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Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?

Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?

Copyright Date: 1999
Pages: 146
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  • Book Info
    Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?
    Book Description:

    Polygamy, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, punishing women for being raped, differential access for men and women to health care and education, unequal rights of ownership, assembly, and political participation, unequal vulnerability to violence. These practices and conditions are standard in some parts of the world. Do demands for multiculturalism--and certain minority group rights in particular--make them more likely to continue and to spread to liberal democracies? Are there fundamental conflicts between our commitment to gender equity and our increasing desire to respect the customs of minority cultures or religions? In this book, the eminent feminist Susan Moller Okin and fifteen of the world's leading thinkers about feminism and multiculturalism explore these unsettling questions in a provocative, passionate, and illuminating debate.

    Okin opens by arguing that some group rights can, in fact, endanger women. She points, for example, to the French government's giving thousands of male immigrants special permission to bring multiple wives into the country, despite French laws against polygamy and the wives' own bitter opposition to the practice. Okin argues that if we agree that women should not be disadvantaged because of their sex, we should not accept group rights that permit oppressive practices on the grounds that they are fundamental to minority cultures whose existence may otherwise be threatened.

    In reply, some respondents reject Okin's position outright, contending that her views are rooted in a moral universalism that is blind to cultural difference. Others quarrel with Okin's focus on gender, or argue that we should be careful about which group rights we permit, but not reject the category of group rights altogether. Okin concludes with a rebuttal, clarifying, adjusting, and extending her original position. These incisive and accessible essays--expanded from their original publication inBoston Reviewand including four new contributions--are indispensable reading for anyone interested in one of the most contentious social and political issues today.

    The diverse contributors, in addition to Okin, are Azizah al-Hibri, Abdullahi An-Na'im, Homi Bhabha, Sander Gilman, Janet Halley, Bonnie Honig, Will Kymlicka, Martha Nussbaum, Bhikhu Parekh, Katha Pollitt, Robert Post, Joseph Raz, Saskia Sassen, Cass Sunstein, and Yael Tamir.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4099-1
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-2)
  3. Introduction: Feminism, Multiculturalism, and Human Equality
    (pp. 3-6)

    Over the past two centuries, social and political hierarchies in this country have met with repeated challenge from movements inspired by ideas of human equality. Abolitionists insisted that slaves are human beings, not to be held as property. Working-class movements of the 1920s and 1930s argued that a decent life for human beings should not depend on market success. The civil rights struggle of the 1960s said that skin color must be irrelevant to human fate, and condemned the practice of racial apartheid. More recently, movements for gay and lesbian rights have rejected the idea that people should be subjected...

  4. PART 1 Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?
    (pp. 7-24)

    Until the past few decades, minority groups—immigrants as well as indigenous peoples—were typically expected to assimilate into majority cultures. This assimilationist expectation is now often considered oppressive, and many Western countries are seeking to devise new policies that are more responsive to persistent cultural differences. The appropriate policies vary with context: countries such as England, with established churches or state-supported religious education, find it difficult to resist demands to extend state support to minority religious schools; countries such as France, with traditions of strictly secular public education, struggle over whether the clothing required by minority religions may be...

  5. Part 2: Reponses

    • Whose Culture?
      (pp. 27-30)

      Susan Okin writes that multiculturalism and feminism are in “tension,” and sometimes even in opposition to each other. She argues that defenders of “cultural” or “group rights” for minority cultures have failed to notice that there are considerable differences of power within those cultures, and that those differences are gendered, with men having power over women. She also claims that group-rights advocates fail to pay enough attention to the private, domestic sphere, in which these oppressive and gendered cultural traditions tend to be most freely exercised.

      Coming in late to this debate, I have to say I’ve had a hard...

    • Liberal Complacencies
      (pp. 31-34)

      I agree with the basic claim of Okin’s paper—that a liberal egalitarian (and feminist) approach to multiculturalism must look carefully at intragroup inequalities, and specifically at gender inequalities, when examining the legitimacy of minority group rights. Justice within ethnocultural groups is as important as justice between ethnocultural groups. Group rights are permissible if they help promote justice between ethnocultural groups, but are impermissible if they create or exacerbate gender inequalities within the group.

      In my recent work, I have tried to emphasize this point by distinguishing between two kinds of “group rights.” Sometimes an ethnocultural group claims rights against...

    • “My Culture Made Me Do It”
      (pp. 35-40)

      Moving quickly from veiling to polygamy to efforts to control female sexuality to the denial of maternal rights over children to the (paradoxically contradictory) enforcement of maternalism as women’s proper role to clitoridectomy to child marriage to forced marriage to one’s rapist to marriage by capture and, finally, to murder, Susan Okin asks whether groups that are illiberal and sexist should be accorded group rights and protections by liberal states, or whether, instead, sexist cultural practices and perhaps entire cultures should be altered or allowed to become “extinct.” Okin implies that the slope from veiling to murder is slippery and...

    • Is Western Patriarchal Feminism Good for Third World / Minority Women?
      (pp. 41-46)

      The issue of conflicting rights raised by Susan Okin’s paper is of fundamental importance to any serious human rights discourse. Okin’s perspective, discussion, and proposal, however, all suffer from three fatal problems: (1) stereotypical views of the “Other”; (2) a conflation of distinct belief systems; and (3) conflict with American constitutional principles.

      The paper is clearly written from the perspective of the dominant cultural “I,” a Western point of view burdened with immigrant problems and the human rights conflicts they engender. Okin blames this conflict on a Western liberal tradition that recognizes value in the very existence of cultural diversity.¹...

    • Siding with the Underdogs
      (pp. 47-52)

      In her excellent essay, Susan Okin draws attention to inherent tensions between group rights and women’s rights. She points to the fact that establishing group rights which enable minority cultures to preserve themselves may not be in the best interest of the girls and women of these cultures. This is patently true.

      This brief comment supports Okin’s claims and argues that the importance of the issues she raises extends far beyond feminist concerns. It is a word of caution, calling upon liberal political theorists and liberal political activists to acknowledge that group rights strengthen dominant subgroups within each culture and...

    • “Barbaric” Rituals?
      (pp. 53-58)

      Susan Okin’s essay reminds us of the importance of a historical sensibility in our reflections on religious ritual and cultural tradition. Her language and images take us back 150 years to a time when the focus would not have been on female circumcision / ritual mutilation but on infant male ritual circumcision / ritual mutilation. (Yes, that term was used!) Those terrible Jews: their repulsive practice of marking the bodies of their male children was, as Enlightenment “thinkers” such as Voltaire stated, clear proof of their inherent inhumanity. A Europeanliberal—the Italian physician Paolo Mantegazza, the widely read sexologist...

    • Promises We Should All Keep in Common Cause
      (pp. 59-64)

      Theorizing of the kind reflected in Susan Okin’s essay (or Samuel Huntington’sClash of Civilizations) sometimes influences public policy and thereby affects the lives of individuals and communities. Moreover, such influence often extends beyond, and sometimes contradicts, a theorist’s own intentions. Beginning from these premises, I wish to raise two sets of questions about Okin’s argument and outlook.

      First, can liberal theorists deliver on the promises they make to members of cultural minorities within what Okin calls “Western liberal cultures”? Do such theorists in North America and Western Europe have a clear understanding of themeaningof cultural membership in...

    • Between Norms and Choices
      (pp. 65-68)

      Susan Okin’s primary claim, that there is a deep tension between feminism and multiculturalism, seems unambiguously correct. While multiculturalism celebrates the diversity of cultures, including necessarily the diversity of gender roles that preoccupy these cultures, the enterprise of feminism is dedicated precisely to constraining the available repertory of such roles. By inviting us carefully to focus on this tension, Okin’s article usefully exposes ambiguities in our concepts of both feminism and liberal multiculturalism.

      Okin defines feminism as the “belief that women should not be disadvantaged by their sex, that they should be recognized as having human dignity equal to that...

    • A Varied Moral World
      (pp. 69-75)

      Many a classical liberal argued that since the liberal view of life was grounded in the fundamental truths of human nature and represented more or less the last word in human wisdom, nonliberal communities at home and abroad should be persuaded and, if necessary, pressured and coerced to assimilate into it. This belief informed J. S. Mill’s attitudes to the native peoples, the Basques, the Bretons, the Scots, and the Francophones in Quebec, and formed the basis of his justification of British colonialism in India and elsewhere. Alexis de Tocqueville shared his view. And since the fun-loving people of Tahiti...

    • Culture beyond Gender
      (pp. 76-78)

      The framing of an argument matters. Susan Okin’s argument hinges on the fact that group rights tend to be cultural rights, and that the norm in most cultures is an inequality between men and women that works to the overwhelming disadvantage of women. This framing makes her argument persuasive and well-supported by an enormous body of evidence. Thus organized, the debate between feminists and supporters of group rights is resolutely won by the feminists, and I would place myself squarely in the latter field.

      Even if we consider group rights as a way of protecting the importance of “culture” for...

    • Liberalism’s Sacred Cow
      (pp. 79-84)

      Liberals have a way of occupying the high moral ground while keeping the lower depths finely covered, moving convincingly from “causes” to cases, balancing theory and practice. What are the possibilities of maneuver in the midst of such fluency? I welcome Susan Okin’s central argument that “there is considerable likelihood of tension . . . between feminism and a multiculturalist commitment to group rights for minority cultures,” which persists even when the latter are claimed on “liberal grounds.” This is a useful corrective to the prevailing orthodoxy that establishes “equivalences” between disadvantaged groups, aggregating “communities of interest” without doing the...

    • Should Sex Equality Law Apply to Religious Institutions?
      (pp. 85-94)

      I am in general agreement with Susan Moller Okin’s excellent essay. In particular I agree with her suggestion that sex equality often conflicts with a respect for minority cultures. Frequently such cultures do not permit girls and women to live as freely as boys and men, and the consequence is that general approval of “multiculturalism” can collide with the goal of achieving equal life prospects for men and women.

      In these brief remarks I seek to draw out some more concrete implications from this general claim. My principal concern does involve feminism and multiculturalism, but it is somewhat narrower than...

    • How Perfect Should One Be? And Whose Culture Is?
      (pp. 95-99)

      I find myself in broad agreement with Susan Okin’s concerns, and, so far as practical politics goes, probably little separates us. However, I share neither some of the views that Okin attacks, nor some of those she accepts. In a sense I am a stranger to this debate,¹ but the seriousness of the issues raised by Okin made me agree to write a brief rejoinder to her thoughtful article.

      Okin focuses her criticism on “defenders of multiculturalism [who] confine their defense of group rights largely to groups that are internally liberal.” I plead not guilty to any charge of advocating...

    • Culture Constrains
      (pp. 100-104)

      Susan Okin correctly observes that women’s rights conflicts are extremely salient in debates over “cultural rights.” I take this as a sign, however, that women’s rights discourse is alive and well, making productive friction on a global scale. What puzzles me is that women’s issues are so often thought to exhaust the supply of problems embedded in cultural rights projects.

      Culture constrains. Sure, it may liberate too, but efforts to justify cultural rights are characteristically defective to the extent that they insist on the liberation story while suppressing the constraint story. This is, for example, where I would have to...

    • A Plea for Difficulty
      (pp. 105-114)

      I admire Susan Okin’s essay, as I admire the entire body of her courageous and clearly argued feminist work. She states with great clarity and force the case for a critical examination of cultural practices that oppress women. She is right to say that the current liberal interest in multiculturalism holds grave dangers for women’s equality. The danger is increased by the fact that issues of sex equality have rarely been seen as urgent and central by the major liberal political thinkers¹—a sad fact that Okin’s fine work over the years has done so much to diagnose, and to...

  6. PART 3 Reply
    (pp. 115-132)

    Many thanks to the respondents for their thoughtful and thought-provoking comments, many of which I agree with. Some of them extend my arguments in important ways, some of them I wish to argue against, and some of them I think indicate misperceptions of my position. Because of the last, I shall start by reiterating it briefly.

    I argue that many cultures oppress some of their members, in particular women, and that they are often able to socialize these oppressed members so that they accept, without question, their designated cultural status.¹ I argue, therefore, that in the context of liberal states,...

  7. NOTES
    (pp. 133-144)
    (pp. 145-146)