Exploring the Differences: Feminist Theory in a Multicultural Society

By Ganguly, Indrani | Hecate, January 1, 1995 | Go to article overview
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Exploring the Differences: Feminist Theory in a Multicultural Society

Ganguly, Indrani, Hecate

Exploring the Differences: Feminist Theory in a Multicultural Society

They say that the bread of exile is bitter, yet it nourishes us.(1)

One of the most significant aspects of post-World War II migration to Australia has been the increasing diversification in the ethnic composition of immigrants. Currently, the Australian population is made up of people from over 110 countries. One in four Australians is from a non-English speaking background (NESB).

Policy responses at the government level have reflected these changes by the shift from assimilation to integration to multiculturalism. Correspondingly, feminism in Australia is also faced with the challenge of responding to these changes.

Feminism in Australia operates at three broad levels: academic, community, and government. Of these three, community and government are considered to be much more responsive to the issues pertaining to NESB women than the academic.(2) Historically, mainstream Australian feminist theory has been regarded as presenting culturally specific issues relevant mainly to middle-class Anglo-Celtic women as universal issues for all women in Australia.(3) Commitment to feminist ideals is often judged in terms of adherence to middle-class Anglo-Celtic norms in all spheres, including dress codes.(4)

Attempts to correct this false homogeneity have often gone to the other extreme, by conceptualising NESB women as totally "the other." This otherness takes two forms. One is the "exotic other": this is the NESB woman of esoteric food, dance, music and clothing and, in the case of some communities, of various magical, mystical beliefs and practices.(5) The second is the "oppressed" other: both popular and academic representations of NESB women tending to enforce stereotypes of them as totally oppressed. For some mainstream feminists, the roots of this oppression lie solely in the cultures of the NESB women; hence multiculturalism is seen as likely to jeopardise the gains made for Australian women in recent decades:

Feminism and multiculturalism have become essential articles of progressive faith. But these two tenets are often incompatible. The central premise of the multiculturalist credo, after all, is that all cultures are created equal.... Yet is it not possible that many people come to [Western countries] because they are attracted to the West's way of doing things? This may be particularly true of women, who often relish liberation from the patriarchal customs of home.(6)

The two basic assumptions in this approach are: that NESB women generally migrate independently to Australia and that patriarchy is something peculiar to non-Western countries. The reality is that while some women did come alone,(7) most of the immigrant women arriving in Australia came and were treated as wives, fiancées, daughters and sometimes as mothers.(8)

While a significant number of migrants have been admitted on humanitarian grounds, the major aim of Australia's immigration policy was simultaneously to recruit labour and to support the reproduction and growth of both labour power and the local consumer market. Migrant women's role in the fulfilment of these aims was a stereotypical one.

Thus women came to Australia largely as dependents, except occasionally when concern for the unbalanced sex ratio was thought to place `Australian' women at risk or encourage anti-social male migrant behaviour (stereotyping Italian men as fiery or violent, for example); or when some women were sought as domestics, again within traditional family and female roles.(9)

More `sympathetic' feminist accounts tend to locate NESB women's difficulties in the many structural barriers that they face. These include:

-- Economic barriers: limited opportunities to learn English, lack of marketable skills or non-recognition of overseas qualifications, dress and accents are some of the impediments to most NESB women being able to secure any or few well-paid jobs.

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