InDebate: Should Cultural Groups Receive Group Rights? On Okin’s „Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?“

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Yoko Arisaka

We are familiar with the notion of individual rights—that we have rights for autonomy, self-determination, free expression, protection from harm, etc.—but can „groups“ also have such rights? Apart from the technical discussions about whether groups can be rights-bearers in the similar way as individuals, the question has been raised in the context of whether cultural groups should be able to have cultural group rights. Cultural groups–ethnic or religious minorities, linguistic minorities, or cultural minorities are different from self-selected membership in groups or organizations (such as sport clubs, local organizations, universities, corporations), in that one’s membership is involuntary. One does not „choose“ to be a member of the German Sinti minority—one is simply born into that cultural group and various cultural ways of life are a part of one’s being. Since cultural minority groups belong to the larger, dominant societies that often do not „appreciate“ the different cultural ways of life, there have been attempts, both by the minority groups themselves as well as some from the dominant society, to argue against the oppressive assimilationist expectations and to demand recognition, protection, legitimation, and preservation of cultural identities.

Charles Taylor, for example, in his defense of multiculturalism, argues that cultural identities are essential parts of self-conception and the feeling of self-worth, and a positive recognition of one’s cultural self is necessary for the well-being of not only that individual but for the society at large. One way to make such a recognition „official“ would be to grant cultural group rights to minority groups that demands them. Cultural minority groups ought to be able to exercise self-determination (and guaranteed protection by way of group rights) with respect to its cultural practices, such as rituals, family organizations, traditional ceremonies, language education, and so forth, as well as to be able to claim exemption from the general laws (such as on religious grounds). Political philosopher Will Kymlicka also endorses group rights, so long as such rights do not violate the rights of the individuals in the group. In a liberal society that respects cultural diversity, all this seems fair enough.

However, in her well-known essay (and later an anthology) „Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?“ political and feminist philosopher Susan Moller Okin argues against cultural group rights, arguing that in most cases such rights have great potential to harm women in the groups that try to use them. Her main points are as follows:

  1. In most traditional cultures, there are established power disparity between the sexes, and in most cases the more powerful male members are “in a position to determine and articulate the group’s beliefs, practices, and interests” (12). In most cases, then, the “cultural practices” are defined by men in that culture and the women’s views are silenced. The advocates of group rights do not sufficiently pay attention to this gender inequity (even within the dominant culture), so there is a great danger in perpetuating the patterns of male dominance when group rights are permitted.
  2. The advocates of group rights pay little attention to the public-private distinction. This is highly problematic, as most traditional cultures heavily control the lives of women in the private sphere, such that the “sphere of personal, sexual, and reproductive life functions as central focus of most cultures, a dominant theme in cultural practices and rules” (13). The laws of marriage, divorce, child custody, division and control of family property, and inheritance are written by men (to the exclusion of women) but they affect the lives of women and girls disproportionately, since far more of women’s time and energy are focused on preserving such practices of the private sphere. “Home is, after all, where much of culture is practiced, preserved, and transmitted to the young” (13), according to Okin. Since the women are confined to being the bearers of such cultural production in the private sphere, they are much limited in their ability to participate in the public sphere that is mostly controlled by men.
  3. In fact, in most cultures, one of the principal aims of cultural transmission has to do with the explicit control of women by men. This is especially true for religion-based cultural groups, with long history and tradition. “Many such practices make it virtually impossible for women to choose to live independently of men, to be celibate or lesbian, or to decide not to have children” (14). As examples Okin lists clitoridectomy, polygamy, the marriage of children or other coerced marriages, and the practice common in much of Latin America, Southeast Asia and parts of West Africa that requires a rape victim to marry the rapist. All such “cultural practices” that are to be respected, in fact, guarantee that women continue to be treated sexually and reproductively “servile to men’s desires and interests” (16).

In short, most cultures are patriarchal, but those demand group rights are especially so, as most of the “issues” surrounding cultural group rights turns out to be the control of women in the name of preserving the tradition. At one point Okin even suggests that not all traditions and cultural practices are worth preserving. What should be happening is not the promotion of group rights, but rather the global promotion of more individual rights for women and girls, for their protection in case their cultural practices are abusive to them.

In the German context a similar line of argument is presented by a Turkish-German feminist lawyer Seyran Ateş, who calls the politics of multiculturalism “irresponsible” as it permits violence against women and girls in the name of respecting cultural difference and diversity. Not all cultural practices are worth preserving, just for the sake of “preserving a tradition”.

Certainly, cultural diversity can bring richness and openness to a society—it is a cultural wealth on its own right and it should ideally work as a corrective to provincialism. Different cultural traditions and practices, as well as religious beliefs, are not some external “additions” to persons, but rather they are deeply woven into the very being of who they are—this is true of persons in the dominant culture as well. So Taylor is right to point out that recognition and respect for cultural difference would be essential for the general well-being of all persons. But if this is so, I believe Okin’s depictions of “cultural practices that oppress women” are much too simplistic and already assumes the superiority of the Western liberal framework. Although I am sympathetic to the concerns Okin raises, the “solutions” to the problems cannot be that certain cultural practices be abandoned (as if that would be possible) and the Western liberal standards and practices be adopted. As Muslim feminist Azizah al-Hibri points out, such a critique is itself Western-imperialist, paternalistic and patriarchal against the rich cultural and religious lives of third-world women (who purportedly all suffer from male violence, who are depicted as powerless victims in need of help by Western feminists).

The problems caused by violence and male dominance are problems not of “culture”, but of violence, dominance, and men who perpetrate them. These are present in minority as well as majority cultures, and they must be critiqued and dealt with within the contexts of their practice. It may very well be the case that some traditional or cultural practices are in fact harmful for women and girls, such as clitoridectomy and forced child marriages. Since cultural practices are fluid and we can no longer isolate „cultures“ especially in our global communications today, women and men, from all parts of the world, should join the conversation in addressing the problem. Suffering is not a cultural problem, nor is it specifically a female problem. It is a human problem, and I hope it is possible to be recognized as such, regardless of one’s cultural background.

Further Readings:

Al-Hibri, Azizah (1999): “Is Western Patriarchal Feminism Good for Third World/ Minority Women?” in Okin, S. Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? pp. 41-46.
Ateş, Seyran (2009): Der Multikulti-Irrtum. Wie wir in Deutschland besser zusammenleben können. Berlin.
Kymlicka, Will (1995): Multicultural Citizenship: A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights, Oxford.
Okin, Susan M (1999): Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? Princeton.
Taylor, Charles, et al (1994): Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of RecognitionPrinceton.

 (c) Yoko Arisaka

Dr. Yoko Arisaka, Ph.D. was a research fellow at the Hannover Institute for Philosophical Research and an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Francisco. Currently, Dr. Arisaka teaches at the University of Hildesheim’s Institute of Philosophy. Dr. Arisaka’s research interests cover, among others, phenomenology, Consciousness Studies, political philosophy (especially critical theory, feminism, philosophy of race) and Japanese philosophy (Nishida and the „Kyoto School“). You can find her Homepage here.

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