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Liberalism's Sacred Cow

A response to Susan Okin's "Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?"
Homi K. Bhabha
Copyright (c) 1999 Princeton University Press. This article is now available in an anthology titled IS MULTICULTURALISM BAD FOR WOMEN? edited by Joshua Cohen and Matthew Howard, from Princeton Univerisity Press 1999. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval) without permission, in writing, from the publisher, except for reading and browsing via the World Wide Web. Users are not permitted to mount this file on any network servers. For COURSE PACK and other PERMISSIONS, send e-mail to Princeton University Press.]

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 conflict between feminism and 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 hard work of specifying rights and interests, shying away from conflicts within, and between, minorities.

Let me, however, tweak the sacred cow by the tail (rather than indulging in the phallic fandango of taking the bull by the horn) and suggest that the force of Okin's feminist advocacy rests on a restricted understanding of the "liberal grounds" on which feminism and multiculturalism might negotiate their differences about rights and representations. Okin's view of the interface between feminism and multiculturalism is so focused on the "conflict" generated by the anti-feminist and patriarchal effects of criminal cultural defense that, against her own best advice, she allows herself to produce "monolithic," though gender-differentiated, characterizations of minority, migrant cultures--kidnap and rape by Hmong men, wife-murder by immigrants from Asia and the Middle Eastern countries, mother-child suicide among Japanese and Chinese provoked by the shame of the husband's infidelity.

The cultural defense plea is the ethnographic evidence that, for Okin, invokes the "basic idea" that the defendant's cultural group regards women as subordinates whose primary purpose is to serve men sexually and domestically. By contrast, "Western liberal cultures" (a phrase Okin repeatedly uses to identify which side she is on) may discriminate between the sexes in practice, but the protection of domestic law produces an enabling and equitable familial culture for girls and women. Writing as I am from London, the British experience is most readily to hand. The British civil liberty group Liberty would demur from Okin's description of the egalitarian and empowering "Western" domestic scene. Human Rights and Wrongs, an alternative report to the UN Human Rights Committee, concludes that one-third of all reported crimes against women in Britain result from domestic violence and take place at home; in London, in 1993, one woman in ten had been assaulted by her partner. Adult women and children are overwhelmingly more likely to become the victims of violence at home than on the street or at the workplace.

But I am, here, less concerned with the domestic perspective than with the more global cultural assumptions that animate Okin's arguments. Her narrative begins by pitting multiculturalism against feminism, but then grows seamlessly into a comparative and evaluative judgment on minority cultures (largely represented by cultural defense cases) delivered from the point of view of Western liberal cultures (represented by the eloquent testimony of academic feminists). In my view, however, issues related to group rights or cultural defense must be placed in the context of the ongoing lives of minorities in the metropolitan cultures of the West if we are to understand the deprivation and discrimination that shape their affective lives, often alienated from the comforts of citizenship. Minorities are too frequently imaged as the abject "subjects" of their cultures of origin huddled in the gazebo of group rights, preserving the orthodoxy of their distinctive cultures in the midst of the great storm of Western progress. When this becomes the dominant opinion within the liberal public sphere--strangely similar to the views held by patriarchal elders within minority communities whose authority depends upon just such traditionalist essentialisms and pieties--then minorities are regarded as virtual citizens, never quite "here and now," relegated to a distanced sense of belonging elsewhere, to a "there and then."

I do not wish to press the tired and overused charge of "Eurocentrism" against such an argument. What is considerably more problematic than the inappropriate application of "external" norms is the way in which the norms of Western liberalism become at once the measure and mentor of minority cultures--Western liberalism, warts and all, as a salvage operation, if not salvation itself. With a zealousness not unlike the colonial civilizing mission, the "liberal" agenda is articulated without a shadow of self-doubt, except perhaps to acknowledge its contingent failings in the practice of everyday life. If the failures of liberalism are always "practical," then what kind of perfectibility does the principle claim for itself? Such a campaigning stance obscures indigenous traditions of reform and resistance, ignores "local" leavenings of liberty, flies in the face of feminist campaigns within nationalist and anti-colonial struggles, leaves out well-established debates by minority intellectuals and activists concerned with the difficult "translation" of gender and sexual politics in the world of migration and resettlement.

Okin's concluding suggestion that "non-co-opted" younger women should be represented in negotiations about group rights (so that they may be protected from the more collusive, co-opted older women) smacks just a little of "divide and rule." It may be useful to point out that for many post-colonial peoples, who now count as the "minorities" of Western multiculturalism, liberalism is not such a "foreign" value nor quite so simply a generational value. As Kumkum Sangari puts it, "Existing exclusionary divisions of class, caste, and gender in India interact with the hidden exclusions within `liberal' ideologies to renew the force of ascription along lines of race and gender: in sum, with liberalism's own difficulties in granting full citizenship to women." Asian and Middle Eastern feminists, for instance, from the 1920s onward, have been deeply engaged in those contradictions of the liberal tradition that become particularly visible in the colonial and postcolonial contexts, and carry over into the contemporary lives of diasporic or migratory communities. Such an agonistic liberalism, with a colonial and post-colonial genealogy, has to struggle against "indigenous" partiarchies--political and religious--while strategically negotiating its own autonomy in relation to the paternalistic liberalisms of colonial modernity or Westernization. An agonistic liberalism questions the "foundationalist" claims of the metropolitan, "Western" liberal tradition with as much persistence as it interrogates and resists the fundamentalisms and ascriptions of indigenous orthodoxy. An awareness of the ambivalent and "unsatisfied" histories of the liberal persuasion allows "us"--postcolonial critics, multiculturalists, or feminists--to join in the unfinished work of creating a more viable, intra-cultural community of rights.

Originally published in the October/ November 1997 issue of Boston Review

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