Fatma Muge Gocek is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Women's Studies. Her research focuses on comparative analysis of gender issues in first and third worlds. She also studies the impact on women of processes such as economic development, nationalism and religious movements.
Please tell me a bit about your work with gender issues in other countries. How do you reconcile cultural differences, and do you believe that cultural relativism is a good way to go about dealing with the differences you encounter?
Self-criticism is a key factor when working with people in other cultures and in reconciling cultural differences. Criticism of first world scholars is also important. I think that collaboration between first and third world scholars on equal terms is a first step towards positive movement. Often scholars can be alienated from their own societies.
One of the most valuable attributes in my work is local organic feedback. Therefore, local dynamics can be taken into account. Transparency of your own subjectivity is important as well. Disclosing the problem that we can not alleviate the power disparity between the first and third world is something that I do. Agency has to be shared.
“Cultural relativism interacts with powering equalities.”
Even if you acknowledge a culture as unlike your own, how do you approach it as a subject on your own level?
Our western system has organized society and meaning creation around the public sphere. When we hit the public sphere, we acquire meaning and we don’t have accessibility to the private sphere. If we encounter societies that do not have a thriving public sphere like we do, we assume that this is a limiting factor to their society. Women are not publicly accessible in the Muslim world, but there is of course a huge variation. At times, people stereotype countries such as Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan where women are primarily only in the private sphere because we do not understand this cultural difference and “othering” exists here. Private sphere here means that the people do not directly interact with the state, family life and education can be private. Education of their children, strong and frequent relations with extended family is often the full time work of women in such places. Also, in some Middle Eastern countries, political activity happens at home.
How do you interpret the campaign of “Saving Muslim Women?”
I believe that “Saving Muslim Women” is one way the military vilifies their occupation in Afghanistan as illustrated by Lila Abu-Ludhod. Another example of a similar Orientalist strategy occurred during the Algerian War with a set of postcards that illustrate French soldiers freeing Algierian Muslim women, some pictured as unveiled and naked.
|Example Postcard of Unveiled Algerian girls|
In the case of Egypt, some women use the veil to politically close themselves off from the West. Thus, they make themselves inaccessible to Muslim males and also imperial interventions, anti-colonial stand and it becomes very nationalistic from their point of view.
The question is whether wearing a hijab or veil is enforced or done by choice. It is a human right to have a choice. Having a choice is one of our human rights. However, generally Muslim men’s modesty isn’t focused on, while women are often held accountable for dressing modestly.
In your work, how do you compare female oppression in the West and the East? Could this be a helpful tool to unite and create coalitions?
When comparing gender roles in the U.S. to many of the places I have done work, the difference and emphasis on gender equality in the U.S. stems from the monetary value of labor. Men and women’s labor gets a value here in the U.S. and in the case of the farm in other countries; it is the value that comes back to the family. The post-WWII era, women were kicked out of their jobs. This demonstrates the inequality. It is much harder to delineate gender roles and/or inequalities in the countryside. However, with increased urbanization, Western modernity penetrates societies, and they experience similar issues. Similar to the U.S., most countries pay women differently than men.
We are given the illusion of equality but we do not get equally compensated. Women are still putting in more work in the house than men are. Domestic violence is another issue and how well equipped is our legal system with women in the workplace and this becomes very contentious. Women could empathize with women in the Middle East but not through physical appearance, we share more than that. Working on issues that we share, rather than working on the issues that set us apart. The women’s rights movement is divided in Turkey by ideology. Secular and religious women do not work together and this is a huge divide in the movement. Unless secular women take on the issues of religious women and visa-versa, real movement isn’t likely to occur. It is pertinent to separate the two ideas of what we are working with here and what people are working on here equal footing.
By: Gianna Fazioli
 Faculty Biography—Women’s Studies http://www.lsa.umich.edu/women/faculty/facbio.asp?ID=16