hand, are universal, that is they are strictly determined by the interaction between human bodies sharing similar biological make-up and the societies with the inherent imperatives. For instance, stealing or cheating is a universal crime regardless of the characteristics of a society.(7)  Based on wide spread disagreement among reasonable people regarding some of the individual rights and lack of conclusive empirical evidence on certain controversial issues,(8)  we can reasonably conclude that human reasoning has shortcomings in predicting or prescribing absolute universal norms in every category. However, we can expect universal norms emerge from free societies. In the era of satellites and affordable global communications, such as Internet, in the era of international trade, we will witness more universal norms emerging than ever.

I agree with professor Amede Obiora who pragmatically merges these two theories by “balancing the benefits of both universalism and relativism,”(9)  The only sound and pragmatic approach to human rights in general, and women rights in particular, is possible only by “conflation of boundaries”(10)  or amalgamation of reason and cultural paradigms that gives birth to culturally sensitive reason. The culturally sensitive reason might mandate changes only in the tone, the attitude, the tools, the language or the dose of universalist feminist movement. Universalits might inflict little compromise to the content of their cause by just considering the practical realities, such as the power and role of cultures and religions in other societies, and the propaganda machine of the oppressive states. Universalists can improve women’s condition by helping them in building open societies. I will discuss this later in the paper.

Professor Micere Githae Mugo, after listing at least eight reason why she is totally opposed to the practice of female circumcision, complains from the double-standard of Western intellectuals:

“Indeed, until Nawal El Saadawi pointed out that practices such as breast implantation, skin lifts, nose reconstructions, self-imposed bulimia, anorexia, and other forms of so-called women beautification rituals in the West were tantamount to body abuse, nobody described them as “mutilations.” . . . Without a doubt, one clearly heeds Obiora’s point that dominating cultures appoint themselves as the barometers of morality and ethical standards while simultaneously double-dealing.” (11)

The Western version of mutilations listed above are not comparable to female circumcision that is inflicted on children. Nevertheless, the list can be interpreted to be the problems of Western women suffering under the pressure of male-dominant and commodifying Western culture. Besides, the counter-part of female circumcision, male circumcision, is tolerated and is commonly practiced in Western countries. The silence of feminist movement against the “problems” of their own world creates cynicism and provides justification for the defense of oppressive regimes who claim that human rights issues are raised for political purposes.

The reaction of many Muslim women (read religious women) to the Western feminists, their self-appointed rescuers, is negative. For instance, a Muslim women finds Western women more in need of protection. Jamela Jafri, a Muslim women residing in New York, provides some examples or consequences of commodification of women in western world: “Unlike women in the United States, we are not measured by how short our skirts are or how we look. Eating disorders, liposuction, breast implants and cosmetics are not multi-million dollar businesses in the Muslim community. Just because Muslim women cover our hair doesn’t mean we cover our brains.”(12)   Iranian women who do not lose their lost names when they officially lose their virginity, might feel pity for Western women by claiming that they lose their identity when they get married.(13)

The political and cultural stains on the so-called Universalists become more visible in the case of the on-going turban (head-scarf) controversy in Turkey. The bizarre oligarchic-democratic-militarist regime of Turkey, fifteen years or so ago, started an official campaign supported by state-controlled media against women’s turban.(14)  Government banned students from wearing the traditional and religious turban in high schools and universities.(15)   Many religious families were forced not to send their daughters to schools. Unfortunately, this oppression was not condemned by Western feminists and their affiliates in Turkey.

Elizabeth Messud provides a list of the types of women’s rights violations cited frequently:

1. Rape by state representatives or private individuals;
2. Domestic violence;
3. Forced prostitution and trafficking in women;
4. Sexual surgery and female circumcision;
5. Denial of reproductive rights;
6. Dowry deaths;
7. Denial of equal rights to participate in political life;
8. Harassment of politically active women;
9. Denial of inheritance and property rights;
10. Discriminatory provisions in nationality law;
11. Unequal access to health care and unequal enjoyment of the right to life and to adequate food;
12. Discrimination against women refugees;
13. Denial of access to land and economic opportunities.(16)

The first six violations are directly involves woman’s body and the rest, though not inherently gender specific, traditionally are committed mostly against women.(17)   There are other types of discrimination against women which are not cited above, such as right to education and employment.(18)  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR, Article 2) prohibits discrimination in respect of human rights on various grounds, including sex. The Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (CCPR), The Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), and more specifically the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) prohibits discrimination based on sex.(19)

Most of the rights violations listed above and expressed in CEDAW have universal appeal. A paper authored by a group of scholars headed by professors An-Naim and Mayer asserts the same fact:

“Moreover, human rights set aspirational norms, and no persuasive case has been made to show that universal human rights conceived as a goal is either illegitimate or unattainable. Furthermore, recognition of a possible tension between universality and relativism with regard to certain contestable human rights norms must not overlook the fact that many other human rights norms are regarded as universal and incontestable by the world’s moral-cultural traditions. . . . The tension, then, poses a practical problem, but it does not imply moral bankruptcy.” (20)

In the same paper, the authors draw our attention to an important aspect of the debate between universalists and relativists: the speakers and their perspective. They list three categories of perspectives speakers:

“(i) state actors, (ii) NGO’s, religious representatives, individual actors, (iii) the oppressed, both individually and collectively. The last category often will be comprised of women. For each of these perspectives we need to ask critical questions about the speaker’s position (e.g., powerful or powerless?), representation (e.g., on whose behalf?), motives (e.g., moral concern or self-interest), language and collateral behavior (e.g., are actions consonant with discourse?), etc.” (21)

The authors are highly skeptical of states that justify human rights violations on the grounds of cultural relativism because of their self-interested political motives, the existence of diverse cultures in their societies, and their undemocratic character depriving them from legitimacy of making such moral claims.

“State invocations of ‘culture’ and ‘cultural relativism’ seem to be little more than cynical pretexts for rationalizing human rights abuses that particular states would in any case commit. If cultural pretexts for their violations of international human rights were not available, states now invoking cultural defenses would probably emulate China in appealing to the principle of national sovereignty. . .” (22)

The authors find the positions taken by NGOs and individuals as genuine and worthy of consideration, since their motives are more decent than that of state actors.(23)

I  agree with this point and suggest that the defense of state actors based on “cultural relativism” should not be considered at all unless they raise an argument based on national autonomy. Then, the “sovereignty” defense should be weighed in proportion of the quality of their democracy. Unfortunately, more than 30 states, such as Bangladesh, Brazil, Egypt, Iraq, Republic of Korea, Mauritius, and Jamaica(24)  made significant reservations to ratification of CEDAW.(25)  So, how can these states be held liable for violations of the women’s rights protected by CEDAW? Perhaps we should just hope and pray that they will cancel their reservations and expect them to abide by the articles they have accepted.

We should rely less on the promises and actions of both totalitarian states and the so-called free states. The states who champion human rights around the world are usually double-dealing and using human rights issues as pretext for their political agendas, which in turn provides justification and propaganda for the violators. United States of America, the cradle of freedom and human rights, donates weapons to oppressive and racist Turkish government who is committing atrocities against the minority of Kurdish populations. The U.S, while waving the flag of human rights, had supplied Iraq with all kinds of ammunition, including chemical and biological technology during the war carried out against Iran in 1980-1989. The same US supported the Shah Reza Pahlawi, Ferdinand Marcos, and many other dictators in the past. The oppressive regimes of China, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Pakistan receive financial and political support from the US.

So, what should we do? I believe that the engine of human rights movement is NGOs and individuals. They are the ones who will force states to respect human rights. The NGO and individual human right activists should focus on individuals and NGOs of oppressive and discriminating countries. To create healthy communication and alliance, they should try to understand the existing and potential problems in building such a bridge.

As a former fundamentalist Muslim political activist who also fought for the rights of Muslim women against an oppressive and secular (read atheistic) government,(26)  I think that majority of traditional Muslims will have no problem accepting the rights articulated by the UDHR, CCPR and CEDAW. They will unanimously condemn all the 13 violations that we listed in previous pages. The only exception might be the female circumcision which is an unknown practice by the majority of Muslim Communities outside Africa. Muslim women might defend the unequal distribution of inheritance among male and female inheritors, but they will condemn total denial of this right. So, why have Muslim women, including conservative Western women developed an allergy against feminist movements? Why do the very group who are considered to be the victims of male dominant societies not welcome their self-appointed rescuers? It is not generally the content of what they are promoting; it is the attitude, the symbolism, the tone, the double-standard of Western feminists.

Muslim women see Western feminist ideas too costly for family structure and too disruptive of social fabric. The high rate of divorce, children with single parents, custody battles, working mothers depriving their children of motherly care and compassion by leaving them to the mercy of assembly line day care facilities, teen crimes, sexual promiscuity, teenage pregnancies, abortion, rise of sexually transmitted diseases, commodification of women, lucrative porno industry, cosmetic surgeries, obsession with smoother skin and thinner bodies, etc., are considered as by-product of feminist movement.(27)  Universalist Feminists might not see some of these as problems at all. Besides, they might not even correlate any of these problems with their movement. However, they have done little to change the perception of Western feminists in the rest of the world.

Muslim women prefer a more peaceful approach in eradicating the violations against their rights. When the violator is the government, they do not frame the problem as women versus men, but as individual/community versus government.

In case of horizontal violations of their rights, such as rape and domestic violence, they prefer to solve the problem case by case within the limits of their family or community. They do not perceive those crimes as systematic male aggression, but as anecdotal crimes committed by individuals. They balance the value of their privacy, relationship and the cost of violations. Even the religious justification for wife-battering is not accepted by majority of religious women; they counter with some traditions or narrations from Prophet Muhammad and unconventional interpretations to counter that justification.(28)

Western feminists might blame the economic dependence upon men or poor education as the main factor in Muslim women’s non-aggressive or non-assertive attitude. For instance, Kristen Miller, a proponent of the late Reza Shah’s Westernization programs, interpreted the failure of Western standards in Iran by pointing at deficiencies in Iranian women: “In fact, many women themselves did not buy into the Shah’s Westernization attempts because the women were poorly educated, economically dependent on men, and deeply religious.”(29)   This is a very troubling perspective, since it does not question the utility or the merit of the so-called Westernization. What the use of Westernization if it does not address the very problem that Miller complains about? If Westernization (whatever it means) did not attempt to educate women, to empower them economically, and save them from superstitions, then, that Westernization deserves failure.

I do not deny that economic dependence, poor education and religious convictions play great role in determining the reaction of non-Western women to the ideas parading from the West. I believe that they are primary factors combined with the clumsy deliverance of the Universalists message in culturally foreign language. Universalits should consider all variables and should chose the best method to achieve the goal of improving human rights of women.

I suggest the following modifications in the attitude, language/medium, argument/platform, and emphasis for the Universalist movement:

Attitude: The movement should not be framed as an anti-male movement; but an anti-discrimination movement. This will target the same problems and issues while helping women to find many male supporters in their struggle for dignity and justice. Universalists should respect cultural differences if they do not handicap women, such as covering the hair with turban or other symbolic rituals. Pruning the hotly controversial issues that have little relevancy from their rhetoric will help the cause. I agree with professor Obiora’s diagnosis that:

“There are several problems with mainstream Western feminism’s narrow focus on gender oppression. One problem is that it presumes white, middle class women’s reality as the quintessence of women’s reality. This creates a tendency to deny difference where it is conceived as posing a threat to a unified front, even if it means purchasing solidarity with silence and submerging conflictive histories. Another problem is that the reification of gender identity implies that female apologists for ultimately misogynistic measures, women who artfully build their careers on the backs of other women, are more deserving of solidarity than demonstrably empathetic male compatriots who contest patriarchal oppressiveness in all its guises.” (30)

Language/medium: Feminist authors tend to trap their message in the liturgy of the educated elite who have already fought their way up in the hierarchy of their societies. As a feminist professor wrote, “To liberate my own expose from the kind of academic elitism that deliberately uses impenetrable vocabulary, enigmatic philosophizing, and alienating ‘trade’ language to display the writer’s intellectual power over her/his readers, I will speak to my audience in very plain words. Communication between those debating this subject is so urgently required that no barrier should be allowed to stand in the way of this burning conversation.”(31)  The majority of women who are illiterate, who are working with minimum wages, who are homemakers, are excluded from getting this message. The message should be delivered in plain language via different mediums that are accessible by the victims.

Argument/platform: A religious woman who is oppressed by her religious husband and community is not provided with ammunition by legal or philosophical arguments. Even if the oppressed women understand and accept those arguments, her family and community will reject them based on their religious dogmas. They need theological arguments to protect themselves and assert their rights. Those theological arguments are most likely available locally. Human rights organizations should contact and support the native intellectuals who are inviting for reformation in religion. As Elen G. Mountis suggested: “the utilization of existing social institutions and women’s organizations to promote gradual change in countries that would otherwise perceive the introduction of ‘women rights’ as imperialism by Westerners. Change must be from within and cannot occur by way of imposition.”(32)  The same message might be treated differently depending on the source of the message. Oppressive governments and their collaborators can easily attack and demonize ideas with foreign sources by tickling xenophobic and patriotic feelings.

Emphasis: Women rights activists should emphasize the importance of the democratic system. Democracy and its quality should be the number one demand for the rights of women. Democracy is a prerequisite for women rights and women human rights. After the democracy, right to education should be the focus.

Well, discussing these points is a topic for another paper.


(1) Tracy E. Higgins, Anti-Essentialism, Relativism, and Human Rights, 19 Harv. Women’s L. J. 89, 97 (1997).
(2) Ibid, at 95.
(3) Elene G. Mountis, Cultural Relativity & Universalism: Reevaluating Gender Rights in A Multicultural Context, 15 Dick. J. Int’l L. 113, 114 (1996).
(4) L. Amede Obiora, Feminism, Globalization, And Culture After Beijing, 4 Ind. J. Global Legal Stud. 355, 360-363(1997).
(5) Ibid, 370
(6) Ibid, 371
(7) When I was a political prisoner in Turkey I spent time among numerous groups of inmates. Once I shared a crowded ward with convicted thieves and con artists. I found it interesting when I learned that stealing was harshly punished by inmates. Professional thieves knew that they could not live together in a ward if they steal from each other. The Ten Commandment in the Old Testament is a good example of universal norms.
(8) Do I really need a footnote for this fact? I can cite ALL Supreme Court cases, including all the dissenting views and overruled holdings, especially on substantive due process, equal protection, freedom of speech, and privacy rights issues. Alas, I have no space for the list. But, a bouquet of feminist arguments on pornography can be a good example. See, Pornography: Private Right or Public Menace?, Edited by Robert M. Baird & Stuart E. Rosenbaum, Prometheus Books, 1991.
(9) Supra, note 4, at 356
(10) Ibid, 357
(11)  Micere Githae Mugo, Elitist Anti-Circumcision Discourse as Mutilating and Anti-Feminist, 47 Case W. Res. L. Rev. 461, 466 (1997).
(12) The Channel Under the Chador, The New York Times Magazine, May 25, 1997, Letters section.
(13) My wife is an Iranian-American and she proudly preserves her last name. We have two boys who have their mother’s last name as their middle names. If we have another child and it is a girl, I will suggest to give her mother’s name as her last name and my last name as her middle name. This way, sons will carry their father’s last name and daughters will carry their mother’s last name and both will carry the other parent’s last name in their middle names. A friend of mine who learned this arrangement,  jokingly accused me of “screwing the social security system.” My answer was:  ”From the name of children we will know who are their parents. This will be appreciated at least by many children who have single parents, and also it will save the divorced women, especially the repeat ones, from changing their last names like changing their phone numbers. Women’s last names should not be their lost names!”
(14) The state wants to abolish the Party which demands more freedom for religious groups. See: Edip Yuksel, Demokrasi/Oligarsi/Teokrasi (Democracy/Oligarchy/Theocracy), Ozan Yayinlari, Istanbul, 1997.
(15) You can find English articles on this controversy in the web site of a Turkish human rights organization, Mazlumder: www.mazlumder.org.. As an author who has written more a dozen books and numerous articles on Islam, I do not believe that women are required to cover their head in Islam. The Quranic verses are misinterpreted and mistranslated by all-male clergymen. For my arguments on this topic see: 19 Questions For Muslim Scholars, The Monotheist International, Tucson, 1996.
(16) Elizabeth Messed, Russian Women and Women’s Rights: A Case Study in Universalist/Cultural Relativist Debate, 12 Conn. J. Int’l L. 77, 94-95, (1996).
(17) For a report by Amnesty International see: Women in the Front Line: Human Rights Violations Against Women, Amnesty International Publications, New York, 1991.
(18) Human Development Report, United Nations Development Programme, p. 25, 1993.
(19) CEDAW, as of 1987, was ratified by 91 states and signed by many other states.
(20) Universality vs. Relativism in Human Rights, Religion and Human Rights, edited by John Kelsay and Sumner B. Twiss, The Project on Religion and Human Rights, New York, p. 35, 1994.
(21) Ibid, p. 37
(22) Ibid, p. 38
(23) Ibid, p. 39
(24) A report published by Freedom House rates states according to their civil and political liberties on maximum score of 7, the higher the worst. The above mentioned states are rated as follows: Bangladesh 3,  Brazil 3, Egypt 6, Iraq 7, N. Korea 7, Mauritius 1.5, Jamaica 2.5. See: Freedom in the World: the Annual Survey of Political Rights And Civil Liberties, 1996-1997, Freedom House, 1997.
(25) Henry J. Steiner and Philip Alston, International Human Rights in Context, Clanderon Press, Oxford, pp. 920-924, 1996.
(26) I wrote books and articles for this cause. I participated in political demonstrations and gave lectures protesting the oppressive laws.
(27) A famous Turkish author, my former comrade, Emine Senlikoglu, in her books, articles and lectures accuses feminist movement of imposing Muslims their sick Western life-styles. Bize Nasil Kiydiniz? (How You Sacrificed Us?”, Ülkemi Ariyorum (I am Searching For My Country), Telefonlu Ropurtaj (Telephone Interviews), Aglatan Yollar (Roads Make You Cry), and Islam’da Erkekler (Men In Islam) are some of the interesting books written by a popular Muslim women author. These and similar books are published by Mektup Yayinlari, Yavusselim Cd. No: 62/1, Fatih/Istanbul, Tel: 90 212 521 8380, Fax: 90 212 534  1871.
(28) Ulama and mullahs justify wife-battery  by distorting the meaning of the verse 4:34  of the Quran. My analysis of this “notorious” verse was first published in my Turkish book “Türkçe Kuran Çevirilerindeki Hatalar” (Errors in Turkish Translations of the Quran). The English version of this article can be found on my web site www.moslem.org/yuksel in the folder titled Unorthodox Articles.
(29) Kristin J. Miller, Human Rights of Women in Iran: The Universalist Approach and the Relativist Response, 10 Emory Int’l L. Rev. 779, 782 (1996).
(30) Obiora, supra note 4, at 373.
(31) Micere Githae Mugo, Elitist Anti-Circumcision Discourse as Mutilating and Anti-Feminist, 47 Case W. Res. L. Rev. 461, 462 (1997).  I confess that I chose to write in plain language for another reason: I do not have the rich vocabulary of native speakers;-). So, I complied with the following advice: “When promulgating your esoteric cogitations or articulating your superficial sentimentalities and amicable philosophical and psychological observations, beware of platitudinous ponderosity. Let your verbal evaporations have lucidity, intelligibility and veracious vivacity without rodomontade or thespian bombast. Sedulously avoid all polysyllabic profundity, pompous propensity and sophomoric vacuity.”
(32) Mountis, supra note 3, at 115.