Just out, Fathom 19 is a special issue devoted to Feminism in Israel.
This interview by editor Alan Johnson with Elham Manea caught my eye - Authoritarian governance and Islamist ideology versus women’s rights: It's worth reading in full, but here she is on the "essentialist paradigm":
AJ: You trace the roots of the support offered by some western liberals to the introduction of Sharia to what you call ‘the essentialist paradigm’. Can you explain what the central features of this paradigm are?
EM: The essentialist paradigm is characteristic of Western academic post-colonial and post-modern discourse and has dominated it for far too long. It treats people as belonging to homogeneous groups, essentialising their cultures and religions. It underestimates its own deleterious impact, as an academic and political discourse, on human rights. It discards the voices of people who it deems as being ‘not authentic’ representatives of a culture conceived as singular and unchanging.
Four features characterise the essentialist paradigm:
- It combines multiculturalism as a political process with a policy of soft legal pluralism, dividing people along into cultural, religious and ethnic silos, treating individuals differently on account of their ‘cultural differences,’ in the process setting them apart and placing them in parallel legal enclaves.
- It perceives rights from the perspective of the group: the group has rights, not the individuals within it. It insists that each group has a collective identity and culture, an essential identity and culture, which should be protected and perpetuated even if doing so violates the rights of individuals within the group.
- It is dominated by a cultural relativist approach to rights (in both its forms, as strong and soft cultural relativism), and believes that rights and other social practices, values and moral norms are culturally determined.
- It is haunted by the white man’s/woman’s burden caused by a strong sense of shame and guilt over the Western colonial and imperial past and a paternalistic desire to protect minorities or people from former colonies.
The motives of these ‘progressives’ are in fact noble. They want to protect. The problem is that their essentialist paradigm acts as a filter that does not allow them to see these women as individuals with rights. Rather, they are seen only as members of a cultural group. Worse, the group is then reduced to its religious identity – no diversity is possible, according to this prism. Hence a Muslim woman is seen as part of a group called ‘Muslims,’ and ‘the Muslims’ are believed to want the headscarf, want halal food, never engage in sex before marriage and are happy with sharia. It is actually a racist way of seeing human beings – not as individuals, equal and diverse, but rather a part of a group that must be religious. So, while the motives of the progressives are to protect, they end up ignoring or justifying dire human rights violations committed in the name of the culture and religion....