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Hypatia 17.4 (2002) 228-232

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Book Review

Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?

Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? By Susan Moller Okin. Prince-ton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Should we ask if Multiculturalism is bad for women?

I first agreed to review the book Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? because I found the title so outrageous. It struck me as a profoundly counterproductive [End Page 228] way to pose some politically hot and philosophically complex issues. When I received the book in the mail and began to read it I became more sympathetic to the project. The book purports to examine issues such as female circumcision and polygamy, and to ask if calls for multiculturalism require assent to these practices.

I have taught Women's Studies for many years, and have always found discussions of these sorts of practices to be challenging (even the choice of what to call them makes a political statement). The relativist and anti-racist in me says that it is not up to me to decide on the practices of other people, and that practices cannot be decided without some knowledge of the cultural context in which they take place. It is very easy for members of dominant cultures to find the practices of subordinate ones to be "barbaric." Still, some practices, such as radical infibulation, seem ripe for denunciation. Many of my students use human rights discourse to challenge these practices and find my tendency toward relativism to be maddening. I have often wished for help in giving language to the subtle paths through these debates. It would be nice if there were a way to make moral judgments while avoiding imperialist logics.

I was therefore pleased to have a short volume with a wide variety of authors discussing these issues. The book, edited by Joshua Cohen, Matthew Howard, and Martha C. Nussabum, is organized around an essay published by Susan Moller Okin in the Boston Review. It includes fifteen short critical essays by authors such as Homi K. Bhabha, Sander Gilman, Katha Pollitt, Saskia Sassen, and Azizah Y. al-Hibri. It closes with a response by Okin. The range of authors responding to Okin is impressive and the format of short responses makes the book very readable and engaging.

In her response to her critics, Okin summarized her original essay as follows:

I argue that many cultures oppress some of their members, in particular women, and that they are often able to socialize these oppressed members so that they accept, without question, their designated cultural status. I argue, therefore, that in the context of liberal states, when cultural or religious groups claim special rights—whether to be exercised by them together as a group or individually as members of that group—attention should be paid to the status of women within the culture or religion. This means that it is not enough for those representing the liberal state simply to listen to the requests of self-styled group leaders. They must inquire into the point of view of the women, and to take especially seriously the perspective of the younger women. (1999, 117)

Okin's argument is framed as a response to the work Will Kymlicka has done, which argues for a limited form of "cultural rights." She summarized his position as the claim that, "[b]ecause societal cultures play so pervasive and [End Page 229] fundamental a role in the lives of their members, and because such cultures are threatened with extinction, minority cultures should be protected by special rights" (1999, 11). Kymlicka argues that this protection should be limited only to cultures that are "internally liberal." In other words, he does not support granting "special rights" to cultures that oppress their members.

Okin's main critique of Kymlicka is that she believes that attempts to legally protect a culture may make that culture stronger, and it might be that the culture is oppressive in private ways beyond the reach of the state. Okin argues, "In the case of a more patriarchal minority culture, no argument can be made on the basis of self-respect...