The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty unequivocally supports women’s rights, freedom and equality. Similarly, we unequivocally oppose racism and homophobia.We say no socialism without liberation, no liberation without socialism.
Some others on the “left” are not so straightforward. They equivocate on these issues when the oppression comes from “other cultures”. Janine Booth argued against this “cultural relativist” approach in a talk she gave in July 2005.
WHEN Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, a Sikh woman, had her play, Behzti (Dishonour) staged, protesters demanded that it be banned on grounds of religious offence. Bhatti, a religious woman, wanted to address issues of rape and “honour” within her community.
The management of Birmingham Rep agreed to stop the play on grounds of public safety. In reality, they allowed themselves to be intimidated.
But many went along with the ban, acquiescing in the highly contentious claim that those who demonstrated (and threatened violence against Bhatti) spoke for the whole Sikh community. There are many other examples of cultural relativism on the left.
Bob Pitt wrote in the Weekly Worker in 2001 that socialists who refused to defend the Taliban were guilty of “racist arrogance”. His position was not unique, just candid. During the US/UK war on Afghanistan Socialist Worker also made some special pleading for the Taliban:
“The Taliban's treatment of women reflects both the underdevelopment of the villages the Taliban had come from and the trauma of the war years. Like every other guerrilla group, they were composed of men who had spent years in fighting units.
“Taliban leaders feared that their soldiers would behave as some previous Mujahadeen groups had on taking a city. The war years had seen repeated abuse and rape of women. They said that forcing women into seclusion was a means of protecting them. Of course, it meant appalling oppression.” (Socialist Worker 1 October 2001).
Ken Livingstone invited Dr Yusuf Al Qaradawi as a guest to London in July 2004. Dr al-Qaradawi is associated with a big political Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood.
According to his fatwas (see his website Islamonline), al-Qaradawi
• personally supports “female circumcision” — that is female genital mutilation
• supports husbands hitting wives to “admonish” them for “disobedience” when other measures fail
• says that husbands must compel wives to veil.
Yet those who objected to Qaradawi’s red-carpet welcome, who wanted to stand up for women’s rights, were denounced as “Islamophobes”.
AT the same time — it is no coincidence in my view — we no longer have a women’s movement to speak of in this country. That is not because there is no need! On many issues, from low pay, to reproductive rights and discrimination at work, there are many issues that need addressing, especially for working class women.
In the face of a grim reality you might expect the left and the labour movement to try to rebuild a women’s movement. They are not. Instead, some sections are telling people to shut up when we oppose sexism in the “wrong places”.
Cultural relativism has a history going back to the women’s movement of the 1970s. That movement won advances for women. It politicised a lot of women as well as changing the attitudes of a lot of men. But the movement was politically divided, roughly speaking, into two groups — the socialist feminists and the radical feminists. The radical feminists “won” out, especially after the initial impetus began to drain away.
A form of politics came to the fore which was alien to many working class women — i.e. the majority of women. This was “identity politics”. The operational method was to say that only people who directly experience a particular form of oppression have the right to an opinion about it – so the loudest people speaking “as a woman” or “as a lesbian” were beyond criticism. A similar method is now useful to religious reactionaries who claim to voice the direct, unquestionable experience of all Muslims or Sikhs etc.
How did the left come to adopt “identity politics”? In the early 80s, Labour lefties elected to local councils were heading for confrontation with the Tory government which was cutting their funding.
At first the left said they would defy the Tories, then they backed down. But they tried to maintain their “left” image by promoting equality issues – good initiatives mostly, but used as an alternative to militant working-class politics.
The left in local government set up a bureaucracy around the “equalities industry”. They appointed “experts” to manage their initiatives. The left advocated a “rainbow coalition” of separate oppressed communities, rather than a fight to build a labour movement that opposes oppression and unites those who suffer it.
Meanwhile, in the academic world, we saw the rise of “post-modernism” which argued against the idea of universal rights or theories, and supported the idea of different cultures being so different that no values could apply across them.
We also saw the “political correctness” movement in US universities which emphasised language rather than structures of oppression and (again) denied the right to critically analyse points of view originating in oppressed communities.
ANOTHER big factor was the revival of religion. In the 1980s Thatcher and (especially) Reagan, both claimed God’s endorsement and the support of the Christian right. Fundamentalism became important, often in parts of the world where people felt failed by secular capitalism and — particularly in the Arab world — by secular nationalism.
Women Against Fundamentalism (later changed to Women Against Fundamentalisms — WAF) was founded in 1989 by feminists who recognised the danger to women’s rights.
As WAF state: “By fundamentalism we do not mean religious observance, which we see as a matter of individual choice, but rather modern political movements which see religion as a basis for their attempt to win or consolidate power and extend social control. . .at the heart of all fundamentalist agendas is the control of women’s minds and bodies.”
One early (and successful) WAF campaign was against a non-religious state school “opting out”, becoming grant-maintained (under a Tory law) and becoming a Sikh school. WAF’s campaign mobilised schoolgirls opposed to the restrictions on freedoms and opportunities that they knew would come with religious status. Those girls, and WAF, were condemned as “racist” by some Sikh community leaders.
Another big element in the mix is “multiculturalism”. To most working-class people, “multiculturalism” is a positive idea of unity. It is about people of different racial/cultural backgrounds mixing together and respecting one another.
But, as WAF and others have identified, there is a more pernicious form of “multi-culturalism”, taken up by mainstream politics. This emphasises difference, not unity; presents communities as internally homogeneous; identifies culture with “tradition” and religion; and allows unelected “community leaders” to speak for whole community. This form of multiculturalism boosts patriarchs and increases their power against those within their community who are feminists, secularists, or just ordinary people who want their own individual freedom.
In 1994 the Bangladeshi feminist and author Taslima Nasrin received death threats and a fatwa for criticising Islam. The AWL brought her to Britain for a speaking tour. In our interview with her she criticised the liberal/feminist/ left approach to “tradition”:
“Women continue to be persecuted in the name of tradition. One thing that feminists in western countries should learn is to be critical about the traditions of Asia and Africa. I have heard western women saying we should follow our traditions. Well, I like my food and I like my dress. these are the things I will keep. But why should I accept the tradition of oppression, too? Why should I accept a society that puts women in veils and allows men to dominate them?”
More recently we have seen the development of politics on international issues that sees the basic divide not as class, but as imperialism and anti-imperialism. So anyone fighting against US/UK is deemed to be good — even regimes or movements such the Taliban, which abuse women’s rights (or for that matter workers’ rights, or democracy, or national/ethnic/religious minorities, and so on.)
The SWP in particular have a lot to answer for. Their particular brand of “party building” means trying attracting people to their organisation is more important than politics. Their current perception is that there are more potential recruits among political Muslims than among feminists. Therefore they ditch their feminism.
What do all the elements I have identified have in common? They are about abandoning women’s rights and universal human rights, and about retreating from class politics. It is no coincidence that these politics have developed in the shadow of defeats for the labour movement.
Why are these politics wrong?
It is not racist to oppose sexism from within ethnic minority communities. Quite the opposite — it’s racist to suggest that women and girls in those communities should put up with sexism or should fight it alone.
The message from the “cultural relativists” to those women is “do not object to sexist practices — or you will be betraying your community’s unity and/or anti-imperialist struggle.”
Western lefties and feminists do not put up with sexism on any grounds. British culture too has sexism. White men beat up their partners. Do we accept that because it’s “our culture”? No way! We shouldn’t ask other women to accept sexism and oppression either.
But — so the argument goes — we are talking about oppressed groups. Shouldn’t we show solidarity with communities oppressed because of their religion or race? If we criticise cultural practices then we are chiming in with the racists.
But the fact is that those communities are not homogeneous. There are conflicts within those communities — between traditionalists and progressives, between conservatives and socialists, between bosses and workers, between religious authoritarians and secularists. So we can show solidarity with for example women refusing the veil rather than with patriarchs imposing it, and at the same time fight racism.
Besides the anti-Muslim or anti-Asian attacks— e.g. the rise in physical assaults, especially following terror attacks —is not from people who oppose sexism and racism. It’s from groups/people who oppose women’s rights as well as being bigoted on race grounds.
But — so the argument goes — the revival of religion, eg the increasingly popularity of the hijab, is a reaction to imperialist oppression. In fact these oppressive customs predate the “War on Terror”, imperialism and even capitalism.
Yes, to some degree, people are turning back to them, e.g. more Muslim women veiling. But does that make it right? People “react to oppression” in all sorts of ways — some good ways, some awful. Even as we recognise that people are responding to oppression, we should not abstain from having an opinion about how they do it.
The left has got into a bad habit. They know what they are against, but are not clear on what they are for. So if a movement (says that it) is against imperialism/capitalism /racism/Blair, or opposes an imperialist war, then some sections of the left say that is good enough for them. What does it matter what you are for?
What should we do about cultural relativism?
1. Call things by their proper names — we must say, “that’s not culture, that’s sexism”!
2. Turn back to class politics.
That is not to say there is no bigotry within the working class or that bigotry will automatically dissolve in the class struggle. It is the job of socialists to always promote unity and to fight bigotry.
Communalism, on the other hand, pulls in the opposite direction — separating and dividing people. The idea that different rights and different standards apply in different communities or countries is an obstacle to building the multi-racial, internationalist, anti-sexist labour movement that we need.
3. We need to both understand and condemn.
The cultural-relativist left has double standards: when it comes to the white working-class people voting BNP they condemn, but don’t attempt to understand it (poverty, economic deprivation). When it comes to religious groups supporting sexist practices, they bend over backwards to understand, but never condemn.
4. We need a new women’s movement, one which has learnt the lessons of the past. We can begin by highlighting the fight for for women workers’ rights.
But our watchword, most of all, must be this: hold the line! No compromise on women’s rights!