Beyond Culture: Human Rights Universalisms versus Religious and Cultural Relativism in the Activism for Gender Justice

47 Pages Posted: 21 Nov 2014 Last revised: 18 Nov 2017

See all articles by Cyra Akila Choudhury

Cyra Akila Choudhury

Florida International University College of Law

Date Written: November 7, 2014


This Article explores the tension between (and within) feminism and culture/religion in the efforts to improve the lives of women and how that seemingly intractable divide continues to complicate activism transnationally. I revisit the question of multiculturalism but in the broader context of global feminist action in order to suggest a way to bridge the divide and to foster greater solidarity among transnational feminists. In order to do so, we have to come to terms with our own positions of authority and exercises of power. The Article proceeds in five parts.

First, culture (and its religious analog) is often used as a justification for avoiding gender law reform by cultural relativists and traditionalists who hold state power. 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. The article argues that cultural relativists and traditionalists strategically employ culture as a smokescreen for political choices where other choices are just as defensible.

Second, both those who tend to use culture to justify doing nothing or doing very limited reforms as well as those who seek sweeping reforms against culture view culture itself similarly as determinate and unmutable. 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. That 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. In order to be effective, we have to see culture and religion as contested and take women’s dissenting views seriously.

Third, I explore how these assumptions about culture play into a global narrative in the War on Terror. In particularly, I explore how liberal feminist notions of culture exacerbate the negative stereotypes of Islam and Muslim males in particular. I suggest that the easy stereotyping that the War on Terror has made ubiquitous pervades liberal feminist understandings of the “problems” of Muslim women. While these may actually be quite accurate, the overall narrative of superiority of the War on Terror and its “clash of civilization” rhetoric makes transnational coalition building much more difficult.

In Part Four, I delve deeper into the constructions of authority and agency in liberal feminism and question how power is distributed among women. Using the examples of the veil debate and the topless jihad by Femen, I explore the who has the power to speak and what they are able to convey to suggest that the assumptions of positions of epistemological authority and power are very problematic. 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.

Finally, I suggest a few approaches to bridge the divide among feminists by acknowledging the cultural valence of seemingly neutral rights, taking difference seriously and engaging on more equal footing.

Suggested Citation

Choudhury, Cyra Akila, Beyond Culture: Human Rights Universalisms versus Religious and Cultural Relativism in the Activism for Gender Justice (November 7, 2014). Berkeley Journal of Gender, Law & Justice, 2015; Florida International University Legal Studies Research Paper No. 14-29. Available at SSRN:

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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