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I agree with the basic claim of Okin's paper--that a liberal egalitarian
(and feminist) approach to multiculturalism must look carefully at intra-group
inequalities, and specifically at gender inequalities, when examining the
legitimacy of minority group rights. Justice within ethnocultural groups is
as important as justice between ethnocultural groups. Group rights are permissible
if they help promote justice between ethnocultural groups, but are impermissible
if they create or exacerbate gender inequalities within the group.
In my recent work, I have tried to emphasize this point by distinguishing
between two kinds of "group rights." Sometimes an ethnocultural group claims
rights against its own members--in particular, the right to restrict individual
choice in the name of cultural "tradition" or cultural "integrity." I call
such group rights "internal restrictions," since their aim is to restrict
the ability of individuals within the group (particularly women) to question,
revise, or abandon traditional cultural roles and practices. A liberal theory
of minority group rights, I have argued, cannot accept such internal restrictions,
since they violate the autonomy of individuals, and create injustice within
However, liberals can accept a second sort of group rights--namely, rights
which are claimed by a minority group against the larger society in order
to reduce its vulnerability to the economic or political power of the larger
society. Such rights, which I call "external protections," can take the form
of language rights, guaranteed political representation, funding of ethnic
media, land claims, compensation for historical injustice, or the regional
devolution of power. All of these can help to promote justice between ethnocultural
groups, by ensuring that members of the minority have the same effective capacity
to promote their interests as the majority.
Okin argues, in effect, that my account of "internal restrictions" is too
narrow. I defined internal restrictions as those claims by a group which involve
limiting the civil and political liberties of individual members, but Okin
insists that the ability of women to question and revise their traditional
gender roles can be drastically curtailed even when their civil rights are
formally protected in the public sphere.
I accept this point. In fact, I had not intended "individual freedoms" to
be interpreted in a purely formal or legalistic way, and I would consider
the domestic oppressions which Okin discusses as paradigmatic examples of
the sorts of "internal restrictions" which liberals must oppose.
So I accept Okin's claim that we need a more subtle account of internal restrictions
which helps us identify limitations on the freedom of women within ethnocultural
groups. But it still seems to me that the basic distinction is sound--i.e.,
liberals can accept external protections which promote justice between groups,
but must reject internal restrictions which reduce freedom within groups.
Okin is suggesting a constructive elaboration of this distinction, but I see
no reason to reject the underlying principle.
Yet Okin seems to think that feminists should therefore be deeply skeptical
about the very category of minority group rights. More generally, she suggests
that feminists should view multiculturalism not as a likely ally in a broader
struggle for a more inclusive justice, but as a likely threat to whatever
gains feminists have made over the last few decades.
I think this way of opposing feminism and multiculturalism is regrettable.
After all, both are making the same point about the inadequacy of the traditional
liberal conception of individual rights. In her own work, Okin has argued
that women's equality cannot be achieved solely by giving women the same set
of formal individual rights which men possess. We must also pay attention
to the structure of societal institutions (e.g., the workplace, family, etc.),
and to the sorts of images and expectations people are exposed to in schools
and the media, since these are typically gendered in an unfair way, using
the male as the "norm."
Similarly, multiculturalists argue that justice between ethnocultural groups
cannot be achieved simply by giving ethnocultural minorities the same set
of formal individual rights which the majority possesses. We must also examine
the structure of institutions (e.g., the language, calendar, and uniforms
that they use), and the content of schooling and media, since all of these
take the majority culture as the "norm."
Moreover, both feminists and multiculturalists provide the same explanation
for why traditional liberal theories are not satisfactory. Historically, liberal
theorists were explicitly prejudiced against women and ethnic or racial minorities.
Today, however, the problem is one if invisibility. In her work, Okin has
shown how liberal theorists implicitly or explicitly operate with the assumption
that the citizen is a man, and never ask what sorts of institutions or principles
women would choose (e.g., if they were behind Rawls's "veil of ignorance").
In my work, I show that liberal theorists have operated with the assumption
that citizens share the same language and national culture, and never ask
what sorts of institutions would be chosen by ethnocultural minorities. In
both cases, the distinctive needs and interests of women and ethnocultural
minorities are simply never addressed in the theory. And in both cases, the
result is that liberalism has been blind to grave injustices which limit the
freedom and harm the self-respect of women and ethnocultural minorities.
Finally, both feminism and multiculturalism look to similar remedies. Okin
says that she is concerned about the view that the members of a minority "are
not sufficiently protected by the individual rights of their members," and
are demanding "a group right not available to the rest of the population"
(pg. 3). But many feminists have made precisely the same argument about gender
equality--i.e., that true equality will require rights for women that are
not available to men, such as affirmative action, women-only classrooms, gender-specific
prohibitions on pornography, gender-specific health programs, etc. Others
have made similar arguments about the need for group-specific rights and benefits
for the disabled, or for gays and lesbians. All of these movements are challenging
the traditional liberal assumption that equality requires identical treatment.
So I see multiculturalism and feminism as allies engaged in related struggles
for a more inclusive conception of justice. Indeed, my own thoughts on ethnocultural
justice have been deeply influenced by Okin's work on gender justice, since
I think there are many comparable historical patterns and contemporary lessons.
Okin worries that the currently fashionable attention to multiculturalism
is obscuring the older struggle for gender inequality. This is true of some
multiculturalists, just as it is true that some feminists have been blind
to issues of cultural difference. But it would be a mistake--in both theory
and practice--to think that struggling against gender inequality within ethnocultural
groups requires denying or downplaying the extent of injustice between groups.
These are both grave injustices, and liberalism's historic inability to recognize
them is rooted in similar theoretical mistakes. The same attitudes and habits
of mind which enabled liberals to ignore the just claims of women have also
enabled them to ignore the just claims of ethnocultural minorities. We have
a common interest in fighting these liberal complacencies.