Naming, Shaming, Abortion and Cultural Relativism

Jeff opens up an incredibly interesting topic on this article about shaming Indian women into giving birth, because otherwise they might abort their female fetuses. First, I’ll focus a little bit on the article itself, and then get to the questions Jeff poses.

The basic premise of the article is that this guy goes to pregnant women’s houses and publicly humiliates them if he finds out they’ve had an ultrasound, because that would indicate that they’re finding out the sex of their fetus, and that if it’s a girl they’ll abort it. Abortion of female fetuses is widespread in this region.

The gender ratio of babies has fallen to fewer than 600 girls for every 1,000 boys in the Punjab, a predominantly Sikh region, partly because for the equivalent of £10 even poor farmers can afford a scan to determine the sex of a foetus. Worldwide, 1,050 female babies are born for every 1,000 boys.

As a result, Punjab is suffering from a shortage of brides. Men in their twenties are unable to find wives because more than a quarter of the normal female population is missing.

And herein lies the problem, and the reason that women aren’t giving birth to baby girls: Because women are not valued. Just look at this article. Why is it bad that so many female fetuses are being aborted? Because it means that there aren’t enough women for men to marry. It’s not bad in and of itself; it’s bad because it negatively impacts men.

A 24-hour helpline enables villagers to call Mr Kumar’s office if a woman is contemplating a scan or an abortion. Volunteers are then dispatched, or Mr Kumar telephones, ostensibly to ask after the woman’s welfare – but actually to alert her to the fact that she is being watched.

Sometimes, officials go further: in one case, they arranged a mock funeral procession outside the home of a woman who had terminated her female foetus. Waving black placards, volunteers said prayers for the dead baby and shouted “girl-killers” at the family.

“They almost died of shame,” said Paramjit Kaur, a local child development worker. “And it scared everyone else too. They’ll all think twice about getting a scan done now.”

Well that’s the way to go. Shame them into giving birth, and I’m sure they’ll enjoy a healthy family life. I’ve said before that anti-choicers only care about life up until the moment of birth — here’s evidence. Once that girl is born, there isn’t much concern about the fact that she’s undervalued and likely resented in her own household.

And what to make of the creepy, threatening “I’m watching you” antics of these characters? That certainly is not the answer to this problem.

Now on to Jeff. He writes,

I suspect that one answer American feminists would give to this choice/shame dilemma is to argue that what needs to change is the underlying social structure wherein boys appear more valuable to families than girls—a characterization that, unfortunately in this instance, works on a different metric that, say, China. Because here, the problem seems to one of economics: girl babies grow to be married, and the dowry culture puts a financial strain on the family of the bride.

He’s right, I would argue that we need to change the underlying social structure. I think the people doing the shaming are reprehensible and short-sighted.

Which raises the question: how is choice — when it is influenced by the fear of financial hardship (a reason often cited by American feminists for the availability of abortion is that an unwanted child could put an undue financial strain on either the state or the mother herself, dooming both mother (father) and child to a life of poverty, which in turn can result in a spiral of bad schooling, a greater potential for criminality, etc.)—any less worthy of protection in Punjab than it is in, say, Peoria?

It’s not. I don’t think that abortion should be banned because of the reason the woman is procuring it. I believe that women should be able to have an abortion for any reason at all, no matter how “shallow” or wrong someone else may judge it to be.

But here’s where I differ from many third-wave feminists who, like me, have grown up greatly valuing “choice” language: I don’t think that just because someone appears to be a freely-made choice that we can’t examine why that choice was made, or why particular choices are being made systemically. If a university-educted woman chooses to pose for Playboy’s college issue, she should have that choice — but it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t look at the underlying factors that encouraged her to do that. And it means that we can criticize those factors without criticizing her for doing the best she can in the situation she’s in.

The situation in Punjab offers a great example of this. It’s unfair, in my eyes, to go after the women having these abortions. Yes, they’re making a choice, but they’re doing so in reaction to a series of cultural issues that make them believe, as females themselves, that femaleness is inferior and that it’s a burden. We can attempt to rectify the deep-seated wrongs instead of attacking the women who are simply trying to negotiate their own lives in a thoroughly fucked-up world.

So back to Jeff’s question about whether choice influenced by financial hardship is any more valid in Peoria than in Punjab. My answer is that it’s equally valid everywhere — but that as feminists we are consistent in trying to battle the underlying issues that limit or remove choice. A woman in Peoria who has an abortion because she’s on welfare and Illinois regulations penalize welfare recipients for having additional children isn’t making an entirely free choice (I don’t know if that’s actually the law in Illinois, but it is in a lot of states). The woman in Punjab who has an abortion because her child is a girl and she already has a daughter and her family can only afford one dowry isn’t making an entirely free choice. That’s why feminists rallied against Clinton-era welfare reform: because it hurts women and families, and it limits choice. Ditto for why we focus on wage inequality, the pink-collar workforce and universal healthcare: Because, beyond the basic equality issues, these are things that also limit choice in reproduction.

Can American feminists argue that these Indian women—a culturally separate Other—have been forced, by a long-standing patriarchal culture, to act against their own will? That is, that they have been conditioned to become anti-feminists, even as they have long maintained their right to choose (a condition long associated with feminist ideology, and a choice that is now being taken from them by social engineers who maintain that it is in the state’s interest to literally “shame” these women into giving over control of their uteri for the greater good—much like anti-abortion protesters stand in their bubble outside of abortion clinics here in the states and wave placards showing pictures of aborted fetuses?)

There is an argument about “false consciousness” and who has fully realized feminist ideals and on and on, but that idea is generally dead, and for good reason. I don’t think that Indian women are conditioned to be anti-feminists. If you look at the choices they’re making, we might find them troubling and abhorrent, but they’re ultimately rational. The key, then, isn’t to evaluate their choices as “feminist” or “anti-feminist,” but to attempt to create environments everywhere where choices about reproduction are indeed freely made.

A second answer American feminists might give would be to try to change the underlying social structure of the dowry system; but to do that would be to impose on thousands of years of established Indian culture a new paradigm that a) decreases the value of women (in the crass market sense)—and b) it does so to a culture in which women do not necessarily feel oppressed by the dowry system.

And this again is where I differ from many like-minded liberals: I think that at some point, feminism and cultural relativism are incompatible. I think that at some point, universal human rights and cultural relativism are incompatible. I think maintaining one’s culture is incredibly important, but I don’t think that something is good or valuable just because it’s been around for a long time. And I know that culture isn’t static; it shifts, it changes, and it develops. Not so long ago, women were pretty much sold as property from their fathers to their husbands, and it had been that way for a long, long time. But we changed the definition of marriage, and all for the better. So do I think that it would be wrong or culturally imperialist of me to suggest that the dowry system needs to be changed in order for women in India to be fully equal? No. And while I think it is my position as a feminist to disseminate information and encourage widening of thought, I think that changes like that one have to come internally, from Indian women and men who do feel oppressed by the dowry system (and believe me, they exist). There will be many who argue that the system isn’t oppressive, just as there were many who argued that chattel marriage wasn’t oppressive. But that doesn’t make it so.

As for the crass economic argument, paying someone to take your daughter off your hands isn’t exactly “valuing” her. She doesn’t come with the money; you’re being paid for performing a service. A woman is not a good, and being treated like one is inherently dehumanizing.

As Young notes, “Hirshman wants to tell women to set aside their own preferences, including the desire for more than one child, for the sake of the feminist revolution”—which observation, it seems to me, raises an important question: How is this dynamic different, other than by way of its specific aims and ideas about the “proper” role of women in a given society, from the cultural dynamic that animates the dowry culture of Punjab, a culture that envisions for women different roles, and which is now being assailed by those who wish to remove choice from the women’s arsenal of cultural empowerment?

First, let me be clear that I didn’t agree with a lot of Linda Hirshman’s article. But that aside, I think Cathy Young kind of misses the point. It’s not as simple as, “As long as it’s what she wants, it’s ok and we shouldn’t question it.” If it’s what she wants, then sure, it’s ok — she should be allowed to stay home, or to have an abortion, or to give birth to 16 kids, or to work 80 hours a week. But we can always examine it, question it, and ask, “Is she making this choice freely? Or is it, like most choices, based on needs and wants that are deeply influenced by her culture and her position within that culture?”

Ultimately, women are not free actors, and choices are not made in a vacuum. One goal of the feminist movement is to make choices as free as possible; barring that, the goal is to give women as many options as possible, and let them select the one that best fits their needs and their life. Sometimes, that will mean that other women make choices that we don’t like or that we wouldn’t make. It means that women I go to school with will pose half naked for a laddie mag, reemphasizing the idea that college women should be valued for their bodies and not their brains. It means that some women will be willing participants in making violent rape porn, or will argue that women like rape. It means that some women will abort their fetuses simply because they are female.

We need to look at these choices and ask, “why?” We need to examine what the hell is going on here, but we need to attack the root of the problem, not its face. It doesn’t make sense to shame women who pose for Maxim, when posing for Maxim clearly confers a whole set of benefits onto them. It makes more sense to ask, “Why are these smart, well-educated, talented women putting themselves in a forum where they’re reduced to their body parts and where their brains are silly little novelties in comparison to what really matters?” Similarly, it doesn’t make sense to shame women who are aborting female fetuses, when aborting those fetuses clearly confers some benefit onto those women and their families.

Feminists should not be arguing that there is one, single, “feminist” way to live. That’s pretty arrogant (plus, there isn’t). We also shouldn’t be arguing that because something is a choice, we can’t question what made her choose it. Of course, I think the idea that feminists want women to act in a particular way is one big strawwoman, as evidenced by the fact that feminists live in a lot of different ways; that it’s pretty rare to hear a feminist say, “All women should…;” and that when a feminist does say that, a bunch of other feminists take issue with it.

At the heart of my belief system is a free choice ideal. Because I realize that won’t happen, I think that the next best thing is a combination of (1) offering people as many options as possible, (2) comatting the underlying issues that constrain those options, and (3) respecting the ultimate choices that people make, respecting the people who make them, and simultaneously examining why they made them.

That’s my feminism. There are a lot of different kinds, and I do not speak for all of us. But, hopefully, that addresses the questions that Jeff poses.


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30 comments for “Naming, Shaming, Abortion and Cultural Relativism

  1. zuzu
    February 28, 2006 at 5:59 pm

    Just a note: dowry was officially outlawed in India in 1961, though the practice remains.

  2. kate
    February 28, 2006 at 6:22 pm

    Well said and I confer. The core of feminism lies in the concept of universal human rights. Human rights in my mind embraces to construct that all persons have value as individuals first, parts of a social system second. It is based on the idea that all individuals have an inherent desire to realize their own actualization as full persons or at the barest minimum, that all members of the human race have as part of their makeup, the yearning to live free of pain, oppression and struggle.

    If this were not the case, then the Punhabis would not fear the misery that may overtake them if they enter into poverty due to having to satisfy customs such as dowries for their bride daughters.

    This may run counter to many who support cultural tolerance, or cultural relatvism, on the precept that others cannot impose their concept of happiness or freedom on others who may entirely different views on the matter.

    But then, flash to the Indians struggling to not be consumed in poverty due to the dowry customs, or women who flee by the hundreds against genital mutilation, or the FDLS refugees in Utah.

    It can be argued I think that happiness is indeed a universal end that all persons seek. I think that it can also be shown that women have in many cultures, been made to subsume their personal happiness for the interests of the cultural customs at hand. I think it is also safe to say that simply because one engages in a certain practice which may deny their happiness or welfare does not necessarily mean that they do so without reprehension, conflict or extreme hardship to themselves.

    The social construct in India is flawed, from a universal human rights and a feminist view. The construct, dowries included, assumes that women alone have no value. Many social consructs that may have made some kind of sense centuries ago no longer do, the face of the world and how we must live in it has changed and evolved. Constructs such as the Indian dowry system and the general devaluatin of women make no sense as the value of a woman has changed to evolve with the demands of the modern day.

    The shaming of women having abortions is like fighting a cold by stopping the sneezing. They are fighting the symptoms and putting the responsibility almost entirely on women who have little ability to make change.

    I do see though, how this campaign could lead to the forcing of many families to elect to not have many children. Possibly if the misery of having girls is shared among enough, then they might consider change, but I doubt it. Change of cultural mores such as there’s takes decades, even centuries. But change must come.

    The way I see this is more of a shaming of the entire family, not just the aborting mother. It also seems to send shame on a cultural rite that many may be afraid to change.

    No doubt the fundies would love to grab this technique for themselves. Or use the issue to highlight how selfish those aborting women really are. Which misses the point entirely.

    It only underscores what feminists have said all along, that women choose to abort often out of reaction to the negative social and/or economic impact that carrying a pregnancy to term will have on them and/or their loved ones. The present Indian dilemma and the aggressive tactics of some there should not be construed as the a deconstruction of the basic feminist argument for choice.

    Interesting also how Goldstein delves into the writings and statements of some feminists who have posited in the past that motherhood is a bad choice. Goldstien fails, whether intentionally or not, to note that most of those feminists were speaking of a patriarchal ideal in which the women, becoming mother, obliviates her identity and needs in the process. Feminists have long fought against that construct and I would say, successfully as women often now do not necessarily lose their identity or power by taking on the role of mother.

    Again, to go back the Indians, the women there have completely subsumed their own identity and function as part of a social system, not as individuals in their own right. Therefore, again, the feminist approach would entail shaming women who have little voice or right to act otherwise, but to shame a system in which women and girls have such little value that they are traded and bartered like and with livestock.

  3. kate
    February 28, 2006 at 6:27 pm

    sorry about the typos, in a hurry. Insert ‘not’ in the last paragraph …’Therefore, again, the feminist approach would NOT entail….”

    My apologies for those who may get sore eyes reading through the bumps. hope you get my point anyway.

  4. Josh
    February 28, 2006 at 7:57 pm

    And this again is where I differ from many like-minded liberals: I think that at some point, feminism and cultural relativism are incompatible. I think that at some point, universal human rights and cultural relativism are incompatible.

    I don’t think many liberals actually believe in the radical version of cultural relativism that conservatives love to ascribe to them. I certainly hope they don’t.

  5. February 28, 2006 at 8:08 pm

    Demographers/sociologists have long recognized that there are often two ways to get at issues around women’s choices of reproduction: social and economic. You can try education (social) but what really lets women make their own choices is economic: give them the power to provide for themselves that comes from having economically valued skills – and being allowed to use them – and they decide for themselves. Generally, they decide on smaller families, which end up with lower infant mortality (as well as maternal complication rates).

  6. February 28, 2006 at 9:28 pm

    I think that at some point, feminism and cultural relativism are incompatible. I think that at some point, universal human rights and cultural relativism are incompatible.

    I’d go even further. Liberalism and cultural relativism are incompatible. Once we take a stand by saying that individuals deserve the right to autonomy (which is the major theme of our Declaration of Independence), we’re already at odds with most cultures in the world.

  7. February 28, 2006 at 9:58 pm

    I have written about this at my blog and invite comments and feedback.

    Binky – unfortunatley, as pointed out in a number of studies the more affluent regions of the Punjab have the sharpest disparity in female/male ratios. In this case, as in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, women with economic choices are choosing to abort females *in greater numbers*.

    Feministe/David – OK, cultural relativism is incompatible with feminism/liberalism/etc. Let’s say that India forsakes its ancient Hindu culture and adopts… Catholicism. The Catholic Church has been in India about 2,000 years and is growing.

    In other words, if “we” should go in and try to “improve” India’s culture, can we condemn others doing the same? After all, there are a number of ideologies that claim to be just as moral (if not more so) than Liberalism that could mold India to a new image. If you do embrace the idea that some cultures are superior to others, are you prepared to lose?

  8. Amba
    February 28, 2006 at 10:23 pm

    Kate, the Punjabis who opt for sex-selective abortion generally aren’t facing the prospect of becoming mired in poverty as a result of having girl-children: I don’t have the time or the inclination to offer cites right now, but the Punjab is quite a prosperous state, and sex ratios among North India’s urban elite are actually worse than they are among the rural poor. There’s an upscale neighbourhood in Delhi, in which the inhabitants are mostly Punjabi, where the sex ratio is about 700 female children to 1000 male. It’s a mistake to assume that the women concerned don’t have any agency over their lives or economic viability: if asked to justify their decisions, a lot of them would say things that would, superficially at least, resemble a feminist pro-choice position.

    binky, I suspect that the drive towards smaller families among the Indian middle-class actually influences the demand for sex-selective abortion. The chances that a woman will abort a female fetus are higher if she already has one daughter, and higher still if she has two. I think that a lot of these families are thinking, ‘we’re only going to have two or three children, so it’s imperative that at least one of them be a boy.’

  9. Linnet
    February 28, 2006 at 10:37 pm

    In other words, if “we” should go in and try to “improve” India’s culture, can we condemn others doing the same? After all, there are a number of ideologies that claim to be just as moral (if not more so) than Liberalism that could mold India to a new image. If you do embrace the idea that some cultures are superior to others, are you prepared to lose?

    Well, yes. Free market place of ideas, and all that. If India becomes Catholic, I will pick myself up after the disappointment and continue to work for women’s equality there.

    With regard to the idea that “some cultures are superior to others”–I don’t believe that. But I’m also not a cultural relativist. I think some cultural traditions, both Eastern and Western, are wrong. I think that there are parts of Indian culture that Westerners would do well to emulate, just as there are parts of Western culture that Indians would do well to emulate. Furthermore, I think that much of the relative advancement of the Western world in terms of human rights (and exactly how advanced we are is very much up for debate, especially when it comes to women’s equality, as many non-Western feminists like Fatima Mernissi have pointed out) is due to the economic benefits the West reaped from colonialism, so we’ve no right to a superiority complex.

    I don’t consider myself a “cultural imperialist” when I complain about abortion bans in the Southern U.S., although the culture of the South is very different from my northern-most New England culture. I don’t think Southern culture as a whole is “inferior” to Northern culture, but I think the abortion bans are a flaw and need to be changed. I don’t really see the difference when it comes to India.

  10. Lyn
    February 28, 2006 at 10:50 pm

    60 Minutes (at least I think it was them) did a story on gender-selecive abortions in India several years ago, and how the dowry system contributes to the practice; i.e., a daughther (or too many daughters) often means financial hardships for a family when it comes time to pay her dowry to the family she marries into, whereas every marriageable son represents a financial windfall for a family because they’ll get paid for allowing someone else’s daughter the privilige of marrying him. They also made note of the abuse that some women suffer at the hands of their husbands and in-laws when they fail to “measure up” in some way (perhaps by producing too many daughters themselves); an “unsatisfactory” wife’s new family sometimes won’t just “return” her to her old one, because that might mean sending back the dowry as well. So they just make her life a living hell (or more of one than it already is, under the circumstances). If I remember right there was at least one woman whose in-laws had tried to kill her after her husband died (suttee, much?) and she became an “extraneous” member of the household that they still had to support. And if the woman returns home without bringing her dowry back as well, her birth family isn’t always that pleased to find her on their doorstep either.

    If stuff like that is going on, I’d say it’s more than just financial hardship in some cases that leads an Indian woman to abort a fetus she knows is a daughter in the works… I mean, it’s not exactly the kind of future a mother looks forward to for one of her children, is it? And she herself might be punished by her husband and his family for giving them yet another daughter they’ll have to buy a husband for someday.

    One Indian activist/feminist who was interviewed did remark that perhaps when the resulting practice of gender-selective abortions made marriageable women extremely difficult to find, women would somehow be seen as more valuable – but the point in the post is a good one, that any added “value” that came from this would still be dependent on the notion that a woman only has value insofar as she’s something a man wants to aquire. Depressing. Doesn’t really matter if it’s a buyer’s market or a seller’s one, when you’re still just a piece of meat on the trading block.

  11. Billee
    February 28, 2006 at 11:15 pm

    “Worldwide, 1,050 female babies are born for every 1,000 boys.”

    Doubt it. More male babies are born than female babies.

  12. February 28, 2006 at 11:16 pm

    If you do embrace the idea that some cultures are superior to others, are you prepared to lose?

    Of course. If you convince me of another culture’s merits, then that culture should win out. The fact that others “claim to be just as moral (if not more so) than Liberalism” doesn’t make them right.

  13. February 28, 2006 at 11:33 pm

    With regard to the idea that “some cultures are superior to others”–I don’t believe that. But I’m also not a cultural relativist. I think some cultural traditions, both Eastern and Western, are wrong. I think that there are parts of Indian culture that Westerners would do well to emulate, just as there are parts of Western culture that Indians would do well to emulate.

    That’s a contradiction. If you’re saying we should emulate aspects of Indian culture, then you’re admitting that at least in one regard, theirs is superior to ours and vice versa.

  14. March 1, 2006 at 12:25 am

    I’d go even further. Liberalism and cultural relativism are incompatible

    I agree, but I’m also reassured that Jill is taking on a subset of Liberal values with her declaration.

    Good post, btw.

    I don’t think many liberals actually believe in the radical version of cultural relativism that conservatives love to ascribe to them. I certainly hope they don’t.

    You need to actually argue against liberals to get a sense of this. The sheer utter dread of being seen as taking a racist position is enough to get many to take the ideologically safe, and non-racist, position of cultural relativism, which is quite congruent with a host of other liberal social constructivist positions.

    Look, there is a large grain of truth to the the following defintion of racist – “Someone who won an argument against a liberal.”

    as pointed out in a number of studies the more affluent regions of the Punjab have the sharpest disparity in female/male ratios.

    You can find more data in the links from my post on Bare Branches with a graph that shows the gender skewing as women start adopting elite values and benefit from economic prosperity.

    “Worldwide, 1,050 female babies are born for every 1,000 boys.”

    It’s actually the reverse before sex selection enters the picture.

    Further, consider that India and China together comprise 36.3% of the world’s population.

    If only 900 girls (rough national average for India) are born for every 1,000 boys, and the same for China then the we’re looking at a worldwide gender imbalance of :

    ((1.11 * 0.363) + (1.05 * 0.636)) * 1,000 = 1,070 males/1,000 females at birth.

    Boys have a higher death rate than girls, so by the age of 24 the gender ratio is usually in balance, and after the age of 35 women start to outnumber men.

    Adjusting the Chinese and Indian birth rates to account for the same death male rate, at age 24, we’d see:

    ((1.06 * 0.363) + (1.00 * 0.636) * 1,000 = 1,021 males per 1,000 females worldwide.

    So, we should expect the national gender imbalance for both China and India to increase as overall societal wealth increases and these numbers really start to skew. If we’re not as pessimistic as Punjab numbers indicated we should be, we might stabilize the numbers at, let’s say 800 instead of 600.

    ((1.25 * 0.363) + (1.05 * 0.636) * 1,000 = 1,122 males per 1,000 females and at age 24, 1,068/1,000 worldwide.

    All of these figures point strongly towards a far greater role for female migration from poorer regions to wealthier regions. We’re already seeing this with Vietnamese and Cambodian women being married to Taiwanese and Chinese men or being kidnapped into marriage.

    Changing a cultural preference for sons is a significant undertaking, and it really needs to be a measure that is spurred on by internal dynamics rather than external pressure.

    What the West can do is to significantly strengthen UN Statutes on the trafficking of women.

  15. Melissa
    March 1, 2006 at 3:53 am

    I recently saw a talk by a medical anthropologist from UCSF about sex selective abortion by South Asians in the Bay Area. It kind of blew my mind. Many of the women she interviewed were bullied and coerced by their husbands and/or mothers-in-law into aborting when they found out that they were carrying girls. This story probably doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone here, but I was shocked that it was happening in my backyard. And the ads from abortion providers catering to this community were pretty repulsive. A link to her research project is here.

    Don’t get me wrong. Like Jill, I totally support the women who choose this option. It just makes me really angry that they aren’t able to make a free choice.

    For Deep THought: Promoting an idelogical regime in which all human beings are granted equal agency and respect is not morally equivalent to promoting just any other culture. I recommend Martha Nussbaum’s Women and Human Development – she says it way better than I can. Susan Okin’s essay “Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? is also worth reading.

  16. March 1, 2006 at 8:49 am

    Sarah Hrdy has written a wonderful, fascinating book on the sociobiology of reproduction, Mother Nature, that covers the issue of why mothers might prefer their children to be of a particular sex. She uses the example of sex selection in India to illustrate her points. Throughout the book she emphasizes that children and families are almost always better off when women are given full control over their reproductive decisions, even though the mother’s decisions may seem irrational at first glance. The book supports a very feminist way of thinking without being culturally relative in the least, so anyone agreeing with Jill’s brand of feminism would probably enjoy reading it. I cannot recomment it more highly.

  17. March 1, 2006 at 9:15 am

    In other words, if “we” should go in and try to “improve” India’s culture, can we condemn others doing the same? After all, there are a number of ideologies that claim to be just as moral (if not more so) than Liberalism that could mold India to a new image. If you do embrace the idea that some cultures are superior to others, are you prepared to lose?

    I think I made it clear in the post that I don’t think “we” should go in and try and improve anything. I wrote:

    And while I think it is my position as a feminist to disseminate information and encourage widening of thought, I think that changes like that one have to come internally, from Indian women and men who do feel oppressed by the dowry system (and believe me, they exist).

    I think it’s similar to the spreading of freedom and democracy: It doesn’t work to invade, take over, and force democracy on people — that’s pretty contrary to what freedom and democracy even are. Major social changes have to come from within, but they can be encouraged by the dissemination of information and by setting a positive example.

  18. March 1, 2006 at 9:49 am

    Tangoman, of course, the people saying this have never studied about racism nor experienced it(people not bowing down to your whiteness is not racism,k,thx) , so the fact that people who are wholly ignorant of an issue are allowed to define it brings up some red flags to me. But hey, it’s not like you care.

    I agree with the commentors who said we should work with other people. If you try to force ideas on another culture, basically, you’re making a mistake we’ve seen many times over with NGOs- they don’t make sure the gains are sustainable or that what they are doing works within the culture. Basically, it’s arrogance tinged with racism(OH NOES!!! Somebody got called racist. How scary! God forbid someone need to change their behavior) We know better than you! Uh..why? Because! So don’t think for yourself- let us do the thinking. A better approach is to be an ally- to support the work of women who are risking their lives for change(as some are in India) Yea, you don’t get the cheap thrill of being better than someone else, but hey, someone’s life may improve, not to mention the improvements are more likely to last.

    Uh…of course, I’m assuming that this is the goal, which some of our commentors may not share.

  19. March 1, 2006 at 10:08 am

    THe key here, as Jill and Melissa both point out, is that the choice isn’t really free. Although someone mentions women with economic choices are choosing to abort females *in greater numbers*” economic choice is not the same thing as the power to provide for themse;ves. As in, not reliant on men, which is hardly the case in Saudi.

    Forcing democracy or modernization or anything else creates a square peg round holes problem. Otherwise, why hasn’t the British system flourished into democracy every where it’s been imposed? When new structures are introduced to old systems, the outcomes is rarely replacement of the “old” with the “new.”

  20. March 1, 2006 at 1:18 pm

    Basically, it’s arrogance tinged with racism

    Race has no place in this discussion. Cultural elitism isn’t racism (I’m not advocating any kind of elitism but it’s an important difference). It’s obvious that certain ideas and values are better than others. For example, democracies are better than absolute monarchies. So if a given culture values a monarchy (or insert your favorite bad form of government), it makes perfect sense to try to influence it to change.

    As for forcing democracy, that’s a different issue. But I think it’s a question of strategy rather than principle. In principle, that is if we could somehow get it to work, imposing democracy would be a great idea. As a matter of policy, it turns out not to work. There’s nothing racist or imperialist about this. It’s simply recognizing good ideas and wanting to spread them.

  21. March 1, 2006 at 2:20 pm

    I say it is racism, because it is only non white peoples being told their ideas are inferior by outsiders. Arabs do not lecture us on how we degrade women by allowing them to work in strip clubs, and if they did, even though even some Americans have problems with this, most of us would tell them to go eat a hat.

    Also, I’m not sure what definition of better we’re using. While I prefer democracies, I’m not sure if say, an elected theocracy or a democracy with sham leaders would be better than an enlightened monoarchy for example. Also, how can I say my cultural values are always better? For example, my culture emphasizes straight talk, so I am always confused by cultures that are more indirect, but is one really better than the other? Basically, I think we should try to think more about how our ideas live within the lives of people. Some of them may like our ideas and adopt them, but they evidently find some value in their own ideas, and might combine them.

    For example, I am reading about Muslim women combining western ideas and even a form of feminism, with Islam. I’m not sure if their new version of feminism is automatically worse because it’s not my type of feminism.

  22. Galloise Blonde
    March 1, 2006 at 2:26 pm

    Voices Unabridged has a heartbreaking slideshow on the gender imbalance in India. (Scroll down, it’s at the bottom of the page.)

    How about an advertising campaign, tagline: A diploma is the best dowry? Because I don’t know what the average dowry demanded is, but how does it compare to the lifetime salary of a Marketing Director? (This profession is not picked out of the blue, I have a Punjabi friend and that’s hers.) This idea, obviously, targetted at the wealthier families, the ones with the money to pay the ultrasounds and abortionists. And as women find themselves rejected for bearing girls, how about a bit of basic biology. Gender is determined by the sperm, so maybe a bit more awareness of this might help spread the responsibility.

    These ideas are off-the-top of my head stuff, but still better than shaming women.

  23. March 1, 2006 at 2:52 pm

    I say it is racism, because it is only non white peoples being told their ideas are inferior by outsiders… Also, I’m not sure what definition of better we’re using.

    It has nothing to do with them being non-white. It would be racist if I unfairly singled out a member of another race for criticism but I’m not doing that. As for a definition of “better”, I’ve taken too many philosophy classes to try to answer that in a short paragraph. But suffice it to say, it’s not mere preference.

  24. March 1, 2006 at 4:46 pm

    I don’t think many liberals actually believe in the radical version of cultural relativism that conservatives love to ascribe to them. I certainly hope they don’t.

    Josh meet Shannon W.

  25. March 1, 2006 at 10:09 pm

    Don, do you want some book reccomendations about racism? Or do you want to discuss a topic you know nothing about at all? And please, type it out. I want to know how we can tell how our ideas are better when we don’t know anything about how people really live.

    Tangoman, what’s wrong with not being totally arrogant? If I don’t know enough about someone’s culture, how am I going to be able to correctly say whether their culture is right or wrong? Basically, I realize that I get my views of other cultures from the popular media, and yes, sometimes books and magazines, which are better sources, but not a replacement for actually having contact with people from other cultures or for understanding the cultures of others.

    The popular media distorts things, and also, the issue of ‘they don’t respect women’ is often used politically to influence us. For example, a big deal was made over how the Taliban were oppressing women and they needed mighty whitey to save the women. But I’m not sure it’s really better for women now. Not to mention, I think the situation for women in Iraq has become worse too. So of course I’m skeptical that some of the voices that make a big hue and cry over third world women actually care about them.

    I’m reading a good study on Muslim women in Lamu, Kenya- it’s called Veils and Videos and is really interesting. However, even after I finish the book, I will not proclaim myself an expert on Muslims in Africa. If you pay any attention to history at all, one recurring theme is how arrogance and ignorance has caused enduring problems- from the genocide of the Native Americans in the States to colonialization and neo coloniazation in many countries around the world. That’s why we learn things- to apply it to our situations. That’s why knowing things is important- because often terrible mistakes are made when we think we are too good to learn or become educated.

    If you’re an American, please accept this gift of public library resources. Sometimes people from the community can read books in university libraries as well.

  26. March 1, 2006 at 11:07 pm

    Shannon W.,

    If I don’t know enough about someone’s culture, how am I going to be able to correctly say whether their culture is right or wrong?

    There’s nothing wrong with personal humility in the face of intellectual uncertainty. That however is not what cultural relativism is about – it’s about saying that there is no such thing as objective ranking and that no one can ever take a position on such issues and that all cultures are equally good and equally bad and that any form of judgement, especially judgement from someone outside the culture being judged, is improprer.

    If you asked me to compare the gender relations of the Andaman Island Jarawas to that found in the singles community of Manhattan, I may have an opinion on one or the other (I won’t tell you which) but I’d probably refrain from saying which is better because I couldn’t make an informed assessment.However, if my opinion on both cultures was informed then I’d have no hesitation in making a comparison. A cultural relativist would never do so.

  27. March 2, 2006 at 1:16 am

    Just wondering – am I “Don”?

  28. March 3, 2006 at 1:58 pm

    Melissa,
    I am familiar with the essay, but will take a look at the book.Thanks. At the same time, however, the women in question are abviously making choices for themselves. How are they unequal?

    Jill,
    I am not making my point clear, I am afraid; what if the dowry culture/sex selective abortion just won’t go away? Do you approve of laws to limit access to medical information in that case? What if educated, intelligent women with access to information continue to eliminate their daughters? Will they still be “wrong” based upon disagreement with western Feminists concepts?

  29. March 3, 2006 at 2:22 pm

    Not everyone strictly fits into one position. I merely understand that you can’t understand someone’s entire culture based on one article about how horrible they are, especially since the media tends to be distorted. So instead of saying whether they are bad or good, we should show respect to others, and if after learning about the problem, we are still bothered, work with people inside the culture and help them. Change coming from within will last I think.

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