Women and minority positions

Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?
February 25, 2000

Susan Moller Okin's book Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? comprises a collection of essays written in response to her advocacy of "Anglo" conformity as the primary way of ensuring equal rights for women. It will be of interest to academics and other serious readers concerned with gender and diversity issues; it may also appeal to anyone with an interest in tracking the process by which knowledge is constructed in the West.

Okin's central argument is simply stated: only western societies have allowed men and women equal rights, and most religions and minority cultures subordinate females. Thus, if minority cultures are allowed group rights, the power of the elite within the groups will be strengthened and women will remain in subordinate positions. Ergo, multiculturalism is bad for women. According to Okin, multiculturalism or advocacy of group rights is a regressive position. These minority cultures should be allowed to die out or at least be encouraged to alter themselves to fit the norms of majority society. Okin does not define "minority", but one can infer from her examples that she is referring to all non-Christians and non-whites in western societies. Her arguments about "equal rights" are framed according to the hegemonic liberal feminist framework. She describes women as the victims of sex-role socialisation, and families and sub-cultural groups are identified as the primary culprits in transmitting regressive norms of gender across generations.

A few respondents agree or partially agree with Okin and elaborate her theme. Yael Tamir points out that traditional and conservative sections of religious communities are typically best served by group rights. Group leaders suppress internal dissensions so as to provide a public facade of unity and women typically lose in such power struggles. Reform-minded groups are dismissed as marginal or westernised and therefore not representative of the group. Katha Pollit points out how cultural-rights issues focus disproportionately on the control of women. However, Pollit disagrees that gender discrimination within sub-cultural groups occurs only because the majority society excludes these practices from the purview of civic regulations. Cass Sunstein provides an analysis of how religious institutions are allowed to discriminate on the basis of sex in liberal societies because of the separation of church and state.

Some other respondents attempt to sort out what is meant by group rights and rights as defined by liberalism. Will Kymlicka argues that the notion of group rights arose because rights guaranteed in a liberal society failed to provide real freedom and equality for people. Robert Post and Abdullahi An'Naim point out that in the absence of social and economic rights, political rights uphold only the privileges of the hegemonic group in society.

A fundamental drawback of Okin's argument is that she describes cultures as monolithic and unchanging. For instance, she argues that all religions - such as Islam, Judaism and Christianity - have as a central aim the control and subordination of women. Several scholars chastise Okin for drawing conclusions based on a few negative examples taken from criminal cases or newspaper reports. Azizhah al-Hibri and An-Na'im argue that Okin's attempts to define the central tenets of Islam in terms of wearing headscarves, polygamy and early marriages conflate religious ideals with cultural practices that vary between countries. Al-Hibri questions Okin's stand-point because she denigrates wearing headscarves as a symbol of Islamic patriarchal control, without considering practices such as wearing mini-skirts as examples of western patriarchal control. Martha Nussbaum expresses uneasiness about Okin's off-hand judgement of religions. Nussbaum points to the long history of institutional acceptance of women as religious leaders within Reform Judaism - a history that is lost in Okin's generalisations. More important, Nussbaum argues that Okin's suggestion that religions contribute little to struggles for justice ignores religions' central role in encouraging people to protest against injustice.

On a slightly different note, Homi Bhabha observes that the tendency to look at minority cultures as "abject subjects of their cultures of originI preserving their orthodoxy and traditionalism in the midst of a great storm of western progress" is in keeping with an established tradition of orientalism. Bonnie Honig is critical of Okin for equating "foreign" cultures with misogynist practices. Honig, Bhikhu Parekh and Saskia Sassen describe how cultures interact with race, class, locality, and lineage to create gender hierarchies that affect both men and women. Joseph Raz questions Okin's faith in the respect for equal rights accorded by western societies. He points to the history of intolerance of different races and religions and the current intolerance of homosexuality as better indicators of the state of western societies. Sander Gilman expresses uneasiness about Okin's lack of historical grounding and argues that her demonisation of clitoridectomy is similar to the vilification of circumcision that was used to marginalise "barbaric Jews" in the past two centuries.

Okin's presentation of women as a unitary category is another arena of dissension. Parekh, among others, argues that depending on their stage in life, women have access to different sorts of power. "Woman" is a category too narrow for appreciating the diversity of statuses, roles and power that any particular woman may have depending on her age, religion, class, sexual preference, marital status and other social and contextual characteristics.

Two other aspects of Okin's argument are insufficiently addressed. There is a marked absence of engagement with gender-studies scholars who have, at least since the early 1980s, pointed out the drawback inherent in equating sex with gender. Scholars such as Patricia Hill Collins, Robert Connell, Myra Ferree, Chandra Mohanty, Judith Lorber, Michael Messner, Evelyn Nakano Glenn, Raka Ray, Candace West and Maxine Baca Zinn have shown how gender hierarchies are constructed differently depending on the interaction of sex with race, class and other social hierarchies. Micro-level episodes between individuals, meso-level interactions between groups and macro-level institutional practices together create and sustain gender hierarchies. In short, hastening the extinction of minority cultures is unlikely to have the effect Okin seeks, since social structure matters over and above the correlation between a group's cultural norms and women's subordination.

Okin's arguments also do not reflect any awareness of centuries of changes initiated by women in other (non-western) societies. Okin mentions India as a society that has guaranteed minority group rights and thus hurt women. Her overlooking of centuries of activism by Indian women recalls an episode in the 1920s and 1930s when the British feminist Eleanor Rathbone offered to help change the subordinate position of Indian women. Rathbone's offer was publicly rejected by prominent Indian women activists, who pointed out that they were already the architects of a variety of changes over several decades and did not need to be told by outsiders how to go about their business. To come up to the present day in India, Okin's arguments would have been enriched had she dealt with women's rights as elaborated by Madhu Kishwar, Flavia Agnes, Ela Bhatt, Medha Patkar, Vandana Shiva, Mahasweta Devi and many others. These women have worked to improve the situation of different groups of Indian women. They have also been vocal critics of western feminisms. Since Okin does not even consider these other viewpoints, she holds the firm belief that feminism never places one group of women in a position of power over other women. Thus the liberal-feminist version of equal rights is presented as the panacea for all women.

In conclusion, this book is interesting because of the varying arguments that elaborate or challenge Okin's presentation of old wine in a new bottle.

Bandana Purkayastha is professor of sociology/Asian-American studies, University of Connecticut, United States.

Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?

Author - Susan Moller Okin
ISBN - 0 691 00431 5 and 00432 3
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £18.95 and £8.50
Pages - 146

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