The Limits of Cultural Relativism

We need to talk about Iran.

Tom Watson
Statecraft Magazine
9 min readNov 16, 2022

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“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” — Martin Luther King Jr

Cutting hair and burning hijabs have become symbols of the protests in Iran (Getty Images: Ozan Guzelce).

It’s been termed the Women’s Revolution. Hundreds of women-led protests, all across the Islamic Republic of Iran, sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini.

And I’m ashamed to say that, until recently, I’d heard almost nothing about it. Snippets, here and there, but not enough to make me find out more. Crucially, not enough to provoke what I now believe to be the appropriate reaction: moral outrage.

We need to talk about Iran. So, that’s what I’m going to do in this article. This is a story about oppression, resistance, and morality; and it’s one that demonstrates, with painstaking clarity, the limits of cultural relativism.

Mahsa Amini was out walking with her family on the 13th of September when she was arrested for allegedly violating Iran’s mandatory hijab law. Apparently, she was wearing her hijab too loosely, immodestly exposing some hair. For this crime, she was seized by the Guidance Patrol, Iran’s official morality police, and bundled into the back of a police van to be ‘re-educated’ at a police station.

Here, accounts of what happened diverge. The Iranian government claims she collapsed with a heart attack upon arrival at the police station. However, according to eye-witness accounts from co-detainees, she was savagely beaten across her body and head by police, causing her to fall into a coma. Amini died in hospital, three days later, but reports indicate she was brain-dead on arrival.

Immediately, Amini’s death inspired protests, beginning with small demonstrations outside the Kasra Hospital where she died, and growing progressively as more information about the circumstances of her death emerged.

The Iranian Government’s response to this has been brutal.

In the two months since protests began, at least 326 protestors have been killed, including 43 children and 25 women. Some have been shot dead by police during protests. Others have turned up dead after being arrested, much like Amini herself. In many cases, the families of the dead have been forced by police to announce their deaths as suicides, despite overwhelming evidence of abuse. Just this week, Iran issued its first official death sentence for a protester, and sentenced others to decades in prison.

…if we are serious about addressing the oppression of women in Iran, and everywhere, this can’t just be a discussion about police brutality.

The Iranian government has sought to play down the extent of the violence, under-reporting casualties, shutting down internet access to limit the flow of information, and labelling victims as rioters, terrorists, and separatists, acting at the behest of foreign powers.

Yet despite this, protests have continued.

Despite the deaths, the disappearances, and the accompanying stories of torture and rape, women and male allies across the country have continued to rally.

Schoolgirls have removed their hijabs and marched in the streets. Women have live-streamed videos of themselves burning hijabs, and fought hand-to-hand with armed police. Protesters demand an end to mandatory hijab laws, the dissolution of the Guidance Patrol, legal protection for women’s rights, and an end to the totalitarian theocratic regime which governs Iran.

This is an extraordinary display of courageous resistance to brutal oppression, and I’m ashamed that I wasn’t paying attention.

We need to pay attention. We need to talk about what’s happening in Iran.

Hijabs burn in the street as protestors march. (Getty images)

And if we are serious about addressing the oppression of women in Iran, and everywhere, this can’t just be a discussion about police brutality, or state overreach.

It must also lead to a discussion about the political, cultural, and religious norms that perpetuate the idea that women and their bodies belong under the control of men.

If not, we end up persecuting a different, but no less harmful, kind of discrimination: the soft bigotry of apathy.

Because, while tragic, Amini’s death is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the oppression of women in Iran.

Conservative estimates are that two thirds of Iranian women experience domestic violence throughout their lives. And, every year, thousands of women and girls across Iran are murdered by male family-members in honour killings, some truly horrific.

This violence takes place in an explicitly patriarchal context. Women in Iran are denied many basic rights, including abortion access, leading to hundreds of thousands of dangerous illegal abortions every year. Their testimony counts for less in court. Married women are considered inferior and subordinate to their husbands, who must provide permission for their wives to leave the country or work certain careers, and are legally entitled to kill them should they find them committing adultery.

And these laws all find their basis in Iran’s dominant fundamentalist interpretation of Shia Islam.

These are the ideas that are being challenged when protestors burn hijabs. And these are the issues that we must discuss if we are to truly grapple with women’s oppression in Iran, and in other conservative Islamic nations.

Now, we won’t all agree during these discussions.

That’s fine.

For example, I would argue that the custom of women wearing head-coverings in public is patriarchal, degrading, and, in certain social contexts, actively harmful. And I know that many — especially Islamic feminists — would disagree.

This type of disagreement is to be expected in a religiously diverse democratic world. It’s also to be expected that people will gravitate toward those with whom they agree, and so the mainstream opinions of different communities, and indeed countries, will differ, on issues like this. This level of cultural relativism is a feature, not a bug, in democratic society.

However, there are limits to cultural relativism. There are certain moral facts that we simply must agree on.

We don’t all need to agree about whether it’s patriarchal for women to wear head coverings. But we must all agree that it’s wrong for a government to mandate that women do so.

And we must all agree that it’s wrong for governments to back up this mandate with lethal force. To abduct women from the street for wearing ‘improper clothing’ and bury their broken bodies 10 days later. To fire birdshot and automatic weapons upon protesting crowds, and beat others to death. To encourage a culture so toxically patriarchal, so fundamentally misogynistic, that thousands of people attend pro-government counter-protests, either unmoved by the moral depravity of these acts, or unwilling to believe the women who speak up about them. A culture where thousands of men would rather murder their wives, their daughters, their sisters, than live with the shame of their perceived immodesty. And we must agree that the behaviour of these men is wrong also.

… such criticism isn’t just coming from the outside in — it’s coming from Iranian women themselves.

These are things that we can’t compromise on, or morality has no meaning at all.

This is the limit of cultural relativism.

If anything like what is happening in Iran were happening to white women at the hands of Christian men, we would all be outraged. In fact, this isn’t a hypothetical — Western progressives were outraged when Roe v Wade was overturned earlier this year.

And yet the cultural distance from Australia to Iran, and the xenophobic baggage associated with criticisms of Islam, makes us hesitate. We worry that we might be overstepping by speaking up about these atrocities. That we might be perpetuating harmful narratives, or playing into the hands of white supremacists, or engaging in some form of cultural imperialism.

We worry, in other words, that it’s not our place.

These worries aren’t baseless —a degree of caution is warranted when making cross-cultural criticisms. But in this case, they prevent us from extending to Iranian women a proper level of empathy, and the action that follows from this. As a result, we end up persecuting a different, but no less harmful, kind of discrimination: the soft bigotry of apathy.

This is the bigotry that Iranian women’s advocates and ex-Muslim activists must face whenever they try to promote their cause, such as in the protests of 2017 and 2019. It’s the same bigotry that stops us from decrying the plight of queer people, atheists, and religious minorities in the Islamic world. And it’s the same apathy that causes us to respond to the pleas of asylum seekers with cages rather than compassion.

It’s simply not okay that I was unaware about the Women’s Revolution. It’s not okay that I wasn’t outraged the moment I heard about the death of Mahsa Amini.

Being culturally sensitive can’t mean being morally blind.

We should all be outraged by what is happening in Iran. It’s everyone’s place to criticise oppression, rape, and murder. As Yasmine Mohammed, ex-Muslim activist and author of Unveiled: How Western Liberals Empower Radical Islam argues: These aren’t Western values, these are human values.

If human rights only apply in the West, then they aren’t human rights at all.

Now, I understand that human rights are a somewhat controversial concept. As Jessica Whyte notes, the contemporary human rights framework has deep historical and conceptual links to neoliberal economics, which has its own moral failings. Many in Iran are deeply wary of this connection, and of the Westernisation of culture implicit in the rise of neoliberalism. Given the propensity of America and its allies — Australia included — to use the language of rights and democracy to justify invasions which really serve capitalism and Western economic interests, I would argue that we ought to be wary of it too.

However, acknowledging this problem doesn’t undermine the imperative to criticise what’s happening in Iran. The key reason for this is that such criticism isn’t just coming from the outside in — it’s coming from Iranian women themselves.

This is the key lesson of the Iranian Women’s Revolution. The soft bigotry of apathy doesn’t just stem from moral relativism — it also stems from flawed assumptions about cultural differences. To think that all morality is relative to culture, we must assume two things: firstly, that there is a low level of moral agreement across cultures, and secondly, that there is a high level of moral agreement within cultures.

Cultural homogeneity is an illusion maintained only by repression.

I’ve argued so far that the former assumption is wrong: that there are, in fact, certain moral baselines that all people do, and must, agree on. But the second assumption is equally flawed, and perhaps more obviously so. The idea that patriarchy, inequality, and misogyny are simply culturally embedded Iranian values ignores just how contested this culture is within Iran. It ignores the progressive history of women’s rights that existed prior to the Islamic Revolution. And, most importantly, it ignores the tens of thousands of people risking their lives to protest this culture today.

“It is an insult to a nation to tell us that hijab is our culture, that gender segregation and misogyny is our culture.” Iranian activist Masih Alinejad, as quoted by Yasmine Mohammed.

Cultural homogeneity is an illusion maintained only by repression. But in the courageous resistance of the Women’s Revolution, we see the truth: most women in Iran are not happy with the status quo. They are, in fact, outraged, and willing to risk their lives to change it. And all they ask of us is that we extend to them the same empathy we extend to oppressed groups closer to home.

We must, of course, engage with the issue with an appropriate level of cultural sensitivity. I’m not Iranian, nor am I Muslim, nor am I a woman — I can’t claim to understand the cultural context of the Women’s Revolution well. There are certainly better people to listen to on this topic than me, and I’ll link to some below.

But being culturally sensitive can’t mean being morally blind. We need to talk about what’s happening in Iran. We need to be outraged. And we need to overcome the soft bigotry of apathy.

This is the limit of cultural relativism.

For more information and opinion about the oppression of women in Iran and under contemporary Islam, please engage with the following women:

Masih Alinejad
Iranian journalist, author and women’s rights activist. Founder of My Stealthy Freedom and White Wednesdays. Read some of her thoughts here.

Maryam Namazie
Iranian-British secularist, writer, and women’s rights activist. Spokesperson for One Law for All and Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain. Here her speak here.

Yasmine Mohammed
Canadian ex-Muslim activist, author, and human rights campaigner. Author of Unveiled: How Western Liberals Empower Radical Islam, which was a key inspiration for this article.

Tom Watson is the soon-to-be-deposed Editor-in-Chief of Statecraft Magazine, and a third year PPE student at UQ.

Thanks to Genevieve Campbell for editing this piece, and Konstanz Muller for the discussions which inspired it.

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Tom Watson
Statecraft Magazine

4th year PPE student at UQ | Editor-in-Chief of Statecraft Publications | Interested in Aus politics, political economy, urban planning, and ethics.