Does Feminism Have Universal Significance?
I am addressing this open letter to all feminists and, in particular, to « anonymous feminists », in other words, those who are feminists without knowing it. Among the women I know, there are few who label themselves as or openly claim to be « feminists ». However, they all benefit from the changes attributable to this movement. In the following letter, I will attempt to demonstrate that we have not nearly heard the last of feminism and that its most important moments are still to come2. First of all, it would be appropriate to have at least an idea of what feminism has achieved to date:
- Women’s suffrage is established almost everywhere, with the exception of several Arab-Muslim Gulf states3.
- Girls’ enrollment in education has dramatically increased in several places around the world. This will doubtless have been one of the conditions of the « Arab Spring4« , for example.
- At the start of the21st century, Quebec, which lagged behind all other Western countries in 1900, had « the world’s highest access rate of girls to higher education5« .
- In several countries, including Canada and France, it is well-known that women have acquired the right to contraception and abortion, as well as access to all occupations.
However, there is no evidence that this progress is irreversible6. Feminism appears to have changed a large part of the world, but perhaps this change is only superficial, so that we are still unaware of the real significance of this historic emancipation movement.
1. Sexism, in the form of contempt for women, still pervades every culture
A prerequisite here is the clarification of what is meant by sexist contempt or, by contrast, what is meant by respect for women as such:
Firstly, respect for a woman, as claimed by the majority of feminists, involves two fundamental aspects: i) respect for her person, which is equal to any other human being in general; ii) respect for her difference as a woman7. Sexist contempt can therefore take two different forms: non-recognition of the equality of women as such, and non-recognition of their difference as women. These two forms of disrespect have often been interpreted as incitement to the mistreatment or concealment of women in society or in history.
a) Sexist contempt in religion, morality and language
Sexist contempt appears almost everywhere in culture. Here are several examples:
From religious sources:
We should first of all remember that Saint Paul, whose teachings form the basis of Christianity, has often shown evidence of, if not violence, at the very least a profound disregard for women, as demonstrated by these passages from Christian scriptures: « I suffer not a woman to teach » (First Epistle to Timothy, 2:12); « Let your women keep silent in the churches » (1 Corinthians 14:34)8. In her work Les religions face aux femmes, Ariane Buisset demonstrated that the Bible constituted an « androcentric » text, given that it addresses men and not women. As a result, it contains phrases such as « you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife » and « thousands of other » similar statements. « This oversight is not innocent », she writes, « It constitutes a symbolic murder of women9 » Furthermore, in all the major religious traditions, whether Christian or not, the majority of « saints » have used statements that degrade women’s self-esteem. Let us quote Ariane Buisset again on this point. « The misogyny of the majority of ‘saints’ in all traditions must be kept quiet, and women run the risk of being accused of unhealthy hypersensitivity when they take offense. […] In fact, it is astonishing that misogynist discourse can still take place without the cover bearing a legal disclaimer ‘caution, incitement to sexism’, as is the case for ancient texts by the Church Fathers, or recent texts by Muslim fundamentalists10« .
First of all we could, for example, list the great writers who have remained dependent on a certain cultural sexism11. We could observe that virtually everywhere in the world, the majority of human beings still tend not to consider women as « fully-fledged human beings » and that, as a result of this fact, it seems logical to these individuals that women receive harsher treatment12. Consequently, a woman who requests a divorce can be killed in the name of « honor13 » However, often this woman accepts her condemnation; she believes that she is guilty of a crime14. A huge number of women have fallen victim to this. Florence Rochefort describes them as follows: « The mystics, the witches, the hysterics, and all those women who paid for their transgressions with their lives and their psychological stability, become custodians of a part of feminine identity and creativity, which is ridiculed and hidden away15« .
In language itself:
It has been stated that, « the principal alienation of women is linguistic16 » The rules of gender agreement that favor the masculine (considered as having a « pseudo » neutral status) are another way of concealing women. A feminist movement criticizes language use and language itself. The reason for this is that women are entitled to be subjects of their discourse, which means that they must be able to question the language they use17. « [Linguistic] differentiation linked to gender is a universal phenomenon18« .
However, feminists are far from unanimous about this. Some refer to it as feminist « minor complaints » in contrast with the « victimization of women » in general19. Nevertheless, the fact remains that this is additional evidence of the diminution of women. It would certainly be as difficult to correct the sexism in language20 as it would be to correct it in morality or religion, where contempt often becomes aggression.
b) Gender-based violence
Sandrine Treiner defines gender-based violence thus: it consists of all acts that are « directed towards the female sex, and that cause or are capable of causing harm or physical, sexual or psychological suffering to women, including the threat of such acts, intimidation or arbitrary deprivation of freedom, whether this takes place in public or private life21« . This writer states that what this violence towards women affects is their « productive life »22. Violence can emerge as soon as the woman refuses to play her supposed normal role. She is treated with hostility and subjected to psychological and moral rejection from the group.
Some feminists have observed that women are particularly vulnerable in their intimate relationships with their family or their partner. According to Maryse Jaspard, « living with a partner seems to be the most dangerous situation for women »23… « violence, whatever the nature of this may be, reaches its peak behind closed doors » and what is referred to as a « crime of passion » is, in her opinion, nothing but a « romantic appellation »24« . Domestic violence is one of the most widespread forms of violence, in developed societies as well as others. The situation is complicated by the fact that it takes place within the context of the couple’s intimate relationship. Psychological violence is also included in this description in the form, for example, of « controlling and humiliating behavior » and « behavior denoting an attitude of control, domination and belittlement »25« . The clarification of forms of violence therefore also includes moral condemnations for poor morals or other « crimes » such as adultery or apostasy, but also, for example, any behavior regarded as dishonorable or shameful according to the moral standards of the group. In fact, these are all examples of disrespect for people in their identity and in their ability to grow.
2. Can we put a stop to this universal contempt?
If we accept the premise that gender-based violence is caused or brought about by sexist contempt, then it will be possible to overcome this violence if we first put an end to the universal contempt that women are subjected to, whether this originates from religion, morality or language. However, can universal disrespect for women be sufficiently reduced so that they will be able to look to the future with confidence?
There is perhaps one possible solution. Currently, feminists tend to help all women, including those who do not wish to be feminists and those who put up with a situation of profound disrespect in a fatalistic manner. Could this helpful attitude also be extended to men, despite the psychological difficulty involved in helping those who appear to be adversaries? If this were the case, perhaps we might arrive at a completely new situation of respect for all. In an attempt to reach this point, here is a three-step plan that we will call « Respect Project« 26« :
Irene Khan, the Secretary General of Amnesty International, identifies as priorities for action, the « fight against sexual terrorism » which, in her opinion, is the « primary unacknowledged scandal with regard to the violation of human rights« ; she identifies the family as an « extremely dangerous environment« , all the more so because in this context, the victims may be ambivalent28. This means that many women who are mistreated in this context tend not to rebel, but instead tend to allow this state of affairs to continue, or else encourage it. Ariane Buisset highlights the lack of respect that the major religions have for women: « To varying degrees, all religions have either served as an excuse for the enslavement of women, which constitutes a crime against humanity, or turned a blind eye to the conditions they were subjected to and failed to intervene, which constitutes a duty-to-rescue crime29. » « The majority of religious people continue to justify the enslavement of women, when no one would dare to defend slavery or anti-Semitism anymore.30. »
b) Interpret gender-based violence, as well as male/female inequalities, in terms of disrespect. Maryse Jaspard makes a crucial distinction between « conflict » and « violence » within couples. She defines conflict as a « a relational mode that involves reciprocity between the protagonists and is capable of bringing about change31« . As for violence, « although it may take identical forms [to those of conflict]—verbal and physical aggression—[it] is unequivocal, the same person suffers and then concedes during arguments. Conflict may be regarded as one of the functional modes of lasting interpersonal relationships, violence represents domestic dysfunction32« .
Consequently, we can describe conflict as a form of behavior which is compatible with respect for each person, whereas gender-based violence, which is destructive, is incompatible with respect for this person. The attitude of conflict is therefore liable to reduce a situation of potential violence to a simple conflict through which the protagonists come to help each other. Thus, verbal violence, including moral reprobation and criminalization, will be consciously eliminated by protagonists who strive to respect one another. For example, « sexual terrorism » would be interpreted and treated as if it were an intolerable custom which efforts must be made to eliminate, but without seeking any real « culprits ». If necessary, we must of course agree to allow time in order for this to be actively eliminated33.
c) Redress contemptuous language in favor of expressions conveying helpful attitudes rather than punitive attitudes.
Observing that « the texts and treaties of the United Nations constantly advocate the reinforcement of the family, viewed as the basic unit of human societies », Irene Khan makes this important point: « Protecting the rights of women, children and sexual minorities does not only impose the right to defend the concept of the family as a social construction, but also requires the promotion of a concept that defines the family as a way of life that offers safety and support to all those who belong to it.34 » This description of the familial situation, which does not seek a « culprit », is respectful to all, and all receive mutual respect.
Sandrine Treiner makes a similar point in her description of certain Muslim societies: « Certain courts turn a blind eye when faced with Islamic law [sharia] like in Pakistan, Sudan or Nigeria35« . Yet, we could interpret her expression « turn a blind eye » to mean that, in « conflict » situations, these states refuse to respond to the violence they should be dealing with. The states should therefore « open their eyes » by raising criticism and agreeing to help all those who need it. They must learn to protect rather than punish.
Respect for all women and all men involves showing the least violence possible yourself, even if this seems unfounded. Inequality is not maintained first and foremost by impunity but rather by the absence of educationally and ethically suitable public criticism. Rather than punitive imputation, it is essential to learn methods of making people aware of their responsibilities, and helping as much as possible. The punitive attitude perpetuates other inequalities. Often, it is women and the most vulnerable who pay the price. The authorities must hold people accountable, not in the sense that they are seen as « culprits », but in the sense that they recognize the extent of their responsibility and their errors. Ultimately, words themselves are not always helpful, as they are often a vehicle for violence rather than the idea of conflict. It is therefore becoming increasingly evident that the language of morals needs to evolve:
Violence → conflict
Punish → protect
Criminalize → imputation that makes people aware
of their responsibilities36
3. Towards « universal feminism »?
Universal feminism would be a feminism that would seek full respect for all women worldwide. This universal approach would go hand in hand with the recognition of women as equals, but would go further still. Specifically, this universal approach would mean two things:
i) « Universal » recognition of all women as human beings in the full sense of the word and
ii) « Universal » recognition for all women of their difference as desired or chosen: woman rather than man, lesbian rather than heterosexual, Muslim woman rather than Western woman, etc. This is interpreted as a demand for equal status for any person, man or woman, and respect for the difference freely chosen by the woman, whatever this difference may be37.
The concept of respect for difference is difficult to grasp — women being simultaneously equal and different. However, it can be interpreted quite clearly in terms of autonomy: women want to be recognized as being autonomous, which means, in particular, that they are not obliged to remain a member of a patriarchal culture or community nor, by extension, to remain a member of any culture or community, if it were feminist (as in the case of lesbians). In short, point ii above equates to the recognition of the right to dissent against a group to which you no longer belong. Consequently, a feminist may dissent profoundly against the « patriarchal » society to which she no longer wishes to belong38. Lesbians demand the right to separate their own identity from that of heterosexual feminists. Muslim women do not wish to be counted among Western feminists and this is also the case for followers of other religions who value their difference.
Yet the convergence of women worldwide towards the full respect of their own differences could equally apply to all human beings, women and men included, in terms of both their gender difference and their religious differences or general differences as a result of their membership of any kind of group. This results in the convergence of women and men… The ideas and themes of feminism demand the worldwide convergence of women. If women were to reach this point of mutual respect, why not the entire human race?
Yvon Provençal (2014)
Department of Philosophy
Cégep de Granby — Haute-Yamaska
Postscript: The reader can find additional explanations of convergence in the Lettre ouverte aux catholiques (Open letter to Catholics) and in the Lettre ouverte aux musulmans (Open letter to Muslims).
See: Explications supplémentaires sur le cas des lesbiennes (Additional explanations in the case of lesbians) and: Explications supplémentaires sur la compatibilité du féminisme avec les croyances religieuses (Additional explanations regarding the compatibility of feminism and religious beliefs)
1 « L’émancipation des femmes […] est sans aucun doute la principale révolution sociale et culturelle du XXe siècle ». This quotation originates from a collective of female writers: Éliane Gubin, Catherine Jacques, Florence Rochefort, Brigitte Studer, Françoise Thébaud, Michelle Zancarini-Fournel, « Conclusion : Le bilan d’un siècle », in Le siècle des féminismes, Paris, Les Éditions de l’Atelier, 2004, p. 425.1
2 In my role as a philosophy teacher in Quebec, and then as a researcher, I have been responsible for raising the awareness of young citizens, male and female, of the fundamental issues in Quebec society and world societies in general. The publication of this open letter is part of a coherent set of teaching methods that have been made possible by new methods of communication using the Internet. More specifically, this is a « PAM » (pédagogie agissant sur le monde — teaching method with worldwide impact; see the Agorathèque site). 2
3 Éliane Gubin, Catherine Jacques, Florence Rochefort, Brigitte Studer, Françoise Thébaud, Michelle Zancarini-Fournel, op. cit., p. 430–431. They further remark that women’s suffrage was only useful in sufficiently democratic states. 3
4 « printemps arabe ». According to Zakya Daoud, there have been « three advances » for the women of the Maghreb: « the prodigious growth of education, which was almost non-existent at the end of colonization », « access to the world of work » and « family planning », but the legal status of women is fixed, except in Tunisia (« l’essor prodigieux de la scolarisation, quasi nulle à la fin de la colonisation », « l’accès au monde du travail » and « le planning familial » — Zakya Daoud, « Politique et féminismes au Maghreb », in Le siècle des féminismes, op. cit., p. 372–373). 4
5 « le taux d’accès des filles à l’enseignement supérieur […] le plus élevé du monde ». Micheline Dumont, « L’accès des Québécoise à l’éducation et à la mixité », in Le siècle des féminismes, op. cit., p. 152. 5
6 Nicole Pellegrin, for example, criticizes the idea of continued progress for women, taking into account the history of feminism. See Grandes voix du féminisme, Anthologie présentée par Nicole Pellegrin, Paris, Le Monde-Flammarion, 2010, p. 15. 6
7 Respect for difference poses certain challenges, particularly on a conceptual level. We shall address these later in this open letter, particularly in the third part, « 3. Towards « universal feminism »? 7
9 « androcentré », « tu ne convoiteras pas la femme de ton voisin », « de milliers d’autres », « Cet oubli n’est pas innocent », « Il constitue un meurtre symbolique des femmes ». Ariane Buisset, op. cit., p. 335–336. Ariane Buisset then refers to the historian Judith Plaskow, co-founder and co-editor of The Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion.9
10 « La misogynie de la plupart des ‘saints’ de toutes les traditions doit être passée sous silence, et les femmes courent le risque d’être taxées d’hypersensibilité maladive, quand elles s’en offusquent. […] En fait, il est étonnant que les discours misogynes puissent encore circuler sans porter en couverture une mention légale ‘attention, incitation au sexisme’, qu’il s’agisse des textes anciens des Pères de l’Église, ou des textes récents des intégristes musulmans ». Ibid., p. 317–318. 10
13« honneur ». Sandrine Treiner, « Au nom de l’honneur » : crimes dans le monde musulman », in Le livre noir de la condition des femmes, ed. by Christine Ockrent, Paris, XO Éditions, 2006, p. 80–88. Sandrine Treiner states that « Islamic law is not directly responsible » (« la loi islamique n’est pas directement en cause » p. 83). Honor crimes do not exist solely in the Muslim world, but also in many environments where there is a Catholic culture, for example.13
15 « Les mystiques, les sorcières, les hystériques et toutes celles qui ont payé leur transgression de leur vie et de leur équilibre psychique, deviennent les dépositaires d’une part d’identité et de créativité féminine, bafouée et ensevelie ». Florence Rochefort, Le siècle des féminismes, op. cit., « Contrecarrer ou interroger les religions », p. 358.15
16 « la principale aliénation de la femme est linguistique ». Pierre Guiraud (linguist), Sémiologie de la sexualité, Payot, 1978. Quoted by Dalila Morsly, in Le siècle des féminismes, op. cit., p. 320.16
17 See Dalila Morsley (linguist), « Revisiter la langue », Le siècle des féminismes, op. cit., p. 321. Dalila Morsley states that, in 1978, Quebec, « pioneer in the field” (« pionnier en la matière »), produced the first guide to the feminization of professions.17
18 « différenciation [linguistique] liée au sexe est un phénomène universel ». Anne Bodine and Marina Yaguello, « Sexocentrisme et recherches linguistiques », in Verena Aebisher and Claire Forel (Ed.), Parlers masculins, parlers féminins, Lausanne, Delachaux and Niestlé, 1992 (quoted by Dalila Morsley, ibid., p. 323).18
21 « dirigés vers le sexe féminin, et causant ou pouvant causer aux femmes un préjudice ou des souffrances physiques, sexuelles ou psychologiques, y compris la menace de tels actes, la contrainte ou la privation arbitraire de liberté, que ce soit dans la vie publique ou dans la vie privée ». Sandrine Treiner, Le livre noir de la condition des femmes, Paris, op. cit., Préface, p. 12–13.21
23 « la vie en couple apparaît comme le contexte le plus dangereux pour les femmes ». Maryse Jaspard, « Les violences conjugales en Europe », in Le livre noir de la condition des femmes, op. cit., p. 239.23
25 « conduites contrôlantes et humiliantes », « comportement indiquant une attitude de contrôle, de domination, de dévalorisation ». See Maryse Jaspard, ibid., p. 242–243. She states that, in Europe, « approximately one in ten women is a victim of psychological, physical or sexual violence in their relationship » (« environ une femme sur dix est victime dans son couple de violences psychologiques, physique ou sexuelle » p. 254).25
26 Respect Project involves other elements and principles, but the fundamental point of this project, amongst others, can be found in the plan outlined herein. See the Agorathèque site for additional explanations « Le respect des personnes et des groupes (Respect for individuals and groups)« .26
27 « crimes contre l’humanité », « terrorisme sexuel ». The expression « sexual terrorism » to refer to violence against women is from Christine Chinkin, Professor of International Law at the London School of Economics and Political Science (quoted by Irene Khan, « Priorités pour l’action », in the Livre noir de la condition féminine (translated from the English by Léonie Abélès), op. cit., p. 706).27
29 « À des degrés divers, toutes les religions ont, soit servi d’excuse à l’asservissement des femmes, ce qui constitue un crime contre l’humanité, soit fermé les yeux sur les conditions qui leur étaient faites et négligé d’intervenir, ce qui constitue un délit de non-assistance à personne en danger ». Ariane Buisset, Les religions face aux femmes, op. cit., p. 297. Italics are my own.29
32 « si elle peut prendre des formes identiques [à celles du conflit] – agressions verbales et physiques −, [elle] est univoque, la même personne subit les coups et cède lors des altercations. Le conflit peut être envisagé comme une des modalités fonctionnelles des relations interpersonnelles durables, la violence est un dysfonctionnement conjugal ». Ibid.32
33 Such an interpretation runs directly counter to a certain rationalism that defines the universal in abstract terms, without defining respect as that of difference. The reader can find explanations above in « Difficultés conceptuelles » (Conceptual difficulties), on the Agorathèque site.33
34 « les textes et les traités des Nations unies prônent constamment un renforcement de la famille, considérée comme l’unité de base des sociétés humaines un mode relationnel impliquant la réciprocité entre les protagonistes et susceptible d’entraîner du changement », « Protéger les droits des femmes, des enfants et des minorités sexuelles n’impose pas seulement au droit de défendre le concept de famille en tant que construction sociale, mais lui enjoint aussi d’en promouvoir une conception qui définisse la famille comme un cadre de vie apportant sécurité et soutien à tous ceux qui vivent en son sein ». Irene Khan, op. cit., p. 709.34
35 « Certaines cours de justice ferment les yeux devant la jurisprudence islamiste [de la charia] comme au Pakistan, au Soudan ou au Nigéria ». Sandrine Treiner, Le livre noir de la condition des femmes, Paris, op. cit., p. 87–88.35
37 See additional explanations on the Agorathèque site, in « Le respect de la différence (Respecting difference) » and « Difficultés conceptuelles (Conceptual difficulties)« .37
 Azadeh Kian-Thiébaut, « Les mouvements d’émancipation des femmes en Iran », in Le siècle des féminismes, op. cit., p. 389–392.
 Ariane Buisset, Les religions face aux femmes, « Introduction », Paris, ÉditionsAccarias/L’Originel, 2008, p. 18.
 The traditional sharia is an unequal law because it allows polygamy and repudiation.
 See my site: Agorathèque.
 Line Chamberland, « Le garde-robe de verre », La vie en rose. Hors série 2005. Le magazine féministe d’actualité, Montreal, Remue-ménage, p. 94–95.
 Christine Bard, « Le lesbianisme comme construction politique », in Le siècle des féminismes, op. cit., p. 111–112.
 Quoted by Christine Bard, op. cit., p. 121.
 Jane Misme, editor of the journal La Française, June 11, 1911, quoted by Florence Rochefort, « Contrecarrer ou interroger les religions », in Le siècle des féminismes, op. cit., p. 352.
 This is what is implied by Ariane Buisset’s position regarding religions, which « must also recognize that they should be in a state of perpetual evolution » (« devraient par ailleurs reconnaître qu’elles doivent être en perpétuelle évolution… ») (Les religions face aux femmes, op. cit., p. 373).  Ariane Buisset, Les religions face aux femmes, op. cit., p. 288.
 Ibid., Introduction, p. 12.
 Ibid., Introduction, p. 101.