Why we must move beyond the universalism-particularism debate

The universalism-particularism debate has filled hours of lectures and pages upon pages of journal articles for decades. On one side, universalists, proclaiming the shared struggles and shared experiences of the ‘global sisterhood’. On the other, particularists, emphasising our profoundly different biographies and the diversity of our battles.

Which side is right? Both. And neither.

Universalists speak sense when they call upon the fundamental impact of gender on a person’s life, and the way in which our gender dictates, in many cases, the way society treats us. There are many experiences, many crimes, many human rights violations which afflict women, for the simple reason that they are women. Discrimination, domestic and sexual violence, Female Genital Mutilation, the sexual division of labour… The list goes on. It is hard to disagree with the concept of a set of political and cultural structures that perpetuate gender inequality, and the existence of these structures (in relatively similar forms) in almost all states across the globe. In this sense, the subordination of women as second-class citizens is, largely, universal.

But there is some truth to be found in the accusation that this ‘global sisterhood’ is so often a façade for neo-colonialism, for Western hegemony, and for the ‘white saviour complex’. Those who preach the universalism of women’s rights are, by and large, white women from Western liberal democracies who see their role as helping to ‘develop’ and ‘civilise’ the ‘backwards’ cultures of the Third World. The work of the international feminist movement can be seen as ‘Othering’, and as reinforcing divisive and asymmetrical North-South power relations. The very emergence of the international human rights agenda points to this Western imperialism, being as it is a regime built by activists and governments in the West-dominated United Nations in a post-war context. ‘Universal human rights’ are, arguably, a vision of human society as idealised by a select few nations, and the ‘human rights regime’, then, the efforts of these nations to spread this ideal society to others.

Particularists, (also referred to as ‘cultural relativists’) then, seem vindicated in their idea that the ‘global feminist movement’ risks doing more harm than good, and that the focus should be on local grassroots activism. The international community should limit our actions to assistance of these local movements, through the provision of funds or resources for example, and it is vital to respond to the cultural and contextual specificities at play in every society.

There is a danger, though, in becoming so sensitive to cultural differences that we, as an international community, refuse to speak out against gross violations of women’s human rights and ourselves become allies of oppressive regimes or cultures. Particularism also presents an incredible (arguably impossible) test for international observers: to distinguish between legitimate expressions of culture on the one hand, and the abuse of ‘tradition’ to legitimise repression on the other[1].

Both sides of the debate are deeply committed to improving the lives of women across the world; an inarguably noble goal. But the debate itself is a distraction and a hindrance to the efforts of the international community to fulfil this goal. This false dichotomy limits our ability to offer a united and coherent force to help women of all cultures. Surely the international community, for all its knowledge and innovation, is capable of incorporating a little nuance into their approach and combining the helpful aspects of universalism and particularism. Consider, for example, Jack Donnelly’s theory of ‘cultural pluralism’, which supports the universality of human rights generally while allowing for diversity and discretion in their interpretation and implementation[2].

A cultural pluralist approach to women’s rights in Islamic countries, for example, would allow for a recognition of the oppressive nature of women’s existence in these states, while showing understanding for both the deeply-held beliefs involved and the diversity of the experiences of Islamic women, and resisting the condemnation of the belief system as a whole.

Today’s transnational feminist networks, then, have several responsibilities. They must be aware of their own privilege and the asymmetry in power relations present in their work. They must provide resources and assistance to local grassroots groups to allow them to pursue their own empowerment. And, crucially, they must participate in an open dialogue with local women, where their own experiences and struggles can be articulated.

[1] Jill Steans, “Debating women’s human rights as a universal feminist project: defending women’s human rights as a political tool,” Review of International Studies 33,1 (2007): 13

[2] Jack Donnelly, International Human Rights (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1993)


About School of Politics and International Relations

This blog has been set up for the students of PO665, Advanced Topics in Politics and International Relations: Global Gender Justice, which is a course for final year Honours students in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent. As part of their participation in the course, students submit blog posts that examine issues pertaining to gender justice within the family, the community, the state and global society. We aim to explore the extent to which gender inequality within the state has an impact on state behaviour, with a specific focus on state development and state security, and further aim to analyse the effectiveness and limits of international organisations, international human rights instruments, NGOs and activists to bring about greater gender justice.
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