Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Power Struggle

by Jon Bright from openDemocracy

On our 16 days blog, openDemocracy is hosting a stimulating, worldwide debate on how to end violence against women. Zohra Moosa, who is leading the debate for us, dives into the heart of one of the thorniest issues relating to gender violence - whether we are to be cultural relativists or moral imperialists...

Is there any role left for the idea of cultural relativism when it comes to violence against women? Part of me would like to say, ‘no', that violence against a woman transcends cultural norms and that hurt does not feel different depending what culture you come from. That part of me points to the fact that human rights are universal precisely because they relate to being human, regardless of race, class, citizenship, etc.

On the other hand, another part of me recognizes that when it comes to issues such as female genital mutilation (FGM), there are women who defend their decisions to practice the custom on themselves as this extract explains for women in Egypt. That part of me balks at the idea of dictating to another woman how she should and shouldn't behave, especially when I don't live in her environment or face the challenges she would face if she chose not to be cut.
(read Zohra's full article here)

I agree with how she sets it out, and am often caught in the same frame of mind. There are no easy answers. But the question of cultural relativism vs moral imperialism can sometimes presuppose that we have the power to decide the fate of other areas of the world – it’s just a question of whether we wield it or not. On OurKingdom, another part of openDemocracy, we are interested in studying issues of power and process. Not what the decision is, but how the decision is taken, and who takes it. So I think there is another way of looking at this problem.

That is one of empowerment. Don’t ask whether a culture is right or wrong, ask who debates and decides what is acceptable in that cultural sphere? Then the question is not so much how can ‘we’ prevent gendered violence, but why don’t women have the power to protect themselves? And I think in the UK we first need to look at out own processes.

At a recent Fawcett Society roundtable I attended, there was a palpable feeling that legislation alone had not been enough to achieve equality in the UK, that it had not been sufficient to change perceptions, or cultures of sexism – the types of cultures which are permissive to gendered violence occuring. Even with an increasing number of women in parliament and increasing legislation to prevent discrimination and violence on the basis of gender, a culture of masculinity prevails. Why is that?

I think part of the answer might be because our parliament has no cultural purchase on our population any more. Politicians in general are seen as out of touch and unrepresentative, mendacious and cheating. Representing a country of 56 million+, they have no real connection to local areas. It is not so much that women are not empowered in this country, but no-one is.

Part of the solution, therefore, seems to me to be devolution of power to local decision making structures. Meaningful local bodies, which were genuinely reflective of the diversity of their local populations, would provide fora for debate and discussion of local issues. People would exist in an environment where it was obvious who was taking the decisions which directly affected them, where there was a genuine sense of collective endeavour around building a local community, a local culture. If women formed a key part of this process, which they must, then I think, I hope, that the idea that violence against them was acceptable would wither and die pretty quickly.