The Politics of Debating Culture and Women's Rights in Liberal Democracies
In 2013, several Paris suburbs erupted in violence in response to abusive police and vigilante enforcement of the French "burqa ban." The ban, passed in 2010, prohibits the covering of the face in public and targets Muslim women's face veils. French politicians from across the political spectrum and many French feminists supported the ban. Among their justifications for the law was the belief that Muslim men force Muslim women to wear the veils and that the government must protect women's rights. In contrast, most international human rights organizations and many Muslim women opposed the ban. They argued that Muslim women have the right to choose to wear the face veil and to express their cultural identity and religious beliefs in public. Over recent decades, debates about issues that involve culture and women’s rights—such as the face veil in Europe, the expulsion of native women from their tribe for marrying non-native men in Canada and polygyny in South Africa—have generated widespread controversy. As a result, pundits, politicians and scholars have asked: what should liberal democracies do when minority group cultural practices conflict with women's rights? The Politics of Debating Culture and Women's Rights argues that this is the wrong question to ask. It is the wrong question because it assumes that the problem is a conflict between culture and women's rights, and it precludes the thorny question of why these debates have become so pervasive in the first place. Alternatively, this book asks: how and why does the policy problem of culture and women's rights get created? And what work do debates about culture and women's rights do in liberal democracies? By drawing on fieldwork in France, Canada and South Africa that includes nearly 100 interviews and extensive archival research, and by integrating several qualitative methods, I find that liberal democracies do not face conflicts that require them to navigate between competing claims of culture and women’s rights.
On the contrary, powerful policymakers in France and Canada pitted minority group practices and women’s rights against one another while discounting women members of minority cultural groups who argued that culture and women’s rights were mutually supporting. Further, the conflict narrative that dominated the debate in both cases not only helped politicians pursue their strategic interests, it also contributed to the myth of White supremacy. In liberal democratic postcolonial states policymakers reject this myth even as they endorse human rights and pursue their interests. In South Africa, this led policymakers to assert that culture and women's rights frequently agree. Their commitment to denying White supremacy and proclivity to find agreement between culture and women's rights led them to simultaneously legalize polygyny and improve women's rights in customary marriages.
In all three cases, powerful liberal democratic policymakers acted as human rights referees while marginalizing women members of minority groups. Indeed, debates about culture and women's rights target rather than empower minority women. And they empower liberal democratic policymakers to do more than contain minority women’s demands; they also empower policymakers to arbitrate between culture and women’s rights claims. Debates over culture and women's rights thus produce policymakers as paternal caretakers of minority women and regulators of rights. The book provides a framework for excavating these effects and how policy actors create multiple relations between culture and women’s rights that is applicable wherever people argue about culture and women’s rights.