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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
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
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
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
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
"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.