Welcome to our book forum on Serene Khader’s Decolonizing Universalism! Below is a brief introduction to the book from Khader herself. Just a reminder: you do not need to have read the book to participate in the discussion. Feel free to ask questions about any aspect of the book or the discussion below.


From Khader:

I aim in Decolonizing Universalism to articulate a feminist normative position that can cross borders without licensing imperialism. We live in an era where feminists are complicit in projects of Northern and Western domination, and where feminist rhetoric is used to marshal support for such projects.  Consider President Trump’s evocations of rape at the U.S. Mexico border, feminist support for bans on Muslim headscarves in Europe and Canada, and our international development agenda that exploits women but claims to be “investing in” them.

It has been difficult to articulate a position that is at once anti-imperialist and feminist, because universalism is treated, by defenders and critics alike, as synonymous with the spread of Western values. The assumption that universalism means promoting Western values and interventions generates what I call the “anti-imperialism/normativity dilemma” wherein we must choose between opposing gender injustice and biting the bullet of Western chauvinism or opposing imperialism and accepting that feminism is just an imperialist conceit.

My strategy for dissolving the dilemma is to shift the focus from whether feminists should have values at all onto the question of which values and strategies feminists should embrace. I show in the book that three of the most controversial values among anti-imperialist feminists, namely forms of autonomy, individualism, and gender role eliminativism are not required for feminism—and also that feminist universalism does not entail the idea that a single form of life ought to be universally adopted. My positive view, which I call “nonideal universalism,” allows me to articulate a universalist position that does not entail prescribing universal adoption of the values of what I call “Enlightenment liberalism,” a form of comprehensive liberalism on which moral progress happens through the abandonment of traditional values and relationships and the universalization of economic independence.

Nonideal universalism couples a view about the normative content of feminism with a view about the role values should play in transnational feminist praxis. The content of feminism, is, following the early bell hooks, opposition to sexist or gender-based oppression. I adopt Marilyn Frye’s canonical definition of oppression as systematic disadvantage of one or more social groups relative to other(s). The role values ought to play in transnational feminist praxis is what Amartya Sen (2009) would call a “justice-enhancing” one or Charles Mills (2005) would call a “nonideal theoretical” one. We want values that help us reduce sexist oppression in the world, rather than ones that offer a specific vision of ultimate gender justice.

I wrote this book for an interdisciplinary audience and structured it around conversations about values that appear in popular media and the social scientific literature. Because I’m mostly among Anglo-American-style moral and political philosophers here at PEA Soup, I thought I’d take this opportunity to foreground some of the book’s key analytical and conceptual points.


  • The universalism/relativism debate is question-begging. Philosophers tend to respond to anti-imperialist critiques of Western values by asserting the superiority of relativism to universalism. But it is a mistake to read most anti-imperialist feminists as relativists—and, even if they were relativists—relativism being wrong does not make Western values right.
  • Values can play justificatory and constitutive roles in imperialism. Philosophers have tended to understand anti-imperialist critiques as allegations that certain values Westerners take to be universal are parochial. I argue that, though Western values can be imperialist in this (“constitutive”) sense, there is another role values are often argued to play in imperialism. In this second “justificatory” role, values make imperialist action appear morally desirable.


The work of anthropologist Saba Mahmood (2005) shows how freedom can play both roles. Mahmood sees the idea that one should see one’s self, and not tradition, as the source of moral authority as a parochial value that Western feminists arbitrarily want to foist on Muslim women who believe that some religious dictates must be unquestioningly accepted. Mahmood also argues that value for freedom makes it appear that women lose nothing when their cultures and traditions are eroded and makes it easier to justify policies ranging from the U.S. bombing of Iraq to bans on headscarves.


  • Missionary feminism is a product of commitments to idealization, moralism, and justice monism rather than moral universalism. I call the orientation that is the object of most contemporary anti-imperialist critique “missionary feminism.” Missionary feminism requires moral universalism (why else would one attempt to convert others to one’s values universal?) but the converse is not true.


Instead, missionary feminism combines a particular form of universalism with certain ideological epistemic habits. The relevant form of universalism is ethnocentric justice monism. Justice monism is the view that only one set of social arrangements could embody gender justice. The ideological habits are idealization and moralism. Missionary feminists assume an idealized social ontology according to which the West has achieved greater gender justice than other societies because of endogenous factors. As postcolonial feminists have argued idealization prevents colonialism, in its historical and contemporary forms, from counting as a product of Western culture and from playing an explanatory role in the persistence of gender injustice. Moralism involves evaluating political actions as though they are pure expressions of moral principles, rather than attending to the interests that motivate them and their effects.


Consider missionary feminist support for the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Evincing the idealized social ontology, supporters often assumed that the Taliban was in power because of “Muslim culture) rather than the legacy of the Cold War; evincing moralism they did not discuss the effects war might have on women because Westerners must “do something.” Their view that gender justice in these countries would involve a decrease in religiosity and women wearing nail polish instead of veils evinced ethnocentric justice monism.


  • Opposition to sexist oppression does not require anti-traditionalist autonomy. It is often thought that feminists must criticize tradition, since oppressive practices are so often defended in the name of culture and religion. I argue that the idea that feminists must exercise anti-traditionalist autonomy (a form of autonomy on which one must be willing to distance oneself from any inherited dictate to evaluate it) misses the fact that oppressiveness is a feature of the effects of practices rather than their origins. It is possible to be a feminist on traditionalist grounds, as in real-world cases where religious feminists argue that the content of their tradition entails opposition to sexism.


  • Opposition to sexist oppression does not require any form of individualism, and is undermined by some forms of it. One of the critiques of Western values I discuss at length concerns the worry that feminist interventions cause women to lose value that the relationships they find themselves in import to their lives. I canvass many such critiques, including, for example Lamia Karim’s (2011) worry that microcredit replaces systems of mutual support with an ideology of competition.


These critiques may seem to be incompatible with feminism, since they target individualism, and feminism seems to require emphasizing women’s status as separate persons with worth. I argue both that the form of individualism that is the object of the critiques is distinct from the notion that women are separate persons and, perhaps more provocatively, that feminism does not require commitment even to personhood individualism. This is because oppression is a group-afflicting phenomenon. I believe that, in most situations, denying women personhood status is oppressive. But the reason is contingent rather than conceptual; if there are societies where counting as a separate person is not a source of social advantage, feminism on its own does not offer reasons to attempt to introduce personhood individualism.


I also argue that feminists should jettison independence individualism, the form of individualism that is the object of the anti-imperialist critiques. They should do so because it undermines feminist change by a) tying feminist solidarity to a parochial Western value, b) exacerbating women’s gendered labor burdens, and c) obscuring the transition costs of feminist change (see below).


  • Women gain benefits from oppressive practices, and feminists should ask questions about who bears the transition costs of feminist change. I have argued across my work that individual women often benefit from complying with oppressive norms—that is norms that disadvantage women as a group. In what Uma Narayan (2002) discusses as “harm-benefit bundling,” individual women have to comply with oppressive norms to gain objective benefits.


I argue in the book that an important upshot of this is that individual women stand to incur losses as part of a transition to a more gender-just social order—and that feminists should raise moral and political questions about the distribution of these losses. Consider the case of Gateefa, an elderly Bedouin woman in Lila Abu-Lughod’s ethnography (2015) who once upheld protofeminist ideas but now laments changes to the intergenerational patriarchal family structure. But it is self-interested for her to lament the changes to this family structure; now that her sons have moved out of the house, there is no one to care for her in old age. Feminists need to understand that the changes they propose impose genuine, objective costs on individual women in the short-term and work to develop strategies that do not transfer these costs to the most vulnerable.

Works Cited

Abu-Lughod, Lila. 2013. Do Muslim Women Need Saving? Cambridge: Harvard.

Karim, Lamia. 2011. Microfinance and Its Discontents. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota


Mahmood, Saba. 2005. Politics of Piety. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Narayan, Uma. 2002. “”Minds of Their Own: Choices, Autonomy, Cultural Practices, and

Other Women”.” In A Mind of One’s Own: Feminist Essays on Reason and Objectivity edited by Louise M. Antony and Charlotte E. Witt. Boulder. Boulder, Colorado: Westview.

Mills, Charles. 2005. “Ideal Theory as Ideology.”  Hypatia 20 (3):165-184.

Sen, Amartya. 2009. The Idea of Justice. Cambridge: Harvard.



25 Replies to “Khader, Decolonizing Universalism

  1. I’m excited about this book and I appreciate the project. I’m teaching the first and the last chapter in my Feminist Philosophy course that is focusing on transnational feminism this semester, so this is a great addition to that conversation.
    My chief concern is that I feel unmotivated by the investment in universalism. Universalism still looks to me like the philosopher’s fantasy of mastery dating back to Plato. I think the idea that strong moral claims cannot be made without universalism is about philosophy’s own self-identity — is philosophy weak without the pretension to the universal claim? I think philosophy tends to think that it is. I do not. I think that philosophy needs to recognize that it is historically and geographically limited and situated and its universal claims carry with them particular claims that themselves become imperialist, which I know you recognize above. I don’t see the accusation of relativism being that forceful and it concerns me that the this accusation is what drives the interest in protecting universalism. It seems to me to function as defending the drive to import particular claims as universal ones. Rethinking the investment in universalism, would require philosophy to rethink what it is doing and to take much more seriously the ways that claims function in their particular historical moment and social and economic and geographic contexts. I think often people look at people doing that work and say that it isn’t philosophy and they say it isn’t because they have already decided that to be philosophy it must be universal, and I think is a way that philosophy itself engages in the imperialism you caution against. Is it even possible to think the universal without imperialism? I’m not at all convinced that it is despite your caveats. What the book ends up seeming to conclude to me is that we can allow for the particular context to determine political approaches for now. But eventually, they will be able to be like the West. That is, eventually we will be able to use the universal standards, which looks a lot like the Western standards. This approach ends up making non-Western seem to equal non-ideal and Western equal ideal and universal. I think about Oyewumi’s account of how Western scholars *see* gender where there might not be gender in Yorubaland, which I know has some difficulties and complexities raised by critics, but her account reminds us of the danger of perpetuating colonization by refusing to see the categories one uses as themselves having cultural histories. I think the judgment of the universal works similarly.

  2. Like Khader, I work on and am interested in anti-imperialist thought. One of the most helpful and clarificatory aspects of the book – whether you’d describe your focus as transnational feminism or not – is the strain of argument that distinguishes between universalism and several tagalong ideas that are often conflated with it.

    I think a lot of us have lots to chew on from the treatment here. African philosophy has had some structurally similar discussions: for example between theorists defending the broad compatibility of a sort of universalism or transcendentalism with African thought (e.g.Souleymane Bachir Diagne) and another set of theorists skeptical of that project or preferring specific (e.g. Ajume Wingo on the Akan concept of personhood). Or, the sort of disagreement within African-American philosophy and thought between Black materialists (e.g. Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Adolph Reed) and, say, Afro-Pessimists (e.g. Jared Sexton).

    One of the possibilities this book points out to me is this: if Khader has it right, then we are more than right to adopt a sort of ‘big tent’ approach to these sorts of ideological divides. That’s not just because we can take concrete action without agreeing on these weird philosophical debates – though that probably should be a good enough reason – but also for a principled reason: the sense-making aspects of the unified political projects we’re interested in (anti-colonial activism, anti-racist activism, trans-national feminist) actually don’t rest on these ethereal debates at any level of abstraction. We don’t need to settle thorny questions about what, say, the genuinely African concept of the person is (not to mention the thornier question of whether or not there is such a thing), Neither would we need to come to a consensus on whether the core organizing feature of the world is the production of surplus value or the libidinal economy of anti-Blackness.

    That is to say – at the risk of tripping into very related, supposedly problematic territory – that Khader’s argument about non-ideal universalism generalizes. Non-ideal universalism, whether for trans-national feminism, anti-imperialist, anti-racist, and any number of other kinds of political projects doesn’t require fellow adherents to converge or enact a *particular* positive view of justice, or of the right kind of world, or activist priorities. It just requires converging on opposition to a particular set of injustices. Wouldn’t that be cool?

  3. Thanks so much for your really thoughtful comments, Adriel and Olufemi.

    Adriel-I want first to take issue with one of the views you attribute to me late in the comment—namely the view that “other” cultures should eventually look like the West. I reject that view, and I think it would only follow if my view was that the West had successfully achieved gender justice. However, there are at least three reasons the view I develop in the book is incompatible with the idea that the West has achieved gender justice. First, the view that “other” cultures should come to look like the West is based in idealization—in particular what I call “The Enlightenment Teleological Narrative” that says that the West is especially morally developed and so because of endogenous features. (In fact, I spend significant energy saying the West is bad at certain things associated with gender justice—like a better distribution of dependency work). Second, the view that “other” cultures should look more like the West is a justice monist view. Third, my view is that feminism, not just feminism outside the West, is an attempt to navigate nonideal conditions. One of the problems with the missionary feminist epistemic habits I describe is that they block Western feminists from seeing the possibility that “other” women and cultures might have *better* solutions to gender injustice.

    Femi- I love the thought that my view of the role of transnational political concepts, largely borrowed from Sen (though I do not adopt his criticism of ideal theory wholesale) and Mills, extends to anti-imperialist struggles more broadly. I guess the interesting next step for the application would be to think about what the shared aim of anti-imperialist struggles is (analogous to the aim of ending sexist oppression).

  4. Thanks for the clarification Serene. You’re exactly right. You don’t say that the goal is to be like the West – you argue that you aren’t saying that.

    My point is I don’t see how the goal of the universal ideal — even just as the ideal– doesn’t carry Western assumptions of gender equality. Even if the West isn’t good at achieving them, it would still seem to be setting them. My question is then about how the universal can develop without itself depending on inequality between the particulars and thus whether and how the “other” is being included in the constitution of the ideal to which “the other” as well as the West should be held. The universal would need to be reached on the ground in processes of human decisions and not just arguments about what is best for all genders, made with Western assumptions of what gender is, Western assumptions about what equality and justice look like, arguments that seem inevitably to lead to imperialist construction of the universal.

  5. Thanks for following up, Adriel. I think I get your concern better now. Tell me how this does at satisfying it: I don’t offer an argument that people *should* be feminists in the book and I don’t think feminism is exhaustive of our moral concerns; I’m just trying to explain what *feminism* is. I agree that the universal needs to be achieved through conversation in on the ground processes–I think that is what transnational feminist movements are doing and have done for feminism. I think that transnational feminist movements show that many Western values are detachable for feminism and bad for it. ( I do deny that feminism is a Western ideal, which may be the real thing we are disagreeing about.)

  6. Adriel–comment above is from me, Serene (sorry I accidentally published anonymously!) 🙂

  7. I too, will be teaching material from this book later this semester, and think it is an important contribution to political philosophy and feminist ethics. I am going to pose a question that crosses between Khader’s philosophical contributions in this book and her earlier one, Adaptive Preferences and Women’s Empowerment.
    I appreciate a theme that runs throughout Khader’s work, that builds on Narayan’s account of the rationality of bargaining with patriarchy. The idea that a person must choose among different bundles of goods, where these goods are additionally constrained in patriarchal societies, is a necessary corrective to a western paternalistic interpretive lens that views “other women” as oppressed. What I am wondering, though, is whether Khader supplies sufficient normative grounds with which to criticize “missionary feminism?” According to the bargaining with patriarchy model, women are justified in making some choices that advance their own self-interest, where those interests are tied to their overall well-being. If we apply the bargaining with patriarchy model to missionary feminists, their actions may be seen as a way of navigating a patriarchal western power structure in which they have been able to extract some power. Moreover – and this is the more important point – an alternative explanation of the activities of missionary feminists is that they are acting to promote their own well-being by retaining terms of discourse and a social form in which they are at ease. The intelligibility of western social forms, to western women, is something in which they have investments. On my own view, a Rawlsian form of justice as fairness reasoning can supply critical resources with which to reject the unfairness of exploiting or oppressing “other” women, but I want to hear more from Khader about her normative grounds for rejecting the missionary feminists’ activities as unjust.
    Two caveats: First, let me note that this question intentionally elides the account of missionary feminism with the activities of someone who might be acting upon them, but I think the way the views plays out on the ground is important to Khader, and so this elision is not unwarranted. Second, the cases are clearly asymmetric due to power inequalities, but I want to hear more about Khader’s conceptual resources for translating that power asymmetry into constraints on the pursuit of self-interest by missionary feminists.

  8. I had the chance to teach a couple of chapters of Decolonizing Universalism last year – one in an ethics seminar where the narrative of the course examined a tension between outsider and insider judgments about normative claims. This book makes an important contribution to that debate – which is alive and well in normative debates over humanitarian intervention, laws requiring secular attire (and arguably the very idea of law requires a form of universalism), and definitions of (universal) human rights. So, partly in reply to Adriel Trott- these are just a few of the places where the investment in universalism is motivated. A retreat into pure relativism has a real danger of allowing genocides to proceed because some preferences and priorities are just ‘their’ values. On the other hand, a retreat into pure universalism is problematic because we have many examples of imperialism to start a war over a conflict or disagreement between ‘their’ values and ‘our’ values (or a conflict between our interpretation of ‘their’ practices and our interpretations of ‘our’ values). I think this tension between universalism and relativism is exemplified in the failure to intervene in the Rwandan genocide, just as it is in the intervention in Afghanistan discussed by Khader. So this seems to me an important virtue of Khader’s position: it finds middle ground where normative critique is possible, but without rejecting the epistemic privilege of insider knowledge. There is room for normative critique of cultural or more local practices. And there is also room for cultural interpretation and cultural variation in definitions of ‘justice’.
    Khader’s version of universalism does not seem to me to exemplify the strong pretension of philosophy that you are worried about. It proposes a very modest universalism that leaves a lot of room for normative variation, different interpretations of the value of a practice, and opens up a language for that dialogue to take place in.

  9. Hm… my original comment didn’t post so let me try again (this may be less polished than before..)

    Thanks for this wonderful work, Serene. As a fellow decolonial feminist (and also someone who is admittedly a bit skeptical of universalist normative projects), I find your arguments about the compatability of universalism with decolonial feminist projects to be compelling. My question is in regards to your position on “gender-role eliminativism.” You seem to be largely be addressing Western feminists in the book, those most likely to be perpetuating forms of “missionary feminism.” I’m wondering how your position can be placed in conversation with the types of “radical” decolonial feminism that you begin to address in Chapter 4. In particular, decolonial feminists like Maria Lugones who contend that gender-roles are bound up in the “coloniality of gender.” On this view, hierarchical forms of gender and gender-roles are seen to be colonial impositions that make it difficult to see how they might be recoverable, even through the complementarity model you advocate, for liberatory projects. The motivations for this form of gender-eliminativism are decidedly not the same as those of missionary feminists. How does your position respond to this form of critique of gender issuing from decolonial feminists?

    Super interested in your response! I think that placing these two positions into conversation could be super fruitful for some of the debates beginning to circulate among those doing work in decolonial feminism.

  10. Thanks, Asha—and I appreciate the attention and careful thought you’ve given both books. I think I have a pretty straightforward answer to your question. Here’s the simplest one that comes from my theoretical resources. I think feminism is opposition to sexist oppression; worsening the sexist oppression of others is not feminist.

    A longer answer is this: I do not offer a complete moral view in either book. Instead, I draw on what I take to be commonsensical moral views that are relatively theory-independent. I doubt any moral view worth its salt is going to tell us that self-interested bargaining is always justified. I also presume that most worthwhile moral views are going to converge on the view that it is justified to promote your own well-being when it does not violate other weightier moral rules or considerations. The cases of intersectional imperialist and sexist oppression I discuss involve people trying to secure their own basic interests and not causing harm in the process. The case of the missionary feminist trying to secure her own comfort involves her securing something much less morally significant and causing significant harm to others in the process. You get at something like this when you note that the power relations are asymmetric but wonder whether I “have the resources” to explain what’s wrong. I don’t think the resources for explaining what’s wrong need to come from me; the relevant resources are available from almost any moral theory.

    It’s a good thing if you have a specific liberal feminist argument for why harming and worsening the oppression of others is bad. I also think it’s a good thing if lots of different arguments and theories of justice will yield the conclusion that missionary feminism is bad.

  11. Thanks Serene for putting out this wonderful work that addresses some of the central debates in transnational feminism.
    I am also teaching the first chapter of the book in my feminist theory class within the decolonial feminism unit and am really excited about its reception.

    Along the same lines as Adriel, I would love to hear your views on *measuring up to the minimalist version of feminism you propose.
    I think it takes a lot of effort (time, language, differing cultures, competing values) to lay out the impact of missionary feminist policies. Your minimalist account of feminism doesn’t disqualify familial practices like those in the case of Gateefa, but even a minimalist universalist account doesn’t guard against imposition on Gateefa unless she (or even global south feminists) can layout an account that satisfies that minimalist account. The lack of shared epistemological resources makes it hard to place liminal lives within even this minimalist feminist framework in ways that it would get uptake by the west, such that they would revise their take on their imperialist policies in the name of liberation.

  12. Jennifer-
    I feel super understood in the text from your comment I’m pasting below. Thanks!
    >>> finds middle ground where normative critique is possible, but without rejecting the epistemic privilege of insider knowledge<<<<

    Thanks so much for trying twice! So you are much more of an expert in Lugones than I am, but I think people mean a lot of different things when they talk about the “coloniality of gender.” I’m not going to be able to do justice to it here, but here are a couple thoughts:

    If what is meant is that colonialism often created new gender roles and/or worsened gender oppression, then I just agree and am trying in the book to get Western feminists to see how acknowledging this fact, and supporting activism motivated by acknowledgement of it, can be compatible with universalism. The epistemic habits I take as constitutive of missionary feminism block the view that Westerners can be exerting gender-oppressive forces in the global South (and through settler projects in the North). My idea that feminist praxis aims at justice-enhancement, and that it shouldn’t be justice monist, are designed partly to motivate the idea that in cases where gender roles (or existing gender roles) are (or are perceived as) a colonial imposition, the path to gender justice may well be to try to rehabilitate or reinvent a precolonial view about gender. Because justice-enhancement is partly a type of means-end effectiveness, different social forms are going to work in different places with different colonial histories.

    I think my answer is similar if what you mean by “coloniality of gender” is the idea that we must get rid of gender altogether because it is a colonial imposition. In the contexts you’re interested in, eliminating gender may be a way to reduce sexist and imperialist oppression at the same time.

    However, I think it is important to note that the claims about what the modern gender system does/did are largely empirical, and attempts to base philosophical thinking on them need to engage deeply with social scientific and historical literature, movements by women in the global South, and their testimonies. I bring this up, because there is significant debate about the empirical claims made under the rubric of coloniality of gender—and debate about how generalizable they are. For example, there is a lot of Spanish language scholarship (cited in the Isis Giraldo piece I cite in the book) suggesting a different picture of gender and the role of the colonization of the Americas. Also, some Aymara feminists, as I note in the book are critical of the same ideals that Lugones seems to endorse.

    So, I don’t have a simple answer about whether gender should be eliminated on decolonial grounds—but I hope what I have done is offer arguments for a) feminists seeing that the colonial history of a place matters in what should be done about sexist oppression there and b) deep and serious empirical engagement—with people whose lives are affected, insider movements, and social science.

  13. Saba- Thanks for this question and for drawing our attention to the question of what would be required for Western feminists to understand the lives of the women they theorize about/attempt to intervene in.

    I strongly agree with your point that it is difficult to understand what is really at stake in “other” women’s lives, especially lives Western feminists are likely to access primarily through missionary feminist epistemic habits. You are totally right that the state of our shared interpretive resources is dismal. I think this is a good reason for more work to be done on building up the necessary interpretive resources—and I think this is precisely what many women’s movements outside the West are doing. My contribution was mainly to try to undo some of the colonial epistemic habits that block attempts to understand before they begin, but clearly this is merely a starting point.

    On the other hand, I’m not so sure I would go so far as to say that women outside the West don’t have visions that satisfy criteria for opposition to sexist oppression. For example, when I discuss feminisms grounded in Islam, I take it that what these movements are doing is offering visions that genuinely reject sexist oppression but do so for theological reasons, reasons that are different from those offered by secular feminists.

  14. Congrats on the book, Serene, and of course great to have you as a colleague! Since I’ve learned so much from feminist theory over the years, I’m always delighted when someone doing feminist theory says they’ve learned from me, so that I can feel it hasn’t been a one-way transaction.

    I do strongly agree with Serene (unsurprisingly) that the Rawls-originating (though with broader Western cultural supports) ideal-theoretic bias of the mainstream social justice theory of the last half-century or so has perniciously affected the debate, both with respect to feminism and race. The ambiguity in “ideal” (ideal as normative) has tacitly encouraged the assumption that doing normative theory just IS doing ideal theory, when in actuality the latter is a subset of normative theory. Moreover, it’s a subset whose factual assumptions–whether through the simple ignoring of the historical record, or the importation of an idealized picture of the sociopolitical into the framing descriptive account–militate against a proper understanding of normative priorities. The marginalization of corrective justice in the literature is a clear manifestation of this: everything is subsumed into distributive justice, rather than highlighting the West’s historic responsibility for unjust global structures that are the legacy of colonialism, and which should uncontroversially be judged to require rectification. And by bringing that history into the spotlight–for example, as new racially-informed work on “critical” International Relations (IR) theory is doing–we would be better positioned both to understand how Western “universalist” values have justified conquest and oppression and how an oppositional “universalism” of the kind Serene is defending can be established on the basis of ending this domination. In other words, the goal of a perfectly just society, which brings with it the justice monism and missionary zeal Serene is decrying, should be seen as at best a distant target to be debated at a later stage.

    To cite a familiar example from the case of race: you don’t need a theory of a perfectly just society to recognize that slavery, including racial slavery, is wrong, and it needs to be ended and its legacy corrected for. I take it that this is at least part of the point that Femi is making, and a point that is congruent with Serene’s recommended “minimalist” approach. And note that the issue of individualism can be shown to be irrelevant in another clear-cut case of racial injustice, Native American expropriation. We can condemn the unfair treatment of indigenous peoples as an obvious wrong that needs to be redressed without demanding that they must abandon tribal conceptions of personhood for Western liberal individualist ones. So all these issues need to be put in the more illuminating framework of transitional justice, and the imperative of correcting historical injustices, rather than being approached with the ahistorical and idealized Rawlsian apparatus.

  15. Thanks so much for this important work, Serene. I have been reading it alongside your earlier book, Adaptive Preferences and Women’s Empowerment, and noticing how well these two books work together. A key feature of your earlier book is to motivate philosophers to reconsider their assumptions about Third World women’s agency within social systems that are oppressive in general and that may have gender related divisions of labor and forms of life, and you also take the question of agency up in the new book to show the assumptions that are operating sometimes in misjudging and incorrectly perceiving the degree of agency women in poorer countries have. Interestingly, this is a theme in Tommie Shelby’s book, Dark Ghettos, suggesting that the underestimation of individual and group agency is a general problem in philosophical work as well as work in the social sciences. In some respects, you suggest, I think, that women from richer countries are often also operating with an agency that is heavily embedded within structures, in which we find ways to negotiate with and in some cases stretch our possibilities, but always in relationship to the starting conditions. So this is a concept of non-ideal agency that cuts across many areas of the world. The important argument of Decolonizing Universalism is that correcting the oversights on agency need not lead to a non-critical stance toward women’s choices, as some may read Mahmood or others suggesting. My question to you is about gender eliminativism, which is related to gender role eliminativism but here I want to ask about gender eliminativism in relation to the question of agency. Do you think that gender categories pose intrinsic challenges to agency under all conditions?

  16. Thanks, Charles! I’m especially appreciative of the way you put the issue with ideal theory in your comment—that part of what the reduction of normative theory to ideal theory has accomplished is a misguided *prioritization* of moral concerns. I think that a lot of anti-imperialist literature that is often read as relativist is actually saying that Western feminists get their normative priorities wrong. For example, as Alison Jaggar argues, it may be time for Northerners to prioritize the cessation of harm to women in the global South.

  17. Linda-
    This is a really interesting set of connections and thanks for making them. You’re right that agency under no ideal conditions is pretty much my obsession 🙂

    To your question about whether gender roles inherently challenge agency: I guess my thought is that they *shape* agency in all conditions where they exist, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. My understanding of how social forms affect our agency is loosely Foucauldian in the sense that I think they constrain, enable, and are inevitable. Gender roles turn into a bad thing when their content causes harm or oppression; I don’t think they necessarily cause either by virtue of being roles.

    But I also wonder if you’re asking something more specific, like how Western gender roles promote complicity in missionary feminism. I haven’t given a ton of thought to this, but it seems like Western popular discourses on Muslim women suggest this. The idea that feminine freedom means making yourself a widely available aesthetic object and projecting sexual availability seems to get in the way of noting what might be resistant in other ways of embodying a feminine role.

  18. As others have said already, I really like the work because of the new concepts you’ve created to articulate things that I’ve had gut feelings about when reading say Okin’s work, but that has been very hard to put into words. But I wanted to push a bit on universalism.

    A friend of mine was asked during his dissertation defence why he wasn’t an ethical naturalist and he framed his answer in a dilemma. He argued that naturalism either gives very specific and concrete directives from its reading of nature that usually becomes problematic in that it has a very constrained view of the breadth of human possibility or the definition of nature becomes so vague or broad that it no longer does any work prescribing what one should do. This dilemma came to me when I was thinking about your use of universalism.

    So, if I understand the argument of the book, one of the problems of Strong Idealism is that it ends up manifesting as Enlightenment teleology. That in the end, utopia will all look the same, and not just that, but it will look like Western Enlightenment Europe/North American culture and this has led to oppression and colonialism etc. Enlightenment teleology isn’t true because Justice Monism (a great concept that I love and will be stealing for sure) isn’t true. This is because justice as a general concept can instantiate in many many cultural forms, not just one. I think there’s also an epistemological problem with Strong Idealism because it already assumes beforehand what justice looks like, “a priori”, without investigating empirically. And so Westerners have this predrawn roadmap/criteria of what justice is supposed to look like, then they see a different culture’s arrangement of gender and just assume that it’s wrong because it doesn’t match the predrawn criteria. [Then intervention is necessary and that intervention should force that gender arrangement into Western gender arrangements (turning a blind eye to Western gender injustice). At least that’s what happened in Quebec with veils.] And this is wrong not only because justice monism is wrong but also because idealism’s concentration on the ideal makes it miss out on oppression (and self-reflexively its own oppression).

    Importantly, it is imperative when looking at injustice and oppression that one’s methodology be contextual and historical. We cannot know what form it takes and how to solve the instance of oppression beforehand, in our armchairs, but we need empirical work first; we need to go out into the world first and then come back to our concepts. The strength of this non-ideal argument, though, is premised on the reassurance to the idealist that just because we don’t have ideals doesn’t mean we have to worry that there will be no justice. We don’t need to know the ideal to tackle injustice. In fact, it is injustice that should be our priority which is what ideal theory occludes.

    So, the problem with tying universalism to ideal theory is all of these problems with ideal theory and your solution is not to throw out universalism, but throw out ideal theory: non-ideal universalism. You tout its vagueness as a virtue of the concept. I wonder then, like naturalism that isn’t strong, if it is so vague, if it really does the prescriptive work that it needs to? I also wonder if discarding universalism is even a problem? I say this because the account given here of non-ideal theory is so strong, convincing and reassuring. Non-ideal theory here can give us assurances that if we are not universal, we don’t necessarily fall into relativism. That in fact there is actually quite a bit of conceptual space between the bad pole of relativism and the other extreme pole of enlightenment teleological idealism. I think my query is also motivated by the problem of justice monism and empiricism. If gender justice can be instantiated multiply, what is the point of a concept that tells us beforehand what oppression is going to look like before we go in empirically and investigate. And if there is a reason to have a prescriptive concept beforehand to check against the multiply realizable conceptions of gender out there, shouldn’t it be much less vague so it can do its prescriptive work as a concept that is supposed to be restraining the empiricist’s risk of becoming completely culturally relativist?

    Which is maybe to say, if non-ideal theory is strong enough not to fall into relativism without ideal theory, I wonder if it is strong enough to not to fall into relativism without universalism (making universalism redundant because it’s non-ideal theory that’s doing the work). If I’m on board with nonideal theory and that its contextualism won’t lead directly to relativism, why not kick the ladder of universalism?

    That was a lot, more than I thought I would write, I hope it made sense!

  19. Continuing off of the thoughts and questions from Muhammad Velji above—

    Please pardon my lack of exact verbiage, as my realm of knowledge is fairly new as I step into this philosophy. In the few courses I’ve taken up until the one I’m in currently, relativism has been somewhat of a golden idea when it comes to being any amount of idealistic. I have long thought that universalism (especially any that carries Western ideals) is flawed when tackling justice. However, from what I’ve began to notice, it seems that many core beliefs are shared across cultures. Of course there’s strong contextual matters that cannot be ignored, but is it wrong to think that perhaps there really is some sort of basic universalism that, as long as it stands as a living definition (susceptible to change over time and specifics subject to variance as the definition of feminism is) that could be agreed upon as not inherently incorrect?

  20. Muhammad-Your comment really gets the issues I am always struggling with in my work! And the point about how ideal theory (within an imperialist epistemically context) ends up manifesting as Enlightenment teleology really gets what I’m worried about in this particular book.

    These thickness/thinness worries will always face projects like mine, so I think the most intellectually honest thing to do is just to say that the issues you are describing are real and deep!

    A smallish response to the question of whether we might gain the same outcomes by emphasizing rich contextual inquiry without having the background commitment of opposition to oppression: I think that emphasis on oppression helps us see what makes feminist movements differ from movements that merely involve or address women. It directs us toward looking at how systems affect groups. Moreover, it untethers feminism from an idealization of the Western worldview. One of my worries has always been that if we don’t state our normative ideals explicitly, people’s intuitions will do the work instead. And given that Western intuitions are likely to be corrupted by imperialism, and confuse Western ways if life with liberation, I think it’s better to be explicit that what we are looking for is analytically distinct.

  21. Brie-Anna,
    Thanks for weighing in! My view is a lot like the one I think you’re arriving at at the end of your comment. I think we can be universalists without thinking Western moral beliefs are right or that Western interventions have been good.

    I think one thing that gets lost in a lot of the discussion (including perhaps what you’ve been reading) is that we can think that universal using Western values is bad without thinking universalism itself is bad. It’s true that Western values and interventions have caused harm. But I see the solution to that as looking for universal value that don’t cause harm—instead of retreating into relativism. So, in short, I don’t think it’s wrong to believe in universalism at all! In fact, I think the strongest way to oppose imperialism and oppose sexism is to be some type of universalist.

  22. Thank you Professor Khader for writing about the transnational feminist perspective.
    I find it problematic that so often we assume there is only one right answer to some of the most difficult issues which many different people face all over the world. As an oppressed group I think it is important for women to address the hierarchy within our sex; especially regarding the different women who gain certain benefits from the status quo. Trying to solve an oppressive force which has dated back to biblical times is nearly impossible to combat by assuming that everyone must conform to Western values and traditions. Regardless of the invalid assumption that Western culture is superior, women of the Western world face many of the same forms of oppression; however, these oppressive forces are deemed individual cases rather than symptomatic of Western culture. This distinction often leads to the degradation of other cultures and religions in conjunction with invalid analysis of the life of a Western woman. Portraying oppression of women as a symptom or feature of certain religions/cultures gives the West the opportunity to promote these “symptoms” as problematic and the justification for Western intervention. Rejection of one’s culture will not automatically bring about gender equality; the agents of oppression which marginalize certain groups act with their own intent the traditions and values of culture do not alone oppress groups. Individualism is not a solution to gender inequality because the oppression women face is not experienced by certain individuals but a result of systematic oppression which acts to marginalize an entire group.

  23. Hello, I am interested and excited for this book!
    I am taking a feminist philosophy class with Saba Fatima and the universalism points that go along with western civilization really interest me and I am intrigued to see the perspectives and facts in this book. I am also interested on the topics of gender equality and am looking forward to reading some of these points in class. Your work seems great from just the few points I have been exposed to. Congrats on the new book!

  24. Thank you so much for this great book, Serene! I taught multiple chapters from it in my Ethics and International Relations Class, and it allowed us to situate many discussions we had before reading the book and showed us what was at stake.
    I think it was really helpful for students to ask what it means to propose/support a normative framework when trying to think transnationally. It was also crucial to do this with international studies majors.
    One thing that we discussed was about the application range of epistemic prescriptions against Idealization and Moralism. When we were thinking about the imperialism-visibilizing prescription as well as justice enhancement prescription, we were wondering whether they can serve as tools for understanding certain problems about some policies and for suggesting strategies for policy-making.
    I also have been comparing the overall approach to epistemic communities in international relations (which seems more “expert”-knowledge and policy oriented) to the epistemic communities discussion in feminist epistemologies (which I take to be more sense-making devices oriented). And I think that your work and the normative position you articulate in this book can be used to demonstrate how those discussions are related and why their interaction matters.

  25. Zaria and Heather-Thanks so much! Zaria, you crystallize some of the points in the book really nicely.

    Ezgi- So interesting to learn what came up in your class and the kinds of issues IR students are raising. And I’m intrigued by what you say about the different uses of “epistemic community” across fields. I hope you write that paper someday!

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