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Woman – Academia

 Is multiculturalism bad for women?

by Alessandra Tanesini (Cardiff University)

In its 1995 Human Development report the UN states that ‘in no society do women enjoy the same opportunities as men’ (p. 2) and things have not improved since then. Overall, poverty, illiteracy, violence and wage discrimination are among the most pressing issues for women world-wide today. Yet, political discussion in the Western world has focussed on the way in which non-Western women are supposedly oppressed by their cultures. For instance, the issue of “women’s rights” has been used as a justification for the Western invasion of Afghanistan, and for the banning in France of the hijab (headscarf) in public schools and of full-face covering in all public spaces. In Britain the French approach has been widely condemned but in France it has been defended by feminists who have based their argument in terms of women’s rights.

In a similar vein the late Susan Moller Okin (‘Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? in Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?, ed. by Cohen, Howard and Nussbaum, 1999) argues that there is a tension between multiculturalism –understood as the view that minority groups should be granted special group rights or privileges- and feminism – understood as the view that women should not be disadvantaged just because of their sex. Although Okin does not make the fact explicit, her argument is not directed against the promotion of multiculturalism in all of its forms. Rather, her objections are only concerned with granting special group-differentiated rights to ethnic minorities. These rights would be privileges that are intended to protect within the context of liberal democratic multiethnic states the cultural practices of minority ethnic groups. They are thought to be necessary to safeguard the ways of life of minority cultures which could not be protected solely by ensuring the individual rights of their members. Sikhs’ exemption from the law concerning the wearing of a crash helmet when driving a motorbike is an example of such a right.

Liberal supporters of group differentiated rights, such as Will Kymlicka (1996), think that they are necessary on the grounds that freedom and autonomy can only be exercised if one possesses self-respect and self-identity.  These in turn presuppose the preservation of the cultures, traditions, and ways of life of minority groups.  It is this view, and this argument, that is the target of Okin’s criticism. Her objection, simply put, is that most, if not all, cultures around the world are patriarchal. Further, the practices which group rights are intended to preserve are often discriminatory practices. This should come as no surprise. Since cultures are patriarchal, they have mores whose purpose is the subordination of women. Further, cultures are preserved at home by maintaining traditional familial structures. Hence, the burden of preserving cultures is mostly on women. Consequently, their preservation contributes to keeping women in the private sphere.

More particularly, Okin points out that many of the practices that are put forward as representative of a culture by some of its members have negative effects on women. She mentions polygamy, coerced marriage, female genital mutilation and so forth. Since cultures are first fostered and transmitted in the domestic sphere, she claims, it is not surprising that the practices some fight to preserve crucially involve women. For Okin, it is also not surprising that these practices mostly have a negative impact on women, since the control of women by men is one of the principal aims of most cultures. For these reasons, she concludes that granting special group rights will contribute to the continuation of the discrimination of women. In sum, Okin describes feminism and some aspects of multiculturalism as diametrically opposed.

Her position is, in my view, strategically ill-advised, since it might replicate several colonial assumptions including the view that although both Western and non-Western women are oppressed, it is only non-Western women who are oppressed by their cultures. For instance, domestic violence is endemic in the UK, yet I have not heard anybody suggest that Western culture is the cause of violence against women. Further, Western cultures are often represented as in flux, as heterogeneous; they are thought to have histories and to encourage internal criticism. Non-Western cultures are instead generally portrayed as traditional, a-historical, unchanging, homogeneous, and as lacking internal critics. I am not suggesting that Okin actually endorses these assumptions. However, her arguments appear to presuppose them.

More worryingly, Okin seems to ignore past examples of the deployment of the rhetoric of ‘women’s rights’ to justify the continuation of colonial occupation. For example, Katherine Mayo (Mother India, 1927) argued that Indians were not ready for self-rule because they were not sufficiently civilised. She presented what she described as the widespread practice of suttee (sati), and child marriage as evidence for her position. Notice that Mayo used the example of sati as armoury for a specific agenda. Indian culture, she claimed, is oppressive of women, consequently Indians are not fit for self-rule, and the British should stay. Seemingly unaware of the agenda pursued by Mayo, the radical feminist Mary Daly (Gyn/Ecology, 1978) praised Mayo and ignored her imperialist agenda. Thus, Daly was unaware of a few important truths. Sati was a very rare phenomenon, and was not pan-Indian before the colonial encounter. It was never practised by non-Hindu, and among Hindus it was limited to particular casts and specific regions. In Bengal in the nineteenth century during a sati “epidemic”, sati was said to effect about 0.2% of all widows (see Lata Mani, Contentious Traditions: The Debate on SATI in Colonial India, 1998). Sati was also contested, since the debate in the sub-continent about its legitimacy had gone on for centuries, and not everybody approved of the practice.

The British were fascinated by sati (probably because it involves women and the virtue of women is often crucial to a culture’s self-understanding). They worried whether prohibiting this practice was an unacceptable interference. Consequently, they made it an issue; and thus legitimised it. They also treated it as emblematic of India when it was a rare, contested, and exclusively Hindu practice. Thus, they initiated the conflation of Indian with Hindu. Further, the British asked religious scholars (the so-called ‘pundits’) to decide on the basis of religious texts whether it was an authentic tradition. In this way, the British assumed that cultural traditions are best seen as religious traditions, and that scriptural evidence (something alien to Hinduism before) was the main determinant of what counts as a tradition. As a result sati became emblematic of Indian culture for both the British colonial rulers and their nationalist opponents. ‘Sati’ as a tradition was invented in the colonial encounter (see Uma Narayan, Dislocating Cultures, 1997). Both the nationalists and the British colonials identified India with Hindu, and took tradition to be homogenous; thought of Western and Indian as opposed, and as having nothing in common; interpreted a practice, which at least as a tradition they had in fact invented, as if it had been unchanged since mythical times; and saw the virtue of their women as crucial to the assertion of their own cultural superiority.

This historical example illustrates a dialectical development that Okin’s position might risk reproducing. There are times when in colonial and post-colonial encounters women’s rights are pitched against the preservation of non-Western cultures. In these cases, if we unquestioningly accept this opposition, we might unwittingly be co-opted in imperialistic gestures. More generally, our actions might have serious albeit unintended consequences. First, by ignoring the colonial history of the rhetoric of women’s rights, we might fail to appreciate why external interference is bound to be experienced by minority groups as a piece of colonial imperialism. Second, by giving prominence to view that non-Western women are victims of their culture, we might contribute to hiding the fact that poverty is the greatest problem for women in developing countries. Third, our actions would leave conservative accounts of non-Western cultures unquestioned. In other words, we would acquiesce in the representation of the culture offered by its most conservative members. Fourth, by confirming the assumption that feminism is a Western phenomenon, we would play a part in making non-Western feminism invisible. That is, we would offer ammunition to conservative depictions of indigenous feminists as Westernised betrayers of their culture. In conclusion, whilst it would be wrong simply to deny that Okin has highlighted some genuine difficulties, it is important to remember that pitching women’s right against group differentiated rights is bound to be a self-defeating manoeuvre.


Daly, M. (1978) Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism, Boston MA, Beacon Press.

Kymlicka, W. (1996). Multicultural citizenship: a liberal theory of minority rights. Oxford, Clarendon Press.

Mayo, K. (1927) Mother India, London, Jonathan Cape.

Mani, L. (1998) Contentious Traditions: The Debate on SATI in Colonial India, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Narayan, U. (1997). Dislocating cultures: identities, traditions, and Third-World feminism. New York and London, Routledge.

Okin, S. M., J. Cohen, et al. (1999). Is multiculturalism bad for women? Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press.

UNDP, (1995) Human Development Report, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Alessandra Tanesini is Professor of Philosophy at Cardiff University. She is the author of An Introduction to Feminist Epistemologies (Blackwell, 1999), Wittgenstein: A Feminist Interpretation (Polity, 2004), Philosophy of Language A-Z (Edinburgh, 2007), and of several articles in feminist philosophy, the philosophy of mind and language, epistemology and on Nietzsche. She is a member of the Society of Women in Philosophy (UK).


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This entry was posted on July 17, 2012 by in Academia.
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