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Articles and Speeches

Racism, Cultural Relativism and Women's Rights

Maryam Namazie
Speech at a panel discussion organised by the Action Committee on Women's
Rights in Iran and Amnesty International's Women's Action Network
August 14, 2001
Toronto, Canada

Many times you hear that the discussion around cultural relativism versus the universality of women's rights is a theoretical and unnecessary debate, which is a waste of time. Often one finds many, some of who consider themselves women's rights activists, who strongly defend the concept. For me though, this debate is not only a theoretical one; it is more importantly a practical one that affects the real lives of countless women and girls.

Let us be clear about what cultural relativism is. It is a profoundly racist phenomenon, which values and respects all cultural and religious practices, irrespective of their consequences for women. It asserts that the rights of people, women and girls are relative to where they are born, "their" cultures and religions. There is no right or wrong according to cultural relativists. As a result, cultural relativism supports and maintains sexual apartheid and violence against women in Islam-stricken societies like Iran because it is "their culture and religion" and it creates ghettoized, regressive "minority" communities in the West where women and girls continue to face apartheid and Islamic laws and customs.

Cultural relativism doesn't merely ignore violations; it actually legitimizes them. Moreover, it never opposes any cultural or religious practices. Cultural relativism not only makes it unnecessary to oppose violations and lack of women's rights, but also makes it racist and against freedom of choice to do so! I want to give examples of cultural relativism applied to the status of women living in Iran and Iranian women asylum seekers living in the West to show how it legitimizes women's lack of rights and silences opposition.

There are innumerable examples of its promotion in the heart of the secular West where different laws and customs apply to women who have fled Islam stricken societies. As a result of this racism, the veiling of girls becomes acceptable in the heart of Europe and men who kill women in the name of honour are given reduced sentences. The German government forcibly veils women asylum seekers it wants to deport to allow the Iranian embassy to prepare their travel documents. When a woman like Roya Mosayebi refuses to be veiled, she is beaten and forcibly veiled. When she complains to a German court, the court rules that the police acted in accordance with the law.

Holland is another good example. In 1997, when the Dutch government wanted to deport 1300 Iranian asylum seekers back to Iran, it produced a report to justify the deportations, which made numerous assertions on women that reveal how far cultural relativists will go to deny women's rights. [The IFIR along with other progressive groups managed to push back the government's assault but its justifications are telling nonetheless.] On stoning the Dutch Foreign Ministry said: "as at least four witnesses are required in order to prosecute for adultery, there are not in practice any actual prosecutions brought. We are not aware of any cases of stoning to death for adultery." They further stated: "while the legal and practical disabilities faced by women in Iran have been well documented, it is now clear that some change has been effected in recent years and that there are a number of signs that further and substantive improvements may be on the way." They also said that: "the presence of women is more visible on the streets and than in surrounding Islamic countries," and that "While the dress code is mandatory, there are hardly any women voluntarily covering their face with a veil or wearing the traditional burqah… unlike Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia." On the fact that women have only temporary child custody they said: "This system stems from Sharia law and is applicable in most Islamic countries."

This is one example of how outrageous acts of brutality and repression by the Iranian government are denied and excused. This is how a system of sexual apartheid and lack of rights become mere disabilities. This is how they credit women's own resistance to the abuser. In Iran, women not only don't cover their faces but they continuously transgress mandatory veiling. The fact that women are 'improperly veiled' every day on the streets has nothing to do with the regime or Khatami; it just shows that women are protesting and opposing compulsory veiling despite its risks. Hundreds of thousands of women have been flogged, imprisoned, had their bodies slashed with razors, and had acid thrown in their faces so that they could walk down the streets with their veils pushed back. Moreover, when they need to, cultural relativists always compare the situation of women with the worst possible example. Why not compare the situation of women in Iran with the best possible example? When all else fails, they state that a discriminatory law is applicable in most so-called Islamic countries and that's that, which basically means women are well off enough, this is their Islamic culture, at least they don't cover their faces like in Saudi Arabia, so don't oppose, leave it be, stay silent...

Western governments, the media and cultural relativists say that Iranian society is Islamic, implying that people choose to live the way they are forced to. Just as in Canada, however, there are people with various beliefs in Iran as well. The difference is that in Iran Islam is in power, enforcing its culture on every one. 25 years ago when the Shah's dictatorial regime was in power, no one called Iran a Muslim country. If Iranian society were truly Islamic, 150,000 people would not have been executed for opposing the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Islamic regime would not need such extensive tools for repression, and the regime would not need to control people's private lives - from their sexual activities, to what they wear. If the entire society is Muslim, why did Maryam Ayoobi enter a voluntary sexual relationship for which she was buried in a ditch and stoned to death? Why are thousands of women rounded up in the streets for "improper" veiling if it's their culture and religion? In fact, these prove that this is not people's culture but the regime's culture, the ruling class's culture imposed on women and people.

Cultural relativism maintains the Islamic regime in Iran, justifies its violations, defends the abuser and even goes so far as to credit the abuser for any gains made through people's own resistance. It also aims to silence any opposition by making it seem racist to do so. It further implies that if women "choose" to live without rights then to defend their rights means that you are against their freedom of choice!

Clearly, civil rights, freedom and equality are universal concepts that have been fought for by progressive social movements and the working class in various countries. They belong to every one irrespective of where they were born and where that struggle took place. We still see the positive effects of a Bolshevik revolution, a Paris Commune, even the Iranian revolution, before it was brutally suppressed and expropriated by the Islamic regime, in various parts of the world today. That people and women worldwide, including in Iran, continue to struggle for equality and freedom and to overcome their lack of rights and repressive regimes is a confirmation of this universality.

Time and time again, we have seen that reaction has been pushed back not by respecting, legitimizing and justifying it but by struggling against and eradicating it. Progressive norms today are the result of enlightenment and just struggles by real people like us; real people who defended humanity and human standards.

The issue at stake is important. Where we each stand is important. Supporters of women's rights must strongly and unconditionally oppose cultural relativism, reactionary religious and cultural beliefs and practices, governments like the Islamic regime of Iran, Political Islam and the racist policy of ghettoization in order to make advances in women's rights. Secularism and universal rights must become a minimum norm.