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Multiculturalism and Women’s Agency

A couple of days ago, at a roundtable, the discussion of Female Genital Cutting came up, and I remembered that I’ve written this piece about women and agency some time ago, but I didn’t publish it in the blog. I hope that you find it interesting.


If a woman says she is happy with the practices of her culture, whatever these might be, we should not immediately assume that she is not, neither should we assume that she lacks the capacity to assess her condition.

The discourse of ‘oppressive practices’ is shaped around matters of veiling, female genital cutting and forced marriages and are either considered culturally-specific and hence a product of multiculturalism, or cross-cultural and therefore as something that ‘we’ should deal with collectively, which often means imposing external limits on minority cultures.

My overall argument in this essay will be that we cannot formulate a cross-cultural list of ‘oppressive practices’ that ought to be banned. What matters, is not whether the western middle-class white feminists approve of the practices of minority cultures but rather whether the members of these cultures, within the social context and historical contingency that is their culture, have the necessary agency to decide for themselves.

In the following parts, I will firstly assess the problematic understanding of culture as something static and homogenous. I will propose that in order to engage in intercultural discussion, liberal feminism needs to abandon its superior attitude of being “a salvage operation if not salvation itself”.1 Secondly, I will argue that western commentators need to acknowledge that everyone is affected by cultural norms and everyone is a cultural agent. Therefore, agency should not be considered as something that one has or has not, but as something that can be empowered.2

Culture as something static

The discussion of the tension between feminism and multiculturalism has been formulated around Susan Okin’s essay Is multiculturalism bad of women?.3 Minority cultures, Okin argues, are hierarchal and oppress women, and as such should not be granted group rights. For Okin, preferential treatment to minority cultures means empowerment of the male elites who are undemocratically in control of these cultures. Multicultural theorists, Okin continues, ignore the private sphere of intellectual and moral development that is the family, and hence fail to take into consideration women and children, who as minorities within minorities are oppressed and are left without the necessary abilities to acknowledge their choices. On the other side, multiculturalists like Will Kymlicka, argue that culture is a “context of choice” and as such should be maintained with the assistance of the liberal state, which according to Kymlicka, is ethnoculturally biased in favour of the dominant societal culture.4

Okin’s “liberal feminist”5 and Kymlicka’s liberal multiculturalist theories are characteristic of the misrepresentation of culture that often dominates the discourse of multiculturalism. Both Okin and Kymlicka produce a very vague account of what a culture is. Kymlicka for example, produces a rather static account of culture as a structure that must be maintained. Although Okin criticises Kymlicka’s homogenous account, her understanding is not very different, since she considers culture not as a shared way of living, but rather as a formal association of oppression that is by definition hierarchal. Moreover, Okin consistently ignores the complexities of cultural association, since she disregards the varying degrees of consent and agency that members (either men or women) of different cultures have.

Therefore, even if a specific cultural practice seems ‘oppressive’ to outsiders like me or the feminists in question, it is rarely justified to intervene, other of course than in situations where the individual is not in position to exercise any agency, like the case of little children. For all other cases, any ‘solution’ to what we may perceive as a ‘problem’ must come from within and not from outside the culture. In the next section, I will address ways by which individuals exercise their agency within cultures that are often perceived as ‘oppressive’, in order to suggest that we should examine each case in relation to its context and not by relating it with our (western liberal) experiences.

Women and Agency

This essay discusses whether oppressive practices of ‘cultural groups’ should worry us. Such references to ‘culture’ and ‘cultural groups’ usually mean ‘minority cultural groups’. Majority cultural groups are immune to criticism, because their values underpin the society and are promoted by the state, and as such are inscribed into our conception of the norm.

Therefore, in order to assess the autonomy of people within minority cultures we need firstly, to acknowledge our cultural bias and secondly, to assess each case individually and in relation to the norms of the culture in question. For example, Saba Mahmood, gives the example of her encounter with Nadia, a local educated woman in the Egyptiam mosque’s women movement. Mahmood, was shocked when Nadia advised another woman named Sana, to consider an offer to marry a man who is already married to another woman. Mahmood, documents her discussion with Nadia, who explains that within her culture, unlike the western tradition, an unmarried woman is the equivalent to a (socially) disabled person. The discussion of Mahmood with Nasia, shows that it is wrong to assume that Sana is merely a passive recipient of an oppressive culture without firstly examining her ability to acknowledge her options. Therefore, we should not assume that Sana lacks agency merely because she refuses to live socially isolated. This example demonstrates that agency must not be defined in terms of actions against the established norms but rather as the “capacity to realise one’s own interests against the weight of custom, tradition, transcendental will or other obstacles”.6

Moreover, what the feminists in question consider as oppressive is not necessarily shared by all feminists. For example, the African American feminists in the seventies, whilst their western female counterparts fought against the nuclear family, they fought for their right to create a strong family, since they were deprived from it due to years of genocide and ethnic conflict.7

Adding to the discussion of autonomous choice, Diana Meyers examines the practice of Female Genital Cutting in order to demonstrate that we cannot “conclude that women who opt for compliance with FGC norms never do so autonomously”.8 She argues that FGC is a cross-cultural phenomenon, which is practiced for different reasons in many different ways and settings. Therefore, according to Meyers, we cannot a priori associate FGC with lack of agency since it would require an a-contextual analysis that “deindividualise[s] autonomy”.9 This is what has been described as the “continuum approach”.10 A similar yet different approach identified as the “analogue approach” suggests that before passing judgement, one should understand the position of women within their cultural context, like a world-traveller who explores foreign cultures and tries to get into the shoes of the persons that are living within these cultures.11 On the other hand, Pedwell argues that we should not even try to relate these different experiences, nor should we put them on a linear historical progression. Instead she argues, we should focus on the “complex historical articulations of race, gender, sexuality, nation and culture” that subordinate women.12

The arguments of Meyers and Gunning and the criticism of Padwell are different ways to show that we should not assume that our judgement of the ‘others’ is correct since the practices that we consider ‘oppressive’, when examined outside their context, they may lead us to the wrong conclusions. Moreover, Davis alerts us to the fact that the practices we perceive as foreign and illiberal, like FGC, were practiced in 19th century Britain to ‘cure’ women from masturbation and might not be as foreign as we might think.13 Therefore, we should not directly assume that women lack agency just because we believe that a practice is oppressive. We should relate the practice to the wider context and even then, we should not rush to implement policies that limit women’s autonomy. As I have argued before, every change must come from within the culture and not from outside.

Switri Saharso, also arguing against intrusive policies, discusses the case of sex-selective abortion in the Netherlands and argues that a woman should not be assumed as ‘without agency’ and be prohibited to abort her child.14 As Anne Phillips suggests, when “a woman requests an abortion, she is responding in some way to social constraints”.15A woman in a western culture might abort her child to avoid the poverty that is produced by the inequalities of capitalism, in the same way that a woman of a minority culture might abort her child to avoid the poverty that will result from the inequalities of her culture.

In the next and final section, I will argue that the measures taken by the liberal governments against these ‘oppressive practices’, fail to deal with the issue because they enforce the opinion of the majority culture.

Non-intrusive actions

Culture should not be perceived as something that restricts one’s autonomy. Although Bikhu Parekh is right to argue that in some cases, culture might mute the voice of some of its members, yet one should not conclude that cultural membership leads by definition to restricted autonomy.17

The liberal states’ response to issues of multiculturalism has been based on this generalisation that wants culture to be synonymous with oppression. Unable to deal with challenging issues like the case of veiling, female genital cutting and forced marriages, western governments, as Anne Phillips explains, have imposed blanket bans and more general restrictions.18 In France for example, covering one’s head with a veil has been generally banned, since some women might be coerced into wearing it. Moreover, in Europe, the problem of forced marriage has been associated with overseas marriage based on the assumption that the groom will come from the bride’s-to-be country of origin. In their attempt to respond to this problem, the European governments have either “introduced a higher age minimum for marriages involving overseas partners”, or have introduced higher age minimum for all marriages in general.19

This is the wrong way to go. Multiculturalism should not be considered the enemy of feminism. The policies of the liberal state do not need to be intrusive. Instead, they should recognise the agency of the members of each culture and try to empower them. Azizah Al-Hibri for example describes the case of Muslim feminists who reinterpret the traditional texts of their religion.20 Therefore, culture should not be attacked as something that it is oppressive since ‘culture’ is nothing more than the people who live within it. In the same way, religion, should not be ridiculed since it is not by definition hierarchal as Okin argues. Instead, as its meaning depends upon the interpretations of active people, the goal should be to empower the people that are considered as opressed. Therefore, the feminists in question, as Tamir suggests, need to petition for the empowerment of women-members of the cultures whose practices they consider oppressive, instead of asking for more direct action.21


Since we cannot separate ourselves from our cultural convictions, we should be extremely cautious when passing judgement on practices of other cultures. We must be alert in order to avoid the fallacy of relating a totally different practice with others that we are familiar with. We should also avoid the assessment of any practice in isolation to its context and to the norms that underpin it. At the same time, we should never assume that women who are members of cultures that we consider oppressive are by definition without agency, since agency is not something absolute, but rather something that is measured in varying degrees amongst different contexts.

Any reply to ‘oppressive’ practices, should involve, and have at its centre, the people that are indeed oppressed. The policies of the liberal state should not be intrusive. So far, the western replies to the ‘challenges of multiculturalism’ consist of rather awkward policies that treat cultures holistically and disregard the agency of the people within them.

The feminist reply should be to lobby for the empowerment of women within these cultures, either through exit mechanisms (e.g. the case of UK with women who are forced into marriage) or more importantly through internal empowerment. At the same time, feminists, as supporters of the rights of women, have a duty to refuse any limitations on the autonomy of women by the so-called ‘multicultural policies’, since they are often based on the assumption that cultural membership is by its nature oppressive.

Women should be regarded as free, equal and autonomous individuals who have the right to live their life as they see fit, irrespective of whether we find it morally acceptable or not. Therefore, feminists, should try to ensure that both cultural structures and states treat women as such and should not support policies which dictate that the best life is the one based on the western traditions and ways.


1Homi Bhabha, ‘Liberalism’s Sacred Cow’, In Susan Moller Okin, Is multiculturalism bad for women? (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), p. 83.

2Bonnie Honig, ‘My Culture Made Me Do It’, In Susan Moller Okin, Is multiculturalism bad for women? (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), pp. 39-40.

3Susan Moller Okin, ‘Is multiculturalism bad for women?’, Boston Review, (1997), Available from; The essay initiated a series of discussions which are documented in Okin’s book Is multiculturalism bad for women? (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).

4Will Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship: A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).

5Ayelet Shachar distinguishes the feminist engagement to multiculturalism as Liberal Feminism, Post-colonial feminism and Multicultural Feminism in her essay ‘Feminism and multiculturalism: mapping the terrain’, in Anthony Simon Laden and David Owen (eds) Multiculturalism and Political Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 115-147.

6Saba Mahmood, ‘Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent: Some Reflections on the Egyptian Islamic Revival’, Cultural Anthropology, 16:2 (2001), pp. 202-236, quote p. 206.

7Ibid., 208.

8Diana Tietjens Meyers, ‘Feminism and Women’s Autonomy: The Challenge of Female Genital Cutting’, Metaphilosophy, 31:5 (2000), pp. 469-491.

9Ibid., 480.

10Carolyn Pedwell, ‘Theorising “African” female genital cutting and “Western” body modifications: a critique of the continuum and analogue approaches’, Feminist Review, 86 (2007), pp. 45-66.

11Isabelle R. Gunning’s world-traveller model in ‘Arrogant perception, world-travelling and multicultural feminism: the case of female genital surgeries’, Columbia Human Rights Law Review, pp. 189-248.

12Pedwell, op. cit., 65’

13Kathy Davis, ‘Responses to W. Njambi’s “Dualisms and female bodies in representations of African female circumcision: a feminist critique”: Between moral outrage and cultural relativism’, Feminist Theory, 5:3 (2004), pp. 305-311.

14Sawitri Saharso, ‘Feminist Ethics, Autonomy and the Politics of Multiculturalism’, Feminist Theory, 4:2 (2003), pp. 199-215.

15Anne Phillips, Gender and Culture (London: Polity Press, 2009), ch. 7, esp. pp. 117-118.

16Clare Chambers, ‘Autonomy and equality in cultural perspective: Response to Sawitri Saharso’, Feminist Theory, 5:3 (2004), pp. 329-332.

17Bhikhu Parekh, Rethinking Multiculturalism: Cultural Diversity and Political Theory (London: Palgrave Press, 2000).

18Anne Phillips, Multiculturalism without Culture (Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2007).

19Ibid., 119-123, quote 121.

20Azizah Al-Hibri, ‘Is Western Patriarchal Feminism Good for Third World / Minority Women?’, In Susan Moller Okin, Is multiculturalism bad for women? (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), pp. 41-46.

21Yael Tamir, ‘Siding with the Underdogs’, In Susan Moller Okin, Is multiculturalism bad for women? (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), pp. 47-52.

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