Brandeis University, Philosophy Department
Spring 2005
Brandeis University Web Stite

Philosophy 19A

HUMAN RIGHTS

Professor Andreas Teuber
Prof. Teuber


"The Relativist Challenge"
Michael Perry Excerpt


The following excerpt is taken from Michael J. Perry, "Are Human Rights Universal? The Relativist Challenge and Related Matters," Human Rights Quarterly 19.3 (1997) 461-509 and seeks to provide a slightly different "take" on that given by Michael Ignatieff in his "Human Rights as Idolatry" and his specific response to the "relativist challenge":


A. Transcultural Disagrreement about Human Rights

The particular relativist challenge I now want to address is a challenge to the possibility of overcoming, to any significant extent, transcultural disagreement: not so much about what human rights people have--again, there is much transcultural agreement about that--but about whether some practice, a practice not explicitly proscribed, violates one or more established human rights. Female circumcision, which has recently been much discussed in the human rights literature, will serve as a useful example. 72

Assume you believe that female circumcision violates a woman's human rights 73 --that subjecting a girl to the practice is unacceptable given that she is sacred (inviolable) and should therefore be treated with respect and concern rather than as an object of domination and exploitation. 74 Assume you believe that the practice violates, inter alia, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, according to which every human being--including, therefore, every woman--has inherent dignity and worth and, moreover, is equal in dignity and worth to every other human being. 75 You believe that the principal though latent function of the practice, in the cultures (or subcultures) whose practice it is, is to help maintain a social system in which men dominate and exploit women, and that a culture in which men did not dominate and exploit women would not support such a practice. 76 Perhaps you would choose to feature, in defending your position, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and, especially, the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women. 77 The Declaration, a nonbinding resolution of the United Nations General Assembly adopted in 1993, goes so far as to state, in Article 2(a), that "[v]iolence against women shall be understood to encompass . . . female genital mutilation." 78

Although widely accepted in your culture and elsewhere, your evaluation of female circumcision is alien to the cultures that practice female circumcision (which is not to say that in those cultures no one opposes female circumcision). In the view of the cultures whose practice it is, and in particular in the view of many of the mothers who persist in subjecting their often willing daughters to the practice, female circumcision is morally proper; even, for the girl subjected to the practice, ennobling. 79 Someone might suggest to you that it is just a matter of conflicting "cultural preferences," and that you should not seek to impose your cultural preferences on the members of other cultures. You believe that there is more to it than that, that the practice is a violation of human rights. But, you might be wrong. Perhaps it is just a matter of conflicting cultural preferences; perhaps female circumcision, however distasteful to you, does not violate any human right. Committed to the ideal of self-critical rationality, 80 you do what you can to test your position. Perhaps you accept, as Charles Taylor has suggested we should, "a 'presumption of equal worth' of cultures as an appropriate opening moral stance." 81 Taylor explains:

[I]t is reasonable to suppose that cultures that have provided the horizon of meaning for large numbers of human beings, of diverse characters and temperaments, over a long period of time--that have, in other words, articulated their sense of the good, the holy, the admirable--are almost certain to have something that deserves our admiration and respect, even if it is accompanied by much that we have to abhor and reject. 82

As Taylor then insists, "[I]t would take a supreme arrogance to discount this possibility a priori." 83

In the end, however, after due deliberation, you persist in believing that female circumcision is not merely something "we have to abhor and reject," but a violation of a woman's (girl's) human rights. In this, you are supported not only by the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, but by the UN Sub-Commission for the Prevention of Discrimination and the Protection of Minorities, which in 1988 adopted a resolution declaring that female circumcision violates the human rights of women and children. 84 The particular problem that engages you now, therefore, is this: you want the members of the cultures that practice female circumcision to come to accept the view that the practice transgresses the inviolability of a woman. 85 You wonder, however, if and to what extent transcultural disagreement about the practice can be overcome. You wonder if it is realistic to think that a critical mass of the members of the cultures that practice female circumcision can be brought to share your evaluation of the practice; and if so, how? (Or if it is realistic to think that you might be brought to share their view?) You wonder whether it is not the case, after all, that East is East and West is West--or, in the post-Cold War world, North is North and South is South--and never the twain shall meet?

B. Intercultural and Intracultural Discourse

However difficult it might be to achieve, productive moral discourse is possible interculturally as well as intraculturally. "[O]ne can maintain that truth is framework-relative, while conceding for a large range of propositions nearly all frameworks coincide." 86 Indeed, as Richard Rorty has sensibly observed:

[E]verything which we can identify as a human being or as a culture will be something which shares an enormous number of beliefs with us. (If it did not, we would simply not be able to recognize that it was speaking a language, and thus that it had any beliefs at all.) 87

Thus, "[a] fully individuable culture is at best a rare thing." 88 Moreover, "[c]ultures, subcultures, fragments of cultures, constantly meet one another and exchange or modify practices and attitudes." 89 Indeed, moral discourse among members of different cultures, if conducted in good faith and with an ecumenical openness to the beliefs and experiences of one's interlocutors, can be a principal medium through which different moral communities "meet one another and exchange or modify practices and attitudes." 90 That in the period since World War II there has emerged such widespread transcultural agreement about what many of the rights are that all human beings have (because they are inviolable) disconfirms, powerfully and dramatically, that "never the twain shall meet."

Indeed, productive moral discourse might sometimes be easier to achieve interculturally than intraculturally. For example, productive moral discourse might be easier to achieve among some women from several different cultures, if and to the extent they share an experience of domination and exploitation, than between some men and some women from the same culture. It is simply a mistake to think that there is invariably [End Page 491] a radical discontinuity of significant experiences and values between or among persons from different cultures. Amˇlie Oksenberg Rorty has observed:

Sometimes there is unexpectedly subtle and refined communication across radically different cultures. . . . [S]ometimes there is insurmountable bafflement and systematic misunderstanding between relatively close cultures. For the most part, however, we live in the interesting intermediate grey area of partial success and partial failure of interpretation and communication. The grey area is to be found at home among neighbors as well as abroad among strangers. . . ." 91

A further, often related premise is also mistaken: that cultures are, or tend to be, morally monistic rather than pluralistic. One must be careful not to fall prey to the mistake of seeing a culture, whether it is one's own or another's, as much more cohesive or monistic than it really is. 92 As Nancy Kim has emphasized, with particular reference to the situation and experience of women, even "traditional" cultures are morally pluralistic:

The label "culture" has obscured the power-play involved in the evolution of "traditional" practices that affect women. . . . "[C]ulture" is often composed of different "subcultures" that may or may not conform to the expectations and norms of the broader society. . . . The culture of which anthropologists speak is the dominant culture within society--the culture of society's power elite. Culture, thus distilled, leaves out rebels, misfits, and the disempowered. . . . In almost every society, the power elite is comprised overwhelmingly of men. Because most cultures are male dominated, how and what women choose to accept or reject as part of their culture is often ignored or suppressed. 93

Therefore, if it is not unrealistic to think that the members, or some members, of the cultures that practice female circumcision might be brought to share your view that the practice ought not to be performed--morally ought not, ought not because every human being, including every woman, is sacred--how might they be brought to share it? How else but by means of an internal critique of the practice. A critique is external if and to the extent it is based on premises and experiences that, though they have authority for the person or persons whose critique it is, happen not to have authority for persons in the culture (or cultures) to whom the critique is addressed. An internal critique draws on, it works with, premises and experiences authoritative not just for those whose critique it is, but also for those in the culture to whom the critique is addressed. Locating such premises and experiences--relevant premises and experiences shared across the interlocutor cultures--is not as difficult as some seem to believe. 94 Commenting on "the strategy of finding within the tradition those resources that express the aspirations of suffering and oppressed people," Lee Yearley has written:

Persuasion is much more likely to be effective if it draws on a listener's own tradition, and such resources are often available. Indeed, these resources are often dramatic and powerful--for example, Aquinas's validation of theft if the need is great or Mencius's seeming acceptance of regicide to ease people's suffering. Moreover, great religious traditions are always more complex and variegated, and more defined by deep tensions and even oppositions, than is reflected in any single, contemporary vision. (Adherents also are often more concerned with proper and improper developments of their tradition than is apparent, particularly when they are forced into defensive positions.) Finally, a tradition's most sophisticated intellectual and spiritual representatives often have positions that can be helpful. 95

There is a further, more practical sense in which a critique can be internal: the critique can be advanced primarily not by those outside the culture(s) to whom the critique is addressed, least of all by those who are citizens of a state that, when a colonial power, exercised imperial political dominion over the members of that culture. Rather, the critique can be advanced primarily by those inside the culture to whom the critique is addressed, those who have begun to object to the practice in question: perhaps, though not necessarily, because they themselves, or those dear to them, have been victimized by the practice. Indeed, a critique internal in this more practical sense might be necessary if anything is to be done about a practice. The Association of African Women for Research and Development has stated that "[f]eminists from developed countries . . . must accept that [female genital mutilation] is a problem for African women, and that no change is possible without the conscious participation of African women." 96 Moreover, a critique internal in this more practical sense is at least somewhat less vulnerable to an effort by insiders to deflect the critique by arguing that the critique is little more than a morally imperialist attempt by outsiders to impose their values on the insiders, to make the insiders more like the outsiders. Such an effort at deflection is often conspicuously self-serving. It is often little more than an effort by some in the culture--perhaps even by a relatively few in the culture, who have the upper hand in relation to others in the culture--to maintain the status quo: men in relation to women, for example, or those with political power in relation to those without it, or those with great wealth in relation to whose without it, and so on. Such an effort at deflection is a prime example of what Secretary Christopher has called "the last refuge of repression." 97

One of the most insistent proponents of internal critique--internal critique in both senses of the term, but especially in the first, or substantive, sense--has been Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im, a prominent Islamic human rights scholar and advocate. In An-Na'im's view, "human rights advocates in the Muslim world must work within the framework of Islam to be effective." 98 He then explains, in a way that illustrates and confirms Yearley's point, that human rights advocates in the Muslim world

need not be confined, however, to the particular historical interpretations of Islam known as Shari'a. Muslims are obliged, as a matter of faith, to conduct their private and public affairs in accordance with the dictates of Islam, but there is room for legitimate disagreement over the precise nature of these dictates in the modern context. Religious texts, like all other texts, are open to a variety of interpretations. Human rights advocates in the Muslim world should struggle to have their interpretations of the relevant texts adopted as the new Islamic scriptural imperatives for the contemporary world. 99

That Islamic texts can and do support many human rights of the sort established by the international law of human rights is confirmed by the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights, which was "compiled by eminent Muslim scholars, jurists and representatives of Islamic movements and thought" in 1981. 100

The situation of women in Islam is especially problematic from a human rights perspective. Citing Islamic scholars, Chandran Kukathas writes:

Muslims may insist on the subordinate position of women as a fundamental tenet of Islamic practice. Yet the Quran's strictures on the family display a concern to ameliorate the status of women by abolishing pre-Islamic practices such as female infanticide, and according women rights of divorce, property ownership, and inheritance. Arguably, many practices which weakened women's status were the result of local customs which were often antithetical to the spirit of emancipation envisaged in the Quran. 101

Kukathas concludes that "[c]onflict between differing cultural standards on such issues might best be explained, then, not by appealing to incommensurability of values or fundamental cultural incomparabilities, but by pointing to the fact that not only outsiders but also insiders often misunderstand the traditions." 102

Indeed, the arguments advanced in feminist Islamic theology 103 --and analogous arguments advanced in feminist Christian theology and in feminist Jewish thought--are compelling arguments to the effect that dominant insiders do misunderstand the tradition, that they marginalize or deny the deepest truths of the tradition.

There is hardly any doubt that women have been discriminated against by patriarchal Christianity as by patriarchal Islam. However, the re-reading and re-interpretation of significant women-related Biblical and Qur'anic texts by feminist theologians has shown that it is possible to understand these texts in more than one way, and that--in fact--understanding them in egalitarian rather than in hierarchical terms is more in keeping with the belief, fundamental in both religious traditions, that God, the universal creator and sustainer, is just to all creation. 104

By exemplifying, powerfully, the very sort of revisionist project urged by An-Na'im, feminist theological arguments serve to illustrate that the strategy of internal critique, far from being just a naive fantasy, is an already existing practice. Moreover, recent developments in some Islamic political communities suggest that internal critique is emerging as a significant phenomenon even beyond the domain of feminist discourse; it is emerging as a relatively broadly focused practice.

After a millenium of inertia . . . Islamic thought is on the move. From Morocco to Malaysia, Muslim intellectuals are reinterpreting the ancient dictates of Islam to fit the modern age, spearheading an extraordinary Islamic revival. In Jordan, professors at a new Islamic university are assigning student papers on the human-rights implications of Islamic law's treatment of women and non-Muslims. In Egypt, Islamic writers are condemning both the use of violence by Muslim extremists and the state's brutal response. Activists in Algeria, Turkey and even Iran are crusading for democracy based on an idea seldom heard in the Muslim world: that Islam forbids all forms of coercion. 105


C. Conclusion

Thus, one should be wary about assuming a priori that moral discourse between or among cultures, especially between or among very different cultures, is a futile project, a dead end. The preceding discourse, which dealt with whether a particular practice that violates one or another human right which it is transculturally agreed--and transculturally established, by international law--that people have, applies to a discourse about a more fundamental matter as well. That is, this analysis also applies to whether a particular claim that people have this or that human right--a particular claim that this or that thing ought not to be done to any human being, or that this or that thing ought to be done for every human being--should be accepted (and, so, whether the right at issue should be established by international law, if it is not already). Recall, in that regard, that in the period since World War II there has emerged, in transcultural dialogue nurtured by the United Nations and other institutions, widespread transcultural agreement about what many of the rights are that all human beings have. 106 That bit of history disconfirms that moral discourse between or among even very different cultures--including moral discourse about so fundamental a matter as whether people have such-and-such a human right--is a futile project. The emergence, in the second half of the twentieth century, of widespread transcultural agreement about what many of the rights are that all human beings have--about what many of the things are that ought not to be done to any human being and also about what many of the things are that ought to be done for every human being--teaches us that we cannot know how far moral discourse can go in resolving particular disagreements between or among particular persons from different cultures until it is tried. Here, too, Philippa Foot gets to the heart of the matter:

One wonders . . . why people who say this kind of thing [that moral discourse can go only a little way, at best, in resolving disagreements] are so sure that they know where discussions will lead and therefore where they will end. It is, I think, a fault on the part of relativists, and subjectivists generally, that they are ready to make pronouncements about the later part of moral arguments . . . without being able to trace the intermediate steps. 107

NOTES:
72. See Anna Funder, De Minimis Non Curat Lex: The Clitoris, Culture and the Law, 3 Transnat'l L. & Contemp. Probs. 417 (1993); Note, What's Culture Got to Do with It? Excising the Harmful Tradition of Female Circumcision, 106 Harv. L. Rev. 1944 (1993). See also the helpful compilation of materials in International Human Rights in Context: Law, Politics, Morality 240-54 (Henry J. Steiner & Philip Alston, eds., 1996).

73. The literature on the human rights of women is large and growing. See, e.g., Charlotte Bunch, Women's Rights as Human Rights: Toward a Re-Vision of Human Rights, 12 Hum. Rts. Q. 486 (1990); Bunting, supra note 70; Noreen Burrows, International Law and Human Rights: The Case of Women's Rights, in Human Rights: From Rhetoric to Reality 80 (Tom Campbell et al. eds., 1986); Hilary Charlesworth et al., Feminist Approaches to International Law, 85 Am. J. Int'l L. 613 (1991); Human Rights of Women: National and International Perspectives (Rebecca J. Cook ed., 1994); Rebecca J. Cook, State Responsibility for Violations of Women's Human Rights, 7 Harv. Hum. Rts. J. 125 (1994); Ustinia Dolgopol, Women's Voices, Women's Pain, 17 Hum. Rts. Q. 127 (1995); Karen Engle, International Human Rights and Feminism: When Discourses Meet, 13 Mich. J. Int'l L. 517 (1992); Karen Engle, Female Subjects of Public International Law: Human Rights and the Exotic Other Female, 26 New Eng. L. Rev. 1509 (1992); Hastings Law School Symposium, Rape as a Weapon of War in the Former Yugoslavia, 5 Hastings Women's L.J. 69 (1994); Ours By Right: Women's Rights as Human Rights (Joanna Kerr ed., 1993); Nancy Kim, Toward a Feminist Theory of Human Rights: Straddling the Fence between Western Imperialism and Uncritical Absolutism, 25 Colum. Hum. Rts. L. Rev. 49 (1993); Catharine A. MacKinnon, Crimes of War, Crimes of Peace, in On Human Rights: The Oxford Amnesty Lectures 1993, supra note 13, at 83; Catharine A. MacKinnon, Rape, Genocide, and Women's Human Rights, 17 Harv. Women's L.J. 5 (1994); Johannes Morsink, Women's Rights in the Universal Declaration, 13 Hum. Rts. Q. 229 (1991); No Justice, No Peace: Accountability for Rape and Gender-Based Violence in the Former Yugoslavia, 5 Hastings Women's L.J. 89 (1994); Women's Rights, Human Rights: International Feminist Perspectives (Julie Peters & Andrea Wolper eds., 1995); International Human Rights in Context: Law, Politics, Morality, supra note 72, at 887-967; Fernando R. Tes: LaFeminism and International Law: A Reply, 33 Va. J. Int'l L. 647 (1993); Sarah C. Zearfoss, Note, The Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women: Radical, Reasonable, or Reactionary?, 12 Mich. J. Int'l L. 903 (1991). See also supra note 72.

74. In the fall of 1996,

Congress outlawed the rite of female genital cutting in the United States . . . and directed federal authorities to inform new immigrants from countries where it is commonly practiced that parents who arrange for their children to be cut here, as well as people who perform the cutting, face up to five years in prison.

Celia W. Dugger, New Law Bans Genital Cutting in United States, N.Y. Times, 12 Oct. 1996, at A1.

75. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, supra note 9, art. 1.

76. See Larson, supra note 40, at 60 n.12 ("[T]he practice [of female genital mutilation] is designed to aid male sexual control over females and is designed to destroy female sexual pleasure, and thus represents a direct attack on female sexuality and a reflection of women's subordinate position."). Larson adds that "[t]here is no credible argument that the practice of male circumcision in either non-Western or Western societies is a parallel mark either of hostility to male sexuality or of men's social inferiority." Id.

77. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, adopted 18 Dec. 1979, G.A. Res. 34/180, 34 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 46) at 193, U.N. Doc. A/34/36 (1980), reprinted in 19 I.L.M. 33 (1980) (entered into force 3 Sept. 1981); see also Zearfoss, supra note 73 (discussing the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women).

78. Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, G.A. Res. 48/104, 48 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 49) at 217, U.N. Doc. A/48/49 (1993).

79. See Brennan, supra note 66, at 374; see also Maynard H. Merwine, How Africa Understands Female Circumcision, N.Y. Times, 24 Nov. 1993, at A24 (letter to the editor); Dugger, supra note 66, at A1.

80. See Michael J. Perry, Love and Power: The Role of Religion and Morality in American Politics 52-65 (1991).

81. Charles Taylor, The Politics of Recognition, in Multiculturalism and The Politics of Recognition 25, 72 (Amy Gutmann ed., 1992); see also id. at 66-73.

82. Id. at 72-73.

83. Id. at 73.

84. See Report of the Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, C.H.R. Res. 1988/34, U.N. ESCOR, Comm'n on Hum. Rts., 40th Sess., 36th mtg., at 62, U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/Sub.2/1988/45 (1988); Brennan, supra note 66, at 392.

85. See generally Donnelly, supra note 59, at 115 ("The goal is cross-cultural consensus not because it . . . somehow validates the norms but because consensus eases implementation."). However, that there is a "cross-cultural consensus" about a norm is at least some evidence that what the norm presupposes about human well-being is accurate, even if the absence of such a consensus does not entail that what the norm presupposes is false.

86. Philip E. Devine, Relativism, 67 Monist 405, 412 (1984).

87. Richard Rorty, Science as Solidarity, in The Rhetoric of the Human Sciences: Language and Argument in Scholarship and Public Affairs 38, 43 (John S. Nelson et al., eds., 1987). Cf. Lynne Rudder Baker, On the Very Idea of a Form of Life, 27 Inquiry 277 (1984). Rudder Baker argues:

[W]hen we think of forms of life as conventional, . . . "we are thinking of convention not as the arrangements a particular culture has found convenient, in terms of its history and geography, for effecting the necessities of human existence, but as those forms of life which are normal to any group of creatures we call human, any group about which we will say, for example, that they have a past to which they respond, or a geographical environment which they manipulate or exploit in certain ways for certain humanly comprehensible motives. Here the array of 'conventions' are not patterns of life which differentiate human beings from one another, but those exigencies of conduct and feeling which all humans share." This passage makes it clear that--the amorphousness of life notwithstanding--most fundamentally, the human species is the locus of forms of life. For specific purposes, "form of life" is sometimes applied to practices that are not universal, as when writers take religion (or a particular religion) to be a form of life, or when writers speak of different societies as exhibiting different forms of life. Although I think that these narrower uses of "form of life" illustrate the elasticity of the idea, and suggest that forms of life, though not clearly demarcated, are thoroughly interwoven and even "nested," they do not tell against the point that Wittgenstein's first concern is with human practices, not with local options.

Id. at 279 (quoting Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality and Tragedy 111 (1979)). See also W.W. Sharrock & R.J. Anderson, Criticizing Forms of Life, 60 Phil. 394, 395 (1985). Cavell believes that:

Whether there are insuperable obstacles to mutual understanding (and, therefore, to external criticism) is not, then, something to be determined a priori, for the simple reason that the answer will depend on the nature of the differences and disagreements involved. . . . There is no basis in Wittgenstein's numerous comments on the nature of human beings and their lives for supposing that understanding between them must be either impossible or inevitable. He seems to try to maintain a perspicuous view of the balance of homogeneity and heterogeneity among human beings. He tries not to lose sight of the fact that human beings are, after all, human beings, members of the same species with their animal constitution (which has ramifying consequences for the lives they do lead) in common. At the same time he emphasizes how much the practices which they create may diverge from one another. Human lives develop in very different directions from the common "starting points" provided by their species inheritance. It is the fact that human beings are the kinds of creatures that they are which lets them take to training, to learn language and other practices. The fact that a human being might, with equal ease, have been inducted into either of two ways of life does not, however, mean that having been drawn into the one he can now adopt the other with the same facility as if he had been brought up to it--learning a second language is not the same as learning a first and, of course, a language like ours makes Chinese harder to learn than French. Two ways of life might, then, be organized in such ways that the grasp of one is inimical to the understanding of the other.

Id. at 398. 88. Williams, supra note 44, at 158; see also Rorty, supra note 43, at 8-9. Rorty states:

It is a consequence of this holistic view of knowledge . . . that alternative cultures are not to be thought of on the model of alternative geometries. Alternative geometries are irreconcilable because they have axiomatic structures, and contradictory axioms. They are designed to be irreconcilable. Cultures are not so designed, and do not have axiomatic structures.

Id.

89. Williams, supra note 44, at 158; see Chandran Kukathas, Explaining Moral Variety, 11 Soc. Phil. & Pol'y 1 Winter 1994 (providing an extended argument in support of this claim).

90. Williams, supra note 44, at 158.

91. Oksenberg Rorty, supra note 55, at 418; see also Rorty, Solidarity or Objectivity?, supra note 43. Rorty notes:

[T]he distinction between different cultures does not differ in kind from the distinction between theories held by members of a single culture. The Tasmanian aborigines and the British colonists had trouble communicating, but this trouble was different only in extent from the difficulties in communication experienced by Gladstone and Disraeli.

Id. at 9.

92. See supra note 70 and accompanying text.

93. Kim, supra note 73, at 88-90; see also Amy Gutmann, The Challenge of Multiculturalism in Political Ethics, 22 Phil. & Pub. Aff. 171, 172-78 (1993); Thandabantu Nhlapo, Cultural Diversity, Human Rights and the Family in Contemporary Africa: Lessons from the South African Constitutional Debate, 9 Int'l J.L. & Fam. 208, 213 (1995).

94. Again, "[a] fully individuable culture is at best a rare thing." See supra note 88, and accompanying text. 95. Lee Yearley, The Author Replies, 21 J. Religious Ethics 385, 392 (1993).

96. Association of African Women for Research and Development, A Statement on Genital Mutilation, in Third World--Second Sex: Women's Struggles and National Liberation 217 (Miranda Davies ed., 1983); cf. Celia W. Dugger, New Law Bans Genital Cutting in United States, N.Y. Times, 12 Oct. 1996, at A1 (reporting that in 1996 the World Bank provided grants to the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children, based in Addis Ababa). A study by Katherine Brennan helps us to see how those outside the cultures that practice female circumcision can provide--and, under the auspices of the United Nations, have provided--fruitful opportunities for those inside the cultures, especially women, to develop and then to advance, on the basis of premises and experiences authoritative for (many) persons in those cultures, a critique, partly rooted in human rights norms, of the practice of female circumcision. See Brennan, supra note 66.

97. See supra text accompanying note 63.

98. An-Na'im, supra note 68, at 15. See also these writings: Abdullahi An-Na'im, Religious Minorities Under Islamic Law and the Limits of Cultural Relativism, 9 Hum. Rts. Q. 1 (1987); Abdullahi An-Na'im, Toward an Islamic Reformation: Civil Liberties, Human Rights and International Law (1990); Abdullahi An-Na'im, Civil Rights in the Islamic Tradition: Shared Ideals and Divergent Regimes, 25 John Marshall L. Rev. 267 (1992); Abdullahi An-Na'im, Cultural Transformation and Normative Consensus on the Best Interests of the Child, 8 Int'l J.L. & Fam. 62 (1994).

99. An-Na'im, supra note 68, at 15.

An-Na'im consider[s] that efforts to promote respect for international human rights standards are often likely to remain superficial and ineffective until such time as they relate directly to, and where possible are promoted through, local cultural, religious and other traditional communities.

Philip Alston, The Best Interests Principle: Towards a Reconciliation of Culture and Human Rights, 8 Int'l J.L. & Fam. 1, 8 (1994).

100. The quote is from the editorial introduction accompanying the reprinting of the Declaration in 3 Concilium, at 140-50 (1994). For three recent articles on Islam and Human Rights, see Abdullahi An-Na'im, Islamic Law and Human Rights Today, 10 Interights Bull. 3 (1996); Mona Rishmawi, The Arab Charter on Human Rights: A Comment, 10 Interights Bull. 8 (1996); Hatem Aly Labib Gabr, Shari'a as Principal Source of Legislation: Rulings of Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court, 10 Interights Bull. 43 (1996). 101. Kukathas, supra note 89, at 10.

102. Id.; see also Bruce B. Lawrence, Woman as Subject/Woman as Symbol: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Status of Women, 22 J. Religious Ethics 163, 180-83 (1994).

103. See, e.g., Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam (1992); Kari Elisabeth Borresen & Kari Vogt, Women's Studies of the Christian and Islamic Traditions: Ancient, Medieval and Renaissance Foremothers (1993); Fatima Mernissi, The Veil and the Male Elite (1991). I am grateful to my colleague Jane Larson for bringing these works to my attention. See also Seth Mydans, Blame Men, Not Allah, Islamic Feminists Say, N.Y. Times, 10 Oct. 1996, at A4.

104. Riffat Hassan, Women in Islam and Christianity: A Comparison, 3 Concilium 18, 22 (1994).

105. Peter Waldman, Leap of Faith: Some Muslim Thinkers Want to Reinterpret Islam for Modern Times, Wall St. J., 15 Mar. 1995, at A1. For an indication of some of the arguments Islamic reformers, including Islamic feminists, make from within the Islamic tradition, see Carla Makhlouf Obermeyer, A Cross-Cultural Perspective on Reproductive Rights, 17 Hum. Rts. Q. 366, 376-80 (1995).

106. The Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights, though not a part of the international law of human rights or of any domestic law, is nonetheless probative of the extent of transcultural agreement about what many of the human rights are that people have. For a critical analysis, see Ann Elizabeth Mayer, Islam and Human Rights: Tradition and Politics 27 (1991).

107. Foot, supra note 40, at 164; see id. at 165-66 (providing a perceptive explanation why "relativists, and subjectivists generally," are not able to take the whole journey); see also Ronald Beiner, Political Judgment (1983). Beiner argues that:

The question here is not whether there is some ascertainable moral-political framework that will guarantee a resolution in all cases; but rather, whether there is, in principle, any limit to the possibility of overcoming incommensurability. . . . [T]here is no such limit: at no point are we justified in terminating an unresolved argument, for it always remains open to us to persevere with it still further. The next stage of argument may yet bring an enlargement of moral vision to one of the contending parties, allowing this contender to integrate the perspective of the other into his own in a relation of part to whole. . . . Therefore at any point there remains the possibility, though not the guarantee, of resolving deep conflict. . . . Confronted with apparent stalemate, there is no need to give in to moral or intellectual "pluralism," for it always remains open to us to say "Press on with the argument."

Id. at 186 n.17.

 

 


[PHIL 19A] [Home] [Bio] [CV] [PHIL DEPT.] [E-MAIL]

Send comments to: Andreas Teuber
URL:   http://phils7.dce.harvard.edu/
Last Modified: 04/24/05
Instructor's Toolkit
Copyright © The President and Fellows of Harvard College