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Susan Okin Responds

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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.]
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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 with men.

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 counselor.

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.

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



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