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Whose Culture?

A response to Susan Okin's "Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?"
Katha Pollitt
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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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Susan Okin writes that multiculturalism and feminism are "in tension," and sometimes even in opposition to each other. She argues that defenders of "group rights" or "cultural rights" for minority cultures have failed to notice that there are considerable differences of power within those cultures, and that those differences are gendered, with men having power over women. She also claims that group-rights advocates fail to pay enough attention to the private, domestic sphere, in which these oppressive and gendered cultural traditions tend to be most freely exercised.

Coming in late to this debate, I have to say I've had a hard time understanding how anyone could find these arguments controversial. Feminism and multiculturalism may find themselves allied in academic politics, where white women and minority women and men face common enemies (great books, dead white men, old boy networks, job discrimination and so forth). But as political visions in the larger world they are very far apart. In its demand for equality for women, feminism sets itself in opposition to virtually every culture on earth. You could say that multiculturalism demands respect for all cultural traditions, while feminism respects only traditions that indeed deserve respect. Feminists might disagree about strategic issues: what needs changing first, or how to ensure one isn't just making things worse, or how to win over enough people. Feminists might even disagree about what true equality is in a given instance. But fundamentally, the ethical claims of feminism run counter to the cultural relativism of "group rights" multiculturalism.

Okin notes that the flashpoint for cultural rights tend to be around issues of gender, a.k.a. "the family," and she cites a number of prominent legal cases in which immigrants have put forward cultural defenses against charges of wife murder, child murder, the forced marriage of underage daughters to strangers, clitoridectomy, and so forth. She might have included the role that multicultural arguments play in cases involving the harsh disciplining of children, homophobia, and sex education.) Although she herself sets aside, as clearly unmeritorious, the notion of "group rights" for immigrants, who have, after all, made a decision to come here, these cases raise the interesting question of what is a culture, and how do you know? A Chinese immigrant murders his supposedly unfaithful wife and says this is the way they do things back home. Many were outraged, and rightly so, that this multicultural equivalent of the Twinkie Defense was successful as a legal strategy. Not so many paused to wonder if the defense argument was based on fact. Is it really legal in modern China for husbands to murder their wives if they think their wives are having affairs? China has undergone a great deal of social change in the twentieth century--change which includes dramatic, if uneven, gains in rights for women. Maybe in China lots of husbands kill their wives; maybe, as in the United States, such men are motivated by tacit cultural values (men who can't control their wives are impotent wimps, crimes of passion aren't so bad, etc.), but this is a different story than the one told by the defendant's lawyer, which portrayed him as the naive product of a rigid, static society who somehow found himself living in New York City and who could not be expected to adapt.

True or (in my view) false, you'll note that this is not an argument that just any immigrant can make. A Russian, an Italian, could not justify beating his wife to death by referring to the customs of dear old Moscow or Calabria, although Russian women are killed by their male partners at astronomical rates and parts of Italy are very old fashioned indeed about these matters. That is partly because of multiculturalism's connections to Third Worldism, and the appeals Third Worldism makes to white liberal guilt, and partly because Americans understand that Russia and Italy are dynamic societies in which change is constant and interests clash. The cultural rights argument works best for cultures that most Americans know comparatively little about: cultures that in our ignorance we can imagine as stable, timeless, ancient, lacking in internal conflict, premodern. But where on the globe today is such a society? Even the supposedly ancient traditions defended by group-rights advocates sometimes turn out to be of rather recent vintage. Clitoridectomy, it's worth remembering, was falling into desuetude in Kenya when nationalists revived it as part of their rejection of British colonialism. Israeli family law, which is extremely unfair to women--divorce is unilateral for men only, for example, as under Islamic law--is the result of a political deal between the religious and secular Zionists who founded the state.

That cultural-rights movements have centered on gender is a telling fact about them. It's related to the way in which nationalism tends to identify the nation with the bodies of its women: they are the ones urged into "traditional" dress, conceptualized as the producers of babies for the fatherland and keepers of the hearth for the men at the front, punished for sleeping with outsiders, raped by the nation's enemies and so forth. But it's also partly due to the fact that gender and family are retrograde areas of most majority cultures, too: these are accommodations majority cultures have often been willing to make. How far would an Algerian immigrant get, I wonder, if he refused to pay the interest on his Visa bill on the grounds that Islam forbids interest on borrowed money? Or a Russian who argued that the cradle-to-grave social security provided by the former Soviet Union was part of his cultural tradition and should also be extended to him in Brooklyn? Everyone understands that money is much too important to be handed out in this whimsical fashion. Women and children are another story.

An older friend of mine was in Paris while the dispute over Muslim schoolgirls' headscarves was going on. A gentle, tolerant, worldly-wise leftist, she sided with the girls against the government: why shouldn't they be able to dress as they wished, to follow their culture? Then she came across a television debate in which a Muslim girl said she wanted the ban to stay because without it, her family would force her to wear a scarf. That changed my friend's view of the matter: the left, and feminist, position, she now thought, was to support this girl and the ones like her in their struggle to be independent modern women--not the parents, the neighbors, the community and religious "leaders." I think my friend was right.

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



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