Friday Feminist – Martha C. Nussbaum

Cross posted

On the one hand, it seems impossible to deny that traditions, both Western and non-Western, perpetrate injustice against women in many fundamental ways, touching on some of the most central elements of a human being’s quality of life – health, education, political liberty and participation, employment, self-respect, and life itself. On the other hand, hasty judgements that a tradition in some distant part of the world is morally retrograde are familiar legacies of colonialism and imperialism and are correctly regarded with suspicion by sensitive thinkers in the contemporary world. To say that a practice endorsed by tradition is bad is to risk erring by imposing one’s own way on others, who surely have their own idea of what is right and good. To say that a practice is all right whenever local tradition endorses it as right and good is to risk erring by withholding critical judgement where real evil and oppression are surely present. To avoid the whole issue because the matter of proper judgement is so fiendishly difficult is tempting but perhaps the worse option of all. It suggests the sort of moral collapse depicted by Dante when he describes the crowd of souls who mill around in the vestibule of hell, dragging their banner now one way, now another, never willing to set it down and take a definite stand on any moral or political question. Such people, he implies, are the most despicable of all. They cannot even get into hell because they have not been willing to stand for anything in life, one way or another. To express [this] every succinctly, it is better to risk being consigned by critics to the “hell” reserved for alleged Westernizers and imperialists – however unjustified such criticism would in fact be – than to stand around in the vestibule waiting for a time when everyone will like what we are going to say. And what we are going to say is: that there are universals obligations to protect human functioning and its dignity, and that the dignity of women is equal to that of men. If that involves assault on many local traditions, both Western and non-Western, so much the better, because any tradition that denies these things is unjust. Or, as a young Bangladeshi wife said when local religious leaders threatened to break the legs of women who went to the literacy classes conducted by a local NGO (nongovernmental organization), “We do not listen to the mullahs any more. they did not give us even a quarter kilo of rice.

Martha Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

2 responses to “Friday Feminist – Martha C. Nussbaum

  1. As I’ve said over at The Hand Mirror, it’s worth noticing that Nussbaum is not demanding the same treatment for men and women, or even equal treatment for men and women, but that men and women are treated with equal dignity. “that there are universals obligations to protect human functioning and its dignity, and that the dignity of women is equal to that of men.”

  2. Very nice quote. I do like Nussbaum.