Introduction: Women’s Rights in the XXI Century. An Overview
Gender equality has always been an issue within any society. Whether the problem can be openly discussed as it is in the present-day society, or silenced, as it was before the feminist movement was born, it persists and managed to invade every single aspect of human life. After the feminist movement was started, though, the issue started to subside slowly. However, just when the problem of gender equality seemed to have been handled in Europe and The USA, another threat of discrimination towards women appeared with the advent of the globalization process1 and the introduction of multicultural principles into everyday life.
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Feminism, multiculturalism and gender profiling in the XXI century
The aforementioned statement regarding the feminist movement finally attaining tangible results in the second half of the XX century, though being technically correct, needs further commentary. The movement was started before the XX century and had several crucial effects on the image of a woman in society. However, misunderstandings regarding feminism begin at the point of defining the phenomenon. Despite the popular misconception, feminism has nothing to do with misandry and is traditionally defined as the movement aimed at providing women with human rights2.
Multiculturalism, in its turn, is often defined as meeting people’s “demands for flexibility and respect for diversity”3. As Okin stresses, there is “a deep and growing tension between feminism and multiculturalists’ concern for protecting cultural diversity”4. The given tension can be explained by the fact that in some cultures, gender profiling is considered a cultural norm. Following the principles of tolerance blindly and accepting gender profiling behavioral norms of foreign cultures to enhance the process of globalization and establishing a connection between the representatives of various cultures5 jeopardizes the progress that the feminist movement has made so far.
Susan Moller Okin and her point of view
As it has been stressed above, Okin considers multiculturalism an immediate threat to the feminist movement and women’s status in modern European and American society. One of the most peculiar things about how Okin deals with the subject matter is that she does not shy away from the phenomena that are considered quite controversial, such as polygamy and violence towards women, including the ones related to the family. According to Okin, the introduction of pure multiculturalism with no boundaries imposed on the manifestations of various cultural principles, an outburst of discrimination towards women will be unleashed, and feminism with all its accomplishments will be thrown at least several decades back in time6.
Feminists consider multiculturalism a phenomenon that is negative for the women’s rights movement, since multiculturalism, though doubtlessly having positive effects on the economic and political situation within the globalized environment, hurts feminists’ endeavors. Due to a popular misconception, acceptance of gender profiling in other nationalities is confused for cultural tolerance, the latter being the bulk of the globalized environment7.
Therefore, to enter the globalized world and be able to establish a partnership with other states, the countries with patriarchal structure of society must learn to compromise and provide women with their irrefutable rights, especially seeing how most women belonging to such cultures realize the absurdity of gender discrimination: “Girls and women are also subjected by men to a great deal of (illegal) violence, including sexual violence8”
Shedding Some Light on the Situation: Key Theoretical Concepts
Before proceeding with the analysis of the situation, one will have to take a closer look at some of the important terms that occur frequently in the course of the discussion. Once knowing the details of the problem and learning to operate the basic terminology, one will be able to suggest a reasonable solution for the issue.
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Also, it is necessary to consider the problem from the perspective of a particular theory9. While the choice of the theoretical foil for the research to be based on might seem obvious and the feminist theory can be viewed as a perfect way to approach the problem, it is worth keeping in mind that there are several feminist theories and that the choice of the proper one depends on the scope of the paper.
The many faces of feminism: considering the issue from a social perspective
When it comes to the analysis of the situation described by Okin from the perspective of feminism, one must mention that several feminist theories allow viewing the problem from different angles. Depending on the type of problem that needs to be dealt with, a corresponding feminist theory should be chosen. Based on the key characteristics of the issue in question, one may assume that the social feminism theory is the most reasonable method of analyzing the problem since the problem of multiculturalism affecting the achievements of feminists negatively can be defined as a clash of social standards and cultural principles10.
Multiculturalism and globalization: the inevitable comes
Tracking down the roots of tolerance that has reached absurd proportions with the recent acceptance of gender discrimination, one must draw parallels between multiculturalism and the process of globalization, which, according to what Okin says, has triggered the former. As Okin explains, with the introduction of cultural tolerance, the necessity to respect and accept the customs and traditions of the nation in question arises. As a result, in the international arena, the rejection of women’s rights for the sake of maintaining a partnership with the representatives of other cultures can be observed11. Thus, multiculturalism, Okin explains, leads to the emergence of chauvinistic and often discriminatory ideas.
In its turn, the need to introduce multiculturalism standpoint into the foreign policy of most of the states has appeared due to the emergence of globalization. While the given process has an admittedly positive effect on the economy and political life of most states, it contributes to diminishing the role of women in society. To minimize the possibility of conflict between the European, American and Asian states, the concept of multiculturalism and cultural tolerance, therefore, has been introduced, with no regard for what the given step does to women and their social roles whatsoever.
Tolerance and how far it stretches: learning to accept
According to Okin, following tolerance principles blindly is what affects the feminist movement most negatively, putting women in a truly deplorable position. On the one hand, one might think that Okin has, indeed, come across a cultural paradox; in other words, tolerance can’t exist in the environment where the appreciation of the cultural traditions of a particular nation leads to the infringement of rights of specific demographics, which are women in the given case.
On the other hand, Okin provides a very interesting definition of tolerance, therefore, putting every single piece of the puzzle in its place. As Gould explains, “It is the human rights themselves that can set appropriate limits to the tolerance of diverse cultural practices, including those oppressive to women.”12 Therefore, when taking the concept of tolerance apart and considering its constituents, one must admit that it does not allow for the violation of women’s human rights for the sake of satisfying the cultural demands of a certain ethnic group.
Multiculturalism and Acceptance: Where the Problem Stems from
Although Okin’s suspicions regarding the effects of multiculturalism on the status of a woman in the XXI century society are quite understandable, it is still worth considering the problem from a broader perspective. As impressive and meaningful as Okin’s research is, it still needs to be supported by other pieces of evidence concerning the threat that multiculturalism poses to women and their social status, not to mention their rights and freedoms.
When cultural tolerance is pushed too far: negative outcomes
The key question regarding feminism and multiculturalism is whether the problem exists. While it is obvious that in some cultures, gender profiling is a cultural norm, considering multiculturalism the phenomenon that is bound to finally set the chain reaction of gender discrimination all over the world might seem a bit of a stretch13. However, after a more accurate consideration of the effects that multiculturalism can lead to, one will have to recognize the acceptance of cultural norms of other states along with other effects of globalization.
Limits of ethics: recognizing the problem
One of the most frequently occurring problems regarding proving the point of the feminist movement, especially about such issues as the clash of cultures and their interpretation of women’s status in the society, the factual absence of feminism jurisprudence schools makes the problem even more complicated14. As Charlesworth explains,
There is no single school of feminist jurisprudence. Most feminists would agree that a diversity of voices is not only valuable, but essential and that the search for, or belief in, one view, one voice is unlikely to capture the reality of women’s experience of gender inequality15
Therefore, the problem concerns not only the effects that multiculturalism has on women’s freedoms and rights but also the fact that the feminist movement is barely represented in the jurisdiction. There are little to no terms or definitions that are somewhat linked to feminism or feminist issues in the present-day jurisprudence. Hence, the key problem is that multiculturalism combined with tolerance may have been introduced far too early for modern society to accept them without hurting anyone’s rights.
Drawing the line between cultural specifics and intolerance
As it has been stressed above, the key argument that the proponents of the so-called “culture tolerance” – or, for the lack of a better word, female rights infringement – make is that a specific status of women in other countries is a part of a cultural tradition that must be treated with due respect and followed when communicating with the representatives of such cultures. True, the idea of cultural tolerance presupposes that certain compromises must be made when creating a connection with the members of a specific society with its own unique culture; otherwise, constant confrontations are guaranteed. However, these compromises must not infringe on the rights of the representatives of the other nationality, either, whereas the changes that the patriarchal states suggest do.
Where Multiculturalism Acceptance May Lead: A Look into the Future
While the deplorable effect of multiculturalism tolerance on the image of women all over the world, in Asian, European and American states alike, has been proven, there may still be a very slim argument that gender issues might be finally resolved as soon as the globalization process is finally over and there is time to reconsider the effects that cultural tolerance has led to, it will be possible to make some compromises. The fact that there are no actual laws that take the principles of feminist theories into account makes the problem all the more complicated:
International law has thus far largely resisted feminist analysis. The concerns of public international law do not, at first sight, have any particular impact on women: issues of sovereignty, territory, use of force and state responsibility, for example, appear gender-free in their application to the abstract entities of states16
With no legal deprecations to restrict the choices of the leaders of European states and the USA, the changes regarding women’s social status are highly probable17. Hence, it is necessary to make sure that women’s rights are secured and that the necessary preventive measures should be applied to avoid the possibility of gender profiling.
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At the given point it is reasonable to add, though, that the idea of reinforcing women’s rights and freedoms has sparked an argument regarding the legitimacy of the given measure. According to some of the proponents of multiculturalism, by putting a stronger emphasis on women’s rights and freedoms and demanding complete equality, one may overlook the obvious differences between women and men: “Many have concluded that approximations to political and legal justice in various domains of life evidently cannot close the radical gap between men’s and women’s paths and prospects”18.
Cheerless prospects: gender segregation and feminism termination
Even though the problem of gender segregation as a plausible result of multiculturalism and cultural tolerance alone is extremely dissatisfying, there is more trouble to await from the implementation of multiculturalism principles in European and American states. According to what some of the researchers say, the advent of multiculturalism and the following chauvinist tendencies in politics and culture may herald the end of feminism as it is.
A huge step backward in the evolution of the social relationship
Even considering the process of multiculturalism from any other perspective than the feminist one, the discussion results will finally lead one to the conclusion that social roles, as well as social relationships, will regress once a compromise between the feminist principles of Europe and the USA and the patriarchal and chauvinist concepts of social roles accepted in Asia is made. By defying women their right to have equal opportunities and freedoms as men do, the leaders of modern and progressive states will set the time back, throwing entire countries back in time into the era when democracy was not yet the basic principle of communication between people.
As a result, feminist movements will be set in motion once again, and the history will be doomed to repeating itself. In the best-case scenario, a huge amount of time will be spent on proving what was proved years ago; in the worst-case scenario, the principles of inequality will dominate the entire world for another couple of decades.
The effects on family hierarchy and parent-child relationships
With the supposed changes in the social role of women that the implementation of multiculturalism and tolerance principles taking place, an impressive regress in the relationships within a family will also be observed. Although one might think that relating family issues and women’s role in families to the negative effects of multiculturalism would be quite a stretch. Indeed, the relation between such a closed mini-community as a family, which supposedly exists according to its unique principles, and the entire society is not evident. Comparing the two may be viewed as quite a stretch; however, recent researches show that a family is inseparable from the social environment in which it emerged:
The family is closely connected with other structures and institutions in society. Rather than being a separate sphere, it cannot be understood in isolation from outside factors. As a result, “the family” can be experienced differently by people in different social classes and of different races, and by women and men.
Consequently, it can be assumed that women’s role in the family will also be downplayed to a considerable extent. The given changes are bound to hurt the upbringing of children, sometimes positive, like the fact that the contact with the mother will be maintained constantly, yet mostly negative, with a stereotypical concept of a woman as solely a housewife and without the idea of a successful businesswoman. The stereotype of a housewife, therefore, will block young girls’ way to their career growth, as well as imprint a chauvinist behavioral pattern onto the boys’ idea of relationships between a woman and a man.
When Multiculturalism Has a Reciprocal Effect: the Introducing Patriarchal States to Gender Equality
It would be wrong, however, to assume that multiculturalism as a solely negative effect on the process of female empowerment and feminism in general. When it comes to discussing the influence that multiculturalism has on the female liberation movement, one must admit that the effects of culture fusion have, in fact, a reciprocal effect, i.e., they also may change how women are treated in other cultures.
Indeed, while multiculturalism contributes to shaping the current European and American policies towards gender equality and tends to convince men all over the world that gender equality can be compromised for the sake of keeping international relationships intact, it can also bend the principle of male superiority accepted in the patriarchal states19. As strong as traditions are in the latter, many people underestimate the effects of propaganda – when done in the right way, it changes the cultural landscape of a state considerably.
The power of cultural fusion: what feminists can do
While influencing the current principles of the states that support gender profiling hardly seems an option for the feminist movement activists it still seems possible to use feminist propaganda to change the lives of women in Muslim states, as well as in other states whose culture infringes women’s rights.
One might argue that planting feminist ideas into the minds of the people who might not be ready for the concept of gender equality yet is disruptive to the cultural identity of the latter. However, one must also admit that when the basis for a state’s cultural identity hinges on repressing a certain part of the population, whether with the help of gender-based discrimination or through any other kind of intolerance, it can hardly be seen as a valuable one.
The so-called “capabilities approach” suggested by Nussbaum, which “makes it clear that securing a right to someone requires more than the absence of negative state action”20, is among the best and the least painstaking methods of restoring the principles of liberty in the gender relations within the global environment. As Nussbaum explains,
A further advantage of the capabilities approach is that, by focusing from the start on what people can do and to be, it is well placed to the foreground and address inequalities that women suffer inside the family: inequalities in resources and opportunities, educational deprivations, the failure of work to be recognized as work, insults to bodily integrity21
Hence, the key strength of the capability approach concerns its method of reasoning; namely, it appeals to the common sense of the opponents, taking the issue of women’s rights to the concept of universal human rights. Therefore, technically, it would be wrong to assume that multiculturalism alone leads to the decay of the feminist movement – these are the cultural tolerance and lack of initiative that contribute to accepting the despicable concepts of gender inequality. However, by using multiculturalism as a tool that can shape cultural principles of every single state, one can reach a compromise with the countries whose traditions are widely considered patriarchal and deny the principles of gender equality.
Possible issues and their prevention
It would be rather naïve to assume that the representatives of the patriarchal states with quite a chauvinist vision of women’s role in contemporary society will be willing to accept the principles of feminism and recognize women’s rights and freedoms soon after the principles of tolerance are promoted among the citizens of such states.
On the opposite, a long and quite exhaustive fight for women’s rights is expected to take place once the U.S. and the European country’s leaders make it clear to the representatives of the Asian states that liberal principles of treating women are going to be followed in the course of international communication22. The given phenomenon is rather natural, yet it may pose a tangible threat to the rights and freedoms of women once international communication with the states in question is established23.
Assuming that the process of embedding cultural principles of the European and American states into the mindset and cultural environment of the Asian states will meet no resistance whatsoever – on the contrary, people are most likely to be extremely upset by an attempt to change how their society works. Therefore, a very elaborate plan on changing how patriarchal states view the problem must be provided.
Current Tendencies in Global Politics: Silencing of Women
Weirdly enough, the process of changing the perspective of patriarchal states is not fast and will most likely take ions to change the current state of affairs and grant women in Muslim countries at least basic human rights. However, the effects that multiculturalism and acceptance spread very quickly and change the present-day landscape of gender statuses and gender relationships drastically.
Even nowadays, with the process of globalization has only recently started to affect the economical issues on the global scale, the results of accepting such cultural specifics of some of the Muslim states as gender discrimination have already taken their toll on the state of women in major states, the status of women in the business world in particular. Glass ceiling is one of the most obvious examples of notorious changes that multiculturalism has cost some of the European states.
Breaking through the glass ceiling: gender profiling all over the world
Sadly, one of the key factors that affect the tendencies of succumbing to the principles of the patriarchal cultures, gender profiling in nearly all aspects of social and family life is one of the sad but facts about the present-day society. No matter how hard accepting the fact of gender discrimination in Europe and the USA is, it still must be recognized as a tangible problem that may lead to the acceptance of gender profiling as a cultural norm as demanded by the patriarchal states.
Silencing as one of the most popular chauvinist strategies
Unfortunately, even nowadays, the negative effects of multiculturalism tolerance on women’s acceptance as people with equal opportunities are obvious. According to the existing evidence, the problem of the glass ceiling has become a major issue once again, men blocking women’s way of improving their career options24. At some point, it may even seem that the feminist movement is being oppressed deliberately, seeing how it conflicts with the multiculturalist acceptance that the present-day economic globalization process hinges on:
Religious fundamentalists, whether in the United States or the Islamic and Hindu worlds, now constitute enormous political forces ranged against women’s enjoyment of their human rights, especially their reproductive rights. Not only do they persecute and make outcasts of proponents of toleration, but they also threaten the livelihoods and even the security of anyone courageous enough to stand up for women’s self-determination25
While Ashworth admittedly touches upon a very sensitive issue of religion, she still that the point claiming that women’s rights are not to be sacrificed to the progress of the XXI century economic relationships between states.
Conclusion: Multiculturalism Has the Right to Exist, Yet It Must not Hinder Feminism Movement
Multiculturalism as an obstacle on the way of the feminist movement
As the results of the research conducted in the given paper show, there are ways to improve the current state of affairs; to be more exact, multiculturalism is only a tool and a rather double-sided one at that. Thus, it seems possible to use multiculturalism as a means to eradicate chauvinist ideas in the communication between the patriarchal and liberal states at the very least. In other words, it is necessary to make it clear to the states in question that their need to oppress women is not their irrefutable right, but serious misconduct that must not be accepted in civilized stats.
Needless to say, such a strong statement is extremely hard to make, especially given the fact that some patriarchal states are viewed as very promising partners; moreover, some of these states are the most profitable financial partners that the American and European state leaders can ever think of, which makes the process of debating the issue of female liberties rather complicated. In other words, in the fight for the rights of women in the era of globalism, several people will have to choose between economic benefits and gender equality. While choosing the latter over the former will doubtlessly prove that a state has very strong moral and ethical standpoints, the choice of the former seems the most logical on in the light of the difficulties that globalism poses to international economic relationships.
Learning to compromise: how to shape current tolerance principles
Despite the obvious downsides of tolerance, which numerous works on gender relationships in the XXI century point at, there can be no possible doubt that the given principle must not be eliminated from the globalization and multiculturalism strategies, seeing how tolerance allows for creating bonds between the representatives of different cultures and can be used as a tool for preventing and even eliminating prejudices, including racial, ethnic and national ones.
At this point, Nussbaum’s concept of the capabilities approach should be brought up. By introducing a principle of social relationships in which gender is not going to play even a minor role in determining the behavioral patterns of a person involved in the communication process, one can restore the principles of equality without sacrificing the ones of cultural tolerance.
Recommendations: introducing principles for communication between cultures
There can be no doubt that at least one aspect of multiculturalism, i.e., the fact that tolerance as its key principle is often used to curtain the despicable and, quite honestly, barbaric traditions of other cultures, affect the feminist movement in the most deplorable way. A concept that was provided as the basis for multiculturalism with admittedly good intentions, tolerance seems to have stretched too far, at certain points merging with global permissiveness. It is crucial, therefore, to make democratic states realize that tolerance must not equal acceptance and that the specifics of a particular culture must not be projected onto another one.
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Ashworth, Georgina., “The silencing of women”, in Tim Dunne & Nicholas J. Wheeler (Eds), Human Rights in Global Politics, (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999).
Boucher, David., The Limits of Ethics in International Relations. Natural Law, Natural Rights and Human Rights in Transition (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2009).
Charlesworth, Hillary., Chinkin, Christine., & Wright, Shelley, ‘Feminist approaches to international law,’ The American Journal of International Law, 85:4 (1991), pp. 613–645.
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Gould, Carol., ‘Conceptualising Women’s Human Rights’ in Brooks, Thom (ed.), The Global Justice Reader, (New York, NY: Blackwell, 2008), pp. 650-62.
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Mookherjee, Monica., “Multiculturalism” in Catrina McKinnon (ed.), Issues in Political Theory, Oxford University Press (Oxford, UK: OUP, 2008), pp. 218–240.
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Nayar, Anita., ‘Women’s rights in a changing world’, Development, 49:1, 2006, pp. 46-48.
Nussbaum, Martha., ‘Capabilities as Fundamental Entitlements: Sen and Social Justice’ in Brooks, Thom, (ed.), The Global Justice Reader (New York, NY: Blackwell, 2008).
O’Neill, Onora., “Justice, Gender and international boundaries”, in Onora O’Neill, Bounds of Justice (Cambridge, UK: CUP, 2000).
Okin, Susan Moller., ‘Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?’, in Thom Brooks, (ed.), The Global Justice Reader (New York, NY: Blackwell, 2008).
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- Peterson & Runyan, Global Gender Issues, p.11.
- Gould, ‘Conceptualising Women’s Human Rights,’ p.650.
- Moller Okin, ‘Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?’ p.596.
- Moller Okin, ‘Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?’, p.587.
- Nayar, ‘Women’s rights in a changing world’, p.48.
- Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development, p.29.
- Shachar, ‘Feminism and multiculturalism: mapping the terrain’, p.82.
- Moller Okin, ‘Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?’, p.602.
- Pateman, The Disorder of Women: Democracy, Feminism and Political Theory, p.16.
- Winkler, ‘Feminist sociological theory,’ p.47.
- Mookherjee, Women’s Rights as Multicultural Claims. Reconfiguring Gender and Diversity in Political Philosophy, p.219.
- Gould, ‘Conceptualising Women’s Human Rights’, p.657.
- Arnaud and King (eds), Women’s Rights and the Rights of Man, p.33.
- Boucher, The Limits of Ethics in International Relations. Natural Law, Natural Rights and Human Rights in Transition, p.69-101.
- Charlesworth, Chinkin & Wright, ‘Feminist approaches to international law’, p.613.
- Charlesworth, Chinkin & Wright, ‘Feminist Approaches to International Law’, p.614.
- O’Neill, ‘Justice, Gender and International Boundaries’, p.147.
- O’Neill, ‘Justice, Gender and International Boundaries’, p.148.
- Pettman, Worlding Women: A Feminist International Politics, p.97.
- Nussbaum, ‘Capabilities as Fundamental Entitlements: Sen and Social Justice’, p.601.
- Laborde, Critical Republicanism. The Hijab Controversy and Political Philosophy, p.42.
- Mookherjee, Monica, ‘Multiculturalism’, p.219.
- Ashworth, ‘The silencing of women’, p.261.
- Ashworth, ‘The Silencing of Women’, p.273.