Law, Gender and the Burden of Culture

11 Pages Posted: 3 Sep 2013 Last revised: 26 Oct 2013

See all articles by Cyra Akila Choudhury

Cyra Akila Choudhury

Florida International University College of Law

Date Written: October 2013


This essay makes three points about the use of culture as an argument against law reform and as an explanation for why reform does not happen. First, culture (and its religious analog) is often used as a justification for avoiding gender law reform. However, what is often hidden behind such usage is a highly particular and discreet set of political choice about how to arrange the rights and obligations within society. These choices are not determined a priori by a cultural script. Second, both those who tend to use it to justify doing nothing or doing very limited reforms as well as those who seek sweeping reforms view culture similarly. This mirroring of relativists and universalists is an old construction that has roots in the colonial period and this history is important in understand the present dilemmas of feminism. Finally, that mirroring dynamic also reflects a seemingly intractable oppositional tension between multi-culturalist/relativists who seek to preserve culture and the universalists who seek to overcome it. This tension is very present in legal feminist thought and activism making transnational coalitions and support more complicated. While it is impossible to fully explore that tension as it manifests in the literature or its damaging effects on feminist activism and agenda-setting, I do want to examine two contexts in which it can be clearly observed: the veil context in France and the recent activism by Femen to “free” Muslim women from Islam. By grounding the theoretical observations in these two practical phenomena, I hope to show that unless the impasse is overcome, the full potential of emancipatory feminist thought and activism will never be realized.

Keywords: religion and law, feminist legal theory, law reform, Islam, women

Suggested Citation

Choudhury, Cyra Akila, Law, Gender and the Burden of Culture (October 2013). Florida International University Legal Studies Research Paper No. 13-34, Available at SSRN: or

Cyra Akila Choudhury (Contact Author)

Florida International University College of Law ( email )

11200 SW 8th St.
RDB Hall 1097
Miami, FL 33199
United States

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