Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?

Article excerpt

Okin, Susan Moller. Is multiculturalism bad for women?

With respondents, and edited by Joshua Cohen, Matthew Howard, and Martha C. Nussbaum. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1999. 146 pp.

ISBN 0-691-00432-3.

The title of this volume suggests a very broad debate on universal issues. Certainly the unusual structure within which these issues are addressed permits considerable discursive give-and-take: the main author displays her argument and 15 others then respond each with his/her own version of the truth, the original author then responding in her turn. Another unusual ingredient is the presence of three eminent editors, who contribute a short introduction setting the political and academic background to the debate, but whose influence then appears to evaporate, with the exception of Martha Nussbaum who also makes a contribution as a respondent.

The issue at stake is whether "multiculturalism" is "bad for women". Multiculturalism, a concept that emerged some 20 years ago in the United States, was seized upon as a way of positively valuing the contributions of all the minority groups represented in American society. A diffuse if well-intentioned idea, it came to mean a lot of different things to different people and - importantly - to groups in their attempts to proclaim a specific identity within the wider cultural mix to be found in the United States. One version of the notion, here singled out by the editors as an "especially compelling formulation", was the idea that people in other cultures, foreign and domestic, are human beings too, moral equals entitled to equal respect and concern, not to be discounted or treated as a subordinate caste. "Thus understood, multiculturalism condemns intolerance of other ways of life, finds the human in what might seem Other, and encourages cultural diversity." Which seems an acceptable basic approach to relating to one's fellow human beings, and not just in the American version of the cultural mix, where "multiculturalism" was developed.

Inevitably, there came the realization that other cultures could hold values not shared by the observer. What should the wellmeaning liberal do in the face of manifestations of intolerance on the part of other cultures? …