Wednesday 26 September 2007

Women's equality is a universal not a 'western' principle

Pryamvada Gopal seems confused. She criticises 'British liberals' who highlight the subjugation of women in non-western cultures for their apparent 'insistence that equality is a western concept to be defended against the incursions of others'. According to Gopal (whom I took to task earlier this year for her ungenerous response to Rushdie's knighthood), this makes 'the self-proclaimed liberals who insist on this useful collaborators for authoritarian chauvinists from outside the west.' How so? '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). '

Let me see if I understand what she's saying here. So western liberals who draw attention to the oppression of women in (say) Iraq or Iran are somehow as guilty as those who do the oppressing? Hmm. And who are these 'self-proclaimed liberals' of whom she writes? Gopal's article is conveniently free of any references or examples, leaving the impression that she's creating a straw man to advance her own rather odd line of argument. I'd challenge her to name one mainstream liberal commentator (apart from the odd unrepresentative neocon) who argues for women's equality in the Middle East or Asia on the grounds that it's a western, rather than a universal principle.

But like those reflexive anti-western leftists who damn all criticism of Middle Eastern authoritarianism as 'neoconservative', Gopal allows no space for a western liberal critique of oppressive cultural practices that is neither patronising or colonialist. Rather than calling for greater critical solidarity from western progressives, she seems to be telling them to keep quiet until they've put their own house in order: '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.'

Gopal 's argument reinforces the kind of po-mo 'you can't criticise them, it's their culture' attitude that I mentioned in the update to this post yesterday, with reference to the response of some gay campaigners to Ahmadinejad's speech. This seems surprising from someone who positions herself as part of a non-western movement for women's rights. She claims: 'No "moral relativists", we have successfully countered Hindu chauvinists, Islamists, Sikh zealots and Catholic fundamentalists, not to mention sundry secular manifestations of sexism. ' But Gopal's 'hands off' warning to western liberals will have precisely the effect of reinforcing cultural relativism, rather than the critical international solidarity that feminist campaigners in the Middle East and Asia desperately need.


Dr. Gopal's article has certainly provoked a lively response over at CiF, and it's heartening to see many commenters supporting my point about her 'straw man' - those imaginary liberals who view equality as a purely western concept. Some of her defenders generously attribute the feelings of bewilderment felt by many readers to poor copy-editing. One has even gone so far as to post up the 'original' pre-edited article. Unfortunately, this only adds to the confusion, as in this excerpt:

The insistence that human rights, equality and freedom are Western concepts to be defended against the incursions of Others or somehow bestowed on them (as suggested, for instance, by the Euston manifesto) relies, apart from double standards on colonialism and occupation, on a continued and convenient deafness to resistant voices from outside Judaeo-Christian contexts. (Except when the likes of Ayaan Hirsi Ali concoct a suitable story of oppression and liberatory flight to the West).

Here Gopal manages to combine a straightforward falsehood about the Euston Manifesto - once again, can we have specific references please? - with a nasty put-down (which surely Gopal would condemn as patronising and colonialist if it came from a western commentator) of those non-westerners - here, the brave Ayaan Hirsi Ali - who dare to depart from the po-mo/cultural relativism narrative.

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