Is multiculturalism bad for women? That is the title of liberal philosopher and feminist Suzan Moller Okin’s plea about the incompatibility of feminism and multiculturalism. Over the past few decades multiculturalism has always sparked a lot of debates and unleashed a lot of passions in society. And during the past years, feminists have also taken their stand in the discussion. But just like in any other debate, their opinions are very divided. The central question posed by Okin is what should be done when the norms and customs of minority cultures or religions clash with the norm of gender equality that we have in most liberal countries. The diversity in opinions between the various feminists on this matter stems from a clash in different feminist values. On the one hand, the belief that women should have the same rights and opportunities to live their lives as men and should be recognized as equals. While on the other hand the right of autonomy is highly valued.
When I talk about feminism, I am talking about the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities, and women should be recognized as having the same human dignity as that of men. Multiculturalism, however, is harder to define. In contrast to looking at multiculturalism as the coexistence of diverse social groups, I talk about multiculturalism as the movement that rejects the idea of the “melting pot” in which members of minority cultures are expected to give in to the dominant culture and instead have as ideal a society in which members of minority groups can maintain their own identities. In her work, Okin looks at a particular aspect of multiculturalism, namely the idea that when minority cultures are not well enough protected they should be protected through special group rights and privileges, such as special territorial rights or right of self-government. One of the main proponents of group rights and privileges is philosopher Will Kymlicka. For Kymlicka a nation is a ‘societal culture’, it is a language, a set of social structures, norms, relationships and customs. They constitute a context of choice, in which an individual develops a sense of social self and group identity, from which a person evidently chooses to be their own person and can develop a sense of self-respect. Hence, Kymlicka argues, that due to the importance culture plays in the development of self-respect and becoming your own person, it should be protected and supported. Therefore, a liberal democratic society should be willing to give some degree of self-government and special rights to preserve national minorities. To deprive them of their culture is to deprive them of their individual autonomy.
However, in her work, Okin addresses two important connections between culture and beliefs about gender that need to be recognized. The first connection is the fact that the sphere of personal, sexual, and reproduction is a central theme in most cultures, and has a large effect on cultural practices. Second, she notes that most cultures have as one of their principal aims the control of women by men. Consider for example polygamous cultures, where men often acknowledge that the practice of polygamy is in their own self-interest and to control their wives. According to journalist Naomi Schaefer, polygamist marriages can produce deep emotional and psychological issues which are often repressed and ignored in society. A second example of how cultural practices focus on the domination of women was the controversial law in many Arab nations that pardoned a rapist for his crime if he married his victim. Luckily, this law has been repealed a lot of, but there are still some countries left who force girls to marry their rapist to restore the shame brought on their family. Another, even more controversial example is that of female genital mutilation in countries such as Mali, Sudan, Egypt or Somalia. Even today, worldwide, more than 200 million women have undergone genital cutting as a result of their culture, where a woman’s role is to take care of the children, do the housekeeping and prepare dinner. The mutilation is therefore to prevent these girls from getting distracted from their job by thinking about their own sexual pleasures.
Of course, Kymlicka’s case for group rights does not allow for such extreme practices. He supports the idea of group rights for those groups that uphold liberal values. However, sex discrimination is often less overt. In most cases, gender inequality and discrimination remain hidden in the private or domestic sphere. Okin states that: ‘Though they may not impose their beliefs or practices on others, and though they may appear to respect the basic civil and political liberties of women and girls, many cultures do not, especially in the private sphere, treat them with anything like the same concern and respect with which men and boys are treated, or allow them to enjoy the same freedoms.’ Schaefer stated for instance that polygamist societies are so secretive and the women are so controlled and manipulated from birth that you almost never see victims coming forward. This constant cultural emphasis on the subordination of women is in violation of many of the feminist values of gender equality. Okin concludes that based on the idea of self-respect and personal growth there is no evidence that the female members of a minority culture benefit from the preservation of their culture and hence, no such privileges should be granted.
Needless to say, many feminists also argue that being part of a specific culture is a women’s basic right based on the idea of autonomy. Men and women should be able to live their lives as they please and everyone has the right to their own opinion on what is valuable in life. They believe Okin’s reasoning does not capture the complexity and diversity of many minority or non-liberal cultures. For a lot of women their religion and the expression of their religion is an essential part of their social identity and sense of the self. A better approach to violations of feminist values might be to acknowledge the dynamic nature of culture. Cultures are constantly changing and within cultures there is a constant shift in dominating beliefs and practices. To label your own culture as “good” and other cultures as “bad” is too dogmatic and ignores the diversity within cultures. To state that multiculturalism is bad for feminism might thus be a bridge too far. Another way of looking at this is that feminist should not battle these minority cultures, but their practices that contribute to the subordination of women.
Okin, Susan Moller. Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? edited by Joshua Cohen, et al., Princeton University Press, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/rug/detail.action?docID=768539.
Freitas, Jessica (2012) “Practicing Polygamy: Multicultural Right or Liberal Crime?,”Global Tides: Vol. 6, Article 10.Available at: http://digitalcommons.pepperdine.edu/globaltides/vol6/iss1/10
This article is written by Fenna Beentjes