Olivia Flasch

Cultural relativism in Scandinavia

I recently moved to Chicago for a two-month internship, and had the pleasure of attending a lecture by Mona Eltahawy on her new book “Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution”. Seldomly have I felt so inspired. Mona raised many issues, two of which stuck with me long after the lecture was over.

For those of you who don’t know her, Mona Eltahawy is a feminist, and an American-Egyptian Muslim. She is careful not to confuse those two; she does not identify as a Muslim feminist. She is a member of the Muslim faith, which she considers entirely separate from the fact that she is also, a feminist. Mona is a journalist, who has traveled in and out of Egypt and other Muslim countries, covering the uprisings, and speaking with the locals. She has made many attempts to empower the young women and men in these countries, urging them to speak their minds, say no to their oppressive families and leaders, and move away from misogyny and the authoritarian patriarchal culture that, in her eyes, has poisoned Islam and transformed it into something it does not have to be.

Indeed, Mona raises an important point in this regard. Islam might be able to change. But in order for it to do so, it must come from within. At the Q&A session following her lecture, she was asked whether she collaborates with other prominent figures in this battle against Islamic oppression, such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Her answer was no. Women like Ayaan Hirsi Ali have left Islam, and no longer identify as Muslims. In Mona’s view, this means that they are no longer in the position to effectively change the religion from within. That which is necessary for the Islamic culture to move away from misogyny and oppression are other Muslims, who do not believe in that aspect of the culture, taking control, educating, and informing the new generations that it does not have to be this way. They need a different Muslim figure that they can listen to. Someone who they can identify with, but who does not preach what they are used to hearing from the powerful leaders in their community, whether that be their father, their Imam, or their President.

Yes, Islam needs to change from within. But the oppressed within the religion also need outside assistance. And that is where Mona’s second, phenomenal point comes in. Mona hit the nail on the head with her description of the current European society. Indeed, it need not be stated that Europe has seen a massive influx of Muslim immigrants in the past decade, and that this has led to a number of societal integration issues. In Mona’s view, the Northern, Scandinavian countries have the most problematic perspective on how to deal with the cultural clashes that have arisen in this regard.

She describes countries like Sweden, Norway, and Denmark in the following manner: They have a strong conservative, nationalist party, which portrays Muslims as evil and barbaric, and offers no viable long-term solution to the problems within the Muslim culture. Then, on the other extreme, they have the leftist, liberal parties, that suffer from extreme cultural relativism. They exclaim, “Don’t blame the Muslims, it’s just their culture! You’re a racist if you don’t respect it!” After describing this scenario, Mona bluntly stated (and I’m paraphrasing), “I’m sorry, but it is actually not my culture to be oppressed, beaten, and forced to cover myself by a male member of my community.”

I couldn’t have described it better. This is precisely the problem that Sweden suffers from. One must accept the presence of oppression and misogyny on a large scale within the Muslim culture, and be able to confront it, and deal with it in order to combat it. It is not racist to make these statements. Somewhere down the line, the fear of being labeled a racist became so prominent, that any and all descriptions of negative aspects of a religion began falling under the same umbrella category as blatantly racist judgments. They are not the same thing. Leftist parties claiming to stand for, and fight for, women’s rights in society need to take this issue into consideration, and not be blinded by cultural relativism. We need to understand the society that we have in this day and age, accept it, and deal with it accordingly. And as Mona says, it does not help to simply brand the Muslims and kick them out. It solves no problems. There needs to be a change from within, and assistance from outside. Only then will we see development.

See Mona Eltahawy’s speech below: 

About the Author
Olivia Flasch is an international lawyer who currently lives in London. She studied Public International Law in The Hague, and has a Master's in Law from the University of Oxford. Born into a Jewish family in Sweden, she writes about all things Jewish, as well as about Israel and the world from an international law perspective.