Rowan University
Ellen Miller, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor

Department of Philosophy & Religion
Rowan University
Glassboro, NJ 08028
Office: B
unce Hall
Office Phone:  856-256-4835

Dr. Ellen Miller
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Okin, Is Multiculturalism Bad For Women?

Notes on Readings

 Pollitt Response

Multiculturalism says, respect diversity, all traditions and feminism says challenge all cultural traditions. It makes sense that they are in tension with one another.

 Pollitt claims the ethical claims of feminism are different from the cultural relativism of multiculturalism

 Explain cultural relativism--ethical theory--Morally right= that which is allowed by a given culture/society

 Two main points;

1.     issues of gender versus money

2.     Third World-ism (prejudices against Third World)



Remember Okin has criticized Kymlika for not going far enough in looking at gender inequalities within groups.

 His position: two kinds of group rights

1.     internal restrictions—rights claimed against its own members—these restrict individuals from questioning, revising, traditional cultural roles and practices (he doesn’t want these)

2.     external protections—rights claimed against the larger society in order to reduce their vulnerability to the economic or political power of the larger society (he endorses these: language rights, political representation, ethnic media, land claims, compensation for historical injustice)


He regrets that Okin is opposing feminism and multiculturalism

1.     They both make similar points about the inadequacy of the traditional liberal conception of individual rights. Both point out that we have to look at societal institutions (workplace, family, schools, media) since these are typically gendered, using the male as the norm

2.     We can’t just give formal rights to minorities and think justice will occur

3.     We must address the needs and interests of women ad ethnocultural minorities in our theories of rights and equality (veil of ignorance)

4.     Both look for similar remedies some special rights)

 Kymlika argues that multicultural and feminism are allies in a similar struggle for a more inclusive idea of justice. Both can teach the other something.


Okin asks whether groups that are not liberal and who are sexist should be given protection by liberal states or should these cultures be altered or allowed to become extinct.

 Okin implies that there is a slippery slope from veiling to murder and that all these things: veiling, polygamy, clitoridectomy all signal one thing: male violence against women.

Okin sees all these practices are patriarch practices that oppress women in the name and disguise of culture.

 Honig begins by stating what she agrees with in Okin's article: worries that after all the gains feminism has make, these gains might be diminished by multiculturalism demands for group rights. Everyone might become exempt from following gender equality if there are too many exceptions for culture. Honig also agrees with Okin that people who move here from other places would be protected from violence.

 However, Okin does not investigate the claim “my culture made me do it” in enough depth according to Honig. Okin doesn’t examine liberalism enough, her own culture, in order to understand the problems with her own presentation of other cultures. The practices Okin labels as sexist as more complicated within we look at the meaning of culture and religion in more depth.

 For example, the way Okin readings Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are too simplistic.

1.     These do not just seek to control women’s sexuality. They also seek to control male sexuality. Gender separation is for women and men

2.     She leaves out how Judaism is passed on through the mother.

3.     Ignores the virgin birth of Jesus in Christianity—power of females

4.     Veiling might not be totally sexist, a symbol of female subservience. We need to look more at the context in which veiling functions. Many Muslim feminists see veiling as an empowering practice. (talk about mystics, nuns—power gained from separation—Bedouin community, convents, girls schools)

5.     Polygamy—not necessarily worse than the problems that occur in monogamous households (also problems of isolation in monogamy)

 It is not a simple task to say which culture is better or worse. We need to critically reflect on our own institutions as well.

 Okin assumes that Western liberal regimes are automatically less patriarchal than other regimes. So, okay, Okin is right to question the relationship between feminism and multiticultural but to autocmatticlly assume that liberalism is okay doesn’t criticize her own standpoint enough.

 Talk about liberalism

 I.      Okin has to be careful in how she talks about culture—Culture does not equal foreignness (let’s be “cultured”!..). Her case about the Iraqi man who married his young daughters is not totally foreign to our country (Jerry Lee Lewis).  Culture is a living, breathing system for the distribution and enactment of agency and power. (quote) Culture includes race, class. Locality, lineage and even those who are the least empowered have some measure of agency in that setting. So, eliminating cures is not the answer (colonialism and assimilation practices should warn us about that)

II.   Okin’s second alternative is more promising—try to support culture’s in altering their practices to reinforce equality. But this will demand that western feminists scrutinize their own practices as well. This is important for the solidarity of feminists.—openness is going to be very important (and this is difficult even if it sounds easy) 


Is a Muslim.

Problem from the start. Okin has not used sources from within the culture/religions under discussion. She commits significant errors in assessing other belief systems. (misunderstands religion).

 The Qur-an doesn’t say Eve was created out of part of Adam. It says ales and females were created by God from the same soul.

 1.     Founding myths in Islam are not patriarchal, the patriarchal part comes in with the interpretations of the Qur-an.

2.    Okin conflates religion with culture. These are different (important)

 We have to understand some basic Islamic principles in order to totally get this:

a.      interpretation is encouraged

b.     Islam is a world religion

c.     Laws can change

d.     Takes public interest into account

 So, a true feminist call to reform Muslim countries must respect their religious and cultural beliefs. When you separate religion and culture it will be easier for Muslims to accept change (changes of culture, not religion)

 3.     Okin’s position violates separation of church and state and the freedom of belief. She misses that her talk about saving women of minority cultures from internal oppression might miss what they do get from these practices (veiling, separation, rituals of bathing can be understood from a woman centered spiritual celebration of women’s bodies. Etc..Bodning with women). Why is it oppressive to wear a head scarf and not a miniskirt?

 Okin doesn’t appreciate the religious values at work here and this is patriarchal on her part according to Al-Hibri.


--issue is about choices—But how do we decide who has freedom of choice where there is gender inequality and where not…that is where we need to remain open and critical of our practices


Poses two questions of Okin

1.     Can liberal theorists deliver on their promises to those in minority cultures? Ca they help young women sustain their identities and human dignity?

2.     Are liberal theorists concerned about the wiser implications of their home and in the rest of the world

 He is concerned that we need to hold all societies up to the same standards for human rights. Talk like Okin has to be made from the frame of reference of the minority culture (standpoint epistemology)

 Okin is critical of multiculturalism but uniculturlaism has its own problems.  We should work from within minority cultures to transform them.







Copyright 2001 Dr. Ellen Miller. All rights reserved. Document last modified