Identity and Culture: Women as Subjects and Agents of Cultural Change

Mon, Jan 1, 1996


IdentityCultureBy Mahnaz Afkhami
In From Basic Needs to Basic Rights / The Institute for Women, Law, and Development / 1996

Chapter 13
Identity and Culture: Women as Subjects and Agents of Cultural Change


In a preface to Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture, Margaret Mead gives a casual definition of culture as the “systematic body of learned behavior which is transmitted from parents to children” (Benedict, 1959, p. vii). Comparing Malinowski (1944), Firth (1971) and Bottomore (1962),1 Chris Jenks (1993) concludes that “the concept of culture implies a relationship with the accumulated shared symbols representative of and significant within a particular community, what we might describe as a context-dependent semiotic system” (p. 121). For Jenks, culture as concept is “at least complex and at most so divergent in its various applications as to defy the possibility, or indeed the necessity, of any singular designation” (p. 1).

Identity also is a complex subject defying any singular designation. Charles Taylor (1989) broaches the concept as follows:

[T]he question is often spontaneously phrased by people in the form: Who am I? But this can’t necessarily be answered by giving name and genealogy. What does answer this question for us is an understanding of what is of crucial importance to us. To know who I am is a species of knowing where I stand. My identity is defined by the commitments and identifications which provide the frame or horizon within which I can try to determine from case to case what is good, or valuable, or what ought to be done, or what I endorse or oppose. In other words, it is the horizon within which I am capable of taking a stand (p. 27).

In this paper I will discuss culture and identity within a feminist context by suggesting the following: (1) Women’s modern search for their identity is historically mandated and has now become a universal phenomenon; (2) even though cultures differ and strategies for gaining rights will have to be reflexive and adaptive, central values of the search are common to all searchers; (3) women’s achievement of identity is geared to cultural change, that is, the need that launches women on a search for identity drives them logically and practically to a politics of cultural change; and (4) the intellectual mechanism to promote the process is a kind of global feminism based on the concept of unity in diversity in which women from the south must play a leading role. I will conclude with some observations on the condition of women in the Muslim world and some strategies for empowering them as agents of change.

Culture and Women’s Identity in Traditional Settings

Individuals acquire identity as they become socialized over time in norms that are defined and determined by the prevailing culture, that is, values, beliefs and aesthetics22 that together constitute the perceptive medium by which individuals or societies communicate with their environment. In principle, traditional cultures, that is, cultures of old societies that have remained more or less unchanged over long periods, assign the individual to a particular position in the social hierarchy which is generally accepted as legitimate. In this formulation, every person is supposed to know who she is and where in the maze of social relations she stands.

The question of a search for identity does not arise, or is not critical, in the traditional setting since the identity is already known. The picture here is that of a community where everyone is serenely content with his or her lot. Contradictions are minimal. If they should arise, it is the function of the culture to resolve them through systems of admonitions, rituals, laws, and rewards and punishments. Government and society work hand in hand, king and priest being the two arms of the same legitimate ruling order. Everything functions to maintain the system.

The traditional setting assigns women to the lower positions in the social hierarchy. Women are accorded value as mothers and wives under the jurisdiction of fathers, husbands, and sons. Their main function in the family is that of procreation and childrearing. They are denied the kind of education that confers social prestige and power. Their sexuality is geared to the needs of man and family, including the need for assuring the authenticity of the patriarchal lineage. Even though they work harder than men and their work is indispensable to the well being of the family, the village, and the tribe, they usually do not control the fruits of their labor or participate in its disposition and distribution. Many reasons have been adduced to explain this phenomenon, ranging from differential availability of brute force to subtler ways of social and intellectual manipulation and domination. It may be, as Katherine K. Young (1987) suggests, that patriarchal societies and patriarchal religions are predicated on a correlation of historical, psychological, sociological, and biological stress points. In this view the rise of kingdoms is associated with a particular stage of child development which is in turn associated with man’s tyranny over women and children as a reflection of the king’s power and

male ambiguity regarding chastity and sexual license. If the world religions grew out of a situation of extreme stress and were, in part, formed by this milieu, they also responded to this stress syndrome by searching for a new order and vision of harmony. Focal to this order was a stable family structure and careful definition of gender roles, which reflected the male’s dominance of the age but also tried to tame it by ensuring economic and physical protection of women. (Young, 1987, p. 32)

In the traditional culture women are silent, but the culture is not silent about women. On the contrary, it is quite vocal as myth, ritual, religious text, and aphoristic male wisdom. Beginning with prophets and early philosophers, Aristotle for example, and continuing up to our time in patriarchal circles in practically all countries, this wisdom suggests that there must be a union of male and female, for they cannot exist without each other, that man is the master and lord as ordained by God, because man can foresee with his mind, is the soul of the union and therefore, by nature, superior. Woman, in contrast, is body, cold, receiver, and naturally inferior.

Interestingly, the originary myth usually treats man and woman more equitably. The Buddha, for example, taught his male and female disciples the same doctrine; women, however, were systematically kept out of the society of the male monks. In the Gathas, the Yashts, and other early Zoroastrian texts, as well as in Iranian epics, woman is treated with respect, but by the middle of the Sasanian period she had lost many of her rights and privileges under a dominant Zoroastrian clergy (Afkhami, 1994, chap. 1). Abrahamic societies also present the same pattern. In Genesis, Eve appears the more resourceful of the first pair. The Israelite woman, however, received her identity from her father and husband. Christ appears to have treated women in manners that shocked Jewish and Roman male sensibilities. Paul, however, placed women in the custody of men and, among other things, forbade them to speak in the church, where religion took shape and power (Sharma, 1987). The same may be said of Islam. Muslim women played their most important roles at the dawn of Islam. Khadija, Aisha, Hind, Zainab and a host of other women were instrumental in the shaping of Muslim society and politics before, during, and after the Prophet’s announcement of his message. Indeed, there were several strains of male/female relationship in the Arab tribal society from which a positive prescriptive pattern might have been drawn and according to which the revelation might have been interpreted (Mernissi, 1987). Patriarchy, however, insisted on the one least favorable to women’s freedom. The rest has been, more or less, a history of silenced and invisible Muslim women.

Women’s struggle to define an identity has been in part a struggle to become visible to themselves and to others, to participate in the definition and solution of “the world’s problems,” and to help develop an order of priorities and relationships that is different from the patriarchal order. This is now beginning to happen in many parts of the world. Our epoch is progressively tuned to the idea that women have entered the political arena and will remain there in the future. Our politics focus on women’s rights. As we become increasingly involved in the economic, social, cultural, and political fields, our interests, that is, the foci of our rights, spread over the entire range of human concerns.

Autonomy and Authenticity as Common Conditions of Women’s Identity and Rights

The rise in women’s awareness of their identity has not been accidental. It is part of a historical process in which all individuals, men and women, have increasingly appropriated their “selves.” The form of appropriation differs from culture to culture, but the essence is commonly shared. Thus, diverse modes of consciousness converge on the idea of human autonomy and personal authenticity (Taylor, 1989). The philosophical axis around which the idea of autonomy takes shape is the move from the concept of natural law (the condition of obeying the rules already given) to that of natural right (the condition of participating in making the rules).

The moral problem of much of humanity, but particularly of women in the developing world, is how to make the transition from law to right while forging and maintaining an identity that is psychologically rewarding and morally acceptable. This is a tangled proposition because it involves every aspect of a woman’s personal life—belief in God, religious ritual, family relations, sexuality, friendships, position in society, peer opinion, economic sufficiency, etc—and is directly related to one’s idea of self respect. These tensions are exacerbated by the division of the world into north and south and the loyalties that are engendered as a result of racial, ethnic, religious, and national solidarities. Thus the transition is always difficult and probably never complete.

Questions about women’s identity are often posed in psychological and ethical terms, but they are also sociological, that is, they are time-bound, geared to levels and complexities of consciousness resulting from historical change. Although the immediate connecting point of identity is moral and psychological, women’s identity depends particularly on the changing properties of political culture, i.e. values, beliefs, and aesthetics that have to do with the dispositions of power in the community. Given their powerlessness throughout history, whenever women have become self-conscious as individuals with rights of their own, they have had to search for an identity other than the one assigned to them by the social order—an identity that defines them as authentic human beings. Authenticity, in turn, puts them at odds with the social order. Self-search among women, therefore, is inevitably a moral odyssey in the realm of the political. A modern woman, regardless of geography or culture, seeks an authentic self and finds it mainly in terms of political consciousness.3 To be effective, this consciousness will have to be informed by the ethical and psychological powers of the myths that nourish the indigenous culture. The idea is to reinvest the myth with positive feminist meaning.

We have come to accept and promote the complex of human rights as stated in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and most women activists accept the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) as an appropriate document for promoting women’s human rights. Nevertheless, we need to face the problem of implementation in the face of the challenge posed not only by the patriarchal power structure, but also by the philosophical and moral underpinnings of cultural relativism. Our problem is two-fold: (1) to establish the moral priority of universal rights; and (2) to devise strategies for developing and communicating ways and means of realizing universally accepted women’s rights in all countries while upholding and appreciating the diversity of life styles and variety of cultures across the globe. Both points involve moral and ethical issues, but their nature is fundamentally political.

To establish the moral priority of universal rights we must demonstrate the primacy of the individual as human being. It may be argued, as implied in some relativist positions, that there is no way that this can be done if a society chooses, for example, a fundamentalist interpretation of a religion. It should be noted, however, that funda- mentalism also is a modern phenomenon—it emerges at a time when society has moved objectively beyond the complex of values and rituals that the fundamentalists wish to enforce. As such, fundamentalism is faced with the same doubts and trepidations that result from the inexorable passage from a world determined by an intelligible cosmic order, in which the human position is clearly defined, to a world in which the cosmic order is mediated by human beings.4 This mediation is a heavy burden, conferring enormous responsibility which not everyone can carry.5 Fundamentalism, therefore, is always a reaction and hence an unauthentic rendition of religion because, by opting for a forceful implementation of religious doctrine and rites, it transforms a moral question into a power issue.6 One cannot be a fundamentalist if the society has not already transcended the “traditional” values.

The drive for autonomy and authenticity affects all issues that interest women across cultures, among them pre-puberty marriage and forced marriage, control over one’s relations in the family, control over one’s body, having a room of one’s own and freedom of movement. In the final analysis it is the respect for the self and others that will render a change in law and behavior necessary by rendering patriarchy’s traditional ways no longer cost-effective. I have already suggested that this process is historically mandated, though not necessarily in the forms and with the consequences that have come about in the West. Exaggerated individualism, over-emphasis on technology, and consequent limitations on freedom have been identified in the West as worrisome for the future of human civilization (Taylor, 1991). Authoritarian secular and religious patriarchies point to rampant crime, unbridled consumerism, poverty in the midst of plenty, sexual license, and other malaise in the West to justify their own pat- terns of rulership and social organization. As mentioned earlier, they use the present unequal dispensation of economic and technological power as well as political and cultural influence in the world to exploit women’s sense of national and/or ethnic allegiance. Evelyne Accad (1993) remembers a debate in which African women sided with African men attacking her for having referred to excision as mutilation. In the evening, she says,

I had sung one of my compositions on genital mutilation and the pain it causes in women. Some of the African women present there had tears in their eyes and came to thank me after the performance. They told me the reason they had sided with their men in the morning was because they had to be loyal to them. In front of the West, loyalty was more important than truth, but I was right in denouncing the practice. (p. 9)

It is also important that issues that are relevant to the historical conditions of Western societies do not become an excuse for the abuse of women in the non-Western world. An example is when an otherwise correct emphasis on the value of multiculturalism in Western societies is projected as a nebulous and contradictory concept of cultural relativism that functionally justifies abuse of women based on cultural norms. Obviously, every multicultural society ought to respect the variety of its constitutive cultures. But no culture should be condoned if it misuses the internationally recognized rights of its women, children, racial and religious minorities, or other disadvantaged groups. Attention to this point is particularly important because of an implicit misunderstanding that sometimes produces sinister effects. In the West, individuals are assumed to enjoy basic rights including the right to differ. These basic rights, however, are not predicated on cultural relativity. On the contrary, cultural relativity in the West presupposes individual human rights. In the absence of individual protection based on universal human rights, cultural relativism can easily deteriorate into an apology for otherwise heinous practices against women. It should not be difficult to see that in such cases neutrality about values, regardless of the context, is not a morally acceptable position (Bloom, 1987).

Women’s modern quest for identity needs to be highly articulate and structured. The reason is that everywhere women have to provide a reason for the rights they seek, no matter how small, innocuous, or obvious they may be. The search, however, is at its beginning. “Truthfulness anywhere means a heightened complexity,” writes Adrienne Rich (1984):

But it is a movement into evolution. Women are only beginning to uncover our own truths; many of us would be grateful for some rest in that struggle, would be glad just to lie down with the shreds we have painfully unearthed, and be satisfied with those. Often I feel this like an exhaustion in my own body. The politics worth having, the relationships worth having, demand that we delve still deeper (as quoted in Spretnak, 1982, p.347).

To uncover our own truth is to rediscover ourselves in the course of a new genesis, to recreate ourselves in images that relate to a politics that is morally worth having. In the introductory essay to Sisterhood/s Global, Robin Morgan (1984) writes:

Because virtually all existing countries are structured by patriarchal mentality, the standard for being human is being male—and female human beings per se become “other,” and invisible. This permits governments and international bodies to discuss “the world’s problems”—war, poverty, refugees, hunger, disease, illiteracy, overpopulation, ecological imbalance, the abuse and exploitation of children and elderly, etc.— without noticing that those who suffer most from “the world’s problems” are women, who, in addition, are not consulted about possible solutions (p. 1).

The point of women’s struggle for rights is cultural change, that is, changing attitudes, behaviors, and laws that have a negative impact on women’s human rights. Such a struggle would be meaningless if women did not agree that there are rights beyond those prescribed by the traditional culture and that these rights are nevertheless valid everywhere. The focus of contention on the first point, therefore, is political, that is, it has to do with power and strategies of empowerment. Power, however, is a concept women have been conditioned to eschew, partly because patriarchal culture looks down on women’s seeking of power and partly because of its gross misuse by men. To defend its own power the male-dominated society has held that nothing

is more ridiculous than a woman who imitates a male activity and is therefore no longer a woman. This can apply not only to speaking and writing, but also to the way a woman looks, the job she does, the way she behaves sexually, the leisure pursuits she engages in, the intellectual activities she prefers and so on ad infinitum. Sex differentiation must be rigidly upheld by whatever means are available, for men can be men only if women are unambiguously women (Cameron, 1985, pp. 155-156).

On the second point, power does not need to be construed as traditionally observed in patriarchal societies. The values of women differ significantly from “masculine” values, as Virginia Woolf stated in 1929. Women’s empowerment as both concept and process may be conceived in ways that are qualitatively different from the hitherto known history of power. Women experience life as an interconnected chain of relationships. Autonomy and authenticity in the case of women do not suggest separateness, crass individualism, a Darwinian struggle where only the fit survive. In the words of psychologist Carol Gilligan (1982), women have “a different voice.”7 Nonetheless, power is essential to women’s cause and needs to be redefined in non-patriarchal terms as a concept that agrees with essential feminist values. “The true representation of power,” writes Carolyn Heilbrun (1988),

is not of a big man beating a smaller man or a woman. Power is the ability to take one’s place in whatever discourse is essential to action and the right to have one’s part matter. This is true in the Pentagon, in marriage, in friendship, and in politics (p. 88).

To seek feminist power is, in itself, an exercise in cultural change.8

Globalization of Women’s Search for Identity: the Case of the Muslim Women.

What I have said so far applies equally to women in Western and non-Western societies. There are, however, differences that arise as a result of the colonial experience. The spread of women’s consciousness of rights and their fight for a new identity are made inevitable by the evolving structure of world relationships and the development of modern technology, particularly the communication revolution. This in turn creates tensions between an authentic drive for self-realization and a perception of national, ethnic, or religious solidarity in face of a threatening hegemonical world order. In almost all cases, patriarchal regimes use international tension to deflect demands for freedom and equality for women. This process ranges from purely political strains on human rights, which are the hallmark of secular autocratic regimes, to more encompassing systems of constraints rooted in ideology or traditional culture and enforced either directly through governmental fiat, as in China or the Islamic Republic of Iran, or indirectly as a result of organized religious pressure on government, as in Algeria and Egypt.

At present women are particularly under pressure in Muslim countries, where approximately 500 million women live, a majority of them in south and southeast Asia, facing a resurgence of religious fundamentalism that threatens their limited but hard-earned rights. In certain Muslim countries the struggle for women’s rights has now become decidedly life threatening. Algerian women have been threatened with physical mutilation and death for objecting to fundamentalist propositions to curtail their rights. In Sudan, Egypt, Morocco, and Pakistan women are increasingly under attack. In Bangladesh Taslima Nasrin, a 32-year-old feminist author, was forced into hiding for fear of her life. A fundamentalist leader has “offered a $2,500 reward to anyone who kills her” (Anderson, 1994). In Iran, Homa Darabi, an academician and teacher of psychology, destroyed herself publicly in protest to the apartheid practiced against women in Iran.

However, Muslim women are subject to different interpretations of the shari’a, depending on the prevailing traditions and customs as well as the nature and extent of socio-economic change in their countries. Women’s rights are particularly strained in the Middle East and North Africa, where women have been targets of extreme and vociferous attack. Part of the reason is that the more traditional patriarchies are pressured by the exogenous forces they cannot control, the more they revert to their fundamental structures and concepts. In modern times most aspects of life in Muslim societies have been bent to the requirements of modern international forces and, consequently, to the dictates of secular law. Only family laws, which affect the position of women most intimately, have remained relatively impervious to the forces of modernization. Wherever the law has changed, it has triggered a vociferous reaction among the patriarchal vanguards—the conservative religious leaders and their allies in the traditional economic, social, and cultural domains. The veil, the vehicle for the symbolic and actual segregation of woman in a world dominated by man, becomes the emblem of male control of women’s spaces and movements (Mernissi, 1987; Moghadam, 1994). Thus, Muslim women’s seeking and achieving modern kinds of identity becomes a central point of conflict between the forces of modernity and the forces of reaction. It ought not to be difficult to see why, for fundamentalist movements, the most transparent reason for being is so often to stop the tide of change in the status of women.

Nevertheless, even in societies where at present fundamentalism appears particularly strong the situation begins to turn strategically to women’s advantage. The reason is that despite the existing obstacles an increasing number of women have become conscious of themselves as authentic individual human beings independent of their kinships and community relations and increasingly insist that others acknowledge this fact. For example, over the past decades Muslim women, as well as women in other parts of the non-Western world, have successfully penetrated learning and other communicative institutions, creating a potential for achieving political power. There now exist in all Muslim countries clusters of women who have the ability to create, receive, interpret, and expand feminist thought and to translate it to political and economic leaders on one hand, and to the masses of women, on the other. According to 1988 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) statistics, women constituted 27 percent of faculty in Egypt, higher than in France (24%) and in the USA (24%). The 1993 United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Human Development Report states the percentage of women in technical and scientific fields as 43% for Kuwait, 24% for Syria, 31% for Saudi Arabia, 28% for Iraq, 24% for Tunisia, 31% for Algeria, 25% for Morocco, 26% for Egypt, and finally 27% for Sudan.

A woman who possesses information is capable, in principle, of appropriating herself. She has eaten of the forbidden fruit and what she has learned cannot be unlearned. Patriarchy may subdue her by force, but it cannot win her over. The experience of Iranian women under the Islamic Republic helps us understand the acerbity of the conflict between women who have evolved historically beyond the confines of the patriarchal order and a government that forces them to conform to a particularly restrictive patriarchal blueprint. Prior to the revolution and after decades of struggle, Iranian women had succeeded in creating an atmosphere that was receptive to the notion of gender equality. They had made important strides in economic, social, cultural, and political fields. They were visible in positions of leadership. In 1978, just before the Islamic revolution, there were 22 women in the House of Representatives and two in the Senate. There were five mayors, two governors, one ambassador, one cabinet min- ister, and three undersecretaries, among them undersecretaries of Labor and Mines and Industries. More importantly, they were present in large numbers in institutions of higher learning, especially in non-traditional fields. Women’s organizations were spreading throughout the country. The fundamentalist leadership proposed to undo what women had accomplished by replacing the secular vision, from which women had drawn the moral and political force of their arguments, with the Islamist model, which rendered the feminist position irrelevant. Women, however, fought for their rights and made the enforcement of the new propositions costly. Step by step the regime has been forced to retreat. Women are still made to wear the veil in public places, but, significantly, the Islamic Republic has failed to resocialize them in fundamentalist norms. The Iranian case shows that once women forge a new identity for themselves they create a new set of historical realities that can no longer be easily dislodged. This, in fact, is where women are now in the greater part of the world.

The experience of women’s human rights movements across the globe strongly suggests that the lead for the study and implementation of strategies of women’s empowerment in the non-Western world should be taken by non-Western women themselves. In the case of Muslim women, certain steps have already been taken in this direction in many countries, including Jordan, Morocco, Egypt, Pakistan, Turkey and Iran (Sisterhood is Global Institute, 1994). The idea is to address the strategic possibilities, among others, for (1) interpreting the Qur’an and the badith; (2) educating the political elite and providing them with new interpretations that can be used as a basis for legislation and implementation of change; and (3) mobilizing grassroots support and establishing dialogue between people at the grassroots on the one hand, and the national and international decision-makers on the other. The goal is to modify traditional mores and laws to accommodate the requirements of women’s freedom, equality and human rights.

Clearly, grassroots populations ought to gain access to the aspirations and agreements of the international community on women’s rights. An important mechanism for raising women’s consciousness at various socio-economic levels is a women’s rights literacy program. There are several specific international declarations and conventions that address women’s problems. These documents can form the basis for an international grassroots campaign. They need to be rewritten in local dialect and reinterpreted in a way which makes sense to grassroots populations. Indigenous images, events, myths, and ideas must be incorporated to relay the basic messages of the universal principles. Muslim feminist activists, as cultural intermediaries, have the connections and the pre- established trust necessary to communicate these ideas to the general population.

The women’s rights literacy campaign should also help women unlearn certain harmful ideas and practices. There are many cases where an anti-woman behavior is falsely attributed to a religious mandate. An example is female genital mutilation (FGM) which affects 90 million girls and women. Many Asian and African women who practice FGM suppose that the practice is mandated by an Islamic injunction, although no such injunction exists in the Qur’an or Muslim law. A human rights literacy campaign would provide, a simple and dear justification for why FGM is unnecessary.

Equally important, cultural intermediaries can simultaneously communicate the needs, priorities, and the points of view of the masses to the political decision makers. They are in the best position to integrate the international rights documents into the national consciousness and the national agenda. It is imperative that this reservoir of ideological and political power be activated and reinforced by the international human rights community.

In the preface to Philosophy of Right, Hegel has written “As the thought of the world, [philosophy] appears only when actuality is already there cut and dried after its process of formation has been completed…The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.” This is only partially true in the case of feminist philosophy and the human condition of women in the non-Western world. It is true in the sense that a consciousness of authentic identity, set in motion by the requirements of our time, is already there, both actual and potential, irreversible, waiting to be discovered and understood. On the other hand, it is an idea that must be theorized, given shape, and realized as concept and process. It presents all kinds of possibilities—unknown now, probably unknowable now, but possibilities that nevertheless exist, and in which we must believe.

“I can’t believe that,” said Alice.
“Can’t you?” the Queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.” Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said. “One can’t believe in impossible things.”
“I dare say you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half- an-hour a day. Why sometimes I have believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” (Carroll, 1992).

1 Malinowski defines culture as “inherited artifacts, goods, technical process, ideas, habits and values” and also “the organisation of human beings into permanent groups.” Firth distinguishes between social structure and culture and defines the latter as “the component of accumulated resources, immaterial as well as material, which a people inherit, employ, transmute, add to and transmit; it is all learned behavior which has been socially acquired.” Bottomore defines culture as “the ideational aspects of social life, as distinct from the actual relations and forms of relationship between individuals; and by a culture the ideational aspects of a particular society.”
2 This notion of culture has been derived from the work of Max Weber as interpreted by Talcott Parsons. It is useful to this discussion because it allows for theintroduction of a criss-cross of contradictions in and among the components over time (see Parsons & Shils, 1951).
3 The term “modern” is somewhat problematic and requires a comment. When used in non-Western contexts, modern often connotes Western. Western, in turn, conjures up all kinds of orientations—from a positive feeling of social progress, political freedom, and economic and technological development to a host of negative ideas, including colonial subjugation, economic and political exploitation, moral decadence, and religious torpor. Here I use the term modern neutrally as in the dictionary sense of contemporary or belonging to present. In this sense modernity is the normal condition of women living at the end of the 20th century. The salient characteristic of culture and identity for these women is contradiction and change, rather than stable and unchanging values. To be confused about one’s identity is a condition of being a conscious modern woman.
4 Max Weber called the process a historical passage resulting in the “disenchantment” of the world.
5 This is the central issue of existentialist thought from Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche to Heidegger, Camus and Sartre.
6 In Iran all major ayatollahs were opposed to the Khomeini brand of Islam not because they disagreed on esoteric and substantive matters but because of the method which necessitated the use of force.
7 In a perceptive article on recent scholarship on women, Anastasia Touflexis (1990) summarizes part of the findings: “Relationship colors every aspect of a woman’s life, according to the researchers. Women use conversation to expand and understand relationships; men use talk to convey solutions, thereby ending conversation. Women tend to see people as mutually dependent; men view them as self reliant. Women emphasize caring; men value freedom. Women consider actions within a context, linking one to the next; men tend to regard events as isolated and discrete.”
8 Elsewhere I have written that the discourse of empowerment must transcend the boundaries of any particular culture, religion or ideology:

It will be feminist rather than patriarchal, humane rather than ideological, balanced rather than extremist, critical as well as exhortatory. The global feminist discourse recognizes that the problem of women constitutes an issue in its own right, not as a subsidiary of other ideologies, no matter how structurally comprehensive or textually promising these ideologies seem to be. Since “traditional” concepts are by definition founded in patriarchal discourse, global feminism must be skeptical of those who present them as liberating. This feminism is not anti-man; rather, it sees the world in humane terms, that is, it seeks a redefinition of social, economic and political principles on the basis of non-patriarchal models. Realizing that such a feat cannot be accomplished without or against men’s participation, it does not hesitate to engage men politically in favor of the feminist cause.

The global feminist discourse rejects the notion that “East” and “West” constitute mutually exclusive paradigms; rather, it looks at life as evolving for all and believes that certain humane and morally defensible principles can and should be applied in the West and in the East equally. The point, of course, is not that, for example, Middle Eastern women should forget the problems that are obviously “Middle Eastern” and intensely present. It is, rather, that unless they think globally, they will neither be able to mobilize world opinion for their cause, nor succeed in breaking out of the boundaries of patriarchy on their own, and, therefore, they will likely fail to address their problems in a way that will lead to their solution. (AIkhami, 1994, pp. 16-17)


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About Mahnaz Afkhami

A lifetime advocate for the rights of women, Mahnaz Afkhami works with activists across the world, especially in Muslim majority societies, to help women become leaders. She is Founder and President of Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace (WLP), Executive Director of Foundation for Iranian Studies...more

Quotables – Culture

"The infringement of women's rights is usually exercised in the name of tradition, religion, social cohesion, morality, or some complex of transcendent values. Anyway, it is justified in the name of culture." - Gender Apartheid, Cultural Relativism, and Women's Human Rights

"The central problem of cultural relativism is that it must deny rights to women (or men) who have become aware that they posess rights because they possess an identity that is theirs independently of the community to which they belong." - Cultural Relativism And Women's Human Rights

"We must pose the question: why is it that the denial of the most rudimentary rights to civil treatment for women is always based on some fundamental point of culture? Is this culture real, or is it a fetish that is used to maintain some economic, social, or simply psychological privilege?" - A Vision of Gender in Culture

Quotables – Human Rights

"We must pose the question: why is it that the denial of the most rudimentary rights to civil treatment for women is always based on some fundamental point of culture? Is this culture real, or is it a fetish that is used to maintain some economic, social, or simply psychological privilege?" - A Vision of Gender in Culture

"Women's status in society has become the standard by which humanity's progress toward civility and peace can be measured." - Architects for Peace

"The crass infringement of women's rights we see in the Muslim world has more to do with power, patriarchy, and misuse of religion as political weapon than with religion properly understood as individual faith." - Gender Apartheid, Cultural Relativism, and Women's Human Rights

"Rights and empowerment are interconnected: unless a substantial number of women in a community come to believe that they have rights and demand to exercise them, right remains an abstraction." - Faith and Freedom