Wednesday, September 15, 2010

On Feminism and Multi-Culturalism. Post I

I have started reading on topics such as the role of Islam in Europe in recent weeks, and this review of Ayaan Hirsi Ali's new book touches on some of it. I'm going to write much more on Hirsi Ali herself later on, I hope, but my thoughts mature at their own rate.

The bits that I'm taking out of the oven of my brain right now have to do with the innate clashes between feminism and certain types of multi-culturalist ways of thinking, clashes, which are very real and which have been set aside or ignored for some good reasons and for some not-so-good reasons.

These have to do with the way Western cultures* deal with religious minority cultures of certain patriarchal types, such as the Amish and the Hasidic Jews in the United States. That way of dealing has mostly been to let those cultures alone, to let them decide for themselves what rights, if any, the women in those cultures may have.

The justification for this is in religious rights: The right to practice one's religion freely. But what happens when that right clashes with the human rights of women within the subculture?

What happens when "letting them decide for themselves" means that those decisions will not be carried out in some democratic way among the individuals in that subculture but will be the utterances of a few patriarchal leaders of the group? What happens when the representatives of such subcultures in the more general debates are those same patriarchal leaders? Or perhaps more importantly, what happens if all the members of some religious group indeed agree to the idea that women should be silent and obedient?

The common argument I have read is that women who don't like to belong to those subcultures within some democratic country can leave the subculture and use the rights the wider legal system offers them, and this is theoretically correct. But in practice a truly isolated gender-hierarchical community will not have brought up its female members to have the skills and connections to simply leave, not to mention the psychological costs of leaving the only society you know.

What is the proper task of feminists in addressing these issues? The issues are very difficult because the same patriarchal subcultures may themselves be oppressed by the wider society and because some argue that any change in the way those cultures treat women should come from those inside the cultures, not from outsiders such as "Western feminists." At the same time, a truly isolated subculture will not bring about such changes if its basic tenets rely on hierarchical views of gender.

When I studied philosophy, one of the introductory courses described the possible approaches to take in questions such as this one as the following three:

1. All cultures have their own values. Outsiders cannot evaluate any of those values at all.
2. Cultures may have their own values but certain basic values are universal and can be judged across cultures.
3. There is only one set of correct values for all cultures. They may be those given by a particular divinity or those determined by a political movement.

Though this list may be naive, using it has helped me in my thinking. Note that the first set of ideas implies that values such as equality of the sexes are purely culture-specific, but those ideas also mean that all cultures are equal! Note, also, that the third set of ideas is probably the one many religious cultures actually hold, though of course the correct set of values would be theirs. And note, finally, the extreme mess which can result if the sides in a cultural debate hold different sets of these ideas.
*This post doesn't intend to set some generic mainstream Western culture as a feminist paradise (as you well know if you read me!). Neither is it intended to portray the mainstream religions in the West as feminist (as you also know if you read me!).