Law, Gender and the Burden of Culture
11 Pages Posted: 3 Sep 2013 Last revised: 26 Oct 2013
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
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