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Complicating Culture

A response to Susan Okin's "Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?"
Bonnie Honig
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.]

Moving quickly from veiling to polygamy to efforts to control female sexuality to the denial of maternal rights over children to the (paradoxically contradictory) enforcement of maternalism as women's proper role to clitoridectomy to child marriage to forced marriage to one's rapist to marriage by capture and, finally, to murder, Susan Okin asks whether groups that are illiberal and sexist should be accorded group rights and protections by liberal states or whether, instead, sexist cultural practices and perhaps entire cultures should be made "extinct" or altered. Okin implies that the slope from veiling to murder is slippery and that everything from veiling to murder is an expression of just one essential thing: male violence against women. Denuding veiling, polygamy, clitoridectomy of all their context, signification, and meaning, Okin sees such practices merely as symptoms of patriarchal projects that aim to clothe female abjection in the increasingly socially and politically acceptable guise of "culture."

Okin is quite right to worry that the fragile gains of feminism may be attenuated by heightened multicultural sensitivities. After struggling for so long to increase gender equality in hiring, wages, and promotions, and to decrease violence against women, feminists really ought to be concerned that their newly gained ground (such as it is) might be lost by way of what starts out as concessions to "difference" (so-called). It is not at all counter-intuitive to think that in a few years' time, group rights that are tensely related to women's human rights may get extended not only to national minorities (as Kymlicka would like) and immigrant groups and ethnic groups, but also to cultural and religious groups until virtually all of the population is covered in one way or another by some cultural exemption. At the same time, however, feminists ought to be careful lest they participate in the recent rise of nationalist xenophobia by projecting a rightly feared backlash--whose proponents are mostly native-born Americans--onto foreigners who come from somewhere else and bring their foreign, (supposedly) "backward" cultures with them.

Okin is right, too, to insist that "when a woman from a more patriarchal culture comes to the United States (or some other Western, basically liberal, state)," she should be no "less protected from male violence than other women are." But this claim does not preclude taking into account (without blindly accepting) the perspectives of new immigrants when passing judgment on their illegal acts. More to the point, Okin's claim about women's fight for equal protection from male violence begs the deeper questions of what constitutes male violence and what counts as sex inequality and what exactly "culture" and its extinction has to do with either of these things.

"Culture" has been used as an excuse for cruelty and violations of human rights by members of minority cultures in the US as well as by states like China. When men or states claim that "my culture made me do it," they are claiming a kind of privacy or privilege that must surely be resisted for the sake of both human rights and "culture": neither is well-served by it. Women's rights are human rights and they must be protected as such from systemic violence as well as from idiosyncratic harm. And, contra Okin, culture is something rather more complicated than patriarchal permission for powerful men to subordinate vulnerable women. There are brutal men (and women) everywhere. Is it their Jewish, Christian, or Moslem identity that makes them brutal . . . or is it their brutality?

Rather than vigorously interrogate the spurious excuse "my culture made me do it," Okin accepts the claim--she sees the misogynist actions she's addressing as symptomatic of the ("foreign") cultures to which the actors are connected--and so she comes, unsurprisingly, to the conclusion that feminism demands that we get rid of the offending cultures or aid their transformation into more familiar sexual and familiar practices. But the cultures Okin mentions are less univocally patriarchal than she suggests. And the unfamiliar practices she labels sexist are more complicated and ambiguous than that label allows. These limits of Okin's approach are evident in her reading of the three major religions:

1. Contra Okin, Judaism, Christianity and Islam do not just seek to "control" women's sexuality. Such efforts are usually matched by efforts to control male sexuality as well. While little room is provided for women to live "independently" from men (nuns are a stunning exception to this claim), equally little room is provided for men to live independently from women.

2. One can see Judaism as a series of erasures of maternal ties (as Okin suggests by way of the numerous patrilineal "begats" of the Hebrew Bible) but to do so one has to overlook the fact that Judaism itself (as opposed to its Biblical tribal ties) is passed on matrilineally.

3. Athena, Romulus and Remus may exemplify a tendency among the ancients to explore the idea of non-maternal birth. But the virgin birth of Jesus just as surely attenuates the role of the father in reproduction (as Dan Quayle might well have pointed out a few years back).

4. Veiling might be a sign of sexist, enforced female subservience, as Okin claims with reference to Yemenite Jews. Or it can be one part of a broader complex of efforts aimed at both sexes in order to manage a community's sexual and other relations. We need to know something about how veiling functions, what it signifies, in a particular context before we can decide that it means for everyone what it means for us. Like Okin, the secularist Left in France saw veiling as an affront to enlightened sex equality (as practiced in France?). But many Moslem feminists (they do exist, but are obscured by Okin's liberal feminist lens in which liberal brands of equality and individualism are equated to feminism) see veiling as an empowering practice. Veiling allows upwardly mobile professional women to move from the familiar settings of their rural homes and "emerge socially into a sexually integrated" urban world that is "still an alien, uncomfortable social reality for both women and men," says Leila Ahmed.1

5. One can see polygamy, permitted by premodern Judaism and contemporary Islam and once required by Mormonism, as a device whereby men control women. There is surely no shortage of boastful men like the one Okin quotes: "One wife on her own is trouble. When there are several, they are forced to be polite and well behaved. If they misbehave, you threaten that you'll take another wife." But polygamy may not always serve the husband's interests so well. As the same newspaper article goes on to report, the three wives of another immigrant to France banded together when he married a fourth and prepared to bring his young bride home from Dakar. "`They say if the new one comes, they will all leave, " Mr. Diop said. With three wives in France and one in Dakar, Mr. Diop said he has great prestige in his village, but he is unsure how to deal with the rebellion at home."2 In this instance, the institution of polygamy put women in a situation of solidarity. By contrast, the institution of monogamy, which Okin presents as unambiguously preferable to polygamy from a feminist perspective, famously isolates women from each other and privatizes them. The struggles of monogamous wives against their husbands' power are small, individual rebellions, usually unsupported these days by any networks of belonging. Surely monogamy, every man's little dominion, is no less often turned into an instrument of male power than is polygamy.

Obviously, these brief examples--drawn from a single newspaper article--cannot settle a debate about whether monogamy or polygamy better positions women to be empowered agents in relation to men, but they usefully complicate the easy judgment that either institution is better or worse as such and they invite us to defamiliarize our own institutional arrangements and reflect more critically upon them. In particular, we might well ask why liberal states should be in the business of regulating sexuality at all. And we might also usefully wonder whether liberalism and feminism are themselves necessarily completely compatible, as Okin seems to think.

Okin assumes that Western liberal regimes are simply and plainly "less patriarchal" than other regimes rather than differently so, perhaps worse in some respects and better in others. Her faith that Western liberal regimes are furthest along a progressive trajectory of unfolding liberal equality prevents her from engaging in a more selective and comparative analysis of particular practices, powers, and contexts that could well enlighten us about ourselves and heighten our critical awareness of some of the limits as well as the benefits of liberal ways of life. For example, liberalism's commitment to individual rights has definitely improved the lot of many women by positioning the state to protect them when necessary. But liberalism's relentless individualism also feeds a privatizing, withdrawalist conception of citizenship that is at least tensely related to feminism's project of empowering women to act in concert on their own behalves. If there is a question to be posed about whether feminism is well-served by multiculturalism--and there surely is--there is just as surely a question to be posed about whether feminism is only well-served by its association with liberalism. Perhaps the partnership of liberalism and feminism is more agonistic than Okin allows.

Moreover, an analysis of the tense relations between feminism and multiculturalism must be careful not to conflate different with "culture" and "culture" with foreignness. Okin mentions, to great effect, the case of "an immigrant from rural Iraq who had his two daughters, aged 13 and 14, married to two of his friends, aged 28 and 34." Arrested for his actions, the father explained that such arrangements are quite ordinary in his native village. Okin treats the father's actions as symptomatic of his particular "foreign" biases and values. Perhaps the mere mention of Jerry Lee Lewis's famous (but not unusual) marriage some years ago to his 13-year-old cousin will suffice to remind us that such practices are not exactly unheard of in the US. Indeed, Lewis was no less surprised than was Okin's Iraqi to find that marriage to such a young bride was controversial.

"Culture" is a way of life, a rich and time-worn grammar of human activity, a set of diverse and often conflicting narratives whereby communal (mis)understandings, roles, and responsibilities are negotiated. As such, "culture" is a living, breathing system for the distribution and enactment of agency, power, and privilege among its members and beyond. Rarely are those privileges distributed along a single axis of difference such that, for example, all men are more powerful than all women. Race, class, locality, lineage all accord measures of privilege or stigma to their bearers. However, even those who are least empowered in a certain setting have some measure of agency in that setting and their agency is bound up with (though not determined by) the cultures, institutions, and practices that gave rise to it. Thus, extinguishing cultures is not the answer. In any case, years of colonial and assimilationist experiments should have taught us by now that such efforts are ethically problematic as well as self-defeating in practice.

Okin's other alternative--supporting a culture's own efforts "to alter itself so as to reinforce the equality, rather than the inequality, of women"--is much more promising and is, indeed, already being pursued by feminists such as Leila Ahmed and Rey Chow and by groups such as Women Living Under Islamic Law. But the promise of this approach depends in part upon the willingness of Western feminists to hold their own practices up to the same critical scrutiny they apply to Others, to hear the plural voices of women everywhere and to learn from them, while also refusing to prejudge the merits of practices that are unfamiliar or threatening to those of us raised in bourgeois liberal societies. For the sake of a future solidarity of women as feminists, the question of what constitutes gender (in)equality must be kept disturbingly open to perpetual re-interrogation. (This openness is disturbing: clitoridectomy has its female defenders as well, a phenomenon explored in Nuruddin Farah's novel Sardines). And we must all resist the all-too-familiar and dangerous temptation to mark foreignness itself as fundamentally threatening to women.

1 Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), pp. 223-24.

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

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