Pauline Hanson’s burqa stunt demonstrates why we need to move beyond cultural relativism vs. universalism

Feminist arguments that correctly point out the patriarchal nature of religion have been co-opted and inconsistently applied in order to further marginalize an already oppressed minority. And within this minority, of course, the greatest violence is reserved for women.

It appears, then, that feminists are faced with an unappetizing choice between a completely uncritical cultural relativism and a context-insensitive universalism. In France, a majority of feminists choose universalism. In English-speaking countries, a majority of feminists choose cultural relativism. In both cases, these choices have serious consequences for women, whether from Muslim backgrounds or not.

Liberal and queer activists, by promoting cultural relativism and arguments based on freedom of choice, participate in the silencing of feminists (particularly white women) by accusing them of racism and Islamophobia whenever they attempt to critique a practice from a culture other than their own. For women of colour, the cultural relativist message that no cultural practice should be judged fails to provide women with the tools they need to identify or counter violence within their own communities.

In France, the political left, center, and right — all deeply male-dominated and misogynist — are united in supporting the forcible de-veiling of women. This offers us a clue: if men want it, it is not likely designed to liberate women. This should give Australian feminists — and others from countries dominated by cultural relativism — pause. Cultural relativism is a trap for women, but so is French-style universalism.

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