Academic journal article The George Washington International Law Review

Identity Within: Cultural Relativism, Minority Rights and the Empowerment of Women

Academic journal article The George Washington International Law Review

Identity Within: Cultural Relativism, Minority Rights and the Empowerment of Women

Article excerpt


For the last three decades, the concept of "identity" has taken center place in political, social, and cultural debates. Charles Taylor has conceptualized identity as the search for the authentic self.1 Anthony Appiah has argued that identity involves the playing out of narrative scripts that we have learned from childhood.2 Whether we root out identity within the essence of the human personality or in the constructions of social life, identity politics has certainly conditioned many of the modern debates about rights, politics, and justice. Identity is not an essential, immutable, permanent status, it has many constituent elements. Future experiences often transform the nature and direction of personal identity. Identity is often composite, made up of multiple selves, often contesting, contradicting, and transforming the other. Identity therefore reconstitutes itself, reacting to and negotiating ideology and lived experience.

The subjective identities that philosophers explore must come to terms with the objective reality of identity as it plays out in the real world. In all societies, as the Census and Statistics departments will attest, people are categorized and identified by a social identity, especially as it is expressed in religious, ethnic, or tribal terms. These group-based identities often help determine our position in the social and political hierarchy of a society and also condition people's attitudes and perceptions toward us as we go about our daily business. These stereotypes and homogenous characterizations create obstacles for the realization of equality. They are also the substance of discrimination and often the basis for power and privilege. Our subjective sense of identity is greatly determined by IMAGE FORMULA8

this objective experience as it interacts with our everyday life and conditions the way we think about ourselves. Our group-based identity often goes to the core of our sense of self and our desire for dignity.

For many women, their sense of identity arises as a result their experience as women, living within groups primarily governed by men. Though their sense of self and dignity comes from how the wider society treats women, they often have to face discrimination within local groups. They may have to submit to discriminatory practices and laws, as well engage in rituals, customs, and habits that reinscribe the subordinate status of women within the hierarchy of their religious, ethnic, or tribal identity. Many women acquiesce because they see their group identity as the most important aspect of their lives. Others resist, only to be branded as traitors or "bad women" who bring the group into disrepute.

For outsiders, especially women's activists interested in pursuing gender equality, discrimination within minority groups and third world societies poses a profound set of challenges. On the one hand, the feminist movement has always seen itself as an ally of third world societies and minority groups in their fight for equality and struggle against discrimination and prejudice. On the other hand, as a movement for the recognition of personal choice, it has sought to maximize individual freedom and creativity even at the expense of the group. Fighting prejudice against underprivileged groups while struggling for women's empowerment goes to the heart of the modern dilemma between the universalism of human rights and the particularity of cultural experience. In a world where western imperialism has historically been the champion of third world females in Asia or Africa, the struggle for women's rights acquires another dimension. How does one fight for women's rights without being complicit in the racism and prejudice that characterizes Northern attitudes toward Southern countries or the majority-minority dynamics within particular societies?


The historical legacy of colonialism points to the third world female as being an important part of the encounter between the West and third world societies. …

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