ASA06: Cosmopolitanism and Anthropology

3. Rights and Cosmopolitan Movements

Cosmopolitanism is often dismissed as merely a liberal aspiration of well-to-do westerners. But social anthropological research highlights the way cosmopolitan ideas and ideals permeate the struggles of women and indigenous minorities in developing countries, well beyond these elite circles.

Genders, Cosmopolitanisms and Rights Claims

Maila Stivens, Melbourne, Australia

This paper explores issues around the gendering of cosmopolitanism through a discussion of gender and rights claims in the Malaysian women's movement.  A notable feature of the interest in the last few decades in cosmopolitanism has been the dearth of material directly addressing issues of gender and cosmopolitanisms. This neglect is highly interesting over the same period, many gender-based movements around the globe have had to work painfully through accusations of universalism, ethnocentricity, neo-imperialism and worse towards versions of grounded cosmopolitanism, notably the idea of ‘transversal politics’. The paper examines this awkward relationship between feminist scholarship and that on cosmopolitanism in the context of both a discussion of the Malaysian case and of the emerging possibilities and problems of an anthropology of cosmopolitanisms.


Enlightenment Modernity and the Subaltern: Dalit Women and Activism in South India

Kalpana Ram, Maquarie, Sydney

The critique of Enlightenment legacies of universalism has derived much of its power from pointing to the particular identities that parade as universal – the masked presences of masculinism, of colonialism, of class power. These critiques are not wrong, but they tend to represent subaltern groups simply as ‘excluded’, and in doing so, justify a lack of curiosity as to the specific ways in which legacies of the Enlightenment also travel and circulate among the poor, the lower caste and among women. This paper examines women from the rural poor Dalit communities of south India who speak, not as the excluded of modern cosmopolitanism, but as the claimants of an emancipatory modernity. Their stance can be used to disclose something of the affective and existential power of modern universalisms, which is often covered over by the style of contemporary critiques.

Women, Non-violence and Islamic Cosmopolitanism

Kathy Robinson, ANU, Canberra

Indonesia is the nation with the world’s largest Islamic population, and the country has been undergoing a process of continuous conversion since the 15th century. From the point of view of the Middle East, Indonesia is regarded as marginal to Islamic orthodoxy. However, there is a school of indigenous Islamic intellectuals who promote ‘Islam pribumi’ or indigenous/vernacular Islam as a legitimate variant, and contrast it with Middle Eastern and Westernised Islam. Islam Pribumi supports interpretive stances that emphasize social equity (including gender equity), human rights and tolerance/pluralism, and these values are regarded as having indigenous roots, rather than deriving from western liberal thought. These thinkers (for example, former president Abdurrachman Wahid) position themselves in opposition to a global Islamism which originates in the Middle East. Another important segment of the Islamic pro-democracy movement in Indonesia is interested in ideas originating in other parts of the Islamic world. In this camp, Indonesian Islamic supporters of gender equity have engaged with Middle Eastern and South Asian feminist thinkers such as Rifat Hasan, Fatimah Mernissi and Afshar Ali Engineer. These intellectuals (people like Musdah Mulia) claim equal legitimacy for their interpretive stances. Anti-violence has been a strong theme of the Indonesian women’s movement, and current activism has been given a boost by vocal and widespread opposition to the rapes of Chinese women in the social unrest surrounding the fall of the authoritarian Suharto regime in 1998. The concerns originating in secular feminist organizations in the Suharto period are increasingly carried by Islamic feminist groups drawing on both Islam Pribumi and on Middle Eastern feminist thought. Opposition to gendered violence, in particular within the family, is a dominant theme in current women’s activism, and draws its force not only form secular global instruments like CEDAW, but also by appeal to a cosmopolitan form of Islam, in which Indonesian thinkers stake their claims for legitimacy.

Women’s Rights, Indigenous Rights: Negotiating the Contradictions of Culture, Power and Identity in Africa (read in her absence)

Dorothy Hodgson, Rutgers, USA

Indigenous rights, which derive from international human rights legislation, are premised on cosmopolitan values of equality, shared rights and responsibilities as citizens, and the recognition and respect of cultural diversity. Indigenous activists from across the globe have been extraordinarily successful at having their economic, political and cultural rights recognized and affirmed by the United Nations, transnational advocacy groups, and donors. But some, especially African activists, have been far less successful at leveraging the international recognition of indigenous rights in their national struggles for recognition, resources, and rights. Tensions between indigenous activists and their respective states have in fact escalated in recent years, as states in Africa, as elsewhere, have been radically transformed by neoliberal political, economic and social practices, further undermining the precarious livelihoods of historically marginalized citizens.

In this paper, I argue that cosmopolitics, of which indigenous activism is one form, must therefore take seriously the mediating role of the state and the pressures of neoliberalism in shaping political positionings and possibilities. The paper uses an ethnohistorical case study of Maasai activists in Tanzania to explore the centrality of the state to both indigenous rights and neoliberalism, and the consequent challenges to the political struggles of historically marginalized peoples. It traces and explains three phases of the relationship between Maasai and the Tanzanian state: 1) a deeply modernist, paternalist postcolonial state that treated Maasai as “subjects” rather than “citizens,” and left little space for Maasai political engagement; 2) the emergence and embrace of indigenous rights and international advocacy by Maasai activists in the 1990s, and 3) a recent shift by Maasai activists from discourses of indigeneity to discourses of livelihoods, and from international to national advocacy. These shifting political strategies and positionings within international and national debates inform, challenge, and complicate ongoing theoretical and political debates about the struggles of transnational social movements, the contours of cosmopolitics, and the enduring political salience of the state.


Chair: Peter Wade, Manchester
Discussant: Esther Hertzog, Beit Berl