Do women really need saving? In a compelling article on the subject, Lila Abu-Lughod, an American anthropologist, expresses her outrage at the opinion that the veil is a form of oppression that Muslim women need liberation from. In India, the supporters of the entry ban on women of menstruating age at the Sabarimala temple and those defending triple talaq are similarly outraged. They assert that the respective practices are rooted in distinct religious or cultural contexts; they ought to be understood and accepted as products of different circumstances and histories or as expressions of “differently structured desires” than what appears right to their condemners. They resent cultural ethnocentrism and homogenisation, and exhort that disparate religio-cultural systems be viewed through the lens of cultural relativism.
Cultural relativism is a marvellous contribution of anthropology towards reconciling and protecting the staggering diversity of cultural systems that exists across the world. It explains that all cultural systems are inherently equal in value and, therefore, each cultural item must be understood on its own terms, without the judgement. However, this too does not provide a perfect solution. With the consensus on the pre-eminence of universal human rights, few would defend an absolute acceptance of cultural relativism, which precludes ethical judgement even of practices like slavery, genocide, female genital mutilation or cannibalism. There are certain ethical imperatives which all cultural practices must honour.
It may be reasonable to propose that for a religio-cultural practice to comprehensively withstand the test of being universally just, it must safeguard the right to life and safety, guarantee a dignified existence, encourage debate on its validity and, most crucially, provide the possibility of making choices to all in its purview. In reality, however, there exist too many practices obviously prejudiced against a section of their adherents, most typically women. The reverence for these practices is conditioned by the given society, but often peoples’ submission to them may be a product of social conformity, in the absence of any freedom to question their justness. These are also amply leveraged for political mileage, compelling women to bear the cross of cultural prestige. Such practices need to be questioned and their validity reaffirmed.
A ready illustration can be drawn from British India. During British rule, the practice of self-immolation by Hindu widows on their husbands’ funeral pyres was prevalent in many parts of the country, though considered ethically repugnant even at the time by Hindus like Raja Ram Mohan Roy. The British, though disturbed by the practice, initially tried to be ethically and culturally relativistic and decided not to condemn it. Eventually, they made it illegal unless it could be shown that the Hindu widow was participating “voluntarily”, which was to be ascertained by a British official rushing to the site of a Sati. “For any violence, deception or compulsion in burning of a widow or because any other cause impeded her free will, the court was constrained to pronounce death penalty to the offender.” Ironically, records show that this British attention, along with a sense that performing Sati might be a good way to resist the British, seemed to cause instances of Sati to increase for several years in Bengal in the early 1800s. This was a case where it was ingrained into the societal psyche that it was the proper thing for Hindu widows to do. However, it wasn’t just that. It was exploited for political reasons without regard for the lives and free will of Hindu widows. The practice patently failed the test of universal justness.
Coming to a more recent cultural debate across the world about the necessity of wearing the veil, the generalisation that all forms of veiling are oppressive and forcibly imposed on women runs wholly contrary to the spirit of cultural relativism and is an intemperate response to the matter. Lugodh perceptively argues in her article how the veil is actually a “portable seclusion,” and, therefore, an emancipator, because women under the veil, particularly in closed and conservative societies, can freely move around. For others, it is simply a mark of religious and social assertion. This is indisputable. At the same time, however, it is equally undeniable that in several parts of the world the absence of a choice in the matter constrains women and can even subject them to abject injustice. On March11, human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh was sentenced to 38 years of imprisonment and 148 lashes in Iran for defending women being prosecuted for removing their hijab in public. Having a choice in the matter would enable women to resolve the respective constraints experienced by them, if any. It would render the system universally just. Similar is the case with many other religio-cultural debates, both in India and abroad, like the Sabarimala temple entry or the right to abortion.
We may find it worth our while, as legislators, judges, journalists, activists, government functionaries, teachers, parents, community leaders, and engaged citizens, to get behind the cause of extending a choice to women everywhere, independent of our political, religious or cultural leanings. Women don’t need saving; they need to be guaranteed their essential right to have a choice. The choice to pursue an unfettered education, to not be sold in marriage, to refuse unilateral divorce, to keep their bodies unmutilated, to worship, to access sanitary napkins and make reproductive decisions…. Only by rendering such choices possible, in their full measure, shall we find ourselves on the right side of history and fairness.
— This article first appeared in the April 29, 2019 print edition under the title ‘Women don’t need saving’.
(The writer, 29, is an IPS officer. Views are personal)