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“Saving Amina”: Global Justice for Women and Intercultural Dialogue

  • Alison M. Jaggar


Western moral and political theorists have recently devoted considerable attention to the perceived victimization of women by Non-western cultures. In this paper, I argue that conceiving injustice to poor women in poor countries primarily as a matter of their oppression by illiberal cultures presents an understanding of their situation that is crucially incomplete. This incomplete understanding distorts Western theorists comprehension of our moral relationship to women elsewhere in the world and so of our theoretical task. It also impoverishes our assumptions about the intercultural dialogue necessary to promote global justice for women.



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1 The quotation in my title is taken from an article that appeared in Essence magazine in 2003, although the Essence article portrays Lawal's Nigerian woman lawyer, Hauwa Ibrahim, rather than Western feminists, as “saving Amina”.

2 Ayesha Imam and Sindi Medar-Gould, “Please Stop the International Amina Lawal Protest Letter Campaigns” (open letter, May 1, 2003).

3 A note on my terminology: In this essay, “we” refers to moral and political theorists sympathetic to political feminism who work in North America or the European Union. I have in mind primarily citizens, but also, to a lesser extent, permanent residents. In speaking of countries' geopolitical and geoeconomic locations, feminist scholars have used a variety of terminologies—all problematic in some respects.

4 Barbara Burris, “The Fourth World Manifesto,” in Anne Koedt, Ellen Levine, and Anita Rapone, eds., Radical Feminism (New York: Quadrangle/New York Times Book, 1973), pp. 322–57.

5 Robin Morgan, ed., Sisterhood Is Global (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984).

6 See Amos, Valerie and Pratibha, Parmar , “ Challenging Imperial Feminism ,” Feminist Review 17 (1984 ), pp. 319 ; and Frederique Apffel-Marglin and Suzanne L. Simon, “Feminist Orientalism and Development,” in Wendy, Harcourt, ed., Feminist Perspectives on Sustainable Development (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Zed Books, 1994 ), pp. 2645.

7 Alison M. Jaggar, “Western Feminism and Global Responsibility,” in Barbara S. Andrew, Jean Keller, and Lisa H. Schwartzman, eds., Feminist Interventions in Ethics and Politics (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Little-field, 2004), pp. 185–200.

8 See, e.g., Hazel Carby, “White Women Listen!” in Rosemary Hennessy and Chrys Ingraham, eds., Materialist Feminism (New York: Routledge, 1997), pp. 110–28; Diana Fuss, Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature and Difference (New York: Routledge, 1989); Elizabeth V. Spelman, Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989); and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, eds., Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), pp. 271–313.

9 See Martin, Jane Roland , “ Methodological Essentialism, False Difference, and Other Dangerous Traps ,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 19, no. 3 (1994 ), pp. 630 – 57.

10 Chandra Mohanty, “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourse,” in Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Ann Russo, and Lourdes Torres, eds., Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), pp. 51–80.

11 Philosophical disagreements between Nussbaum and Okin have recently become more explicit. See Susan Moller Okin , “ Poverty, Well-Being, and Gender: What Counts, Who's Heard?Philosophy & Public Affairs 31, no. 3 (2003 ), pp. 280316 ; and Martha C. Nussbaum, “On Hearing Women's Voices: A Reply to Susan Okin,”Philosophy & Public Affairs 32, no. 2 (2004 ), pp. 193205.

12 Nussbaum, Martha C. , “ Human Functioning and Social Justice: In Defense of Aristotelian Essentialism ,” Political Theory 20, no. 2 (1992 ), p. 204.

13 Sen's concept of capabilities was designed in part to address the problem of adaptive preferences; he illustrated this problem by reference to Indian widows, who had learned to disregard their deprivation and bad health. See Amartya Sen, “Gender Inequality and Theories of Justice,” in Martha Nussbaum and Jonathan Glover, eds., Women, Culture and Development: A Study of Human Capabilities (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), pp. 259–73.

14 In defending the universality of the capabilities, Nussbaum's earlier work appealed to the Aristotelian method of critically refining the eudoxa, or reliable beliefs. Martha C. Nussbaum, “Public Philosophy and International Feminism,” Ethics 108 (July 1998 ), p. 768 . More recently, Nussbaum has developed a “non-Platonist substantive good” approach that allows her to postulate the capabilities as universal values even in the absence of expressed consensus. See Martha C. Nussbaum, Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000). For critical discussion of this method, see Alison M. Jaggar, “Reasoning about Capabilities: Nussbaum's Methods of Moral Justification,”Journal of Political Philosophy (forthcoming).

15 Susan Moller Okin, Justice, Gender, and the Family (New York: Basic Books, 1989).

16 Susan, Moller Okin , “ Gender Inequality and Cultural Differences ,” Political Theory 22, no. 1 (1994 ), p. 8.

17 Unlike Nussbaum, however, Okin argues against the essentialists that sexism can indeed be separated analytically from other categories of oppression, using empirical data to show that attention to gender is comparatively new to justice theories and development studies—and that it matters.

18 Will Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship: A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).

19 Okin, Susan Moller , “ Feminism and Multiculturalism: Some Tensions ,” Ethics 108 (July 1998 ), pp. 661–84; and Susan Moller Okin, Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? ed. Cohen, Joshua, Howard, Matthew, and Nussbaum, Martha C. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999 ).

20 Okin, Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? p. 13.

21 Ibid., p. 20.

22 Cheshire, Calhoun , “ Justice, Care, Gender Bias ,” Journal of Philosophy 85, no. 9 (1988 ), pp. 451 – 63.

23 Both Nussbaum and Okin identify their topics as philosophical problems about culture, specifically cultural relativism and multiculturalism. The term “culture” is also prominent in the titles of their writings about poor women in poor countries; one of Nussbaum's books is titled Women, Culture and Development, and Okin's article analyzing the problems of poor women in poor countries is titled “Gender Inequality and Cultural Differences”.

24 Martha Chen, “A Matter of Survival: Women's Right to Employment in India and Bangladesh,” in Nussbaum and Glover, eds., Women, Culture and Development, pp. 37–57. Martha C. Nussbaum, in “Human Capabilities, Female Human Beings,” in Women, Culture and Development, p. 62, regards Chen's study as evidence of the need for her universal capabilities approach. Okin, in Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? p. 15, refers to Chen's work as evidence for her claims about cultural injustice to women.

25 Raymond Williams, Keywords (London: Fontana, 1983), p. 160.

26 John Tomlinson, Cultural Imperialism: A Critical Introduction (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), p. 5.

27 Ibid.

28 Nancy Fraser, “From Redistribution to Recognition? Dilemmas of Justice in a ‘Postsocialist’ Age,” in Justice Interruptus: Critical Reflections on the “Postsocialist” Condition (New York: Routledge, 1997).

29 Bhikhu Parekh, Rethinking Multiculturalism: Cultural Diversity and Political Theory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), pp. 264–65.

30 Okin, Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? pp. 12–13.

31 Parekh, Rethinking Multiculturalism, p. 265.

32 Okin, Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? p. 13.

33 Seyla Benhabib, The Claims of Culture: Equality and Diversity in the Global Era (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), p. 84.

34 Amartya, Sen , “ More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing ,” New York Review of Books 37, no. 20 (1990 ), pp. 6166.

35 Ayelet Shachar, “The Paradox of Multicultural Vulnerability: Individual Rights, Identity Groups, and the State,” in Christian Joppke and Steven Lukes, eds., Multicultural Questions (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 87–129; Ayelet Shachar, “On Citizenship and Multicultural Vulnerability,”Political Theory 28 (2000), pp. 64–89; and Ayelet Shachar, “The Puzzle of Interlocking Power Hierarchies: Sharing the Pieces of Jurisdictional Authority,”Harvard Civil Rights–Civil Liberties Law Review 35, no. 2 (2000), pp. 387–426.

36 UN Dept. of Public Information, “The Feminization of Poverty” (New York, 2000); available at

37 Reema Nanavaty, “Making the Poor Women Reach Markets: ‘SEWA's Journey’” (Ahmedabad, India: SEWA, 2000); available at

38 UNIFEM, Progress of the World's Women 2000 (New York: UNIFEM, 2000), p. 31; available at

39 See, e.g., Oxfam, “Dumping Without Borders: How US Agricultural Policies Are Destroying the Livelihoods of Mexican Corn Farmers,” Oxfam Briefing Paper, August 2003; available at; and Oxfam, “Stop the Dumping: How EU Agricultural Subsidies Are Damaging Livelihoods in the Developing World,” Oxfam Briefing Paper, October 2002; available at

40 The higher incidence of HIV among people living in the developing world has special significance for women's health, because women comprise a higher percentage of adults living with HIV/AIDS in these areas than they do in the wealthy countries. In sub-Saharan Africa, women account for 55 percent of all new cases of HIV. See Danielle Nierenberg, “What's Good for Women Is Good for the World,” World Summit Policy Briefs (Washington, D.C.: Worldwatch Institute, 2002).

41 Lourdes Beneria, Gender, Development, and Globalization: Economics as if All People Mattered (New York: Routledge, 2003), p. 78.

42 Naila Kabeer, Reversed Realities: Gender Hierarchies in Development Thought (New York: Verso, 1994).

43 See, e.g., UNRISD, Gender Equality: Striving for Justice in an Unequal World (Geneva: UNRISD, 2005), p. 46; available at

44 Somewhat similarly, critics of recent Western-planned development projects have argued that these projects have often reinforced the subordination of women. See Esther Boserup, Women's Role in Economic Development (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1970); Kabeer, Reversed Realities; Nalini Visvanathan, “Introduction to Part I,” in Nalini Visvanathan, Lynn Duggan, Laurie Nisonoff, and Nan Wiegersma, eds., The Women, Gender and Development Reader (London: Zed Books, 1997), pp. 17–24.

45 Veena Talwar Oldenburg, Dowry Murder: The Imperial Origins of a Cultural Crime (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

46 Dallas L. Browne, “Christian Missionaries, Western Feminists, and the Kikuyu Clitoridectomy Controversy,” in Brett Williams, ed., The Politics of Culture (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991), p. 262.

47 Uma Narayan, Dislocating Cultures: Identities, Traditions, and Third World Feminism (New York: Routledge, 1997), p. 65.

48 Leslye Amede Obiora , “ Feminism, Globalization and Culture: After Beijing ,” Journal of Global Legal Studies 4 (1997 ), pp. 355406.

49 Leti Volpp , “ Feminism versus Multiculturalism ,” Columbia Law Review 101, no. 5 (2001 ), p. 1205, n. 108.

50 Ibid.

51 Greg Bearup, “Afghan Schoolgirls Poisoned,”Guardian Weekly, May 6–12, 2004, p. 4.

52 Lauren Sandler, “Women under Siege,”Nation, December 29, 2003; available at

53 Narayan, Uma, “ Essence of Culture and a Sense of History: A Feminist Critique of Cultural Essentialism ,” Hypatia 13, no. 2 (1998 ), pp. 86106.

54 Bridget Anderson, Doing the Dirty Work? The Global Politics of Domestic Labour (London: Zed Books, 2000).

55 Gita Sen and Caren Grown, Development, Crises and Alternative Visions: Third World Women's Perspectives (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1987); Caroline O.N. Moser, “Gender Planning in the Third World: Meeting Practical and Strategic Needs,” in Rebecca Grant and Kathleen Newland, eds., Gender and International Relations (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1991), pp. 799–825; and Kabeer, Reversed Realities..

56 Hye-Ryung Kang, “Transnational Women's Collectivities as Agents of Global Justice Claims” (paper presented at the American Philosophical Association Pacific Division Meeting, Global Justice Mini-conference, March 2004).

57 Okin, “Gender Inequality and Cultural Differences,” p. 13.

58 Ibid., p. 15.

59 Narayan, Dislocating Cultures, p. 15.

60 Ibid., p. 85.

61 Ibid., pp. 84–85.

62 Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan, Scattered Hegemonies: Postmodernity and Transnational Feminist Practices (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), p. 24.

63 Parekh, Rethinking Multiculturalism, pp. 268–70.

64 Leila, Ahmed , “ Western Ethnocentrism and Perceptions of the Harem ,” Feminist Studies 8 (1982 ), pp. 530 – 34.

65 Okin, Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? p. 117.

66 Narayan, Dislocating Cultures, pp. 57, 59–60.

67 Thomas W. Pogge, World Poverty and Human Rights: Cosmopolitan Responsibilities and Reforms (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2002), p. 153.

68 Noleen Heyzer, “A Women's Development Agenda for the 21st Century,” in Noleen Heyzer, ed., A Commitment to the World's Women (New York: United Nations, 1995), p. 47.

69 Onora O'Neill, Towards Justice and Virtue: A Constructive Account of Practical Reasoning (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

70 Parekh, Rethinking Multiculturalism; and Benhabib, The Claims of Culture. Fifteen years ago, Nussbaum and Sen already challenged sharp dichotomies between “internal” and “external” social criticism, noting the existence of extensive cross-cultural linkages. See Martha C. Nussbaum and Amartya Sen, “Internal Criticism and Indian Rationalist Traditions,” in Michael Krausz, ed., Relativism: Interpretation and Confrontation (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989), pp. 299–325.

71 The institutions that govern the global economy are formally democratic, but in practice they are heavily influenced by a small group of wealthy countries. At both the World Bank and IMF, the number of votes a country receives is based on how much funding it gives the institution, so rich countries have disproportionate voting power. Each has about 150 members, with a Board of Executive Directors with twenty-four members. Five of these directors are appointed by five powerful countries: the United States, U.K., France, Germany, and Japan. The president of the World Bank is elected by the board and traditionally nominated by the U.S. representative, while the managing director of the IMF is traditionally from the EU. The World Trade Organization is also formally democratic in that each of its member countries has one representative who participates in negotiations over trade rules, but democracy within the WTO is limited in practice in many ways. Wealthy countries have far more influence than poor ones, and numerous meetings are restricted to the G-7, the most powerful member countries, excluding the less powerful even when decisions directly affect them.

72 V. Spike Peterson and Anne Sisson Runyan, Global Gender Issues (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1999), p. 120.

73 Richard F. Grimett, “Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations, 1996–2003” (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, 2004), p. 82. India and Pakistan are among the poorest of all countries, but India is the fifth largest importer of major conventional weapons, while Pakistan is the twelfth. Farrukh Saleem points out, “When the poverty-ridden East fills [the] West's craving for drugs, there is talk of ‘supply control.’ [However], the West remains … the largest seller of arms to the East.”“Why Are We Poor?”News International (Pakistan), January 12, 2003.

74 Saundra Sturdevant, “Who Benefits? U.S. Military, Prostitution, and Base Conversion,” in Marguerite R. Waller and Jennifer Rycenga, eds., Frontline Feminisms: Women, War, and Resistance (New York: Routledge, 2001), pp. 141–57.

75 In addition to the considerations mentioned earlier, women suffer most from militarism's environmental destruction and its promotion of a sexist and violent culture in which men are glorified as warriors while women are either degraded or portrayed as national resources. Rape is a traditional weapon of war, and military activity is usually associated with organized and sometimes forced prostitution.

76 Kalpana Mehta observes that, in India, “NGOs could be said to be running a parallel government in the country, with priorities determined abroad and with no accountability to the people.” Quoted in Jael Silliman, “Expanding Civil Society, Shrinking Political Spaces: The Case of Women's Nongovernmental Organizations,” in Jael Silliman and Ynestra King, eds., Dangerous Intersections: Feminist Perspectives on Population, Environment, and Development (Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press, 1999), pp. 23–53.

77 Nira Yuval-Davis, Gender and Nation (London: Sage Publications, 1997), pp. 120–21. Western feminists may also support transnational feminist networks, such as the Latin American and Caribbean Women's Health Network, Women Living Under Muslim Laws, and ABANTU for Development. See Margaret E. Keck and Kathryn Sikkink, “Transnational Networks on Violence against Women,” in Activists Beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998), pp. 165–198; and Christina Ewig, “The Strengths and Limits of the NGO Women's Movement Model: Shaping Nicaragua's Democratic Institutions,”Latin American Research Review 34, no. 3 (1999), p. 83.

78 Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” p. 296.

79 Imam and Medar-Gould, “Please Stop the International Amina Lawal Protest Letter Campaigns”.

80 Benjamin Barber, “Jihad Vs. McWorld,”Atlantic Monthly (March 1992), pp. 53–63; and Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996).

81 Nussbaum is one philosopher who is explicit about this. See, e.g., Nussbaum, Women and Human Development. That academic writing does indeed have an influence outside academia is shown by politically motivated attacks on ethnic and feminist studies, as well as more recent attacks on postcolonial and Middle Eastern studies.

82 Linda Martine Alcoff, “The Problem of Speaking for Others,”Cultural Critique (Winter 1991/92), pp. 5–32.

83 Katha Pollitt, “As Miss World Turns,”Nation, December 15, 2002; available at

84 A recent letter to the Colorado Daily stated, “First, we need a five year moratorium on all immigration into this country to give us a ‘collective break’ from the onslaught of foreign languages, diseases being imported, female genital mutilation practiced by Middle Eastern and African muslim immigrants that is barbaric.” Frosty Wooldridge, Letter to the Editor, Colorado Daily, November 18, 2003, p. 10.

85 Amos and Parmar, “Challenging Imperial Feminism,” p. 11.

86 “The State of the Union: President Bush's State of the Union Address to Congress and the Nation,”New York Times, January 20, 2002, p. A22; and “Mrs. Bush Discusses Status of Afghan Women at U.N.: Remarks by Mrs. Laura Bush,” March 8, 2002; available at

87 UNDP, Human Development Report 2000: Human Rights and Human Development (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 185.

88 Pogge, World Poverty and Human Rights, p. 114.

89 Volpp, Leti, “ Blaming Culture for Bad Behavior ,” Yale Journal of Law and Humanities 12 (2000 ), pp. 89116 . Charles L. Briggs and Carla Mantini-Briggs, in “‘Bad Mothers’ and the Threat to Civil Society: Race, Cultural Reasoning and the Institutionalization of Social Inequality in a Venezuelan Infanticide Trial,”Law and Social Inquiry 25 (2000) pp. 299–302, describe Venezuelan public health officials blaming cultural practices for high morbidity and mortality from cholera, thereby deflecting charges of institutional corruption, inefficiency, indifference, and genocide.

90 Hussaina Abdullah, “Wifeism and Activism: The Nigerian Women's Movement,” in Amrita Basu, ed., The Challenge of Local Feminisms: Women's Movements in Global Perspective (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1995), pp. 209–25.

91 Sola Adebayo, “N-Delta Women Give Shell 10-Day Ultimatum on Demands,”Vanguard (Lagos), November 14, 2002; available at

92 “We demand the right to choose and struggle around the issue of family oppression ourselves, within our communities … without white feminists making judgments as to the oppressive nature of arranged marriages.” See Amos and Parmar, “Challenging Imperial Feminism,” p. 15.

* I would like to thank Abigail Gosselin for research assistance, Christian Barry for valuable editorial suggestions, two anonymous Journal reviewers, and participants in the conference, “Global Justice and Intercultural Dialogue,” Shanghai Normal University, Shanghai, China, January 8–12, 2004, especially Thomas Pogge, for helpful comments. A slightly different version of this essay will appear in Andreas Follesdal and Thomas Pogge, eds., Real World Justice (Berlin: Springer, 2005).I dedicate this article to the memory of Susan Moller Okin, whose work and friendship have been inspirational for me. Susan's dedication to justice for all women was unfailing both in her theoretical writings and in her life commitments. Before her death, Susan read this paper and graciously addressed its challenges.


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