Global Policy Forum

The Woman Question


By Priyamvada Gopal*

September 26, 2007

Gordon Brown's repeated references to the nature of the British people at the Labour party conference will once again raise the question of identity in this multicultural nation. But although British liberals can come to a pleasing agreement that people have multiple identities, and that cultural categories should be opened up, a familiar canard eventually makes its inevitable appearance. It goes like this: British liberals respect individual choice and other cultures. But what happens when these cultures reject one of the core western liberal values, the equality of women?

Now, a great many women - and men - from outside the western world also believe passionately in the equality of women. No "moral relativists", we have successfully countered Hindu chauvinists, Islamists, Sikh zealots and Catholic fundamentalists, not to mention sundry secular manifestations of sexism. The insistence that equality is a western concept to be defended against the incursions of others relies on a continued deafness to resistant voices from outside Judaeo-Christian contexts. This, ironically, makes the self-proclaimed liberals who insist on this useful collaborators for authoritarian chauvinists from outside the west. For they are all in curious agreement that women's equality is a western concept and call for it, accordingly, to be either enforced (that's why we sent in the troops) or rejected (by keeping women secluded).

But women from non-western cultures have long mounted their own challenges to subjection, long before John Stuart Mill denounced the "legal subordination of one sex to the other". In India, women learned self-assertion and the rejection of injustice not from him but from medieval female Hindu poets like Mirabai and Akkamahadevi, and fierce Tarabai Shinde who in 1882 wrote a stinging denunciation of male double standards. Early 20th century Muslim women writers attacked a range of injustices including seclusion, lack of reproductive choice, and illiteracy. They taught western feminism that women's subjection could not be viewed in isolation from race and class oppression, and that nowhere has there been consensus that denying women access to education, work, health and dignity is an expression of culture.

The talismanic invocation of women's equality as the key difference between "us" and "them" is worrying. Apart from the simple hypocrisy of people whose own societies have yet to fully address gender, race and class inequalities, there is a long, dismal history of using the subjection of women to justify cultural condescension and colonial occupation.

Gender inequality is no more inherent to non-western cultures than to European cultures, notwithstanding scriptures and clerics. Like all cultural practices, it is a historical phenomenon subject to human intervention and transformation. Western cultures do not have a monopoly on change. Suggesting that other cultures are inherently and immutably sexist on the basis of select practices and ideologies is no different from claiming that western culture or Christianity is inherently racist because of colonialism or apartheid. Oddly, the same people who defensively insist that racism must be understood in its historical context cannot extend that analysis to gender inequality elsewhere.

Brutal patriarchal thugs who seek to control women's minds and bodies are just that, whoever and wherever they may be. They should be fought as such, like the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) did, at great risk, for many years before Bush played feminist. Claiming sole western ownership of the concept of women's equality steals from such women their struggles, their victories and, ultimately, their dignity.

About the Author: Priyamvada Gopal teaches in the English faculty at Cambridge University



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