Susan Okin Responds
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Many thanks to respondents for their thoughtful and thought-provoking comments.
Though I agree with much that they say, space limits suggest that I focus
on a few important remaining areas of dispute. Moreover, I must confine myself
to points of disagreement that pertain specifically to the issue of feminism
and multiculturalism. Thus I will not address important disagreements about
how best to understand liberalism: as just another way of life, as a framework
for accommodating alternative, sometimes conflicting cultures, or as a value
system that places special emphasis on individual equality and autonomy.
First, then, I do not advocate "striving to eliminate . . . other cultures"
(Joseph Raz) or actively "extinguishing cultures" (Bonnie Honig). Instead,
I criticize proposals to grant special rights to a group in order to ensure
the continuation of its culture. There is a difference. In most instances
people exercising their individual rights will have the greatest impact on
whether their culture remains the same, changes, or becomes extinct. And as
Raz, Yael Tamir, and Saskia Sassen aptly note, the potential for most cultures
to change yet survive should never be underestimated. I still believe, though,
that where a more patriarchal minority culture exists in the context of a
less patriarchal majority one, we need much thought, discussion, and weighing
of competing factors before concluding that group rights are the best way
to promote the self-respect and autonomy of all the group's members.
Second, several respondents raise the thorny issue, mentioned only briefly
in my essay, of how a feminist should respond when women--especially older
women--subordinated within a culture have no complaints about their circumstances
and even help to reproduce them. Robert Post, for example, suggests that Orthodox
Ashkenazi Jewish women might well not view themselves as disadvantaged within
their religion--rather, despite their very distinct roles, seeing themselves
as having equal dignity with men. (Something like "separate but equal"?) But
isn't this the type of Judaism in which females are "disqualifie[d] . . .
from important religious rituals" (as Post notes), the birth and the coming-of-age
of boys (though not girls) are celebrated with important rituals, women have
to be ritually cleansed after each menstrual period before they and their
husbands can have sexual intercourse, and men thank God every morning that
they are not women? (Imagine for a moment a religious group whose lighter-skinned
members thanked God every morning for not giving them darker skin.) However
certain women are of the rightness of their role within such a context, surely
they would be seriously deluded in viewing themselves as having equal dignity
Addressing the same issue, Bhikhu Parekh regards it as "patronizing" to regard
women who do not "share the feminist view" as "indoctrinated, victims of culturally
generated false consciousness." But he goes on to say that "they often are
. . . brainwashed," which seems a rather more blunt expression of the same
point. It is largely the importance of this issue that leads to my conviction
that we need to have independent discussions with the women of any culture
whose spokesmen are claiming group rights, and to explore very carefully claims
that certain practices are crucial to "being a woman" within the culture.
It is also why young women play a particularly important role in such discussion.
As the debate over headscarves in France shows, not only do younger women
tend to be the focus of intercultural disputes and to have most at stake in
the outcomes, but they are often at odds with each other--some viewing their
cultural practices or insignia as positive statements of their identity, others
seeing such things as impositions on them by their families or cultural leaders.
The average older woman raised in any patriarchal culture is less likely
to want change. After all, it is not easy to question cultural constraints
that have had a major impact on one's whole life; moreover, the experience
of such constraints may produce a psychological need to enforce the same constraints
on the younger generation; furthermore, an older woman's relatively high status
within the group (as Parekh suggests) results in part from her leading a virtuous
life, which includes successful enculturation of her children and grandchildren
into their prescribed gender roles. So I emphasize the importance of listening
to the young women of a minority group regulated by patriarchal norms not
out of an impulse to "divide and rule," as Homi Bhabha suggests, but rather
because I recognize the importance of hearing the very "`local' leavenings
of liberty" and indigenous feminist voices that he thinks I want to obscure.
As Katha Pollitt points out, liberal guilt about colonialism plays a large
role in the "hands off other cultures" approach, just as anger about colonialism
plays a large role in the desire to preserve cultures that are so preoccupied
with controlling women. Clearly, colonialism had many very bad effects. But
why make things even worse by letting our guilt and anger about colonialism
constrict the life prospects of women, under the guise of cultural preservation?
Third, a couple of respondents seem not to realize that "clitoridectomy"
means the removal of the clitoris. Thus the male equivalent, from the point
of view of sexual (as opposed to reproductive) functioning, would be "penidectomy"--that
is to say, the removal of all, or at least most, of the penis.1
Thus Sander Gilman's preoccupation with the lessening of male sexual pleasure
that might possibly result from circumcision is beside the point. As for Parekh's
question about the woman who requests to have her clitoris removed after her
last child's birth so that she can "regulat[e] her sexuality" and focus on
being a mother more than a wife, I suggest that we respond to her in the way
we would respond to a man who wanted his penis removed for the equivalent
reasons: Before heading off to the surgeon, talk to a psychiatrist or a marriage
Finally, I agree with Will Kymlicka's important observation that multiculturalism
and feminism are, in some ways, related struggles: Both seek the recognition
of difference in the context of norms that are universal in theory, but not
in practice. Still, an essential difference remains: The special rights that
women claim qua women do not give more powerful women the right to control
less powerful women. In contrast, cultural group rights do often (in not-so-obvious
ways) reinforce existing hierarchies. As Kymlicka indicates, he shares this
concern. What I don't yet see, however, is a form of multiculturalism that
gives this concern its due--that is to say, a multiculturalism that effectively
treats women and men as moral equals.
1 For explanation of this point, see Nahid Toubia, Female
Genital Mutilation: A Call for Global Action (New York: Rainbo and Women,
Ink., 1995), p. 9.