Culture is not a rigid entity that is unforgiving of any factor that seems alien to it. In today’s world, almost every state is multicultural. It may not house many nationalities or ethnicities, but even within its ostensibly unanimous population, stark differences exist, in the form of social class and background.
To posit feminism and multiculturalism as oppositional is to assume that minority women are victims of their cultures. Pitting feminism against multiculturalism not only obscures the influences that shape cultural practices but assumes that the subjugation of women exists only in sub-cultures and not within the Western ideal. The question that whether or not and to what extent are feminism and multiculturalism compatible seems inherently flawed not because they are two polar opposites trying to reconcile with one another; on the contrary, they can be amalgamated very neatly into an overlapping box, but the issue exists with the stance itself — the attempt at trying to work out compatibility between two entities.
Culture is constantly negotiated and very often contradictory and feminism at its core fights for the equality of opportunity for both genders. If the question of abortion is raised, multicultural communities would be divided on the issue as feminism could place the decision-making power in the woman’s hand, while human rights activists fight for the rights of an unborn child. At the same time, Islamic feminists could make a case against abortion based on the development of the fetus and scientific researchers could make the case for embryonic stem cell research.
There is a dire need to address and challenge the multiple oppressions across the Western and Third World communities. As Okin points out, unless women are fully represented in negotiations about group rights, their interests may be harmed rather than promoted by the granting of such rights. For example, it is only when Chinese women are included in a dialogue over foot binding can the world discover whether or not the pain of tied feet is worth suffering for in order to achieve beautiful feet.
The very question of “compatibility” is a structural problem: a problem which is seen as Third World nations try to incorporate aspects of feminism and fail behind facades of apparent religiosity, which conceal patriarchal values. This structural problem needs to be taken into account and uprooted because compatibility is not a theoretical dilemma. There is nothing intrinsic in multiculturalism that makes it inherently un-feministic and vice versa. It must be borne in mind that we cannot simply bring together interests, intentions, motivations into a single coherent narrative and thereby ignore its intricately woven fabric of overlapping complexity.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 3rd, 2016.
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