A Response to Susan Moller Okin’s Article: “Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? ” My response to Susan Moller Okin’s article titled “Is multiculturalism good for women? ” can be summed up in the following essay, in which I firmly argue in favor of Okin’s stance on the point that a blind reliance and shallow adherence to multiculturalism can lead to horrible abuses against whom it intends to protect, and that, in fact, multiculturalism, in that sense, is bad for women and the advancement of women’s right movements.
Liberal democracy is trying to be good to minority, so what they are trying to do is that the regime attempts to accept cultural differences and tries to promote multiculturalism. But sometimes, you have to ask the question, is “multiculturalism actually good for the women in these minorities? ” Because many times some of the traditions and values that these minorities cultures have may actually be “bad” traditions that are essentially working to perpetuate oppressive ways of living for their female members within the community, and therefore inherently harmful to women.
So in allowing these pockets of cultures to exist and respecting their cultural rights, the state might just be actively promoting the oppression of women in the long run. Susan Moller Okin’s argument rightly pointed out that multiculturalism is merely the regime that allows such tolerance to rightfully exist in the society, that for the reason of a cultural respect, the society is—on the other hand—working to further curtail the progressive change for women in oppressive societies.
One of the most obvious examples that Okin used was the culture in which women who are raped and then forced to be married to her rapist because her culture says that sexual intercourse is exclusive for only her husband, and strictly interpreting from that line of logic, her rapist, whom she has had intercourse with, even when against her view, is dictated by her culture to be her most rightful husband for life. While that is a deeply rooted traditional value that still persists to today, it is obviously against the value of the West or any liberal society.
To liberals, such treatment towards women is completely anti-women. In a society where multiculturalism is an upheld regime, sometimes, some sentences in crimes can be lessen because they take into account cultural values which endorse the such actions of crimes to be rightful. So Okin questions, “if you lessen the punishment for those crime, what are you really doing? ” Are you actually promoting the culture or are you helping to perpetuate the values and actions that hurt the women, blurring the line of women’s worth in that society?
Okin agues that you are hurting the women in the process of trying to appear liberal through the looking glass of multiculturalism. Okin’s article cites that the only legitimate kind of culture that should be respected should be the culture, which internally incorporates liberal values. In other words, if the culture is internally good and respectful to women, then yes, you should be able to respect that culture, but if it does not respect women and that its intrinsic values work to harm women, then it should not be respected, and therefore be adjusted because it is bad for women in the long run.
An example that is relevant to this response is a traditional value widely respected in Thailand. In this country, the dowry system—described as an act of money offering by the groom to the bride and her family on the day of their marriage—is a tradition commonly practiced and accepted as a norm. To the Western culture, this dowry system may be viewed as an act of objectifying women because it is viewed as if the family is selling its daughter for economic gain, but at the same time, the act itself is not necessarily harmful to the women.
This is, perhaps, a good illustration of different worldviews that construes difficulty in understanding and trying to accept a multicultural viewpoint by the West and the East. Dowry system, to the Eastern values, is not the act of selling daughters as commodities, but rather a sign of extreme respect that the groom wants to show to the women’s family, Dowry represents the groom readiness to start a family and be able to take care of it.
It also represents a careful deliberation, effort, and commitment to this life-long engagement he is getting himself and his bride into. It is a cultural way of ensuring that the women is not to be brought down by marrying a man who makes her suffer in poverty. This is not universally entirely an anti-feminist value, it can even be good for women in practice at the end of the day for its intention is to guarantee married women of a safety net for her new family’s economic status and well being.
In a society that makes a law that bans dowry system because of the reason that such an act propagates the objectification of women and therefore curtails women’s rights, it will also be a law that goes against the cultural values of the communities that uphold the belief systems such as that in Thailand. In this case, the intrinsic value, judged by the intent and the consequence that it brings, dowry system does not have an intrinsic value that goes against the progression of women’s right, and therefore, in Okin’s view, this area of culture could be tolerated under the realm of multiculturalism.
Okin’s last recommendations in her article says that very often times when the authority decides on what is right for women and attempts to negotiate on such matter, it only tends to negotiate through the cultural groups’ authority who are often elderly men with the belief system of a patriarchal culture, and therefore promote values of a patriarchal society even further.
And even when the negotiation takes place in the presence of women of the minority groups, the representatives are most often times elderly female members who, through years of indoctrination by their cultures, have bought into he idea of submission to men’s power. Okin suggests that the system of advancing the realm of multiculturalism should include more young female members’ involvement into the discussion of what is both culturally sound and acceptable to those individuals at the time being.
That way they can be assured that if the society adopt a multicultural viewpoint, it will still be respectful of the right of the women and will not harm them in the future. This can be exemplified by Okin’s reference to the circumstances in which polygamy, though traditionally revered in the past, women of the later generations hardly regard it as something acceptable that they are engaged into only because their native culture hardly gave them an alternative to do otherwise.
The main premises advocated by Okin are generally sound in the line of logic and in terms of the examples provided. In a number of cases such as clitoridectomy multiculturalism does perpetuate brutal practices against women with a sole reason of trying to preserve cultural diversity. While a number of female elderly members defend for the continuation of that cultural value, the young women of the present generation who are forced to suffer it for the sake of this continuation have to bear the cost of this culture at such great pain and physical suffering.
When the autonomy of these young women is sacrificed only to preserving certain subjective values for the sake of preserving even when it no longer produce any good to the society, especially when the women themselves do not even endorse them anymore, the state of any kind of liberal society must be the agent to take action and stop the vicious cycle in order to provide protection for its citizens who are born into being the victims of such circumstances. In many cases, we must take a strong stance that a crime is a crime, and that there is a certain standard for a categorical imperatives that should always be respected.
If something is horrible to women, it should be punished and deterred. The majority culture must not allow these faulty values to say that they should be allow to abuse women because it is what is required of their culture. Essentially, culture is nothing beneficial to the advancement of the society if it works to discriminate some members and brutally treat them as some means to an end. The problem is if you think it is inherently wrong and you force the minority to assimilate, proponents of multiculturalism will argue that you are adopting a view of cultural imperialism, harming the freedom to adopt diverse cultural ideas.
In response to that, I would argue on the side of Okin that it is not the responsibility of the minority people to adapt to the morals and values of the majority cultures as long as their values respect the autonomy and rights of the women, but when it does do to violate women’s intrinsic values and right, minority cultures must be given less priority than the tangible well being of individuals who are affected by those values. You have to judge something not only by its effects, but also its intent.
The intent of have human right legislation is not to harm minority cultures, but to protect all individuals in a particular society regardless of which sub-cultures they subscribe themselves to. If a culture will justify abuse or harming other human being, then it is reasonable to argue that that culture has to somehow curd to the majority’s value in order to harmoniously co-exist in the long run. Abuses should not be justified by saying it is simply cultural or traditional. There is no logical reasoning behind that whatsoever.
In other words, I would stand for the idea that, at some points there are absolute values that should be universally respected, but especially more so in a society where the majority’s viewpoint already endorses such values, the standard should be applied equally and indiscriminately. These values will be regarded as true no matter what; otherwise it would fall into the realm of “cultural relativism,” which comes with many aspects of harm that will spring up from unequal treatments and resentments towards double standard policies and such towards different sub ultures that exist in the society. Multiculturalism then ends up becoming “moral relativism,” which is not beneficial for a just system that is supposed to view their members in the same way and treat them in the same manner. Some absolute values such as you should not physically mutilate a human being regardless of whatever culture. If it is done, it brings great pain and suffering for the person who fall victims of the circumstance.
I would strongly argue that there are instances when simply promoting multiculturalism without a proper reflection or direct consultation to those directly affected by the applications of those particular cultures is harmful to women. Of course, this is not to say that multiculturalism is always bad, but an alley of solid examples by Okin and other critics of multiculturalism does suggest that there is a considerable number of cases where multiculturalism taken blindly is tremendously harmful to the very people it intends to rescue.
In those cases, one should somehow allow the women, or members of the culture who suffer from the culture—men or women—to be part of the discussion and decide on what to do. And in other cases where women are extremely abused such as in the case of clitoridectomy, the state should actively put a stop to it because it outright incur a bodily harm and perpetuate physical abuse to women in those communities.
In conclusion, I agree with Okin’s suggestion that the good kind of multiculturalism is the kind that turns blind eyes on the outright oppressive values, but the kind that requires careful reflection, studies and consultations with accurate representations of the members of those cultural communities, in order to gain the most useful insight when it comes to an attempt to understand certain foreign values. Last but not least, I also agree that cultural traditions should not be the sole reason to justify abuses, otherwise we would fall into the realm of moral relativism, which perpetuates an oppressive regime for women.
Furthermore, it should be stressed that young female members of today’s generations born into the oppressive sub-cultures should never be allowed to be used as a means for her culture to successfully preserve a cultural identity that predicates mainly on the fact that women are inferior class ruled under men, which is again known to be the basic essential of any existing patriarchal culture around the world.