Is there a tension between feminism and multiculturalism?

A simple reading of feminism that all women should be regarded as equal in relation to their male counterparts and should not be disadvantaged by their gender, it is generally seen as a positive ideology that is applicable to all, and if it is not, there are some proponents who hold that it should be. With this established, we can examine the concept of multiculturalism. Although a simple definition is harder to pin down, I take it to be understood as the recognition of a plurality of values and ways of life within the nation-state – and for the purpose of this essay – this is a positive view that should be encouraged rather than past urges to make different cultures assimilate. It may be the case, that when rights are afforded to groups that are different to the norm, it could generate policy and laws that can be seen as supporting an inversion of feminist ideals, which are at least formally endorsed by liberal states. Therefore advocates of multicultural policies are required to grapple with the limits of multiculturalism, and if there are limits how are they justified. With this in mind Susan Moller Okin poses the question: is multiculturalism bad for women? (Okin, 1999). The question is asking us to consider that these two supposedly positive seeming views clash in a way that generates negative results for women. This essay will first deal with Okin’s alleged tension from the feminist point of view. I will then aim to show that the tension is manufactured by the definition of culture that Okin provides, to do this I will draw on arguments made by Leti Volpp. I will then turn to Anne Phillips to reject the concept of culture as the ultimate way to show that there needn’t be tension between feminism and multiculturalism.

Okin begins her critique by saying that we have been to ready to assume that feminism and multiculturalism are good things and which can easily support each other, however, Okin invites us to look at the cultures that will be afforded protection from being forced to assimilate to the wider culture due to polices of multiculturalism. She gives the example of the French accommodating polygamy (Okin, 1999, p10) as an example of how protecting diversity illustrates a “deep and growing tension” (ibid). Okin holds that multiculturalism is a defence of group rights, but it is her contention that these group rights often result in harm being done to women. She does this by showing that (many) cultures oppress some of their members – women – and often this oppression comes in the forms of socialising this oppression to the extent that women within certain cultures are denied their agency, to such an extent that even if they are verbalising support for their culture, it is not genuine support (Okin, 1999, p117).

Initially I want to note that one method of resolving the tension that Okin and other feminist thinkers have identified is to focus upon the construction of group rights. However, because of Okin’s claim of socialised oppression it means that it is very hard to get at a satisfactory account of group rights if it is not possible (by Okin’s lights) to have a female member of a culture being able to speak in a genuinely free or objective way about their cultre. Due to my worries, I have decided to focus upon assessing the use of culture in Okin’s argument as away to alleviate the tension.

I will now turn to the structure of Okin’s argument, with particular focus on her discussion of gender and culture. She defines culture by the characteristics of a particular culture, she suggests that: “most cultures are suffused with practices and ideologies concerning gender” (Okin, 1999 p12). Okin is particularly focused upon those activities that regulate female’s sexual reproduction and those practices that result in various forms of subordination. She points to the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) as an example of a custom that is used as a way to control the sexuality of women and girls and keep them subordinate to men, and that it is a practiced that is justified because it is a cultural one. She then notes that another major characteristic of a culture is that the men write the cultural rules. This is because men are in the position to act as the spokesperson for that culture, and therefore say that these types of activities are essential for their culture and how it functions – but for Okin – in reality, it may simply be a preferred action or practice that the men in a culture carry out as the means to coerce women (Okin, 1999 pp7-27). Therefore these kind of anti-feminist ideals are incorporated into a culture and then get condoned under a liberal state due to their commitment to multiculturalism in essence this is why multiculturalism is bad for women: men write and proclaim what are considered essential characteristics of a culture, and these characteristics result in suffering for women, or at least treatment that is counter to feminist ideology. Therefore we can see that in assessing the relation between gender and culture Okin has aimed to reveal to us that anti-feminist practices which will involve the subordination and coercing of women are the ‘central focus’ or characteristic of a culture (ibid, p13), this characteristic is then projected by the male leaders of that culture as something which needs to protected to ensure the integrity of their culture under the vehicle of group-rights afforded by multiculturalism. In doing so, it appears to me that Okin has presented a view that culture is almost by definition bad for women.

I consider Okin’s argument highly problematic; I will seek to show this by drawing on arguments that will generate a rethinking of Okin’s account of culture. The aim being if we can present a more nuanced account of what is really meant by culture, then this will be a way to refute the idea that there is such a blatant contrast between multiculturalism and feminism without having to involve a difficult discussion of group rights. Volpp holds that the tension that Okin is writing about, that of a liberal society accepting illiberal practices is one that is generated by arguing from a very specific, and incorrect definition of cultures as being gendered in this way. For Volpp it is based upon “fundamental logical flaws” (Volpp, 2001, p1183). Which are generated from not starting from the correct definition of culture. Vlopp suggests that Okin defines culture as a fixed entity rather than being fluid and changeable in doing so she has created a framework that renders culture as either liberal or illiberal. This leads to the criticism that Okin is portraying women as victims of their culture (Volpp, 2001, p1181), because she argues that female subordination is a significant characteristic of (some) cultures. Despite awareness that most cultures have a sexist and or patriarchal beginning, Okin claims that the majority of Western cultures have more or less left this past behind, and are formally adopting feminist principles. The next step according to Volpp, is to arrive at the conclusion that women in these patriarchal cultures would therefore be better off if their culture were to become extinct (Okin, 1999 pp22-23) and to then assimilate into the wider community.

With her issue identified, Volpp wants to question why it is that issues of feminism and multiculturalism fall into Okin’s binary framework. She wants to move beyond it without relying upon arguments of moral relativism, as such she holds that we can make normative judgements which concern feminist values, for example it is ‘always wrong to hit your wife’ however when we are looking at cultures that are different to ours where this may be acceptable, we need to ensure that we broaden our understanding of women in different cultures this will enable use to move beyond the standard binary of feminism verses multiculturalism (Volpp, 2001, p1185). A method in which Volpp tries to show this is by emphasising that Okin’s conception of ‘culture’ is dangerous. She suggests that feminism and multiculturalism are in tension in part due to our excessive focus on the idea that ‘Third World Immigrant’ women essentially live in cultures whereby a major characteristic of these cultures is sex-subordination (Volpp, 2001, pp1204-1205). Volpp wants to avoid this focus and identifies four negative implications of focusing on culture in this way. Firstly it obscures the structural causes of the problems for women within a culture, such as the wider economic framework; secondly it can detract from other issues that are separate from cultural issues; thirdly it characterises these women as the ‘other’. This is particularly unhelpful as it denies these women agency and characterises them as victims of their own culture; fourthly, it diverts people’s attention from sexism within the US (equally from any other Western liberal society). As I consider that Okin’s biggest mistake is in her definition of culture, I hold that Volpp’s first issue is most applicable when critiquing Okin. By focussing on culture equalling practices that endorse sex-subordination, we will conceal or miss-out on identifying the structural forces behind culture. Therefore we potentially obscure the real reason for why women are being discriminated against. Volpp supports this by making the claim that our culture is not constructed within a “hermetically sealed” box (ibid). Rather there are external forces that profoundly shape culture that Okin does not fully consider. Consequently she is arguing against the conception of culture that Okin presents, i.e. it is not something which could readily replicate itself, regardless of structural forces. Volpp provides examples to demonstrate the errors in Okin’s argument: she takes the historical example of Sati. This is a practice in which widowed Indian burn themselves of their husband’s funeral pyre. She charts the history of the practice and demonstrates that it is not the product of Hindu culture alone, rather it is a combination of British colonial officers and Hindus who were attempting to rationalise the activity, and their method to do this was to argue that it was religious and cultural practice. However, Volpp’s article suggests that this is not the case, and there is no real religious/cultural basis for the practice, rather it was due to economic and financial instability of the family, the widowed woman simply could not support herself financially and this was the motivation to burn herself to death, not a commitment to being a ‘dutiful wife’ (ibid). Therefore in suggesting, as the British did, that it is stooped in religion, we then have failed to identify the structural force of the reason for the practice (ibid, p1206), and it clearly shows a tension between feminism and multiculturalism, if Sati is seen as a cultural practice.

 As surmised by Phillips (Phillips, 2005, p27) Volpp has argued that Okin has not used the correct understanding of culture, she has missed out on seeing them as hybrids and the static account she has given is the reason why feminism and multiculturalism seem to have tensions with one other. Further she argues that if we focus so acutely on other sexist cultures then we miss out what is happening within the majority culture. To me this is a significant blow to Okin’s claim that a culture’s primary concern is with gender subordination because it suggests that there are other things in the forefront of culture. Volpp suggests that there is a process of picking and choosing the characteristics of a culture, for Okin, it is the feminist issue, and from this characteristic it appears that all behaviour is rationalised by this. The result for Volpp is that ‘culture’ is the way in which we characterise non-western or minority groups, it seems then, if we stop doing this, then there will be no real tension between feminism and multiculturalism, as we will have left behind the position that culture is gender based discrimination.

Even if Okin is arguing from the wrong definition of culture, and therefore it is not necessarily the case that feminism and multiculturalism are in tension, it may still be the case that there are some cultures that do contain anti-feminist elements that may be protected under multicultural policies. Therefore the most effective way to resolve the tension between multiculturalism and feminism is to reject the concept of culture in its entirety. To do this I will draw upon Anne Phillip’s augments to jettison culture. She takes the view that culture is seen to be a unifying notion, but that multiculturalism recognises a diversity of many cultures and protects them as discreet entities, Phillips suggests that this makes the cultures “straightjackets” (Phillips, 2009, p13).

Phillip’s does not deny that culture is an important method of viewing the world and way to give meaning to our lives, however she wants to question the ways in which they are used. Phillips begins with a discussion of the use of the term “race”, she has charted the intellectual development of it and she notes that a distinct ‘race’ is in fact very difficult to come across. She holds that “race” is a construct used as a method to justify slavery, by attributing specific characteristics to specific races. She draws upon Brubaker to make a connection to culture being used in this way; “groupism” is the process of drawing lines and constructing internally homogeneous groups in order to be the building blocks for social analysis. Phillips thinks this way of thinking is mirrored in our approach to culture, she suggests that like ‘race’ it too is a political construct. In relation to Okin we can see that her issue with culture is that it is essentialist – in the sense that when we discuss culture we allow for the dominant members to codify and establish practices which in reality should be fluid and changeable. Further, for political discourse like Okin’s relies upon a construction of ‘culture’ as a group but in fact it may not really be possible to do this and reveal tension between cultures (Phillips, 2009 pp13-21).

Phillips thinks that deconstructing culture will enable use to soothe some of the normative difficulties that comes with striving for gender equality verses other cultures. When we move away from the discussion that is bounded up in culture then we can arguably move beyond the tension that Okin is concerned with (ibid p33). We have seen that Okin holds culture and gender to be intimately related however if we can do away with culture as a category then we are open to an alternative. Phillip’s considers that we can focus upon human equality – which gender equality is therefore necessarily subsumed under (ibid p35). This human equality should be recognised as a universal norm.

In conclusion, Okin clearly emphasises that her primary concern is that of women’s equality, and it is obvious that she holds that protecting cultures under multiculturalism has the potentiality to violate this (Okin, 1999, p131), she concludes her volume “Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women” by saying that she wants to aim at a multiculturalism that treats all people as moral equals and to do this we need a multiculturalism that properly focuses on gender. Which I consider echoes some of the work of Phillips. My view in the light of my discussion is that it is possible to strive for gender equality but avoid the tension with multiculturalism as we can side-step culture as traditionally conceived by political theorists. Thus, the reason why it appears that feminism and multiculturalism are in tension is due to our focus on culture which in fact may not be necessary for multiculturalism to flourish.



Okin, Moller S, 1999 “Is multiculturalism Bad For women” in Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women, (eds) Cohen, J. Howard, M. Nussbaum, M.C. Princeton: Princeton University Press pp7-27

Phillips, A, 2007, Multiculturalism without Culture, Princeton: Princeton University Press

 Volpp, L. 2001. Feminism Verses Multiculturalism, Columbia Law Review, 101(5) pp1181-1218

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