Cultural Universalism, Cultural Feminism, and Human Rights

By Ferial Berjawi

I was deeply interested in Professor Avruch’s session on culture and human rights,and I wish we had more time to reflect on cultural universalism and cultural relativism. Personally, I have thought about these questions a lot in my work with gender inequality issues in traditionally patriarchal societies in Lebanon.  This understanding of these concepts is vital to the pragmatic implementation of humanitarian interventions and women empowerment programs in the field, particularly to ensure that our actions on the ground are not inflicting any harm on our target populations. For me, it is also important to reflect on them to determine my own moral compass and how I interact with these issues that are so salient in my daily life as a woman.

Personally, I find the cultural feminists’ claim that real equality should consider and value the biological differences of men and women to be valid and important. When relating that to human rights, I think it is important to examine, reform and transform human rights doctrines as well as institutional structures to ensure complete equality between men and women. This equality will not be achieved until human rights definitions and treaties highlight the current marginalization and oppression of women worldwide and explicitly “re-characterize” or “particularize” existing rights to include reproductive rights and sexual autonomy rights. It is only then when we can say that the international community considers women’s rights as human rights.

Similarly, I find a cultural feminist approach to be valuable in stressing the public/private dichotomy in gender equality efforts. Seeing as the oppression and control of women, particularly in Lebanon, is largely situated in the family unit and within a private sphere, rather than discriminatory legal frameworks, the ‘personal truly becomes the political’. As such, we should examine the micro layers of societies, down to the individual and family unit in addition to institutional and state structures to truly advance women’s movements.

That being said, I identify mostly as a liberal feminist since I disagree with cultural feminism heavy focus on the biological differences between men and women. The underlying rationale is that, instead of identifying women solely as autonomous individuals, they are seen as more oriented toward the family and other groups or communities than men. Although this may be true in modern societies, it is equally important to recognize the role of socialization in creating this reality. While it is imperative to acknowledge that these differences exist, this point of departure leaves room for further discrimination and misogyny that is justified on the basis of mere biological differences rather than seeing women as autonomous human beings that deserve to be treated equally regardless of their differences and/or similarities to men.

In my nuanced liberal feminist approach, I uphold human rights as the primary standard for equality regardless of all other factors at play. As such, I identify as a cultural universalist with the strong belief that there is a universal set of norms, rights, and frameworks that transcend geography, space and time. On the other end of the spectrum are cultural relativists who, like cultural feminists, reject the universality of human rights and attempt to understand culture on its own terms, using its own internal logic. They claim that it would be harmful and ineffective to bring an external framework of gender equality and superimpose that lens to understand the social efficacy of the gender dynamics at place, and instead, we should understand how people make sense of this reality given their own context. They critique culture universalism as a Western hegemonic approach that only expands the locus of Western dominance. Similar to cultural feminists, cultural relativists’ approach is based on the notion that cultures, like genders, are different, and we need to acknowledge and respect these differences in efforts to achieve gender equality rather than adhering to a Western notions of rights.

However, I firmly believe that relativism gives way for people to become apologists for morally reprehensible forms of oppression, and its focus on culture sensitivity truly hinders women’s empowerment movements around the world. To ensure real equality between men and women, we cannot accept discrimination as an intractable element of society. We surely should not legitimize and use a patriarchal and misogynistic society’s system of logic as it will be deeply immoral, unjust, and based on the superiority of men over women. Instead, realities should change, and they have changed in the past with the right mobilization and efforts. If culture were immutable, women would still not have the right to vote and female infants’ bodies would still be scarified as part of cultural rituals. Feminist movements should be grounded in the notion that there are inalienable rights that everyone should have and that women’s bodies and wellbeing are not up to debate regardless of embedded cultural norms and traditions. We should be able to unapologetically criticize and transform this system logic to establish a world where everyone is treated equally, with the full dignity and respect to which they are entitled.

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