Research Papers

Liberal and Multiculturalist( Islam and Jewish) feminist response: Similarity for securing individual rights and autonomy-Dr Tamanna Khosla

 Liberal feminist prioritize individual rights over group rights. Some of them are opposed to granting of group rights. Feminist like Susan Moller Okin for example regards it not to be clear from the feminist point of view that group rights are part of the solution. “They according to her may in fact increase the problem.”[1]According to her “no argument can be made on the basis of self-respect or freedom that female members of the culture have a clear interest in its preservation”.[2] “In fact, they might be much better off if the culture into which they were born were either to become extinct (so that its members would become integrated into the less sexist surrounding culture), or preferably be encouraged to alter itself so as to reinforce the equality of women -atleast to the degree to which this value is upheld, in majority culture”.[3] Many instances of private sphere discrimination against women on cultural grounds are never likely to emerge in public.[4] It is thus especially important to consider inequalities between the sexes, since they are likely to be less public and thus less easily discernible.
Establishing group rights to enable some minority cultures to preserve themselves may not be in the best interest of the girls and women of those cultures, even if it benefits the men. Thus to Okin, those who make liberal arguments for rights of groups must take special care to look at inequalities within those groups.[5]
According to her “unless women and more specifically younger women (Since older women often are coupled into reinforcing gender inequalities) – are fully represented in negotiations about group rights, their interest may be harmed rather than promoted by granting such rights.”[6] ‘What we need to strive towards is a multiculturalism that effectively, treats all persons as each other’s moral equals.”[7]
Just like Okin, there are several feminists in American politics who believe in secularism as a value special for protection of women’s rights.[8] To cite two prominent works, Alison Jagger’s Feminist Politics and Human Nature[9],and Catherine Mackinnon’s Towards a Feminist Theory of State[10] are the two best recent anthologies of feminist social-political thought that devote no space to religion, although they discuss many topics only contingently linked to feminism such as environmentalism and vegetarianism.[11]
In law for example, feminists more frequently take on religion. According to some of the legal feminists, “religion perpetuates and reinforces women’s subordination and religious freedom impedes reform”.[12]“Religion contributes to women’s subordinate status, not only within religious communities hierarchies but also in broader culture”.[13]” “Religion encourages women to live with the status quo rather than destabilizing it by insisting on equality.”[14]

Indeed the secular feminist tends to view religion itself as an irredeemably patriarchal, and powerful ally of women’s oppression throughout the ages. “Secular feminist is not unhappy to muzzle it and does not see it as doing a whole lot of good in anyone’s life”.[15]
“Many secular feminists are Marxists, and following Marx, they are bound to take a negative view of religion and are unlikely even to give the free exercise of religion a high degree of respect.” [16]
Yael Tamir feels need to empower individuals by granting them individual rights”[17] In so doing we may protect the rights of the less powerful and less conservative members of each group to live their lives and preserve their identity the way they see fit. In so doing, we may provide help and support for agents of cultural and societal change in general and in particular for defenders of women’s rights.[18]
            Many multiculturalist states the need to disassociate special rights granted for systemic discrimination of minority within the nation-state from the rights that may be necessary for preserving minority cultures.[19] Preservation of cultural practices can be and often is an excuse to continue with customs that perpetuate the discrimination of some groups. Within the community, special rights cannot be justified for this end.[20] Thus respect for other cultures is always premised on first respecting individual citizens.[21]
Here I would also like to point some Muslim feminists who proclaim the need for separation of religion and state. Moghadam somewhat answers this when she discusses her personal reasoning for secular feminism.[22] Her assertion is that as long a feminist movements are ”focused on theological rather than socioeconomic and political questions, and so long as their point of reference is the Qur’an rather than universal standards, their impact will be limited at best.”[23]According to her, unlike the American feminists, ”Islamic feminists are seeking revolutionary change to political and social institutions by questioning the exclusive right of clerics to interpret the Islamic texts and on Islamic jurisprudence.”[24] She even points out that it is particularly Islam which puts in danger feminist movements because it defines citizenship rights on the basis of  religion.”[25]
Haideh Mohissi as a Marxist feminist, is open about her dim view of religion, especially as a driving force for meaningful social change”.[26]As far as Islamic in Islamic feminism is concerned Mohissi view is that “Not only is a religion based in gender hierarchies incompatible with “gender equity and . . . women’s rights”,[27]but it has no libratory potential either”.[28]
Hameed Shahidian is critical of attempts by Arab scholars such as Fatima Mernissi and Aziza Al-Hibri, and the Pakistan-born Rifat Hassan attempts at the reinterpretation of Islamic texts. According to him, these attempts are futile given the strength of conservative, orthodox, traditional, and fundamentalist interpretations, laws, and institutions. He is especially critical of a growing trend in Middle East Women’s Studies wherein authors justify Muslim women’s veiling[29], domesticity, moral behaviour, and adherence to Islamic precepts as signs of individual choice and identity[30]
Thus as Nadje Al Ali in her work points out that “all women interviewed were united in their opposition to the establishment of an Islamic state, the implementation of the Shariah, the existing personal status law and an imposed dress code that is compulsory veiling. They also shared a sense that religion should not be conflated with politics”.[31]The majority of the activists concurred with the view that “the personal status law is a source of inequality and discrimination”[32]. “For many activists the aim to change the laws regulating marriage , divorce and child custody is the only aspect of their conceived goals that touch on women’s private lives.”[33]
But some feminist believe that religion is important and only need is to interpret religion in a progressive manner. Martha Nussbaum another liberal feminist focuses on the need for religion. She agrees with Okin that “current liberal interest in multiculturalism holds grave dangers for women equality”.[34]  “The danger according to Nussbaum increased by the fact that issues of sex equality have rarely been seen as urgent and central by major political thinkers of our times.”[35]However, Nussbaum takes a totally different view on religion despite agreeing with Okin for the need for exit to exist for women members. She makes three points with regards to religion.
Firstly according to her “base of several movement such as abolitionalism and US civil rights movement, movement against racism, even Indian struggle against Independence have had religious base”. Many feminist past and present worldwide have been deeply religious.[36] To Nussbaum because “Okin and secular feminist do not acknowledge these instances and many others like them, they cannot well describe the complexity of the issues raised by the relationship between religion and feminism.”[37]
Secondly, Nussbaum insists that political liberalism unlike comprehensive liberalism is far more capable to accommodate the very great value of citizens religious freedom.[38]Political liberalism insists that every citizen have a wide range of liberties and opportunities; so it agrees with comprehensive liberalism that a non-autonomous life should not be thrust upon someone by the luck of birth. Nonetheless, it respects such lives given a background of liberty and opportunity, as lives that reasonable fellow citizens may pursue. “Political liberals will be likely to judge that religion merits special deference from the liberal state, given its central importance to citizens in the searching for meaning and given the content of religious convictions, which frequently specifies their central importance and the non-optional character of demands they make”. Nussbaum favours “traditional stance of giving religion special deference, on the grounds that minority religions have been especially vulnerable in all societies and are consequently in need of this special protection”.
Thirdly, According to Nussabaum, “No religious tradition consists simply of authority and sheep like subservience.” All contain  plurality of voices-including the voices of women which have not always been clearly heard.[39]To Nussbaum while secular humanist feminists like Okin do mention existence of more progressive, reformed versions of major religions. But this characterization is simple. As  a reform Jew , to Nussbaum,” the core of Judaism is a set of timeless moral ideas that are imperfectly revealed in both text and rabbinic history”.“Thus reform means a reform of defective historical practices in the direction of a more authentic realization of Judaism.” By treating the original core of religion as equivalent to certain patriarchal stories these feminists simply bypass centuries of debate within each of the religion, debate highly pertinent to religions role in search of women’s equality.[40]  “While Nussbaum does not like the idea of an all-male priesthood any more than Okin does or she feels a strong sense of solidarity with Roman Catholics who are trying to open the church more fully to women through internal reform”.[41]“Yet she feel that we need to respect for different lives our fellow citizens choose to lead and a sense of the complexity of our task”.[42]

Fourthly, Several feminists argue against the orthodoxy of religion which does not change for centuries. Jewish and Islamic feminist scholars have taken a further step by entering the “temple” of religion by undertaking the most revered of its internal mechanisms of cultural reproductions: theological study.[43]Their strategy has been to highlight the potential within constitutive religious texts for alternate readings that are better able to mesh with women’s freedom and equality.[44] As Susan Heschel, a Jewish feminist writes “We examine what text reveals but also explore what text conceals”.[45] Thus “by infusing religious study with feminist perspectives women are asserting not only their membership in the community but also their contribution to it as full participants”.[46] For instance, female and progressive scholars have offered revisionist readings of Koran, readings which are inclusive of women and which treat women and men as equals before Allah. Thus quiet revolution has involved not only scriptural learning but also prayer leading and marriage officiating by Muslim women. According to the “Most important for our discussion is the recognition that entering the charged field of theological study and knowledge production has allowed women to demonstrate the importance of their agency and their voice in their creation of more egalitarian cultural-religious norms and practices.”[47]One of the most prominent Islamic Feminist Irshad Manji in her work establishes for the need of reform in Islam.[48]Irshad has founded Project Ijtihad, an initiative to renew Islam’s own tradition of critical thinking, debate and dissent. Project Ijtihad is helping to build the world’s most inclusive network of reform-minded Muslims and non-Muslim allies. Her basic argument is that the Koran is a complex, contradictory, human book. Its prescriptions are many and conflicting. “Abandoning the role of a thinking person is not something that should be required of any religious individual.”[49] “Reason and faith, Manji wants to believe, are not in conflict.” “And yet, as Islam is frequently practised, the reason is deplored as something that should defer in every instance not simply to the Koran but to the political authoritarians who reserve to themselves the sole right to interpret it.”[50]
What Manji discovered in the madrasa was a symptom of what she sees as a broader and deeper problem “that Muslims have stopped thinking, that their faith has been hijacked by tyrants and bullies and that it has become infested with all kinds of hatred — of Jews, of women, of gays, of the West.”[51]And instead of confronting these issues directly and openly, most Western Muslims, perhaps the only group of Muslims with the actual freedom to question, criticize and debate have decided to retreat into victimology and appeasement. Aided and abetted by the moral nihilism of academic postmodernism, these people have surrendered to the new fascists of the Arab world.
However, despite her critique of present Islam, she continues to be work within the folds of Islam. “She wants to embrace her faith by understanding it fully, by realizing its vision of human equality, by resuscitating the ancient Islamic tradition of ijtihad[52]: questioning, asking, thinking.”[53]Even Egyptian feminist Nawal el Saadawi writes that “We have to compare the Koran to other holy books before we judge Islam.”[54] “A fair comparison will help us to discover that the Quran or fundamental teachings of Islam are relatively progressive in relation to women and democracy.                

“A striking features of contemporary political philosophy is the emergence of the nature of the political itself as the central theme of discussion.”[55] Both feminist and multicultural political theory have contributed towards this trend by maintaining that story of western life to date as being one of arbitrary exclusion, in the course of which various victim groups have been created – in case of women by patriarchy, and minorities by majorities. This trend has been compounded at a practical level by development and acceptance of multiculturalism as a value and fact of life.
Feminist point need would be to consider not only intercultural but also intracultural equality. Anne Phillips says “The need is for us to consider equitable treatment of minority and majority culture alongside other considerations of equity, that is between men and women.”[56]  She cautions “against elevating cultural membership to the status of primary good as it potentially trumps all other considerations.[57] Feminist say that respect for other cultures is always premised on first respecting the individual citizen – which is not abstract but gendered, differentiated citizenship within which multiple differences and diverse perspective of previously excluded other might be recognized, affirmed and represented.
The fate of a culture, a language, or a religion ought to be determined by its members. For that purpose, one must grant cultural, religious, national rights to individuals rather than to the community as a whole. The difference between granting cultural or religious rights to individuals and granting them to groups is evident if one compares the status of the Reform movement in Israel and in the United States. In the US for eg religious rights are individual rights-under these conditions the Reform movement flourishes, as a large percentage of American Jews choose to affiliate with it. In Israel, on the other hand, religious rights are granted to each religious community. The search for a unified voice that represents the Jewish community provokes a struggle among the different Jewish movements.[58]The Orthodox who succeeded in presenting themselves as the sole authoritative representatives of Judaism, attempt to disqualify all other versions, especially the reform one. The Reform movement is thus presented as a threat to the continued existence of the Jewish people and its members are deprived of their religious rights. Unlike Orthodox institutions, Reform ones receive almost no financial support from the state; the teachings of the Reform movement are not part of Jewish studies in schools, and Reform rabbis cannot perform the marriage. Consequently, the Reform movement finds it very hard to form an Israeli branch. As a result, in Israel (unlike the US) individual Jews are unable to make a free choice concerning the way they would like to practice their religion.[59]
This analysis can teach three lessons: first, we should have a realistic, less sentimental view of traditional communities and less statistic view of culture. We ought to recognize that cultures are permanently changing and developing and that there is no reason to freeze a  culture in order to preserve it. Cultures hostile to change are less likely to trust the ability of individuals to withstand change and reform their traditions and lifestyle without surrendering completely their particular identity. Second, we must entrust the faith of the community to its individual members. According to Yael Tamir, we ought then to empower individuals by granting them individual rights. In so doing, we may protect the rights of the less powerful and less conservative members of each group to live their lives and preserve their identity the way they see fit. According to her, in so doing we may also provide help and support for agents of cultural and social change in general, and in particular for defenders of women’s rights.[60]
In fact culture and tradition are seen in less static light, then reformers could be seen as contributing to the preservation of the communal identity no less than conservatives.[61]

Therefore from a feminist perspective “Multiculturalism is a problem today and foreseeable future – a problem for politics and ethics of politics”.[62] This is because feminist and many such other issues still need to be addressed in their true complexity, within the domain of present multicultural societies.

[1] For further reference  see,  Will   Kymlicka, Liberalism, Community and  Culture (Oxford,  The  Clarendon   Press,   1989; Also  see,  Will  Kymlicka,   Multicultural citizenship : A liberal theory of minority Rights,Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
[2] See, Bhikhu Parekh, Rethinking multiculturalism ,Hound Mills, Macmillan Press, 2000.
[3] Okin., pp. 20-23.                                   
[4] Ibid; Further in a different context, from feminist perspective, Iris Marion Young in Justice and politics of difference’, provides a critique to normative model of Kymlicka; she describes it as the impossibility of impartiality. The ideal of original position seeks to reduce all social perspectives to a single point of view in order to generate authoritative principles. Therefore she proposes as against juridical approach of Kymlicka, a political approach, and talks of ‘politics of difference1, in which groups receive public institutional support for self-organization and for a generation of group orientated policy proposals.
[5] Okin, p. 22.
6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] See Martha Nussabaum, Women and Human Development,The capabilities Approach, Kali for Women, New Dehi ,UK 2000; In western philosophy ,thinkers like Bertrand Russell attacked religion explicitly.Kant viewed religion within the limits of reason alone. J.S Mill too advocated liberalism as a comprehensive doctrine of life rather than as simply the basis of the core political principles. Others are hostile to religion as such but simply insist that it fall in line with a rational secular understanding of value. Joseph Raz and Suan Okin would seem to be in this group.
Also see Jacques Derrida, “Taking a Stand For Algeria” in Acts of Religion ed by Jacques Derrida with an Introduction By GIL Anidjar ,New York, Routledge, p 306 ;Jacques Derrida. too in his work writes” Our idea of democracy implies a separation between the state and religious powers , that is, a radical religious neutrality and a faultless tolerance which would not only set the sense of belonging to religions, cults , and thus also cultures and languages away from reach of any terror-whether stemming from the state or not-but also protects the practices of faith and, in this instance, the freedom of discussion and interpretation within each religion

[9]Also See Martha Nussabaum ,’ Women and Human Development’; Alison Jaggar Feminist Politics and Human Nature , N.J: Rowman and Littlefield, 1988
[10] ibid;Catherine Mackinnon, Towards a Feminist Theory of State, Cambridge,MA, Harvard University press, 1989.
[11] Also See Martha Nussabaum ,’ Women and Human Development’; Alison Jaggar Living With contradictions: Controversies in Feminist Social Ethics ,Boulder: westview,1994 ; Diana Meyer Feminist Social Thought : A Reader, New York : Routledge, 1997.
[12] See Martha Nussabaum Women and Human Development’; Also see Mary Becker, ‘The Politics of Women’s Wrongs and the Bill of Rights : A Bicentennial Perspective’, The University of Chicago Law review 59 1992, 453-517.

[13] Martha Nussabaum ,’Women and Human Development’ p 141
[14] ibid
[15] ibid
[16] ibid
[17]See Yael Tamir, ‘Siding With The Underdogs,’ in Is Multiculturalism Bad For Women?
[18] ibid
[19] Gurpreet Mahajan,’ Rethinking Multiculturalism,’ Seminar,484, December, p.61.
[20] . Ibid.
[21] Gurpreet Mahajan,’The Problem’, Seminar, 484, December, 1999;p 13
[22] I am mentioning here along with liberal feminist some of the Islamic feminist because they too share similar concerns of individual rights , human rights and secularism with there liberal counter parts.
[23] Valntine Moghadam,, ‘Islamic Feminism and Its Discontents: Toward a Resolution of the Debate’. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 27 (4), 1159.

[24] ibid
[25] ibid ,1162
[26] Haideh Moghissi, Feminism and Islamic Fundamentalism: the Limits of Postmodern Analysis, London, Zed Books,1999, p 146
[27] ibid
[28] ibid pp 40-42; She criticizes postmodernists on several grounds. They ignore “the role of Islamic legal
institutions and practices in maintaining …the …patriarchal order which circumscribes
women’s lives in Muslim societies;” they paint “an enviably rosy picture of women’s
lives in Islamic societies” that does not correspond to reality; “in the name of validating
women’s ‘self-perceptions’ and ‘hearing women’s own voices,’ only the voices of
particular groups of women are heard …[and] broadcast as the unanimous expression of
‘women in Islamic societies’”[28]; and, most importantly, they have abandoned “the
secular democratic vision of feminism, sacrificing its hard-won achievements at the feet
of an ‘Islamic’ vision of change” by attempting “to reshape and soften their ideas to fit
the ideals of an elusive ‘Muslim feminism’” instead of “exposing its limits
[29] Egyptian feminist openly wrote against the practice of female circumcision. Finally Egypt has banned the practice of circumcision.
[30] See:Hameed  Shahidian, ‘The Iranian Left and ‘The Woman Question in the Revolution of 1978-79.’ International Journal of Middle East Studies, vol. 26: 223-247, 1994;Also see Hameed Shahidian, ‘Feminism in Iran: In Search of What?’, Zanan, no. 40: 32-38, 1998
[31] See Nadje Al Ali, Secularism, Gender and the State in The Middle East The Egyptian Women’s Movement, UK,Cambridge University Press,2000.pp154-155.
[32] Ibid  ; In Egypt this also holds true for the debate around the Nationality or Citizenship Law, which is likewise considered to be discriminatory and therefore widely rejected in its current form. The law does not grant Egyptian women married to their children, while Egyptian men are granted this right. This is seen as the ultimate example of the confining of women to second class citizenship and like the personal status law, many activists argue, the nationality law is unconstitutional and in conflict with Convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women (CEDAW)
[33] ibid.
[34] Martha Nussbaum, ‘A Plea For Difficulty’,In Is Multiculturalism bad for Women;105
[36] ibid; Nussabaum  also gives the example of Ela Bhatt, founder of SEWA in India and one of the most creative feminist leaders in developing world  who views herself as a Gandhian fighter for women’s independence from their colonial oppressor. The daughter of a Brahmin judge , she performed the sacred death ceremonies for her father, rites traditionally reserved for her father. Many of the women she organizes are also deeply religious and view religion as a support in their struggle for equality
[37] ibid
[38]ibid; Political liberalism does better along the dimension of respect for citizens for ironically, since autonomy is what it is all about-comprehensive liberalism does not show very much respect for the choices citizens may make to live non autonomously, as members of hierarchical religions or corporate bodies
[39] Martha Nussabaum, Women and Human Development The Capabilities Approach,p182. Thus any account of Judaism to Nussabaum that fails to include, the fact that reform and reconstruction congregations address God as you rather than he and acknowledge the (four)mothers alongside the (three) fathers,is a false account of what the Jewish tradition is. By this argument, secular humanist feminists are giving a false account of Judaism when they call it inherently patriarchal, equally false is the account given by the political forces in Israel that would refuse recognition to non-orthodox branches of Judaism.
[40] Martha Nussabaum,’ A Plea for Difficulty’;p 107
[41] ibid.
[42] ibid.
[43] ibid p 131
[44] Shachar points out that feminist scholarship in Judaism for eg is engaged with an extensivere-examination of the main Halakhic ( Jewish Law) sources : scholars are interpreting the Torah through through a critical perspective that seeks to unmask hidden interests in traditional interpretations of religious texts, and to expose counter traditions of resistance to patriarchy in biblical and rabbinical literature.
[45] Susan Heschel, On Being a Jewish Feminist,2nd edition,New York, Schocken Books,1995,p xii
[46] See Rachel Biale, Women and Jewish Law : An Exploration of  Womens issues in Halakhic Sources;New York: Schocken Books,1984.
[47] For more on these debates in recent works see, Kecia Ali, ‘Progressive Muslims and Islamic Jurisprudence: The Necessity of Critical Engagement  With Marriage and Divorce Law’, in Progressive Muslims on Justice , Gender and Pluralism ed. Omid Safi,Oxford ,One world Publications, 2003; Aziza Al-Hibri,  ‘ Islam, Law and Custom : Redefining Muslim Women’s Rights’, American University Journal of International Law and Policy,12,1997,pp 1-44; Ziba Mir-Hosseini,,Islam and Gender: The Religious Debate in Contemporary Iran, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1999.
[48] Irshad Manji, The Trouble With Islam Today:A Muslim’s Call for Reform in her Faith,New York, St. Martin Press.
[49] Andrew Sullivan,  ‘ Decent Exposure’,The New York Times,January 24 2004.
[50] ibid
[51] See Irshad Manji,‘’The Trouble With Islam Today’p 15
[52] See http: // Project-Ijtihad, Retrieved on 10 january 2009   According to Manji is a charitable initiative to promote the spirit of Ijtihad, Islam’s own tradition of critical thinking, debate and dissent. We support a positive vision of Islam that embraces diversity of choices, expression and spirituality. To achieve this, Project Ijtihad will help build the world’s most inclusive network of reform-minded Muslims and non-Muslim allies. Reform-minded Muslims already exist in spades. Our goal is to bring them out of the shadows. They need to know that Islam gives them the permission to be thoughtful and faithful at the same time.  Because they’re not alone, they can have such faith without fear.Progressive non-Muslims are crucial partners in our mission. When non-Muslims work with reform-minded Muslims, they’re sending notice that moderates and fundamentalists are no longer the only voices that count in Islam. When non-Muslims recognize reform-minded Muslims, they’re spurring a healthy competition of ideas and interpretations.  Above all, they’re affirming that reform-minded Muslims are as authentic as the mainstream, and quite possibly more constructive.
[53] ibid
[54] Nawal el Sadaawi, Women, Islam and Democratization, Egypt, Cairo, 30 October , 2002, Retreived on 10 january 2009.
[55] Noel ‘O Sullivan, ‘Difference and Concept of Political in contemporary Political Philosophy’, Political Studies, Vol. XLV, 1997; 739-754 at 739.
[56] Anne Phillips , ‘Why Worry About Multiculturalism’,Dissent,1997,pp57-63 at 63
[57] Ibid.
[58] See Yael Tamir;  ‘ Siding With the Underdogs;’p 51
[59] ibid
[60] ibid.52
[61] ibid
[62] Joseph Raz  ‘,Multiculturalism: A liberal perspective’, Dissent, winter, 199467-74 at 67.

Dr Tamanna Khosla is a leading Indian scholar and intellectual who did her Phd in Political Science from JNU,Delhi.
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