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Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?

Writer: Anna Mohan Editor: Clarissa Lilananda


This is the same title of a paper published by Susan Moeller Okin, an acclaimed Western liberal feminist philosopher in 1994. In this paper, she argued that multiculturalism and feminism are irreconcilable, claiming that: female members of a patriarchal culture“might be much better off if the culture into which they were born were… to become extinct”.

While this is an oversimplification of her argument – and several feminist philosophers have argued against her stance – reducing her argument to this point allows us to clearly see a point of major contention that still exists today. Can a multicultural state be feminist?

Multiculturalism refers to a state’s ability to host different cultures, religions and ethnicities – without any individual having to give up part of their identity to exist in the larger state. Instead of a melting pot, where individuals might lose parts of themselves to belong to a greater whole, think of a cultural mosaic.

How can a liberal state allow diverse cultural practices to co-exist with their feminist ideals? Recently we saw this struggle manifest in France, where women and girls under the age of 18 are prohibited from wearing the Hijab.

In this case, limiting cultural and religious expression came, perhaps not from a place of feminist consideration but from growing islamophobia. Regardless, this law has been justified as one that protects young women. Yet by infringing upon a minority culture, the law infringes upon a woman’s freedom.

A liberal state committed to the cause of promoting equality and women's rights should not condone practices that substantially limit the dignity and freedom of women. But what is considered a substantial limitation, and whose definition of freedom do we operate under? A distinction must be made between practices that enable violence against women and practices that infringe upon cultural freedom. Rape, genital mutilation and honour killings are all instances of violence – clearly practices that should be not condoned.

Eradicating violence against women does not eradicate a culture. Practices that encourage violence against women while are elements of that culture are not the entirety of that culture.

Al-Hibri describes certain oppressive practices as arising from patriarchal interpretations of religion. When oppressive practices and traditions emerge from certain groups in the culture, they cannot be taken to be indicative of the whole culture. To speak of cultures and religions as monoliths (having one perspective) – means failing to acknowledge the diversity of opinions and traditions within them. Even when it is the case that the women in that culture actively encourage violence, it should not be condoned. There are real women who seem to choose to participate in activities detrimental to their own wellbeing. Adaptive preferences act as a tool to explain how a woman can be complicit in her own subjugation without validating the existence of that subjugation.

Furthermore, practices that do not encourage violence but instead subjugate or inadvertently result in the subjugation of women are those which need to be carefully considered by liberal states. Are the “oppressive elements” of these cultures and traditions observed as barbaric due to the western perspective from which they are being viewed – or because they actually are?

There are several traditions and practices often identified as being oppressive or limiting the freedom of women – from a Western perspective – but are considered liberating in other cultures. For example, practising ‘purdah’, the separation of sexes during prayer and worship is often recognised as “un-feminist”, and yet women who practice this find this to be a tradition that provides women with safe, gendered spaces. Practices that are made through the active choice and participation of women cannot be considered oppressive. To infringe upon this choice is to infringe upon the freedom of women.

Whose standard of freedom do we operate under?

Current standards of oppression are being related to the standards of women's freedom from a western perspective. Feminism, as situated in the West, is treated as the standard for other nations and cultures to adopt. For liberal societies to adopt this standard of 'Western feminism', there are dangerous implications. It ignores the situation of women who cannot conform to this standard.

“Copy-pasting” solutions for female liberation as it is in the West fails to acknowledge the different circumstances of Non-Western women from both women in the West and from each other. It treats cultures as homogeneous. It fails to recognise the extraordinarily different situations and requirements that these women would have for freedom, due to their cultures.

The issue with introducing Western standards is that it becomes difficult to figure out what conditions substantially limit the freedom of women and what are elements of cultural difference. This measure becomes subjective and relational to the personal experience and surroundings.

Okin claims there is a tension between multiculturalism and feminism that cannot be easily reconciled. She bolsters this argument by referring to the status of women married into polygamous relations (to their detriment) and France’s failure to effectively create laws to protect these women. By first allowing for men to have multiple wives and later nullify weddings after the first wife, women are left defenceless. The issue with polygamy – as Okin describes – is the dependency of women on men, as well as the violence that can emerge among the wives. In France, Minister Marie-Luce Penchard claimed the “ordinance puts a definitive end to inequality between men and women." Okin identifies the solution as being one that was hasty and far more detrimental than helpful. Contrary to the minister's remarks regarding the ordinance, it doesn’t bring an end to inequality.

To simply illegalise polygamy is flawed. It doesn’t protect women, and it only makes it more difficult for them to find legal support and protection. When polygamy is legal, the women have rights and can be protected. While people may form family dynamics similar to polygamous relations, there would be no legal basis and hence no legal protection.

There is no ‘standard’ that a liberal society should be forcing its women to live in. To prevent women from entering polygamous relations ignores the possibility of alternative ways of living. It also places the subjugation of women as being a fault of polygamy instead of patriarchal norms – even monogamous relationships, or non-married women in these societies are subjugated. Instead of laws that prevent them from expressing their culture and religion, tools that work with them and within their framework might be far more beneficial.

For example in Malaysia, there are attempts by judges to ensure that when a man is marrying a second wife that the women’s needs are being met and that the women involved are happy with the situation. Polygamy is a choice that can be considered oppressive, but it is not necessarily oppressive. What needs to be practised is the female prerogative to safely enter, or safely choose not to enter these marriages.

When we bring the case back to France, and the Burqa ban, we have to ask: does the Burqa substantially limit the freedom of women or does banning women from choosing whether or not they want to wear it limits their freedom? If a practice is objectionable because it is being carried out in a patriarchal society, even the elimination of that practice does not bring an end to the subjugation of women, it simply changes its form. Banning the burqa, and not allowing women to choose to wear it is equivalent to forcing them to wear it.

Inappropriately targeting cultural and religious practices as the root of oppression towards women misdirects our efforts – the problem is patriarchal elements and interpretations. Our activism should address the root of the subjugation and introduce methods to target this specific root rather than targeting our critique of a certain culture or religion.

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