Document Type


Publication Title

Harvard Women's Law Journal

Publication Date



Cultural Relativism, Feminism, Patriarchy, Tolerance, Cultural Difference, Condemnation of Cultural Practice, Global Strategy, Gender Relations, Coercion, Human Rights, World Conference on Women


Confronted with the challenge of cultural relativism, feminism faces divergent paths, neither of which seems to lead out of the woods of patriarchy. The first path, leading to simple tolerance of cultural difference, is too broad. To follow it would require feminists to ignore pervasive limits on women's freedom in the name of an autonomy that exists for women in theory only. The other path, leading to objective condemnation of cultural practices, is too narrow. To follow it would require feminists to dismiss the culturally distinct experiences of women as false consciousness. Yet to forge an alternative path is difficult, requiring feminists to confront the risks inherent in global strategies for change. Building upon women's shared experiences inevitably entails a risk of misdescription, or worse, cooptation but contains the promise of transforming and radicalizing women's understanding of their own condition. Emphasizing difference threatens to splinter women politically, undermining hard-won progress, but may simultaneously uncover new possibilities for re-creating gender relations. Forging a combined strategy that respects both commonality and difference requires feminists to acknowledge that we cannot eliminate the risk of coercion altogether, but the risk of inaction is also ever present