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  • A Cross-Cultural Perspective on Reproductive Rights
  • Carla Makhlouf Obermeyer* (bio)

In recent months, a number of international conferences focusing on human rights and population have added a certain urgency to the search for definitions of reproductive rights that would be acceptable cross-culturally. In the last three decades, discussions of reproductive rights at each of the international conferences on population have been marked by subtle but important changes in emphasis. 1 These have come in response to evolving ideas about the rationale for reproductive rights and its implications for population policy, as well as to changes in power relations on the global scene. One key issue on the international agenda is the extent to which definitions of human rights can be transposed to non-Western cultures in ways that avoid both “homogenizing universalism” and “paralyzing relativism.” 2

The purpose of this article is to explore the commonalities that can be found between notions of reproductive rights as they developed in the Western tradition and the principles that define gender rights in Islam. This is a daunting task which requires some knowledge about several disciplinary domains and involves a comparative analysis of two philosophical and legal traditions that have often been at odds historically. In addition, the issue of women’s rights in Islam is one that has brought about a polarization of viewpoints—and recent regional and international developments have [End Page 366] done little to defuse the tension between them. Clearly, this is hazardous intellectual territory where only the overly optimistic would willingly tread. I am convinced, however, that careful research will uncover more common ground than appears at first. It is this belief that motivates my pursuit.

One has to recognize at the outset that the discourse about women and their rights in the Middle East has often been dominated by the more uncompromising positions on both sides. Moreover, the exchange of these extreme views has usually excluded women, who are the group most vulnerable to abuses of reproductive rights. By contrast, woman-centered perspectives coming from both sides can provide new elements for a dialogue. More specifically, Western feminists, who have questioned traditional liberal notions of autonomy and individualism in light of the reality of women’s reproductive experience, have opened the door for a redefinition of rights that is more conducive to dialogue than earlier formulations. At the same time, there are elements in Islam which can be interpreted to justify a more egalitarian approach to reproductive rights, one that is more responsive to women’s needs and is espoused by a large number of Muslims. This article aims to bring to light these two tendencies and show that their shared concern for the welfare of women and men can contribute to bridging the apparent gap between them.

Universalism and Relativism: Anthropological Perspectives

The process of translating legal and ethical concepts of rights between two different cultures is an extremely arduous task. It is useful here to pause for a moment and draw on the anthropological literature which provides many illustrations of the dilemmas that arise from encounters between different normative systems. 3 Unable to find equivalents to his or her concepts of rights and wrongs and confronted with behaviors that seem morally unacceptable, the anthropologist can adopt one of two equally undesirable stances: the first is to conclude that individuals in cultures that do not possess the same notions of rights will need to be “educated” and “enlightened” in the ways of liberal thinking—an undertaking with all the dangers of cultural imperialism; the second is to adopt the detached relativist view, 4 which holds that because any ethical principle is only [End Page 367] applicable in a given context, the anthropologist must acquiesce even to practices that appear to violate human dignity. 5

This dilemma has received a great deal of attention from anthropologists who have at various times had to confront value systems that were antithetical to their beliefs. 6 Recently, there have been attempts to break out of the impasse of universalism versus relativism and develop a new approach to human rights. Several researchers have examined the bases for the universality of human rights. 7 Some have questioned the strict presumption...

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pp. 366-381
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