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Between Norms and Choices

A response to Susan Okin's "Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?"
Robert Post
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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's primary claim, that there is a deep tension between feminism and multiculturalism, seems unambiguously correct. While multiculturalism celebrates the diversity of cultures, including necessarily the diversity of gender roles that preoccupy cultures, the enterprise of feminism is dedicated precisely to constraining the available repertory of such roles. By inviting us carefully to focus on this tension, Okin's article usefully exposes ambiguities in our concepts of both feminism and liberal multiculturalism.

Okin defines feminism as the "belief that women should not be disadvantaged by their sex, that they should be recognized as having human dignity equally with men, and the opportunity to live as fulfilling and as freely chosen lives as men can." Okin's confrontation with multiculturalism, however, puts this definition under considerable pressure. Take, for example, the culture of Orthodox Ashkenazi Judaism, which possesses strongly distinct and patriarchal gender roles. The culture disqualifies women from important religious rituals, and it assigns them primary responsibility for the care of the home and children.

If we assume that these distinct gender roles do not violate any legal rules prohibiting sexual discrimination, and (perhaps contrary to fact) that these roles are entirely confined to what Okin calls "the private sphere," we may ask whether Okin would nevertheless object to endowing this culture with what Will Kymlicka calls "external protections." External protections, while not using the force of the state to impose minority cultural norms upon individuals, empower a culture to "protect its distinct existence and identity by limiting the impact of the decisions of the larger society."1 Such protections might, for example, authorize the Orthodox Jewish community to educate its children in Yiddish or to take distinctive religious holidays.

Okin strongly implies that she would not support according such cultural protections to the culture of Orthodox Ashkenazi Judaism, because it would be "in the best interest of the girls and women" if such a culture were "to become extinct," so that girls and women could integrate themselves "into the less sexist surrounding culture." Okin's repeated references to "older women" becoming "co-opted into reinforcing gender inequality" suggest that would persist in this position even if (as seems likely) Orthodox Jewish women were to report that they did not view themselves as "disadvantaged," because they had "freely chosen" their lives, which they found "fulfilling," and because they viewed themselves as having equal "dignity" with men, although that dignity was expressed through different social roles.

This suggests that the feminist enterprise paradoxically encounters unsettling difficulties when faced with an alien culture that fully and successfully normalizes patriarchy. A typical strategy for sustaining the feminist indictment of such a culture is to abandon terms of ethical evaluation, such as those that comprised Okin's original account of feminism's project, and instead to invoke seemingly objective and external criteria. Thus in the body of her paper Okin summons the criterion of "disparities of power between the sexes."

But the more that the feminist project is pushed in this direction, the more it loses its status as a general set of constraints on permissible gender roles, and becomes itself a full-blown articulation of just one particular vision of objectively-defined gender roles. Not only would such an articulation naturally resist the competing visions of gender roles embraced by multiculturalism, but it would also be more controversial and difficult to defend within our own culture. The feminist challenge to liberal multiculturalism thus forces feminism to sharpen its own normative claims.

The tension identified by Okin also underscores fundamental ambiguities in the position of liberal multiculturalism, at least as that position is defended by proponents such as Will Kymlicka. As a multiculturalist, Kymlicka argues that the capacity of individuals "to make meaningful choices depends" in significant measure on their access to their own "cultural structure," and that liberalism, which prizes "freedom of choice" and "personal autonomy," thus has good reason to support the preservation of cultural structures. But, as a liberal, Kymlicka also concedes that some cultures are intrinsically hostile to personal autonomy and freedom of choice, and he therefore argues that (in theory at least) minority rights should not be construed so as to "enable a group to oppress its own members."2

Within the perspective of liberal multiculturalism, therefore, culture both sustains and constrains individual freedom. This means that we may ask about any given cultural norm whether its enforcement should be interpreted as a precondition of choice, or instead as a restraint on choice. Okin's essay illustrates how Kymlicka systematically evades this question. He collapses it into the issue of whether minority groups ought to be accorded the right to enforce "internal restrictions," which he defines as curtailments of "the basic civil and political liberties of group members."3 Kymlicka opposes in theory awarding minority groups such rights.

Okin's emphasis on the "private sphere," however, reminds us that cultures can be deeply oppressive in ways that neither involve minority rights nor formally violate political and civil liberties. Cultures can be oppressive because of the values or social roles they inculcate. They can, as Okin points out, repress the value of autonomy and significantly impair "one's capacity to question one's social roles." It seems difficult to defend external protections for such cultures on the liberal grounds advanced by Kymlicka.

The problem is particularly difficult because the oppressiveness of a culture cannot be evaluated merely by reference to contemporary notions of political and civil liberties. This is because such liberties are themselves the result of a long and complex historical evolution within the context of our own Western culture. We have little or no idea what civil rights would be necessary to protect individual choice within the context of an alien structure of culture. It may be, for example, that liberalism would espouse very different forms of civil and political liberties if attempting to preserve autonomy in the face of a pervasively patriarchal culture like Orthodox Ashkenazi Judaism.

Okin's essay reminds us, therefore, that distinguishing between enabling and oppressive cultural norms is a fundamental challenge of liberal multiculturalism, a challenge that has yet to be successfully confronted.


1 Will Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship (Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 36.

2 Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship, pp. 84, 7, 194.

3 Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship, p. 36.

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



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