Education About Asia: Online Archives

Cultural Relativism, Universal Human Rights, and Women in Islamic Societies

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By Carolyn Brown Heinz

How are we to teach about women in Islam? There is no single “woman in Islam,” no single Islamic interpretation of what a woman is and should be, and no single view of Islamic women’s aspirations among those women themselves. Still less is there agreement in the non-Islamic world on this topic, except for two contradictory notions: the first, that Islamic societies should define their own realities regarding gender, not do what the West thinks best for them; and second, that Islamic women should have more rights than they presently do. The first position is associated with “cultural relativism,” the second with “universal human rights.” These would seem to be irresolvable contradictions that will inevitably be raised by students in the classroom as they struggle to work through these complexities. I hope to demonstrate in what follows that this seeming dichotomy largely disappears in the rich diversity of actual Islamic communities and in the disparate hopes and agendas of Islamic women themselves.