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Serene Khader’s Decolonizing Universalism: A Transnational Feminist Ethic: Comment at the Eastern APA

These comments were originally presented at the Eastern American Philosophical Association in Philadelphia on January 9, 2020 at the satellite meeting of the Society for Philosophy in the Contemporary World.

I appreciate this book and am glad to have it in the world. Serene Khader canvasses a breadth of debates of multicultural and transnational feminism within the field. She frames possible objections and offers responses in many cases just as the reader begins to consider that objection and in other places where the raising of the objection clarifies Khader’s position. The book is highly readable both for non-academics and technically sophisticated for scholars. I taught the book in my feminist philosophy course that focused on transnational feminism this past semester and it became a touchstone for debates throughout the course. Khader offers nuanced frameworks that aim to be effective in on the ground transnational feminist activism. I have now read and reread this book three or four times and I can say that the initial objections have melted away as I have continued to sit with it, but I think there is still something in my initial concerns that I now think are about whether universalism can be decolonized within a liberal framework. Khader herself points to these questions. In conclusion, I’ll ask whether an alternative notion of universalism in a Marxist or post-Marxist vein is what Khader’s project invites.

I would sum up my remarks with four questions:

  1. Who is the book for?
  2. What work does the sense of universalism that Khader aims to recover do?
  3. What is the status of this account as non-ideal theory?
  4. Can universalism be decolonized within a liberal framework?

Who is this book for?

My first question is about the way that the debate is framed, which is to ask, who is this book for? Put in other ways, I am asking, who seeks to preserve universalism? Who is best served by preserving universalism? While the argument of the book seems to be in defense of anti-imperialist feminists, the framing seems to be for those Western imperialist feminists whose terms frame the debate. Khader argues on behalf of universalism, writing, “feminism requires universalist opposition to sexist oppression” (3), following bell hooks’ definition of feminism (93). Khader describes her project as “distinguishing the imperialism-promoting commitments from the universalist ones feminists need” (20) in response to the anti-imperialist critics of Western feminisms who use the terms “universalist” and “normative” pejoratively (21) and thereby fuel the Western feminists worry that anti-imperialist feminists only disavow relativism, but are in practice relativists. That is to say, Khader does not think the problem is universalism, but ethnocentrism with its idealizing and moralizing assumptions of the West. Khader aims to preserve universalism without the ethnocentrism. She makes her case on behalf (and alongside) anti-imperialist feminists in light of the Western feminists who argue that without universalism feminism can have no moral traction.

My worry is that the demand that feminism be universalist to be normative is a Western feminists’ concern that allows Western feminists, like the West in general, to set the terms of the debate: one term being the necessity of universal claims. This is why I think the use of universalism here serves a normative purpose, a defense of affirmations of feminist projects, rather than a politically-motivating purpose as I think universalism works in Marxist projects. Khader offers a universal that is thin enough to avoid the projection of the particularities of Western ideals into the universal including as it does a critique of “justice monism,” the view “that only one social or cultural form can house gender justice” (30) to allow for variation in feminist projects across cultures. But I still have two questions: is the need for the universal in order to make feminism normative itself a Western liberal mechanism the demand for which satisfies Western concerns? And two: does the thinness of this universal satisfy the Western feminist concern about the moral force behind their feminist commitments, which is really, if our claims about what is good for women are not thickly universally, how can they have force locally? That is, it seems like Western feminist philosophers call on universal claims to defend their local projects, not for the sake of ending gender oppression globally, especially in cases where that might involve a challenge to Western women’s forms of life.

What sense of universalism is at work?

The question of who is this book for is connected to the question of what sense of universal is at work. The first question leads me to wonder who suffers from the lack of a universal as a justificatory concept. Does the universalism itself buttress the imperialist position that feminism being better, European and North American cultures are superior because they—at least formally—support feminist projects? I wonder why normative universalism is needed to reject that claim. Once we reject what Khader calls justice monism–that only one culture has the corner on justice and resisting oppression–why do we need universalism of this sort? Isn’t the rejection of justice monism enough?  Khader offers resources for challenging the Western feminist view that European and North American social structures are in fact better for women. Western feminists are feminists because they are not satisfied with their current social structures, which they too easily forget in the grips of imperialist power from which they benefit. So it seems like the critique against the West could be launched without an appeal to the universal, but rather an argument that they fall short of their own stated supposedly superior standards. Not only does the West objectify and patronize women, but neoliberalism is particularly bad for women, devolving responsibility for health care and education to women, and normalizing job insecurity in ways that disproportionately affect women.

I don’t think it is universalizing to say that neoliberalism is bad for everyone, because neoliberalism has helped produce a single global economic order that forces communities around the world to abide by these standards and it results in similar patterns of consequences for those who are already precarious. But also, what I mean by everyone is not those who are recognized by the current political order but the everyone who constitutes those who aim to resist oppression, which I’ll say more about below. Under liberalism, it would seem impossible to say neoliberalism is bad for everyone because those in power benefit. But if we think of the universal in a Marxist vein as the drive to make a unity out of a world that has been divided between the oppressor and the oppressed, the included and excluded, then the universal is only possible by making the whole the unity from the point of view of the excluded. This is why Marx says that the revolution will bring about the end of class, because everyone will be working class so no one will be treated as working class.

What is the status of this project as non-ideal theory?

Susan Moller Okin claims in “Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?” that the stated commitment to gender equality in the liberal states is evidence of a greater commitment to gender equality. Here Okin suggests that having an ideal, even if one falls short of it, is superior to having no ideal altogether. Khader recognizes in the context of anti-imperialist feminists who deny a commitment to relativism that affirming or denying a commitment is not the same thing as having or not having it (21). The stated commitment is not evidence that a culture is more just, and yet the stated commitment seems to be understood as superior to a culture that lacks such a stated commitment. The view that I think Khader is at least implicitly interrogating is whether the stated commitment might itself function not in the interest of women, but in the interest of capitalist and imperialist projects which gain support under the guise of being better for women both at home and abroad.

Okin’s rejection of anti-imperialism seems to come from culturalistic explanations of men’s violence against women (130). As Khader shows, the need for the universal for Western feminists serves their imperialist project because of assumptions they make about the West and Enlightenment liberalism. Critiques of women in other cultures who defend certain practices often involve criticizing those women for not being good liberals. The defense of those women that invokes non-ideal theory suggests practices like Orthodox Jewish ritual washing would disappear with the end of patriarchy; given patriarchy, these practices can be defended by feminists. Getting rid of these practices seems to look like changing the culture. But I think Khader is willing to allow such change to the extent that it comes from those located within it.

Khader describes her project as philosophizing for non-ideal spaces, an approach that puts her in league with critical theory work that involves thinking from the conditions on the ground. Khader is responding to critics who think that transnational feminists practices are inadequate because of the ways that they seem to accommodate patriarchal conditions, for example in the acceptance of complementarianism. But allowing critics to set up ideal theory as the measure against which non-ideal theory must defend itself seems to suppose that non-ideal theory is inferior, less just, to ideal theorizing.

Khader offers, as I understand it, two ways of thinking of the universal: The first is the broad notion of feminism as resisting gender-based oppression that involves non-ideal cases be made in light of the historical and contextual factors in each case. The second is an ideal that could be achieved through decolonial projects.  Khader rejects the view of ideals as transcontextual recipes for what to do and she rejects the view of ideals from the West and North that disregard what “other” women need (11).

Khader shows how non-ideal theory is just a way of saying that it is theorizing within history, culture and context, and I wonder if her argument is more fundamentally challenging the notion that ideal theorizing is better because it is ideal, and suggesting that the distance from the actual conditions makes it less useful—perhaps even harmful—because less about the world as we know it. As Khader quotes Allison Weir, feminism has to address “the reality that we are all embedded in and attached to specific cultural identities, within which we value different ways of flourishing; and they must confront the possibility that feminism itself may be wedded to particular cultural identities” (2013, 2). And even if we do move toward a more gender-just world we won’t stop having people live in different contexts, under different conditions and demands, within different meaning-making contexts. History does not stop being history. Khader’s way of describing the normativity of transnational feminist praxis is to call it “justice enhancing,” because it does not have a “single vision of gender justice” (135). “What matters, under nonideal conditions is whether women’s ability to shape the conditions of their action is increasing and increasing in ways that make them less likely to have power exercised over them” (136). I want to say, isn’t that just what matters? Why does the nonideal become provisional rather than the ideal? Isn’t the ideal itself provisional insofar as any thickening of it depends on attention to the specifics of each location and moment?

Is there an assumption here that the non-ideal is what must be in place for transnational feminism, while Western feminism can continue to go about its pursuit of ideals? For example, her defense of veiling in Afghanistan invites the missionary feminist to recognize that justice enhancement is sufficient to make a project a feminist one. Justice enhancement in the transnational context thus seems implicitly contrasted to a more ideal justice that would involve losing the veil (45). The nonideal is again invoked in the transnational context in the last chapter when she writes, “The nonideal universalist perspective I developed in chapter 1 can provide normative guidelines for evaluatuing instances of ‘other’ women’s power in a way that is consistant with these desiderata” (135). And further, “The epistemic perscriptions are that Western feminists should, when dealing with particular cases, seek information about imperialism and global structures and keep in mind that many transnational feminist judgments are practical ones about justice enhancement” (135-6). Notably, Khader draws back from this kind of focus on the ideal, writing, “Abandoning the ideas that the West is the exemplar of  gender justice, that we need an exemplar at all, and that the presence of Western cultural forms tracks what is morally significant for feminist progress—and shifting instead to the idea of reducing sexist oppression diachronically—can reveal how postcolonial criticisms of the gender-neutral public might be more compatible with feminist aims than is often thought” (139). Yet even here, one asks, often thought by whom? This language again suggests that the Western feminists are those to whom the argument is beholden.

I worry that the recourse- to non-ideal theory appears as a kind of second best: it would be better if we could do ideal theory, but given the contingencies of our current world, we have to do non-ideal theory. That’s what I’m skeptical of – not because I am a pessimist about the capacity to achieve a just world, but because I think we live in multiple contexts with multiple histories with oppressive pasts that contribute to our notions of what resisting gender-based oppression looks like. Can ideals that fully transcend these histories be thought without carrying the assumptions of those contexts with them? I myself don’t long for a time when ideal theory will apply to the world. Instead I think non-ideal theory is all we have, even when it comes in the guise of ideal theory. If we are always thinking within history, it isn’t clear to me that ideal theory will ever have its day, and that it will necessarily work in a liberatory way.

I am specifically interested in the question of whether it is possible to achieve an ideal without abstracting from one set of particularities as Khader is rightly concerned to avoid (31, 123-4). Khader recognizes this problem, and cautions against using Western standards to evaluate progress (134). But she still offers a framework that counsels accepting the non-ideal given current conditions. It is hard not to hear the normative privilege of the ideal situation set against the non-ideal one. The sense that the Western feminists who set the terms of the debate find non-ideal theory “settling” when ideal theory would be preferable, but alas, our world is not ideal seems to haunt the book, sometimes because Khader is resisting this view, but in other ways because the language of non-ideal versus ideal theory invites this impression. Khader quotes Robert Goodin’s (1995) example of whether one wants chocolate sauce or pasta sauce should depend on whether one has ice cream or pasta in front of her (134). Khader here concedes to the Western feminist’s objections for the sake of argument the possibility that the West might be ideal, and then concludes “even if Western forms were the ideal (ice cream with chocolate sauce), looking for Western cultural forms would risk the feminist equivalent of looking for chocolate sauce, irrespective of what food was available to put it on” (134). Granted that Khader is making this case for the sake of argument, but even the structure supposes there is an ideal somehow accessible, the better measure, not itself also a contingently achieved determination on the basis of dialogue, as for example Barbara Fultner describes in her 2017 essay, “The Dynamics of Transnational Feminist Dialogue.”[1]

Can universalism be decolonized within a liberal framework?

What I want to question is the drive to the ideal even through a decolonized process. It seems that this project would have to be reconsidered in each historical moment insofar as new forces and powers could be at work in the world, and perhaps Khader is willing to accept that view, in which case I wonder whether it is really ideal if it must be revised for each historical moment. I am not convinced that we can know in advance that an ideal will work in future historical contexts in ways that won’t produce new (or repeat old) forms of oppression. It seems that keeping the focus on the critical analysis of what is happening is itself important for resisting gender-based oppression. I would resist the view that the constitution of an ideal can occur in some transcendent, non-embodied, non-historical mode. I do think cultures need to be viewed as open systems that can be knowable from the outside and that we have a responsibility to know other cultures, work that requires attending to the first-hand experience of women within those cultures, at the very least to understand Western contributions to the structures of oppression in those cultures, following Fultner. But I don’t think that even this cross-cultural work creates an ideal outside of the specific historical features of the various communities, and this might be in part because I don’t think that oppression or liberation is uniform, but rather has specific histories.

The extent to which any setting up of ideals can ever be removed from particular contexts and motivations points to a larger problem both with the Enlightenment teleological narrative and with the sense that the Western position is transcendent. Khader questions the specific terms of liberal and capitalist democracy that Western feminists employ when looking at what should be done in non-Western settings, especially the recourse to individualism (54-8). I appreciate Khader’s rejoinder to the independence individualism she finds in some veins of liberal feminism, which is a notion of “personhood individualism,” the position that each person has their own interests (59). I remain unsure whether liberalism’s recourse to ideals can be similarly recovered.

One might argue that liberalism depends on the structure of appealing to ideals in non-ideal conditions within the Enlightenment narrative that Khader rightly criticizes. It is not a bug, but a feature that liberalism purports to be ideal but that its actual workings are always within non-ideal, unequal, unliberated histories and contexts. We can trace to John Locke (§34) the apparently universal justification of owning property—of an unequal condition where some own and others do not—through an approach that is not equally available to all. Indeed, it functioned to justify the nobility’s claim to land rather than to open the capacity for any peasant to justify owning the land on which she worked. Moreover, it functioned as an ideal to justify taking land from Native Americans and simultaneously disparaging their character as lazy (Charles W. Mills, The Racial Contract, 67-68).

I wonder then in conclusion whether thinking of the universal in a politically motivating way rather than in a normative justificatory mode might better serve the project of decolonizing universalism. At some moments, the sense of universal at work in Khader’s book seems to be an Aristotelian or liberal sense of universal where the universal is what captures all of the particulars. A particular is captured by the universal to the extent that it is recognized as a member by exemplifying the characteristics the universal marks. The universal is supposed to be the essence that makes all the particulars similar to one another. Whether this universal can be determined without privileging any one particular in determining the universal is not obvious historically. By contrast, a universal that follows in a Marxist vein takes the subject of politics to be the universal thought from the position of those excluded (here I’m thinking of post-Marxists like Alain Badiou, Jodi Dean and Jacques Rancière, among others, see Trott 2011).

This Marxist approach conceives the universal as the political subject because it creates a unity marked by exclusion. The working class is the driver of revolution because they eliminate class by universalizing the position of the worker. The workers make the mark of belonging in the new order their previous exclusion and oppression. By doing so, the excluded eliminate the divide between the excluded and included – the whole is no longer characterized by a central division. When everyone is the worker, no one is oppressed. The workers universalize the political order, ending the division into two that marks pre-revolution political life with its oppressor and oppressed, exploiter and exploited. Such a universal doesn’t seek to extend belonging in a liberal approach from an idealized position that carries the ideals of those in power to those who show themselves to be appropriate for belonging. Such a universal is about changing the political regime to no longer be about the division between those included and those excluded.

A transnational feminism that thinks the universal as the political subject, that is, a transnational feminism that starts from the position of those excluded and aims to make a world unified around such a position would involve solidarity and the determination from each local site of what belonging from the position of exclusion would look like. The universal then is not about capturing one ideal that applies everywhere as a principle. The universal is a project of political life worked out from the position of exclusion. The universal is not—or at least, not only—a normative justification of certain principles. It is a project of making the world that was divided into one world by eliminating the status of oppressor.

I raise this possibility for thinking the universal in conclusion to mark alternatives that allow for the project to depart from those who are excluded in their multiple contexts because I have concerns about whether universalism can be decolonized while still holding on to the principles of liberalism. My sense is that Khader’s description of her project produces a universal that is more like the collective that universalizes in the Marxist tradition than the universal of the liberal tradition. I think that framework can offer ways to think the ideal that allows for local resistance without the danger of a universal principle that might be formed from a position of power, unless that power is understood as the collective power of the oppressed in solidarity.

I’m grateful to Khader for this excellent and necessary intervention into contemporary debates over transnational feminism. Thanks for doing the work.


[1] Barbara Fultner, “The Dynamics of Transnational Feminist Dialogue,” in Margaret McLaren’s edited volume, Decolonizing Feminism: Transnational Feminism and Globalization (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.

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