Conference at Bryn Mawr: “Cultural Relativism vs. Human Rights: Women’s Global Issues”

Posted March 24th, 2009 at 11:17 am.

When does advocating the rights of women abroad become cultural imperialism? When does respect for another culture’s practices cross the line into condoning human-rights abuses?

On Friday, March 27, and Saturday, March 28, academics, activists, and development professionals from around the world will gather at Bryn Mawr’s Wyndham Alumnae House to address these issues at a conference titled “Cultural Relativism vs. Human Rights: Women’s Global Issues.”

“In the past couple of decades, we’ve seen an increasing embrace of multiculturalism, which is essentially a cultural-relativist perspective,” says Leslie Rescorla, director of the Katharine Houghton Hepburn Center, which is co-sponsoring the event along with the Center for International Studies, the Gender and Sexuality Studies Program, the Center for Social Sciences, the Departments of Anthropology, Economics, Political Science, Psychology, and Sociology, Africana Studies, the Social Justice Pilot Program, and the Multicultural Center.

“Multiculturalism stresses respect for the values, traditions, and practices of cultures other than one’s own,” Rescorla observes. “But the language of human rights tends to assign universal status to certain rights and freedoms. So there is some tension between these two movements, and many issues where the conflict is clearest have to do with women’s rights.”

The conference will begin Friday night with a keynote address by Professor of Philosophy Christine Koggel, now serving as the Bower Carty Professor of Ethics and Public Affairs and director of the Centre for Values and Ethics at Ottowa’s Carleton University. In “Human Rights Through the Lens of Feminist Relational Theory,” Koggel will consider insights gained from considering individuals and the opportunities available to them in the context of the broad networks of of relationships in which they are situated. Such an analysis, she says, “suggests that a sensitivity to culture and context need not threaten or undermine an account of human rights.”

Saturday morning’s program will feature four speakers addressing economic, legal, and political rights, followed by three who will discuss gender, sexuality, and reproductive rights. Lunchtime speaker Shiva Balaghi, vice president of the American Institute of Iranian Studies, will deliver an address titled “Men of God, Women of Allah: Gender and Islam in Contemporary Iranian Art.”

The afternoon program will focus on adolescent girls, with a presentation by Hepburn Fellow Maya Ajmera ’91, founder and president of the Global Fund for Children. Ajmera will then moderate a discussion led by a panel of five Bryn Mawr undergraduates—Deborah Ahenkorah ’10, Gabriela Andicoechea ’09, Hind Eideh ’09, Annum Hussain ’10, and Menghan Shen ’10—who have firsthand experience of adolescence in Ghana, Guatemala, the West Bank, Pakistan, and China.

This conference will be free and open to the public; a nominal fee will be charged for a buffet lunch. A full conference program is available on the Hepburn Center’s Web site. For more information, please contact Margaret Kelly at

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