Cultural relativism is the study of a community’s or individual’s principles, behaviors, and attitudes through the lens of their society. The theory forbids judging a society or its inhabitants based on their culture. The essay will focus on two texts by Abu-Lughod and Ahmadu that deal with the difficulties that women face in society. The paper will compare the two documents and provide a personal opinion on the subject.
According to Ahmadu, each society’s or culture’s rites of passage are distinct and distinct from those of other cultures. The experience that the young generation faces every single day in their respective communities may seem like an inhumane, oppressive and barbaric way of life to others. In Ahmadu’s book, “Rites and Wrongs.” She talks about Female Genital Cutting (FGC) which is viewed as a barbaric and inhumane ritual that some women in Africa pass through in their quest to attain womanhood. Fuambai’s perspective on FGC is unique and valid because she has undergone the same ritual as a young woman in her community. The fact that she is a scholar with a Ph.D. in anthropology gives her an advantage in analyzing the issue of Female Genital Mutilation from a cultural, ethical and academic perspective (Ahmadu 283-312).
At the beginning of the book “Do Muslim Women Need Saving?” Abu-Lughod states the book’s objective as “a long answer to the question of whether Muslim women have rights or need saving.” She does not like the idea that African women who are in societies that support FGC are seen to be in need of urgent help from women in countries in the west such as the United States and some European states. According to Abu-Lughod, women who are undergoing or have undergone the cut may need help, but it does not mean that they should be treated as people who need saving. The emphasis put on the majority of charitable organizations that focus on women in Africa tend to approach the problems facing the young women from their perspective without considering the women’s culture. The writer insists that the help provided to the young girls in these communities reduces the women’s agency instead of providing help (Abu-Lughod 150-156).
A critical analysis of the two authors identifies the shared thoughts on the role of the developed countries in the west on marginalized women in various communities in developing nations. Although the issues tackled by the two writers on young girls are different, they both agree on the West’s interference in their cultural beliefs and values without understanding the reasons behind such practices. For instance, wearing burqas is a cultural and religious tradition for Muslim women. However, America has in the past wrongfully used photos of women wearing burqas to seek support or to justify their War effort in Afghanistan. Americans perspective of women in veils is that of people who are suffering because they are oppressed and thus need saving and for that reason, the war is necessary to liberate them. These ideas prove the Orientalist assumptions of oppression made by the west. Abu-Lughod critically analyses recently published books that support and advance the Orientalist views of Muslim women. She critiques published works –that she calls “pulp fiction” -that major on the treatment of women in Muslim societies. These books spread the assumptions that women in Muslim communities need urgent help from the West.
Value of cultural relativism
Another example that illustrates the west’s assumptions that women from other cultural background need saving from the chains cast by their cultural beliefs is the case of women in communities that practice FGC. However, what the west does not include in their judgments is the importance of these beliefs and values to the society and women. Ahmadu acknowledges the importance of each community’s belief system and lays out reasons as to why cultures of other groups should be respected and understood. Ahmadu states that FGM is a rite of passage to womanhood in some communities and that such practices form the identity of such societies (Ahmadu). According to Abu- Lughod, the hurdles faced by a Muslim woman is different from that of her neighbor’s, her nations or all Muslim Women. She utilizes fieldwork by incorporating finding that she has derived from her own experiences with “real” Muslim women. She points out the unfair accusations made against Islam that it supports oppression of Muslim women are unfounded and that if such people are suffering it is not as a result of Islam as the west would like to make the whole world to believe. The writer pleads with people to focus on what the women need or think rather than assuming that they know their struggles. Therefore, cultural relativism provides a way for individuals to reevaluate their pre-conceived assumptions and their adverse effects on other people (Abu-Lughod 150-156).
Flawed perspective of cultural relativism
Ahmadu partially agrees with the developed countries idea that the FGC practice is wrong. She acknowledges the risks posed to women during the cut such as the social and psycho-sexual problems. Ahmadu states that” these hurdles can be avoided if a proper procedure is carried out by professionals so that the girls do not suffer or die during and after the cut.” Her objections to FGC is centered on the absence of professional doctors who can perform the cut correctly and the degree of cleanliness in sterile environments which could result in infections (Ahmadu 283-312). Therefore, she objects the methods employed by these communities during the FGC procedure but fully supports the cultural practice.
In my opinion, we should respect other people’s cultures, but some practices may be harmful to the people in such communities which ought to be stopped to protect the well-being of individuals who may not have the ability to withstand the suffering accompanied with such practices. For instance, there have been cases in African communities where young girls are married off while they are still very young to older men who already have many wives. News outlets have featured these stories in documentaries where such girls are exposed to marital violence early in life. In fact, most of the young girls leave school to start life without being prepared. It is unfair because they don’t get a chance to explore their potential as they are denied the opportunity to get a decent education and make decisions about the directions they would like to take in life. Although these practice has been in existence long before the colonial era and it is a crucial part of the cultural practices of these societies, it is not a valid reason to subject such women to suffering in the name of supporting cultural relativism.
Abu-Lughod, Lila. “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving.” Dorothy Hodgson. Key Debates Past and Present. Oxford Press, 2016. 150-156.
Ahmadu, Fuambai. “Rites and Wrongs: An Insider/Outsider Reflects on Power and Excision.” Shell-Duncan, et al. Female “Circumcision” in Africa: Culture Controversy and Change. London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2000. 312-283.