Decolonizing Universalism: A Transnational Feminist Ethic, by Serene J. Khader (Oxford University Press), £22.99/$35
Have you ever wondered if wearing a head scarf is compatible with being a feminist, or even a feminist act? Or perhaps you have assumed that wearing a head scarf can never be endorsed from a feminist perspective. Is working for subsistence wages in a garment factory in Bangladesh (an oft-cited form of empowerment for young women) a desirable feminist alternative to living within the cultural norms of traditional Bangladeshi Muslim communities? Can you be a feminist and still hold that there ought to be differentiated gender roles? If these questions have ever bothered you, you will want to read Serene Khader’s new book Decolonizing Universalism: A Transnational Feminist Ethic.
So, what does it mean to “decolonize universalism”? The challenge of decolonial, postcolonial and transnational feminisms to Western feminism is that it should be possible to criticise gender injustice without prescribing Enlightenment liberal values of individualism, autonomy and gender-role eliminativism. However, it is widely accepted that decolonial, postcolonial and transnational feminisms must be relativistic or anti-normative views, lacking universalist bite. Khader’s primary aim, and in my view one of the most important aspects of the book, is her development of a feminist normative position that rejects this dichotomy. She defines feminism as the “universalist opposition to sexist oppression”. Her view is decolonial in that it does not require adopting the Western Enlightenment liberal values of individualism, autonomy, and gender-role eliminativism. It is universalist in that it is a normative claim of the wrongness of sexist oppression in all circumstances.
At the core of Khader’s book is a powerful critique of the ways that Western feminism has been co-opted by, and implicated in, various forms of Western imperialism through a rhetoric of moral progress. A common conception of the Enlightenment liberal view of moral progress is that it “occurs through the abandonment of traditional values and unchosen relationships, as well as through the universalization of economic independence.” Feminist moral progress on this view requires moving toward gender equality, individualism and autonomy within a society through abandoning traditional values.The argument is that it is the traditional patriarchal values of a society that foster gender inequality, so a more feminist society requires abandoning such values. But it is these values that are the very fabric of a culture and abandoning them causes many associational and kinship harms. When put like this — that we can only have a feminist world view through the destruction of non-Western cultures — Western feminism, as outlined by Khader, looks disturbingly like Western imperialism. It apparently requires imposing Western values at the expense of other cultures, specifically the “othered” cultures of the Global South. This rhetoric of moral progress was used to justify the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, drone strikes in Syria, and various economic policies pushed by the International Monetary Fund on the Global South. The advancement of gender interests figures prominently in such justifications.
Western feminism, according to Khader, becomes feminist Western imperialism by extending the plausibly core commitment of feminism of “freedom from sexist oppression”, to a positive commitment as to what we should be moving toward, the values of individualism, autonomy, and gender-role eliminativism. Freedom from child marriage (a clear case of sexist oppression) becomes the freedom to be an individual economic agent working for subsistence wages in a sweatshop. But, Khader argues, our commitment to feminism neither mandates nor licenses this move. Saving someone from an objectionable state of affairs, does not require saving them to some ideal and predetermined state. As she puts it, there is no single feminist endpoint at which all societies must arrive. Saving from sexist oppression is compatible with many ways of structuring lives, ways that are more or less ideal or familiar.
There is a strand of pragmatism that runs through Khader’s arguments, an attention to actual lives and circumstances that informs many noncolonial, postcolonial and transnational feminist views. This is no accident. The world is a messy place, and we ought to be concerned with the effects of theory and policy on actual lives. It is easy to miss the results of applying theories from the armchair, and an obsession with the ideal, Khader argues, is one explanation of how Western feminism became complicit in Western imperialism.
Overall, Khader gives a thoughtful and nuanced accounting of a normative theory of feminism that rejects the view that what is universally valuable for women just is an idealised form of the western way of life. Although dense in parts, Decolonizing Universalism is well worth the time and effort required to read it. I find her argument that we can oppose sexist oppression in wide variety of ways, without necessarily imposing Western values, persuasive. Cultural traditions should not be accepted or rejected wholesale, rather evaluated on their merits as fostering or opposing sexist oppression. The intensely provocative account of the unwitting slide from feminism to Western imperialism, what Khader terms “missionary feminism”, is an overdue call for all feminists to re-examine their commitments. We should be willing to challenge our shibboleths, and sometimes, it turns out, wearing a head scarf really can be a feminist act.