Does a Multicultural Society Nurture Women of Adapted Groups?

Multiculturalism is always held up as an ideal; something that states and societies should strive to encourage. Political concepts like toleration, acceptance and liberalism are infused in the debate around multiculturalism. However, a greater steam of immigration from former colonies of Europe has led to a wave of nativist sentiment across Europe and the rest of the world. Anti-immigration rhetoric has ramped up in varied parts of the world. But at this juncture, it is fitting to examine whether a ‘melting-pot’ culture is all that favourable to women. Are immigrant women advantaged by a multicultural society? It is vital to consider this issue at length not just because it is an important issue concerning the rights of women, but also because a nuanced understanding of it would give us the intellectual ammunition to counter the growth of far-right populism. Feminist philosopher Susan Moller Okin asked this question in her book of the same title (Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?). This article draws significantly from her conceptualization of the subject and a feminist perspective into the field of liberal multiculturalism.

What Is Multiculturalism?

People belonging to a minority community were once encouraged to blend into the majority by shedding practices that makes them more peculiar and distinguished from the latter. By doing so the minorities gradually lose their originality and become identified with the dominant community. This phenomenon is known as assimilation. This concept has now been discredited because it leads to the disappearance of indigenous cultures and alternative ways of life. The alternative to assimilation is the concept of accommodation. The minorities, rather than assimilating with the majority, assert their identity and fight for their rightful position in the society. All ways of life in a society coexist harmoniously irrespective of their numerical strength.

Multiculturalism refers to a situation in which all the different cultural groups or racial groups in a society have equal rights and opportunities, and none is ignored or regarded as unimportant. Initially, multiculturalism might seem uncontroversial and an universally acceptable ideal. To prove otherwise, let me demonstrate an example. Say, there is an ethnic minority tribe called ‘Hashtun’. They are granted rights that are by no means less than that of the majority ‘Hoshiya’ tribe. Hashtun and Hoshiya coexist peacefully and respect each other’s way of life. Everything seems idyllic. But it doesn’t end here. Let us also assume that the Hashtun tribes are inherently misogynistic and practice traditions and observe rituals that give an unfair advantage to men over women. Moreover the social mores of the Hashtuns subtly subjugate women in the domestic sphere of life and they are subsequently impaired from living an active and respectful public life. What does one do when faced with such a dilemma? Is multiculturalism fundamentally flawed or does it only require a few modifications to work better for everyone? When rights of individual women are violated by recognising group rights of a community, which one of them should be given precedence and which one upheld?

The question of women has been neglected in the discourse of multiculturalism or has not been taken up for consideration by influential philosophers. This is high time that awareness about the predicaments of individual women in a minority culture is raised. In this paper, I will lay out the key arguments supporting the idea that multiculturalism is indeed unfavourable to women.

Gender and Culture

Thinkers from the liberal school opine that as far as a culture remains internally liberal, it may be granted group rights. In other words, group rights may only be granted to those cultures in which all members are equal and have all the privileges that individuals in a liberal society enjoy. Other proponents of group rights argue that a culture should be accorded group rights even as they flout the rights of individual members of a society if their minority status endangers the culture’s continued existence.

Most cultures are suffused with practices and ideologies concerning gender. Suppose, there is a culture in which there is a clear distinction between the roles of male and female members in a society. Suppose also that these specified societal roles are biased against women. Then, group rights for such a culture would be unfair to women and perpetuate the social ills they have been facing. Group rights are fundamentally anti-feminist. They substantially limit the capacities of women and girls in such a society to have a dignity equal to that of men and boys and to live as freely chosen lives as they can.

When we correct for these deficiencies by paying attention to internal differences and to the private arena, two particularly important connections between culture and gender come into sharp relief, both of which underscore the force of the simple critique. First, the sphere of personal, sexual, and reproductive life provides a central focus of most cultures. Religious and cultural laws are mostly concerned with personal lives and moral conduct. Hence, the defense of cultural practices tend to have a greater impact on women because far more of their energy goes into preserving traditional and familial customs.

Second, most cultures have as one of their principal aims the control of women by men. The founding myths of Christianity, Judaism and Islam are rife with attempts to justify the control and subordination of women.While the powerful drive to control women—and to blame and punish them for men’s difficulty controlling their own sexual impulses—has been softened considerably in the more progressive, reformed versions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, it remains strong in their more orthodox or fundamentalist versions.

Liberal Defense

Will Kymlicka is the foremost proponent of multiculturalism and group rights from the liberal school. He argues that membership in a rich and secure cultural structure instils self-respect and dignity in a person. Cultural minorities need special rights because their culture may otherwise be threatened with extinction. Extinction of culture undermines the self-respect of group members. Special rights, in short, put minorities on an equal footing with the majority.

Kymlicka also holds that special rights should be granted only to those cultures that are internally liberal. This requirement is important because if cultures without internal liberal principles are granted group rights, girls within that culture are subordinated with liberal assistance and aid. So, Kymlicka squarely rules out group rights to such cultures that are internally patriarchal and oppressive.

Kymlicka regards cultures that discriminate overtly against women as undeserving of group rights. But sex discrimination is often far less overt. Discrimination is manifested in the private sphere in a variety of forms. Domination of husband over wife, allowing more liberty to a male child than a girl child, key decisions of a house being taken by the father, not the mother, are all examples of discrimination that are subtle and hard to be branded as overtly discriminatory. A group may claim to be liberal- offering equal civil and political rights to men and women, upholding universal adult franchise- but internally it may continue to practice certain blatantly discriminatory practices.

In a nutshell, the subordination of women is often private and informal. In fact no culture in the world, minority or majority, could pass Kymlicka’s ‘no sex discrimination’ if it were applied in the private sphere. Those who defend group rights must address the private, culturally reinforced kind of discrimination. Membership in a secure cultural structure alone does not guarantee one’s self-respect and self-esteem. What matters, at least, as much as the position of a culture in a larger society is the position of an individual within that culture.

What Is the solution?

Group rights are not the solution for the protection of female members within a minority culture. They may well exacerbate the problem. In case of a more patriarchal minority culture in context of a less patriarchal majority culture, the female members will be much better off if their culture gets extinct or if the culture alters itself to accommodate equal rights for women.

Thus, when liberal arguments are made in favour of group rights special attention must be devoted to look at within-group inequalities. It is especially important to look into gender inequalities as they are likely to be much less discernible and less conspicuous. The aim of taking cognisance of all members, dominant and subordinated, within a minority culture is to improve the well-being and protect the distinctiveness of a specific group. Consultation only with self-proclaimed leaders of a culture – which is mostly composed of the dominant male members in a society – should be avoided. Women, and more specifically young women – since most older women are inured to denial of equal rights and oppression and hence help in perpetuating the existing unequal social order – within minority cultures should be given a much larger say in order to establish cultural rights that is not detrimental or does not run in contravention to the rights of individual female members of a particular culture.

-Prasanna Aditya (Freelancer)

Picture Credits: REUTERS/Charles Platiau

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