Welcome to our book forum on Serene Khader’s Decolonizing Universalism! Below is a brief introduction to the book from Khader herself. Just a reminder: you do not need to have read the book to participate in the discussion. Feel free to ask questions about any aspect of the book or the discussion below.
I aim in Decolonizing Universalism to articulate a feminist normative position that can cross borders without licensing imperialism. We live in an era where feminists are complicit in projects of Northern and Western domination, and where feminist rhetoric is used to marshal support for such projects. Consider President Trump’s evocations of rape at the U.S. Mexico border, feminist support for bans on Muslim headscarves in Europe and Canada, and our international development agenda that exploits women but claims to be “investing in” them.
It has been difficult to articulate a position that is at once anti-imperialist and feminist, because universalism is treated, by defenders and critics alike, as synonymous with the spread of Western values. The assumption that universalism means promoting Western values and interventions generates what I call the “anti-imperialism/normativity dilemma” wherein we must choose between opposing gender injustice and biting the bullet of Western chauvinism or opposing imperialism and accepting that feminism is just an imperialist conceit.
My strategy for dissolving the dilemma is to shift the focus from whether feminists should have values at all onto the question of which values and strategies feminists should embrace. I show in the book that three of the most controversial values among anti-imperialist feminists, namely forms of autonomy, individualism, and gender role eliminativism are not required for feminism—and also that feminist universalism does not entail the idea that a single form of life ought to be universally adopted. My positive view, which I call “nonideal universalism,” allows me to articulate a universalist position that does not entail prescribing universal adoption of the values of what I call “Enlightenment liberalism,” a form of comprehensive liberalism on which moral progress happens through the abandonment of traditional values and relationships and the universalization of economic independence.
Nonideal universalism couples a view about the normative content of feminism with a view about the role values should play in transnational feminist praxis. The content of feminism, is, following the early bell hooks, opposition to sexist or gender-based oppression. I adopt Marilyn Frye’s canonical definition of oppression as systematic disadvantage of one or more social groups relative to other(s). The role values ought to play in transnational feminist praxis is what Amartya Sen (2009) would call a “justice-enhancing” one or Charles Mills (2005) would call a “nonideal theoretical” one. We want values that help us reduce sexist oppression in the world, rather than ones that offer a specific vision of ultimate gender justice.
I wrote this book for an interdisciplinary audience and structured it around conversations about values that appear in popular media and the social scientific literature. Because I’m mostly among Anglo-American-style moral and political philosophers here at PEA Soup, I thought I’d take this opportunity to foreground some of the book’s key analytical and conceptual points.
- The universalism/relativism debate is question-begging. Philosophers tend to respond to anti-imperialist critiques of Western values by asserting the superiority of relativism to universalism. But it is a mistake to read most anti-imperialist feminists as relativists—and, even if they were relativists—relativism being wrong does not make Western values right.
- Values can play justificatory and constitutive roles in imperialism. Philosophers have tended to understand anti-imperialist critiques as allegations that certain values Westerners take to be universal are parochial. I argue that, though Western values can be imperialist in this (“constitutive”) sense, there is another role values are often argued to play in imperialism. In this second “justificatory” role, values make imperialist action appear morally desirable.
The work of anthropologist Saba Mahmood (2005) shows how freedom can play both roles. Mahmood sees the idea that one should see one’s self, and not tradition, as the source of moral authority as a parochial value that Western feminists arbitrarily want to foist on Muslim women who believe that some religious dictates must be unquestioningly accepted. Mahmood also argues that value for freedom makes it appear that women lose nothing when their cultures and traditions are eroded and makes it easier to justify policies ranging from the U.S. bombing of Iraq to bans on headscarves.
- Missionary feminism is a product of commitments to idealization, moralism, and justice monism rather than moral universalism. I call the orientation that is the object of most contemporary anti-imperialist critique “missionary feminism.” Missionary feminism requires moral universalism (why else would one attempt to convert others to one’s values universal?) but the converse is not true.
Instead, missionary feminism combines a particular form of universalism with certain ideological epistemic habits. The relevant form of universalism is ethnocentric justice monism. Justice monism is the view that only one set of social arrangements could embody gender justice. The ideological habits are idealization and moralism. Missionary feminists assume an idealized social ontology according to which the West has achieved greater gender justice than other societies because of endogenous factors. As postcolonial feminists have argued idealization prevents colonialism, in its historical and contemporary forms, from counting as a product of Western culture and from playing an explanatory role in the persistence of gender injustice. Moralism involves evaluating political actions as though they are pure expressions of moral principles, rather than attending to the interests that motivate them and their effects.
Consider missionary feminist support for the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Evincing the idealized social ontology, supporters often assumed that the Taliban was in power because of “Muslim culture) rather than the legacy of the Cold War; evincing moralism they did not discuss the effects war might have on women because Westerners must “do something.” Their view that gender justice in these countries would involve a decrease in religiosity and women wearing nail polish instead of veils evinced ethnocentric justice monism.
- Opposition to sexist oppression does not require anti-traditionalist autonomy. It is often thought that feminists must criticize tradition, since oppressive practices are so often defended in the name of culture and religion. I argue that the idea that feminists must exercise anti-traditionalist autonomy (a form of autonomy on which one must be willing to distance oneself from any inherited dictate to evaluate it) misses the fact that oppressiveness is a feature of the effects of practices rather than their origins. It is possible to be a feminist on traditionalist grounds, as in real-world cases where religious feminists argue that the content of their tradition entails opposition to sexism.
- Opposition to sexist oppression does not require any form of individualism, and is undermined by some forms of it. One of the critiques of Western values I discuss at length concerns the worry that feminist interventions cause women to lose value that the relationships they find themselves in import to their lives. I canvass many such critiques, including, for example Lamia Karim’s (2011) worry that microcredit replaces systems of mutual support with an ideology of competition.
These critiques may seem to be incompatible with feminism, since they target individualism, and feminism seems to require emphasizing women’s status as separate persons with worth. I argue both that the form of individualism that is the object of the critiques is distinct from the notion that women are separate persons and, perhaps more provocatively, that feminism does not require commitment even to personhood individualism. This is because oppression is a group-afflicting phenomenon. I believe that, in most situations, denying women personhood status is oppressive. But the reason is contingent rather than conceptual; if there are societies where counting as a separate person is not a source of social advantage, feminism on its own does not offer reasons to attempt to introduce personhood individualism.
I also argue that feminists should jettison independence individualism, the form of individualism that is the object of the anti-imperialist critiques. They should do so because it undermines feminist change by a) tying feminist solidarity to a parochial Western value, b) exacerbating women’s gendered labor burdens, and c) obscuring the transition costs of feminist change (see below).
- Women gain benefits from oppressive practices, and feminists should ask questions about who bears the transition costs of feminist change. I have argued across my work that individual women often benefit from complying with oppressive norms—that is norms that disadvantage women as a group. In what Uma Narayan (2002) discusses as “harm-benefit bundling,” individual women have to comply with oppressive norms to gain objective benefits.
I argue in the book that an important upshot of this is that individual women stand to incur losses as part of a transition to a more gender-just social order—and that feminists should raise moral and political questions about the distribution of these losses. Consider the case of Gateefa, an elderly Bedouin woman in Lila Abu-Lughod’s ethnography (2015) who once upheld protofeminist ideas but now laments changes to the intergenerational patriarchal family structure. But it is self-interested for her to lament the changes to this family structure; now that her sons have moved out of the house, there is no one to care for her in old age. Feminists need to understand that the changes they propose impose genuine, objective costs on individual women in the short-term and work to develop strategies that do not transfer these costs to the most vulnerable.
Abu-Lughod, Lila. 2013. Do Muslim Women Need Saving? Cambridge: Harvard.
Karim, Lamia. 2011. Microfinance and Its Discontents. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
Mahmood, Saba. 2005. Politics of Piety. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Narayan, Uma. 2002. “”Minds of Their Own: Choices, Autonomy, Cultural Practices, and
Other Women”.” In A Mind of One’s Own: Feminist Essays on Reason and Objectivity edited by Louise M. Antony and Charlotte E. Witt. Boulder. Boulder, Colorado: Westview.
Mills, Charles. 2005. “Ideal Theory as Ideology.” Hypatia 20 (3):165-184.
Sen, Amartya. 2009. The Idea of Justice. Cambridge: Harvard.