How cultural relativism is censoring the feminine

Criticism of cultures does not mean an automatic endorsement of invasions of other countries but more like a tacit and firm agreement to let the good things of cultures be and yet the regressive practices abandoned, banned, abolished, fought against, reformed and changed

Azar Nafisi, prominent author of Reading Lolita in Tehran and The Republic of Imagination was targeted by a professor in Columbia University Hamid Dabashi, for what he called 'self-sexualising'  her memoir of the study group in Tehran (the theme of the book). In what is fast becoming a genre of itself  - 'misery memoirs' - Muslim, ex-Muslim and agnostic women are rapidly publishing books about their experiences in a regressive culture and the impact it has had on their psyches and families.

The growing market for such books shows the resonance these 'misery memoirs' have among the non-Muslim population particularly privileged young women and men who cannot conceive of the kind of restrictions these women grew up in. The backlash is equally vicious and typically from men - a reaction to being shown the mirror in a patriarchal setup.

Whether it be online trolling, cyber stalking or threats - virtual or real, censorship of women is gaining ground as more and more of such memoirs turn up. To understand how difficult it is for a woman to speak up or to be fair to all genders, for victims to speak up, it is pertinent to understand that speaking out against oppression makes a person vulnerable to further shame, hate, assault on the character, allegations of family dishonour, and self-doubt.

This is the main reason why sexual assaults among all genders are the least reported of all crimes. Self-aggrandising, morality custodians who in the language of the Indian subcontinent are called 'thekedaars' take it upon themselves to censure anything which goes against the dominant narrative of patriarchy.

It's not just the men who start slut-shaming the misery memoir authors, but it's the women minions too catering to the aggrandisement of the frat boys (because they are in need of self-affirmation) always stand up against these bold women and are then used as evidence of how there is no repression in a said culture.

My spouse and I were discussing cultural relativism the other day and he was a bit disturbed to see my line of thinking wherein I bluntly proclaimed that 'not all cultures are equal and there was no need to preserve a culture of misogyny, bigotry, and monocultural domination'.

He seemed to take it as a support for the invasion of cultures and lands where people were subjugated to bow to the hegemony of an imperial culture. This is where I corrected him and am hoping that many others understand this stance of people who are internal critics of their cultures.

In her article 'The regressive nature of cultural relativism', Harriet Taylor writes:

'... its assumed cultures are hermetically sealed off from each other - that each culture is a static, sealed unit existing 'over there' away from 'us'.

'...The idea that 'all cultures are equal' and that we therefore should not criticise other cultures, tacitly rests on the assumption that we can draw a boundary around where one culture starts and where another begins. Because without such boundaries, we can't know where we can criticise and where we can't. We can't know what's our culture and what's our friend and neighbour's culture.'

'...Cultures have fluid boundaries around them and channels running between them which provide fertile ground for mutual and two-way critical reflection. The 'other cultures must not be criticised' viewpoint implicitly rely upon assuming that there are no such paths of meeting and communicating. In other words, it's regressive.'

'And much worse, the idea that other cultures are off-limits with regard to criticism ends up siding with whoever has managed to write the official version of the culture. It does this because it assumes that there is such a thing as what any one culture is, what its rules and practices are; it does this because it tacitly assumes that there is no criticism from within a culture that are not acceptable to all.'

So this is what happens when cultural relativists find it hard to pick a side and end up letting it all be; which inevitably leads to siding with whichever group within a particular culture are the winners, because you are just letting things continue as they are. You are siding with those who get to write the rule, you are siding with those who get to enforce the rules.

That is an anti-ethical stance. This version of cultural relativism is hostile to human interaction, to cross cultural fertilisation, to human progress and learning. Far from being progressive, this crude version of cultural relativism is utterly, utterly regressive.

So no, criticism of cultures does not mean an automatic endorsement of invasions of other countries but more like a tacit and firm agreement to let the good things of cultures be and yet the regressive practices abandoned, banned, abolished, fought against, reformed and changed. Recent examples being FGM, the fight against it which is gaining ground worldwide and in the recent past of the subcontinent - the abhorrent practice of 'sati' (wife immolation on the funeral pyre of her dead husband to gain goddess stature) which the British helped in abolishing.

Arshia Malik is a Srinagar-based writer and social commentator with focus on women issues and conflict in Kashmir. She makes her living as a school teacher and is an avid collector of literature. She is currently writing a book about her life as a female in Kashmiri Muslim society

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