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Judging Other Cultures

The following WMST-L discussion revolves around the question of
whether a culture can or should be judged by how the women of that
culture are treated.  This issue was discussed at some length in
late February/early March 2002.  For additional WMST-L files
available on the Web, see the WMST-L File Collection.

Date: Thu, 28 Feb 2002 08:54:23 -0800
From: Karen Reichard <kreicha_worden @ YAHOO.COM>
Subject: judging cultures on treatment of women
 Dear all,

Does anyone know of specific texts that deal with the
issue of measuring how "civilized" cultures are based
on how the women of that culture are treated?

-- a student of mine is looking for sources.


Karen Reichard
Date: Thu, 28 Feb 2002 12:23:34 -0500
From: "Oboler, Regina" <roboler @ URSINUS.EDU>
Subject: Re: judging cultures on treatment of women
Comparing cultures on "the treatment of women" is problematic because the
different factors that you might imagine are indicative of "the treatment of
women" don't necessarily go together.  So some cultures might be "good for
women" according to criterion A but not B, while others are just the
reverse.  Very few, if any, rate highly on all the criteria one might think

This ground is covered well in chapter 5 of Martin King Whyte's 1978 book

Another good resource would be Peggy Sanday, FEMALE POWER AND MALE DOMINANCE
(Cambridge U. Press).

Neither tries to make "women's status" measure of how "civilized" a society
is, though -- just to figure out a system for comparing "women's status"
across cultures (which neither really succeeds at doing).

  -- Gina
Date: Thu, 28 Feb 2002 13:55:52 -0500
From: "Barbara R. Bergmann" <bbergman @ WAM.UMD.EDU>
Subject: Re: judging cultures on treatment of women
While it is quite true that we might disagree on a few items in a
proposed list of  criteria by which to judge cultures on their treatment
of women,  it would be wrong to throw up our hands and say we should
avoid that kind of judgement. I hope we can all agree that in Taliban
Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, and in cultures that practice female
genital mutilation women's human rights are atrociously violated. Giving
up the ability to say that is purist nonsense.

Barbara R. Bergmann bbergman  @
Prof Emerita, Economics, American U and U of Maryland
5430 41 place nw dc 20015
tel: 202 537-3036
Date: Thu, 28 Feb 2002 11:46:37 -0800
From: Nancy Jabbra <njabbra @ LMU.EDU>
Subject: treatment of women
I think an important issue here is the notion that the culture's or
society's treatment of women has no relation to the fact that women are
part of the culture or society in question.  In other words, we should
never assume that women in some other society or culture are only objects,
and not subjects in their own right.

Nancy Jabbra, Loyola Marymount University, njabbra  @

NTMail K12 - the Mail Server for Education
Date: Thu, 28 Feb 2002 14:51:03 -0500
From: "DelRosso, Jeana" <JDelRosso @ NDM.EDU>
Subject: Re: judging cultures on treatment of women
I just read a short column by Liza Mundy that seems to deal with this issue
almost exactly.  It's called "Keeping the Peace" and it's in the Februrary
3, 2002 issue of _The Washington Post Magazine," p. 6.  It's not scholarly,
but it might be useful for students.


Jeana DelRosso
jdelrosso  @
Date: Thu, 28 Feb 2002 14:57:52 -0500
From: "Oboler, Regina" <roboler @ URSINUS.EDU>
Subject: Re: judging cultures on treatment of women
[In response to Barbara Bergmann]

I would never argue that the Taliban's treatment of women was fine or that
FGM is not a human rights violation (see my recent article on that subject
in HUMAN ORGANIZATION for further elaboration of my views.)

What you need to understand, though, is that a culture that practices, say
FGM, may provide women with greater rights in other areas than some other
culture (neighboring or not) that does not practice it.

We could, of course, generate a list of items and decide that cultures will
be judged "bad" in accordance with how many of those items they have.  I
would bet, however, that if such a list is generated naively without
undertaking a real study of cross-cultural variation in gender roles, the
items on the list as the "worst atrocities" will mostly be customs of "the
Other," and not those of European-tradition cultures.

  -- Gina
Date: Thu, 28 Feb 2002 12:21:15 -0800
From: scout <scout @ HOYDEN.ORG>
Subject: Re: judging cultures on treatment of women
Hmn, seems to me that maybe we should re-think the idea of judging
cultures at all.  That strikes me as an imperialist project and one
totally unnecessary to the project of women's rights.

respectfully submitted,

"clever quote here"
[test signature file]
scout  @
Date: Thu, 28 Feb 2002 16:53:20 -0500
From: Heather Howard <hhoward @>
Subject: Re: judging cultures on treatment of women
This idea (measuring how "civilized" cultures are based on how the women
of that culture are treated) has been discussed by many Native women
scholars, but see in particular the widely quoted Kathleen Jamieson,
"Indian Women and the Law in Canada: Citizens Minus" (1978?) a report
published by the Advisory Council on the Status of Women/Indian Rights
for Indian Women. This work examines sex discrimination in the Canadian
Indian Act, and illustrates how the Act was designed to "bring up"
Native women to the standard of Victorian white women, who were
subordinate to men, and who did not have much political or economic
power. This, it is argued, contrasted widely with the value and roles
accorded to women in many Native cultures. There is also a great deal of
literature on this issue and I think it was discussed on this list
before. Common stereotypes of Native women as drudges and so on were
also constructed on this idea that Native culture was "uncivilized"
because of the way women were treated as "workhorses". Jamieson also
discusses how this stereotype really served to quell the threat of the
idea of women having rights over property and inheritance, etc. in 19th

Heather Howard-Bobiwash, M.A.,
PhD Candidate, Sociocultural Anthropology
Instructor, Aboriginal Studies and Anthropology
University of Toronto
100 St. George Street,
Toronto, Ontario, Canada    M5S 3G3

Resource Centre and Archive Coordinator
Toronto Native Community History Project
*Recipient of a Heritage Toronto 1999
Certificate of Commendation*

Native Canadian Centre of Toronto
16 Spadina Road,
Toronto, Ontario, Canada   M5R 2S7
phone: 416-964-9087, ext. 319
fax: 416-964-2111
e-mail: hhoward  @
Date: Thu, 28 Feb 2002 16:44:11 -0500
From: Eira Juntti <bf80165 @ BINGHAMTON.EDU>
Subject: Re: judging cultures on treatment of women
I think the idea that cultures may be judged (or even ranked, from civilized
to uncivilized) according to their treatment of women is indeed an
imperialist idea. Though I don't have specific sources to point to, I've
come across it a number of times when reading literature on European
nationalisms in the 19th century. I have a vague recollection that some of
the literature on the British response to widow burning in India brings this
up. The Europeans were horrified by some of the customs they encountered, so
the idea that cultures may be judged by how they treat women is first used
by them to justify their attempts to stop these customs (which they saw from
their own eurocentric point of view), but I think it also becomes a way for
them to justify their presence in India or Africa (or wherever they were) in
general. It seems to me that there has been so much discussion on the
Taliban's treatment of women in Afganistan for the same reason: it's an easy
way to justify outside interference.

I've also come across this idea in my own study of Finnish nationalism in
the 19th century: the idea pops up when the discussion on women's role in
the society begins in the mid-19th century. Sometimes it was used to shame
the reluctant legislators into action.

But as I said, I have no idea where the idea originates: was it just a
generally held notion in Europe in the 19th century, or perhaps going back
even further then that? Or did someone specifically propose the idea? I
guess where I would look is some of the writings on women from the 19th
century. But if someone has more specific knowledge of the origins of the
idea itself, I'd be interested in knowing where did it come from.

Eira Juntti
Ph.D. student
Binghamton University
bf80165  @
Date: Thu, 28 Feb 2002 16:41:47 -0600
From: "Gerami, Shahin" <shg226f @ SMSU.EDU>
Subject: Re: judging cultures on treatment of women
Leila Ahmed, 1992, Women and Gender in Islam, talks about feminists as
hand maiden of imperialists. I am not sure about the exact quote. Also
you may want to check V. Moghadam's works. She uses some kind of
international mandate to measure women's treatment. I think it is in
her Modernizing women, 1993.

Shahin Gerami
shg226f  @
Date: Fri, 1 Mar 2002 09:47:33 +0200
From: naomi graetz <graetz @ BGUMAIL.BGU.AC.IL>
Subject: Re: judging cultures on treatment of women
In my work on wifebeating in the Jewish tradition, I found the following
article extremely helpful. It came out too late to apply directly to my
work, but I refer to it whenever I lecture on the topic and the issue of
cultural relativism comes up.
 I suggest that everyone on this list read this article: "In the
Name of Culture: Cultural Relativism and the Abuse of the Individual," by
Elizabeth M. Zechenter, Journal of Anthropological Research, vol 53, 1997
(319-347). In it she writes:
 "Cultural relativism,
no matter how nuanced, inevitably provides the logical justification
for...inhumane practices. Ironically, the cultural-relativist defense of
sati has the detrimental effect of disregarding the well-demonstrated
plurality and diversity of Indian traditions in favor of adoption one view
as representative of Indian culture...." (p. 330)
"In many traditional cultures, disproportionately fewer female children
survive childhood, and the survivors disproportionately suffer from
malnutrition, diseases, and beatings and are routinely refused medical
care and education resulting in women having a significantly lower life
expectancy than women in other cultures. Given these facts,...any
invocation of tradition to justify brutalities against women must be
treated with a great deal of skepticism and be subjected to the highest
level of international scrutiny." (p. 331)

The author points out that relativists, by making tolerance a de facto
universal principle, end up avoiding any extracultural judgment
irrespective of circumstances. She makes many important points, but I
think her accusation that cultural relativists often base their views on a
static conception of culture and overlook, minimize and disregard the
importance of social change is valid. The fact that there is a given
custom, does not mean that the custom is ideal or even consented to by the
majority. Thus it is more accurate to view Muslim women as struggling with
fundamentalists who manipulate ideology (and disregard more liberal
strands) for their own ends. By discrediting people who advocate change as
being contaminated by Western values they stay entrenched in power.

In her conclusion she states: "Whatever the reason, cultural relativism
has the potential of undermining the modern human rights law developed
during the last fifty years.... It may well be that universal human rights
ideals were first recognized and developed in the West, but that does not
mean such ideals are alien to non-Western cultures." (340-341)

Naomi Graetz
Date: Fri, 1 Mar 2002 09:50:03 -0000
From: Sian Hawthorne <melusine51 @ HOTMAIL.COM>
Subject: Re: judging cultures on treatment of women
You may also find useful Chandra Talpade Mohanty's article 'Under Western
Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourse' in Mohanty, Russo and
Torres (eds), <i>Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism </i>.
Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991, pp. 51-80. The
whole book is great actually!

Sian Hawthorne
Lecturer, Religion & Gender
School of Oriental & African Studies
University of London
Thornhaugh Street, Russell Square
London WC1H 0XG
Date: Fri, 1 Mar 2002 06:24:34 -0500
From: Margaret Tarbet <oneko @ MINDSPRING.COM>
Subject: Re: judging cultures on treatment of women
Naomi Graetz writes:

> The fact that there is a given
>custom, does not mean that the custom is ideal or even consented to by the

That's the insight I was searching for.

And after reflection, it leads me to this:  even if some custom
is or appears to be supported by a majority, why should that
sanctify it to us?  The elites in every culture ignore both law
and custom when it suits them.  If choice is best for elites, why
shouldn't it be best for everyone?


Margaret / oneko  @
Il felino pi· piccolo F un capolavoro.
--Leonardo da Vinci
Date: Fri, 1 Mar 2002 08:14:01 -0500
From: Jeannie Ludlow <jludlow @ BGNET.BGSU.EDU>
Subject: Re: judging cultures on treatment of women
Hi everyone,

Since the stated goal of the request (as I recall and understand it)
was to give students information about "judging cultures" and not
necessarily to teach them *to* judge cultures, it seems to me that
looking at "comparatives" designed by various organizations might
give good information about how this kind of judging happens and how
the categories around which such judging is based are

One helpful tool in this regard is CEDAW, the Convention of the
Elimination of All Forms of Descirmination Against Women.  I found
looking at this in my intro WS course last term to be very helpful
and interesting to the students.  They let me know that they would
have liked to have spent more time with this document than we did.

I got my info at
This gave us the text of the document and linked us to lists of
nations that have and have not ratified CEDAW, and to those that have
and have not followed through on the responsibilities (regular
reports, etc.) that go along with ratification.

Of course, presenting this along with theoretical works about
cultural relativism and with those that critique imperialism within
feminist theories and movements is important, so I do not advocate
using this information instead of--but rather along with--all the
other wonderful sources people have suggested.

I hope this is helpful.
Take care,

"[R]estrictive pedagogy comes from the belief that we are teaching
solely the subject
matter, rather than the actual reality that we are teaching live human beings."
        --Jyl Lynn Felman, *Never a Dull Moment: Teaching and the Art
of Performance*

Dr. Jeannie Ludlow
jludlow  @                          *Spring, 2002, office hours*
Director of Undergraduate Program                       MWF 2:30-3:20 pm
American Culture Studies                                T 9 am-noon,
1:30-4:30 pm
107 East Hall
Bowling Green State U
Bowling Green OH 43403
Date: Fri, 1 Mar 2002 09:17:54 -0500
From: "Oboler, Regina" <roboler @ URSINUS.EDU>
Subject: Re: judging cultures on treatment of women
I missed the article to which Naomi is referring here, but plan to read it
immediately to see if I agree with its overall orientation.  I hesitate to
make a critique on the basis of a few snippets of text provided.  From what
is here, I'd say that this sounds like a valid critique of some extreme
forms of cultural relativism.  I also think that it's important to note that
such extreme positions are not typical of people who characterize themselves
as committed to cultural relativism.

Without a basic commitment to cultural relativism, we are truly on the
slippery slope toward rank ethnocentrism.  There has been a significant
amount of discussion in cultural anthropology about how cultural relativism
can combine with a human rights view (I can provide a partial bibliography,
if folks would like), so in some ways it sounds like Zechenter may be
attacking a straw person.  Some of the points are clearly valid, such as the
idea that those who defend "traditional" practices on grounds of cultural
relativism have a static view of culture.  Indeed, that is one of the points
I make in the exercise on cultural relativism that I do with my Intro. to
Cultural Anthropology class every semester.  Another important point is that
cultures are not monolithic. Varying groups within cultures make appeals to
varying norms as cultural action plays out, and as Nancy Jabbra pointed out
in her message, women are also cultural actors.

I think I would have to reject the idea that "cultural relativism, no matter
how nuanced, inevitably provides the logical justification for inhumane
practices."  The point of the exercise I attempt with my students (which
admittedly results in categories that still have room for specifics to fall
between the cracks) is to create a version of cultural relativism that is
nuanced enough to distinguish between mere differences of custom and
practices it makes sense to treat as human rights violations.  I hope to
write this up some day, but haven't done it yet.

Meanwhile, what is the logical alternative to "nuanced cultural relativism"?

  -- Gina
Date: Fri, 1 Mar 2002 08:46:30 -0800
From: Karen Reichard <kreicha_worden @ YAHOO.COM>
Subject: ..treatment of women
I am  very happy to see the discussion my request for
texts on this issue has generated.  It reveals the
complexity involved here.
Certainly, in our effort both to address the human
rights violations of women around the world and to
work towards a greater recognition of and respect for
the multitude of values and experiences of women
around the world we sometimes find ourselves in what
seems an untenable position.
It seems to me, though, that ultimately we can despise
and fight against acts of violence perpetrated against
women without trying to change or "Westernize" the
cultures of these women. (perhaps this is naive?....)

Regina, if you could post the bibliography you
mentioned that would be great!  I'm hoping to see a
few more ideas for texts.

Karen Reichard
Dr. Karen Reichard
Women's Studies
Tulane University
Date: Fri, 1 Mar 2002 15:00:50 -0500
From: "Oboler, Regina" <roboler @ URSINUS.EDU>
Subject: Cultural Relativism bibliography
This is a brief and only partial list, not at all exhaustive.  Oddly enough,
a couple of the items on my list seem to have the same provenience as the
one cited by Naomi, so I don't know why I didn't have that reference, too.
There is a huge literature on Human Rights beginning in the 80s that is
reflected in the bibliographies for some of the items listed.

  -- Gina

Cohen, R.  1989.  Human Rights and Cultural Relativism:  The Need for a New
Approach.  American Anthropologist 91:  1014-1017.

James, Stephen A.  1994.  Reconciling International Human Rights and
Cultural Relativism.  Bioethics 8: 1-26.

Messer, Ellen.  1993.  Anthropology and Human Rights.  Annual Review of
Anthropology 22:  221-249.

Messer, Ellen.  1997.  Pluralist Approaches to Human Rights.  Journal of
Anthropological Research 53:  293-317.

Nagengast, Carole.  1997.  Women, Minorities, and Indigenous Peoples:
Universalism and Cultural Relativity.  Journal of Anthropological Research
53: 348-369.

Schweder, Richard.  1990.  Ethical Relativism:  Is there a Defensible
Version?  Ethos 18:  20-218.

Turner, Bryan S.  1993.  Outline of a Theory of Human Rights.  Sociology 27:

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