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A Varied Moral World

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

All liberals agree that minority communities should have a right to preserve their cultures, but disagree about the basis and limits of that right. For some such as Michael Oakeshott and John Gray, they should enjoy the right so long as they meet the basic condition of civility and do not practice murder, incite hatred against outsiders, live as free-riders, etc. Some others such as Chandran Kukathas require that they should also allow their dissenting members the right of exit. Yet others such as Will Kymlicka go further and ask minority communities to internally organize themselves along liberal lines. This involves respecting basic liberties, encouraging personal autonomy, practicing equality between the sexes, and so on.

Although sympathetic to this last approach, Susan Okin thinks that it is not enough. Many minority and even majority cultures are deeply sexist, and perpetuate women's subordination through a variety of practices too subtle for the law to catch, let alone disallow. They also condition their women into taking a low view of themselves and rationalizing and accepting their subordinate status, with the result that their well-being is damaged and they grow up without a strong sense of self-respect and self-esteem. In Okin's view, liberal societies should ensure that respect for culture does not become a shield for sexism, and that self-proclaimed leaders of minority cultures, almost always male, should not be allowed to be their sole spokesmen. She also seems to think that deeply sexist cultures should not qualify for group rights.

I don't think anyone would disagree with much of what she says in her excellent and passionately argued paper. Polygamy, clitoridectomy, forced or child marriages, callous treatment of rape victims, and suppression of women in general are all evil not only on liberal but on any conceivable moral ground. Okin is also right to insist that respect for culture can never be unconditional and condone acts of inhumanity and oppression. My disagreements relate to the issues she ignores and her conclusions.

Since Okin concentrates on extreme cases, she ignores the problems involved in judging other cultures. It is easy to show that clitoridectomy on children is unacceptable. In some societies adult and sane women (including academics) freely undergo it after the birth of their last child as a way of regulating their sexuality and reminding themselves that from now onwards they are primarily mothers rather than wives. Should we disallow this? Again, polygamy, meaning a man having multiple wives, is sexist and unacceptable for that reason alone as well as several others, though it is worth remembering that J. S. Mill allowed it to the Mormons on the ground that theirs was a voluntary religion that women joined out of free will. But what about polygamy which allows both sexes the same freedom? It violates no liberal principle, for it is based on uncoerced choices of adults, causes no apparent harm, encourages experiments in living, and relates to the realm of privacy with which the liberal state should not interfere. Should it also be disallowed? The American Civil Liberties Union is divided, and so are liberals. In short, once we move beyond the incontrovertible cases of patent physical and psychological harm, intercultural moral judgments become problematic.

As Okin herself admits, deep inequalities between the sexes are difficult to discern and demonstrate. Beyond a certain point they are even difficult to define. In some societies women are treated as inferior when young, but are revered and enjoy superiority over men once they reach a certain age, become grandmothers, lead virtuous lives, or display unusual qualities. That is why these societies present the apparent paradox of being sexist and yet accepting, even welcoming, of women leaders in all walks of life. It is not easy to assess their extent and depth of gender inequality. Since women at different stages of life or in different relationships are perceived differently and endowed with different rights, the "woman" is an oversimplified abstraction that blinds us to cultural complexities.

There is also the further question of how women themselves perceive their situation. If some of them do not share the feminist view, should we say that they are indoctrinated, victims of culturally generated false consciousness, and in need of liberation? That is patronizing and denies them the very equality we espouse. This is not to say that they might not be brainwashed, for they often are, but rather that we need to find ways of negotiating our moral responses between the two positivist extremes of uncritically accepting their self-understanding and equally uncritically imposing ours on them. In Britain, several university-educated white liberal women have in recent years converted to Islam because, among other things, they found its view of women more satisfying. There is a lesson here for both liberals and feminists.

In France and the Netherlands several Muslim girls freely wore the hijab (headscarf), partly to reassure their conservative parents that they would not be corrupted by the public culture of the school, and partly to reshape the latter by indicating to white boys how they wished to be treated. The hijab in their case was a highly complex autonomous act intended to use the resources of the tradition both to change and to preserve it. To see it merely as a symbol of their subordination, as many French feminists did, is to miss the subtle dialect of cultural negotiation.

Although Okin is ambiguous, she seems to think that minority communities should not generally be allowed group rights unless they first put their cultural houses in order along the lines she suggests. I find this impractical, dangerous, and counterproductive. Since gender inequalities beyond a certain point cannot be measured, we have no means of knowing whether a community satisfies our standards of equality. And since inequality can be broadly or narrowly defined, it opens the door to the worst kind of missionary zeal. It is also morally impertinent to consider any community so degenerate and devoid of emancipatory resources that it must be required to meet a catalogue of externally imposed conditions before it can be trusted with certain rights. We should rightly demand respect for certain basic rights, but go no further. No community can for long avoid the fusion of ideas and influences brought about by its inescapable interactions with the wider society. Once it throws up pressures for reform, as it generally does, we may judiciously give them such assistance as they need and ask for. If a community is constantly harried, ridiculed, or morally blackmailed, it is likely to panic, close ranks, and lack the confidence and the willingness to make the desired changes.

As Okin rightly points out, the way a culture treats women is of considerable importance. However, a culture encompasses a lot of other things as well, such as how one should live, relate to one's fellow humans and the natural world, and find meaning in one's life. It also gives its members a sense of rootedness, a ready access to an ongoing community, and intergenerational continuity, and is a vital economic and political resource. It is therefore a mistake to judge it solely or even primarily in terms of, and to make its rights dependent on, its treatment of women.

Finally, Susan Okin rests her discussion of minority group rights on the "fundamentals of liberalism." I find this all-too-familiar way of thinking morally and philosophically troubling. It first turns a set of general and necessarily open-ended liberal principles into a tightly-knit ideology called liberalism, and then views the latter as a kind of secular religion, leading to a theological debate about what its "fundamentals" are and who is a true (fundamentalist?) liberal and who is an apostate. The liberal view of the world has no fundamentals; rather it has several and, since they limit each other, they are not fundamentals in the conventional sense. This is why it qualitatively differs from other political doctrines and has been able to adjust to different philosophical and cultural traditions. Liberals do, of course, deeply cherish the individual. However the latter can be conceptualized in several different ways such as the libertarian, the communal, and the religious, each giving rise to different conceptions of freedom and human well-being.

If we are to persuade minorities to reform their practices, it is no use appealing to liberal principles, both because they do not accept them and because we need to show that the principles are worth accepting. It is not enough to say that since they live in a liberal society, they should accept liberal principles. The minorities are an integral part of the society, and they are not liberal. And though some areas of the society are liberal, others are not, and even so far as the former are concerned, liberal principles are constantly contested. There is an increasing tendency among liberals to equate "liberalism" and the good. This political equivalent of the naturalistic fallacy prevents us from asking if liberal principles are good and, conversely, if nonliberal principles might also be good. We should not allow the immensely rich and varied moral world to be monopolized by a single political doctrine.

This is precisely the point and challenge of multiculturalism. Liberals want to liberalize it, as Okin does so well in her moving paper. For their part multiculturalists want to multiculturalize liberalism, stressing both that it is internally plural and that it is but one valuable culture among many. If we go along this road, as I think we should, we arrive at many different forms of liberal and nonliberal feminism, each correcting and complementing the other, and all collectively giving us a richer understanding of intergender and intercultural relations.

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

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