Is violence relative?

zohra moosa
26 November 2007

Is there any role left for the idea of cultural relativism when it comes to violence against women? Part of me would like to say, ‘no', that violence against a woman transcends cultural norms and that hurt does not feel different depending what culture you come from. That part of me points to the fact that human rights are universal precisely because they relate to being human, regardless of race, class, citizenship, etc.

On the other hand, another part of me recognizes that when it comes to issues such as female genital mutilation (FGM), there are women who defend their decisions to practice the custom on themselves as this extract explains for women in Egypt. That part of me balks at the idea of dictating to another woman how she should and shouldn't behave, especially when I don't live in her environment or face the challenges she would face if she chose not to be cut.

In these scenarios one could say that the extent to which cultural relativism can be invoked as a defence against violence depends on which practice in particular is being discussed, and the degree of choice a woman has over whether to participate in the practice. But is it possible to measure choice? To know whether a choice is really a ‘free' one versus a product of subtle, and not so subtle, coercion and control? Plus, there are surely some practices which are so abhorrent that even if a woman were to argue that she was taking the choice freely, one could still argue that it constituted an unacceptable violation of her humanity. Is violence only violent when it is forced? Or is something violent if it does harm? And how do we measure harm?

Obviously in any country or cultural community, there will be women agitating against practices that are harmful to women even while some defend them. Going back to FGM in Egypt, for example, there are plenty of women who have been working to eradicate the practice, including Suzanne Mubarak, the First Lady. In fact, she has just launched a new Africa-wide campaign against FGM based on the one she began in Egypt.

Where such women do exist, who are campaigning for their and other women's rights to be free of particular practices, what roles should outsiders who live within the same countries play? In Canada, this has been a difficult issue to navigate as the country's efforts to be multicultural have sometimes allowed non-white male perpetrators to secure lenient sentences in court by using ‘culture' as a defence, as I discuss in this article. In the UK, the issue of forced marriage has faced similar challenges even though a previous Home Office Minister had announced:


Multicultural sensitivity is no excuse for moral blindness.


What about practices that occur in other countries? Should I not be as concerned with the rape of a woman in Saudi Arabia as I am with that of a woman in the UK? And yet the American government has suggested that the recent decision to sentence a gang rape victim to 200 lashes is an ‘internal Saudi decision' that it shouldn't be interfering with.

Certainly the issue of state sovereignty is an important one, however America itself appears confused about its position. After all, it was the same government that justified invading Afghanistan in the name of women's rights just a few years ago. As UncommonSense also suggests, it seems to me that the ‘cultural relativism' card is less often about respect for difference and more often actually just another way of ignoring violence against women.


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