Relativism vs Rights? Multiculturalism, Politics, and Women’s Bodies

I was first introduced to debates on universalism vs cultural relativism in my high school philosophy class. In fact, the issue was hardly framed as a debate at all – it was suggested that ethics and morality require universal rules and standards, or else people would be able to justify all sorts of unruly behavior in the name of culture. At the time, I didn’t question any of these assumptions. How could what was morally right or wrong be contingent on one’s ethnicity, religion, or social group? However, over recent years, my increasing awareness of the political climate in both my own country, India, as well as in Europe and North America, has led me to start rethinking the way in which debates around cultural relativism and rights are framed. In particular, I began to think about the ways in which certain groups employ certain types of discourses around women’s rights and culture in order to push their own political agendas.

Women’s bodies have long been the sites of intense contestation around issues of identity and culture. In recent years, debates about multiculturalism and women’s rights have seen a rise in right-wing, nationalist, and Islamophobic discourses. The recent influx of large numbers of Muslim refugees in North America and European countries has further exacerbated these tensions, with as an increasing visibility of xenophobic attitudes and sentiments as well as related changes in laws related to the securitization of Muslim refugees. Proponents of such approaches typically frame rights and culture in opposition to one another, where the treatment of women in Islam and Middle-Eastern cultures is framed in opposition to human rights and freedoms in order to push nationalist, anti-immigrant agendas.


Multiculturalism, the real suicide bomb: The comic reflects dominant rights vs culture framings of Islam, as well as an understanding of multiculturalism not solely as an adjective or descriptor, but rather as a political project. (Cowan, 2006)

Indeed, there are tensions between universal rights and particular cultures – and these have been studied widely in the philosophy and human rights literature. However, the relationship between the two is far more complicated than the simple “rights vs culture” debates that are most widely prevalent in political discourse today. Cowan (2006) provides an interesting and insightful way of differentiating between various framings of rights and culture. In addition to the rights vs culture approach, there are important issues to consider regarding rights to culture, rights as culture, and culture as analytic to rights.

For example, right-wing framings of Islam as inherently oppressive to women often silence the voices of Muslim women and ignore their perspectives on issues such as the debate regarding the hijab and burqa. Indeed, countries that have outlawed various Muslim head/body coverings fail to take into account Muslim women’s capacity for choice and their right to culture – e.g., their right to practice their faith – and instead portray Muslim women as subservient victims and blind supporters of ideologies and practices that supposedly oppress them.


In her blog titled I am Not Oppressed (2013), Laila Alawa, a Muslim social entrepreneur, uses the example of FEMEN’s demonstrations against Islam to highlight elements of orientalism and colonialism in narratives that suggest that Muslim women can only be free upon disrobing and abandoning cultural and religious attire like the hijab and burqa. These narratives were also important in framing the debate around the burkini ban in France, with French police confronting burkini-wearing women on beaches and asking them to remove the attire. In the case of the woman in the famous photograph below, French police claimed that she was not ‘wearing an outfit respecting good morals and secularism’.


The question then remains: where are Muslim women’s voices in the debate? Although active on social media and various other platforms, political discourses continue to silence the voices of Muslim women while at the same time making loaded claims about their rights and oppression. The following three cartoons capture these questions, exploring the role of both men and Western feminists in debates about Muslim women’s bodies and agency.


The instrumentalization of Muslim women’s rights for political agendas has also been an issue in India, a country with a history of Hindu-Muslim tensions. As Merry (2005) discusses, India has a system of separate personal laws for different religious communities under a broader policy of non-interference with the family and marriage rules of minority groups. Although women’s groups in India have long been advocating for a system uniform secular personal law, their struggle has been co-opted and instrumentalized by the Hindu right in order to criticize Muslim laws and push their own political agenda.  As a result, women’s groups that supported a uniform code were unwittingly pitted against minority groups and the debate took on a nationalist undertone, with Muslim women’s bodies and rights once again forming the battleground for political discourse.


As discussed above, narratives that pit culture and rights against one another are often based on an ‘us vs them’ narrative that seeks to define the boundaries of particular identities and beliefs, drawing on human rights as a universal standard for ethics and morality. What goes unacknowledged is the idea of rights as culture – i.e., the fact that rights do not exist in a vacuum outside of culture, but rather, are based on and draw from particular cultures as well. Thus, what has been dominantly conceived of as a conflict between rights and culture needs to be thoroughly re-evaluated to not only acknowledge the cultural origins of human rights and other so-called universal principles, but also to address rights to culture and the complex relationship between the dense, plural, and ever-changing understandings of these concepts.

Merry, S.E. (2006) ‘Disjunctures between global law and local justice’, in Merry, S.E. (ed.) Human rights and gender violence: translating international law into local justice, [Chapter 4]. Chicago: Chicago University Press, pp. 103-133.

Cowan, J. (2006) ‘Culture and rights after “culture and rights”’, American Anthropologist, 108(1), pp. 9-24.