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Cultural Relativism and Issues of Women’s Rights: Analytical Essay

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Growing up as a second-generation Haitian-Canadian woman, I have learned that the rights that I have been born with were once thought as being impossible to acquire because of slavery. My ancestors from Haiti were one of the first countries to successfully revolt against the colonial oppression of the French in 1804. They fought for their human rights as liberated slaves and eradicated their persecutors, creating a safe space for them as free people. This exposure of courage gradually expanded across the globe, which also influenced many movements to emerge throughout the years, such as the fight for women’s rights around the world. However, this campaign of rights for women does not seem to affect many regions in the Third World. In 2002, human rights advocate and lawyer Radhika Coomaraswamy held a lecture at the 15th Anniversary of the Women’s Studies Program at Harvard University discussing whether or not women’s rights applied to every single woman. Her lecture achieves to shape many ideas and understandings about how universal women’s rights are a complex goal to accomplish, yet it is possible to reach a consensus. Nonetheless, I believe that women’s rights are universal, however, it is not accessible to every female because many countries do not acknowledge it, nor do they apply it to their regime. Therefore, I agree with Coomaraswamy that it is attainable, but we must cooperate with these countries to find solutions that benefit every citizen, especially marginalized people.

Essentially, Coomaraswamy believes that it is a difficult process to declare that women’s rights are universal because of many different aspects. For instance, cultural relativism, which will be defined in detail later in this analysis, is a reoccurring theme that appears in her lecture since it is a subjective viewpoint in many communities. Thus, not every individual believes in the same concepts simply because they are socially constructed in having certain values, morals, and practices by their environment. She supports this claim with many scholars such as Abdullah An’Naim and brings the relevance of universal laws, that should be applied but are not, and how the advocacy of women’s rights by numerous communities should reform their laws. As much as she can find methods to help her case, she admits that there are arrogant ways to approach human rights such as feminist scholar Courtney Howland’s idea of the expulsion of uncooperative countries from the United Nations. Nonetheless, Coomaraswamy believes that “[confronting] issues of cultural relativism [and universal feminism] in a united way [involves] sitting together, talking, debating, and working out solutions that can be commonly lobbied for at the national level” (Coomaraswamy 16).

Before we interpret other societies' laws and lifestyles, Coomaraswamy suggests that we must consider the concept of cultural relativism. Rather than judge one’s cultural values, beliefs, and practices, cultural relativism is the idea that different ways of functioning in society should be understood (3). For instance, Western society has a tendency to look down on certain Eastern cultures that consume dog meat, ignoring the fact that for many it is a traditional custom. To put into perspective, some regions on the planet may find it strange that many people in the Western world consume cattle meat. Thus, I agree that the inclusivity of other’s differences causes less judgment and creates an alliance. She acknowledges that it is difficult to implement “human rights” in other countries because we are judging based on our own biases, which are heavily influenced by European norms. Whether it is conscious or subconscious, it is a form of discrimination. Nevertheless, cultural relativism’s appeal is that it is “an act of defiance and an attempt to capture diversity and equality among people” (Coomaraswamy 3). For instance, at the 1995 Beijing Fourth World Conference on Women, in the Declaration of Indigenous Women, Indigenous women called for tradition-free recognition of their Aboriginal rights and equal treatment. (Green 144). These women want to bring awareness to the negative impact that colonialism has caused not only on the population as a whole but specifically on them since their pleas have been ignored for decades due to sexism. Hence they want society to accommodate to their needs. Cultural relativism has to be brought into the discussion of human rights so that society can deeply understand these different cultures without judgment.

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Nonetheless, Coomaraswamy acknowledges that cultural relativism has been used to justify the denial of women’s rights and understands its complacent relationship with their rights. She brings up the fact that third-world scholars have created their own definition of a “woman” because they disguise it as cultural relativism (7). Their traditional values, albeit misogynist and sexist, are usually the core of their laws. Even North American countries have their own history of taking advantage of this concept to benefit their ideologies when it comes to colonialism. Even though this idea may not have been identified as cultural relativism at the time, European settlers used their Christian beliefs to marginalize the Indigenous population in North America because they viewed them as savages and inferior; taking their resources, exploiting them for labour, controlling their status with the Indian Act (1876) was all under the pretense of the greater good of a civilized Christian society (Green 145-146). Analyzing this example, the dominant group takes advantage of minorities to control them. Therefore, many countries in today’s era ignore the legal doctrine jus cogen, the international human rights law that prohibits derogation, such as the prohibition against torture, sex, and racial discrimination, because it does not suit their narratives, although many of these misogynist communities praise female deities (Coomaraswamy 5-7). Unfortunately, women’s rights are not recognized by many of these countries, even with the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) set in place by the United Nations in 1979. In many cases, the reasoning is the fact that women are not viewed as citizens. According to Ruth Lister in Citizenship, “the citizenship traditions were, [and still are], constructed within a male template” because men engaged with its development (58-59). Thus, patriarchy excludes women and their rights because they did not participate in politics nor in wars. This mindset continues in many parts of the world despite the fact that women have been at the forefront in politics and war for many years now. Arrogant methods, such as Courtney Howland’s assertion that countries that violate their international obligations of the CEDAW, such as the inaccessibility of inheritance, the age of marriage, and the practice of polygamy, should be expelled from the United Nations (Coomaraswamy 9). This expulsion is essentially unethical because it is based on a Western discourse and it is not a solution that benefits anyone affected, except for those in power who are not lenient in finding a middle ground; It is as though we are admitting defeat and abandoning those in need of immediate support.

Furthermore, Coomaraswamy agrees with Abdullah An’Naim that “outsiders” should not decide for marginalized groups, but rather support their approaches because the respect of cultural relativism is essential to the progression of women’s rights (11). These strategies must come from within these communities since there are many different viewpoints that are being acknowledged and they are the ones being directly affected. There is also the fact their experience may be unique compared to other women in the world. Thus an alliance should be formed to maintain a respectable and trustworthy relationship. For instance, the Canadian government has been cooperating with the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) since 1974 to find many solutions and perspectives that will better the rights and the protection of Indigenous (Green 148). Although the government has been neglectful when it comes to taking a course of action pertaining to many issues that involve Indigenous women, such as missing and murdered Indigenous women, the government is at least still willing to apply Indigenous people’s perspective into their regime to find and recognize where they are at fault. Decisions cannot be made for them because that means that there is an assumption of an authoritative position which solely necessitates one's own values onto the marginalized group. As mentioned by Joan Scott in Conundrum of Equality, one of the most common ways to understand our position as a ‘privileged’ society is through the support of affirmative action; raising awareness, education, health, and equality in the countries to create new laws and regulations in support of all human rights (8).

In conclusion, women’s rights are universal, yet they are not thoroughly implemented in many parts of the world. Cultural relativism complicates the achievement of universal women’s rights. Some groups take advantage of it because it benefits them, making it easier to control women. On the other hand, collaborating with these groups living in these oppressive circumstances will help in finding different strategies that will aid them rather than making decisions and forcing ideals onto them without their consent. I am not declaring that living in a world with fewer injustices and more equality will come overnight, or even within years. But it a process that we must all work forward to no matter one’s background, race, sexuality, social class, and gender because it would be nearly impossible for one group to refine women’s rights.

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Cultural Relativism and Issues of Women’s Rights: Analytical Essay. (2022, December 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved November 30, 2023, from
“Cultural Relativism and Issues of Women’s Rights: Analytical Essay.” Edubirdie, 27 Dec. 2022,
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