Shafilea Ahmed and cultural relativism

An excellent article on the Liberal Conspiracy website regarding the truly sickening the murder of Shafilea Ahmed has prompted me to dwell on the question of so-called ‘honour killings’ and associated questions of forced marriage and genital mutilation, and how issues of this kind need to be addressed by the left and rather more importantly right now; the authorities.

It’s pretty obvious that there is a problem in some communities, as horror-stories such as this aren’t one-off, isolated events. Sunny Hundal makes the point that he has been raising the issue for years in his journalism and sadly the problem isn’t going away. There are clearly a small number of families that will not allow their children to bring ‘dishonour’ on them by living according to ‘Western’ cultural norms.

Is it a problem endemic to some cultures? I would suggest not. There are plenty of families with Asian and African heritage who don’t accept these strictures, and plenty of families in Asia and Africa with a more liberal attitude to child-rearing and their offspring’s lifestyle choices.

There are also plenty of white parents here in the UK with a vice-like grip on the lives of their children of course…….

So what is the correct response? How do we challenge these reactionary values without making the question a racial one and playing into the hands of bigots on both sides of the debate?

I think the starting point has to be reclaiming the discourse of universalism. And by that I mean that asserting that a more liberal view is not a ‘Western’ one. It means that the values of the Enlightenment (if you’ll excuse the crude euro-centrism) apply to us all, equally, all over the world. It means a rigid separation of church and state. It means depriving parents of the right to control the bodies of their offspring. In essence it means democracy, but a democracy that goes beyond simply the right to place a ticket in a ballot paper every few years. It means fostering a society where genital mutilation, forced marriage and honour killings are not seen as cultural quirks that have to be indulged in the name of ‘tolerance’ and ‘diversity’, but are treated as simply and unconditionally unacceptable and a breach of an individual’s inalienable human right to control over their own bodies, to determine who they want to live with and marry and who they wish to establish social relationships with. ‘Family honour’ is a wholly, indefensibly reactionary concept that has no place in any civilised society anywhere in the world.

And right now that making those principles a practical reality means the authorities taking an active, interventionist role in preventing abuses of those rights (something they evidently failed to do in the tragic case of Shafilea Ahmed) and not allowing themselves to be fobbed off by the discourse of cultural relativism. It will mean accusations of cultural insensitivity and racism I’m sure, but that can’t be avoided.

It also means re-defining what we mean by multi-culturalism (without making concessions to the racist right of course). A relativist view has been allowed to take hold, one that goes beyond simply accepting that we live in a multi-ethnic society (a good thing), arguing that there are distinct and separate ‘communities’, with invariably self-appointed leaderships who determine separate sets of values and moral codes and demand the right to do so unchallenged (a bad thing). Many white liberals and leftists are complicit in this discourse, often with the noblest of intentions, but leading them to extraordinarily reactionary conclusions.

So for example, the ideology of cultural relativism has led to white liberals like Giles Fraser (link) defending the practice of child circumcision and the soon-to-be former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams publicly musing on the virtues of introducing Sharia law. Such lazy (and frankly cowardly) thinking has to be challenged head-on.

I’m sure I’m not the only white, male leftie who feels a bit uncomfortable when weighing into these debates. I know that there is the danger of being accused of racism and ‘cultural imperialism’. I think it’s time that I and others like me put those worries aside though as this issue isn’t going away any time soon.

NB: Another excellent take on the subject over at Shiraz Socialist can be found here. Sections of the column that Jim is referring to are actually pretty disgraceful.

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. BunnyOlesen
    Dec 15, 2012 @ 06:58:58

    Racism doesn’t have anything to do with ‘Islam’ since muslims span the range and globe including every race on earth, and more ethnic groups than I can think of. Black African countries (as opposed to North African Berber/Arab/etc – who also are included in the diversity of Islam), Asian – Malaysia, Indonesia, some Chinese, Uzbeks, Hazari, Tajiks, Pashtun, Kurds, Turkiq peoples, Mongolian tribes in Afghanistan, Arabs, Caucasians of the Balkan States – Chechnya, Dagestan, etc., India, Bangladesh (and more).

    Worldwide REPORTED honor killings are 89% within muslim families, 7% hindu and 4% sikh – Honor killings in Europe are 96% islamic and 4% hindu.

    There are infrequent reports of Yazidi kurds honor killing their daughters in Iraq and Europe.

    As much as everybody wants to claim it is cultural, the phenomena of honor killing has definite roots and connections to Islam, with cultural ties to ‘some’. One can plainly see with the Hindu & Sikh deaths, that culturally, India has problems. Dowry killings, etc., killing daughters AND SONS for wanting to marry outside their caste is more cultural than religious. But I don’t see any strong connection, culturally, between Palestinians, Turks, Iraqis, Persian Iranians, Afghani’s and Indians – and truthfully I rarely hear about honor killings in the black muslim community, often when there is a killing it sounds more like good old regular ‘hubby kills wife’ cause he won’t do what he says. Almost all the ‘regular’ honor killings are shameful daughter killed by father, mother, brother, uncle, cousin (sometimes sisters help too).

    Here in Sweden, the majority of honor killings seem to be Kurdish Muslims, regardless of ‘country of origin – usually Turkey and Iraq – and we’ve had at least Yizidi Kurd honor killing – the rest are Afghani, Egyptian,

    Basically, where religion may be irrelevant, we’re talking Indians & Kurds. In Europe I have noticed a great many honor deaths list the families as being from Turkey or Iraq, without mentioning that quite a few are Kurdish Turks or Iraqis. Although Turkey recently was listed as the #1 country for Honor killings (taking over from Pakistan or Afghanistan). However, Afghanistan & Pakistan VERY often do not report honor killings to any organization that can track them, and in Afghanistan there’s not even any punishment for it. Many muslim countries have low or no sentencing punishments for honor killings & (can’t remember what country-but mid-east) when human rights groups tried to push legislators to enact a sentencing guideline of at least 1 year in prison for honor killing, it was shot down.


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