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Culture Beyond Gender

A response to Susan Okin's "Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?"
Saskia Sassen
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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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The framing of an argument matters. Susan Okin's case against group rights hinges on the fact that group rights tend to be cultural rights and that the norm in most cultures is inequality between men and women to the overwhelming disadvantage of women. Framed this way, the debate between supporters of group rights and feminism is resolutely won by the feminist side, with strong support from an enormous body of evidence.

Even when we consider group rights as a way of protecting the importance of "culture" for one's sense of self and for the richness of experience/norms/rituals, I agree with Okin that the price for women and girls of ensuring this "richness" through an oppressive culture is not worth it, and many women in such cultures have in some way said so.

Consider the case of immigrant women in the United States. Left alone with the array of individual rights available here, immigrant women can become empowered and develop stronger senses of self. Moreover, a large literature shows that immigrant women's regular wage work and improved access to various public realms often influences their gender relations.1 Women gain greater personal autonomy and independence while men lose ground; women gain more control over budgeting and other domestic decisions, and greater input from men in domestic chores; and women's access to public services and other public resources gives them a chance to become incorporated in the mainstream society. (Some women no doubt benefit more than others from these circumstances; we need more research to establish the impact of class, education, and income on these gendered outcomes.) To achieve this greater sense of self and confidence, these immigrant women have not needed group rights.

But shifting the frame of Okin's argument introduces some new questions. What if "culture" cannot be made to pivot as exclusively on the oppression of women as Okin suggests? Having worked with a number of disadvantaged, poor immigrant groups here in the United States, mostly originating in the types of cultures that Okin centers on, I find that the oppression of the men and boys is in some cases so severe (on their jobs, in school) that cultural concerns are focused on the engagement with or escape from the dominant culture. This focus can engender solidarities between men and women that foster survival in a hostile or discriminating host culture. The presumption of moral superiority I have seen deployed by some middle class women as mothers in the United States and Germany vis--vis poorer emigrant women as mothers also focuses attention on engagement with or escape from the dominant cultures. For many immigrants in Europe (and in the United States before the new 1996 immigration law, which discriminates even against legal immigrants) not to become citizens is a form of protest against racism--and this holds for both men and women. In these cases, the dynamics of engaging the dominant culture and validating one's own culture can be distinguished from a culture's internal gender dynamics.

Through their extreme and distorted features, these cases may be showing us that culture cannot be centered exclusively on the organization of gender, even if the latter is enormously important. Because women remain at an enormous disadvantage in most of these cultures, I do not conclude that Okin is wrong in her major claim about group rights. Rather, I emphasize that overlooking the other key elements that constitute a dominant (or host) and a minority culture may mean overlooking the many sources of pain and rage produced by engagements with a dominant culture which may lead in turn to the "need" (in both men and women) to take refuge in one's own culture. Further, the pain and rage produced by the engagement with the dominant culture may alter de facto key aspects in the organization of gender in the minority culture, as I indicated earlier.

Though group rights are, then, a problematic (and mostly) unnecessary instrument, we must be cautious about centering culture on the organization of gender to the exclusion of other realms, especially when men and women of many minority cultures may both feel oppressed. Recognizing the importance of non-gender dynamics in a context of discrimination/persecution against one's group may well be strategic for eliminating or reducing the conditions that lead to the demand for group rights in the first place. And this recognition may turn out to be crucial in the fight against the norms that legitimate the oppression of women in many of the minority cultures described by Okin.


1 I discuss this literature in "Toward a Feminist Analytics of the Global Economy," Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies 4, 1 (Fall 1997): 7-41.

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



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