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The Feminist Challenge

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    The Feminist Challenge: Women and the Issue of Multiculturalism


    In Western liberal cultures the issue of multiculturalism is accepted as a reality even by those who oppose it in principle. Given how inexpensive rapid transportation and communications are shrinking distances on our planet, nation-states such as Canada are being transformed by immigration into multicultural microcosms of the global village.

    However, both this immigration and multiculturalism itself is – at least in Western societies – intertwined and protected by a secular liberal culture of which one of the shining jewels has been the feminist movement. Feminists fought through much of the twentieth century for the right to vote, and greater social and employment equality with men in North America and Europe. However, with the influx of peoples and cultures into Western societies from other parts of the globe, feminism and secular liberalist multiculturalism find themselves in conflict. In this conflict, the key question is: Can liberal multicultural societies accept the existence of component cultures that are fundamentally illiberal and discriminatory?

    Acknowledging that there are a variety of legitimate positions on this issue, this essay will nonetheless argue – as per Will Kymlicka – that while multiculturalism is, by definition, inclusive, it cannot and must not accept discrimination and oppression within itself. Of course, it must be admitted that there is no society in the world that is free from discrimination. 2 However, as will be demonstrated with particular reference to the rights of women, to accept any form of oppression within a multicultural society is to invite a fatal virus into the body politic. However, it will also be argued that this absolute response can only legitimately be maintained within the boundaries of Western societies. To extend this rule on a global level represents a form of cultural imperialism that may, in fact, do more harm than good.

    The Question of Superiority

    One of the problems many proponents of multiculturalism have with the absolute refusal of many Western feminists to accept any sign or symbol of discrimination against women is that it appears to privilege Western liberal society as superior to all others. An excellent example of this argument is presented by Bhikhu Parekh, who asserts:

    Multiculturalism deflates the absolutist pretensions of liberalism and requires it to acknowledge it contingent historical and cultural roots. Since no culture exhausts the full range of human possibilities, multiculturalism also requires liberalism to become self-critical and to engage in an open-minded dialogue with other doctrines and cultures. (Parekh, 74)

    Parekh's argument may, of course, be challenged on grounds of realism. Regardless of government policies or academic theories, Western liberal culture (driven by the American empire's cultural industry and reinforced by technology such as the Internet) is breaking down walls and barriers from Berlin to Tiananmen Square, and asserting itself as the hegemonic default culture of the entire globe. This reality appears to be less one of "dialogue" and more of a cultural "conquest"; a reality that, it may be argued, renders this entire debate moot. However, from another perspective Parekh's argument can be seen as an integral component in a philosophical debate that may transform the defining principles of this all-conquering liberal culture.

    Susan Mollor Okin's provocative question – Is Multiculturalism bad for women? – goes to the heart of this debate. She notes that in Western multicultural societies today have significant populations from other parts of the world who do not accept the fundamental liberal principles of these societies. These groups, and their supporters, point to their own "societal cultures" which provide members with "meaningful ways of life across the full range of human activities, including social, educational, religious, recreational, and economic life, encompassing both public and private spheres" (Kymlicka, in Okin, 11). It is argued that these group rights must take precedence – at least for these populations – over the defining principles of the broader society (Okin, 11).

    One of the central difficulties about this debate over rights is how easily it can metamorphose into a debate over the superiority of one system over another. Whether or not Okin intended the debate to assume this form, it is clear that many of her respondents interpret a Western liberal assertion of the individual rights of women as an assertion of the superiority of Western liberalism over their own cultures. It is interesting to note that this view is shared by many critics who are critical of oppressive elements within their own systems. For example, Azizah Al-Hibri – who denounces the "oppressive behaviour among some Moslems" regarding women, which he attributes to cultural practices or patriarchal interpretations of religious texts – nonetheless considers Okin's text to be

    clearly written from the perspective of the dominant cultural "I", a Western point of view . . . . Okin blames this conflict on a Western liberal tradition that recognizes value in the very existence of cultural diversity. She argues that some cultures may in fact be worthy of extinction. (Al-Hibri, 41)

    Al-Hibri's perspective on this debate is troubling; particularly because he is not only critical of the West but is also selfcritical of his own cultural system's oppression of women. The fact that the question of multiculturalism and women is perceived by many as a broader conflict between Western liberalism and the Other cultures of the world expands the parameters of the debate far beyond the territorial and judicial boundaries of Western countries.

    Within this context, it is clear that Okin's question must be redefined in two different settings: within Western multicultural societies, and within the relationship between the West and the rest of the world. As will be seen, the question of the women and multiculturalism may be answered differently in each.

    Women and Multiculturalism

    It is interesting to note that Okin opens her argument on the damage multiculturalism can do to women's rights with a famous example in France where the French government's toleration of its Arab immigrant population practising such culturally specific rites as polygamy and the veiling of women created public controversy in a country based on the principles of individual freedom (Okin, 10-11).

    One of the strengths of Okin's argument is her demonstration – with evidence drawn from the culturally-approved oppression of women in various cultures from Africa to Asia – that such practices are based upon the assertion of male, patriarchal power over women. Whether it be in the native lands of these cultures, 6 or among immigrant communities in Western societies, it appears undeniable that such practices are essentially about the oppression of women (Okin, 14-15). This is a devastating assault, and it is interesting that none of her critic's directly answer her points on these scores. At best, they attempt to shift the debate. An example of this may be seen in Sander Gilman's response to Okin's direct attack on the practice of clitoridectomy – intended to deprive women of sexual pleasure (Okin, 14) – with an unconvincing, off-topic discussion of male circumcision (Gilman, 53-58).

    The silence of Okin's critics on each of her key points here is deafening. It serves to reinforce her argument that "most cultures have as one of their principal aims the control of women by men" (Okin, 13). In this analysis, Western liberal cultures have progressed more to limiting this oppression than have other cultures around the world:

    Western majority cultures, largely at the urging of feminists, have recently made substantial efforts to preclude or limit excuses for brutalizing women. . . . . When a woman from a more patriarchal culture comes to the United States (or some other Western, basically liberal, state), why should she be less protected from male violence than other women are? (Okin, 19-20)

    Okin's argument is – I would argue – iron-clad in the above passage. Indeed, multiculturalists such as Kymlicka accept her argument that fundamental human rights in liberal societies must be respected, and that multiculturalism in these societies can coexist in harmony with feminist defence of women's rights (Kymlicka, 32-34). However, other critics are troubled at Okin's focus on Western multicultural societies:

    I agree with Okin's view that nearly all cultures discriminate against women . . . . Okin does not seem to be concerned with the resolution of those problems in non-Western societies. I am therefore wondering whether her proposed solution for the elimination of gender discrimination within minority cultures in the West is detrimental to the achievement of this objective itself globally. . . . (Abdullahi An-na'im, 60-61)

    An-na'im's point goes to the heart of this debate. Clearly, it is one thing to assert women's rights in the heart of Western liberal cultures, and another thing to argue for the same on a global scale. Note, for example, Homi Bhabha's claim that she is "less concerned with the domestic perspective and more with the global cultural assumptions that animate Okin's argument" (Bhabha, 8 80). There appears to be a sense in which multiculturalists such as Kymlicka and Bhabha – however much they might dislike liberalism – are willing to concede the primacy of the principles of liberal rights on the "home ground" of Western liberalism, but who will offer fierce resistance to the export of these rights beyond the West.

    Their opposition may be seen to be philosophically wellfounded. After all, by what right can the West purport to "lecture" the rest of the world on human rights? It is undeniable, as Bhabha makes clear, that such a philosophical stance must necessitate certain assumptions about the superiority of Western liberalism. While it may very well be that, as Okin suggests, Western liberal cultures have progressed beyond most others in defining and protecting the individual rights of women, the extension of this protection to women across the globe would be analogous to imperialism. Okin's question of the women and multiculturalism may therefore be revised in terms of the old debate over the primacy of "means" and "ends": Is it morally justifiable for the West to assert the rights of women globally through the bad means of its cultural and economic imperial hegemony, to the good end of ensuring the global equality and protection of women?


    As has been seen, the question of the rights of women versus 9 the principles of multiculturalism is a complex one. Clearly, it possesses two aspects: a domestic one within Western liberal, multicultural societies, and a global one in terms of the relations between Western societies and Others. While there is a good argument to be made for the right of liberal societies to assert its principles of the individual rights of women, even to the point of overriding group rights, this argument is morally weaker when extended to the world stage.

    It must be acknowledged, however, that the argument itself may be moot. Regardless of Okin or Bhabha, Kymlicka or An-na'im, the world is getting smaller and social transformation is occurring ever more rapidly. Soon, thanks to the power of Western cultural industries – to whom moral debates are irrelevant. Teenagers from Zanzibar to Moscow will dance to the music of Ricky Martin and the Backstreet Boys, while everyone gets their news from CNN and their entertainment from American satellites and the Internet. Minority and majority cultures may cease to exist; merged into the only remaining culture left on the planet: the culture of Planet America. Our best paper writing service is ready to take your order.


    • al-Hibri, Azizah. "Is Western Patriarchal Feminism Good for Third World/Minority Women." in Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? Susan Moller Okin with Respondents. Ed. Joshua Cohen, Matthew Howard, and Martha Nussbaum. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999, 41-46.
    • An-Na'im, Abdullahi. "Promises We Should All Keep in Common Cause." in Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? Susan Moller Okin with Respondents. Ed. Joshua Cohen, Matthew Howard, and Martha Nussbaum. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999, 59-64.
    • Bhabha, Homi K. "Liberalism's Sacred Cow." in Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? Susan Moller Okin with Respondents. Ed. Joshua Cohen, Matthew Howard, and Martha Nussbaum. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999, 79-84.
    • Gilman, Sander. "`Barbaric Rituals'?" in Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? Susan Moller Okin with Respondents. Ed. Joshua Cohen, Matthew Howard, and Martha Nussbaum. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999, 53-58.
    • Kymlicka, Will. "Liberal Complacencies." in Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? Susan Moller Okin with Respondents. Ed. Joshua Cohen, Matthew Howard, and Martha Nussbaum. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999, 31-34.
    • Okin, Susan Moller. "Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?" in Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? Susan Moller Okin with Respondents. Ed. Joshua Cohen, Matthew Howard, and Martha Nussbaum. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999, 7-26.
    • Parekh, Bhikhu. "A Varied Moral World." in Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? Susan Moller Okin with Respondents. Ed. Joshua Cohen, Matthew Howard, and Martha Nussbaum. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999, 69-75.

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