Equal Cultures or Equality for Women? Why Feminism and Multiculturalism Don't Mix

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Equal Cultures or Equality for Women? Why Feminism and Multiculturalism Don't Mix

June 12, 1992 13 min read Download Report
Patrick J.
Distinguished Fellow
(Archived document, may contain errors)

Equal Cultures or Equality. for Women? .-W-hyFeminism.-and.-M-u-It-icultu-ralism Don't Mix

By Cathy Young Anyone who wants to be considered an enlightened, progressive, sensitive person these days, whether in the academic en1vironment or in publishing or in the libeAa media, has to believe a number of. things, sometimes known as "politically co r rect." One of these beliefs is that women are equal to men-and-should be-treated as -equals, -and that.a society which denies equal rights to women is oppressive. Another belief is that one must r6spect all cultures, one must not judge non-Western culture s by Western standards, and one certainly must not regard Western culture as better in any way than other cultures. That's considered ethnocentric. For instance, the recent American Association of University Women report which called for -eliminating alleg e d gender bias in high schools contained, among other things, an enthusiastic en- dorsement of the multicultural curriculum program proposed by a panel headed by New York State education commissioner Thomas Sobol. Some proponents of multiculturalism say th a t it means nothing more controversial than learning more about the heritage of different cultures and the different ethnic groups that populate America. But in fact, the academic scene is currently dominated by radical multiculturalists whose agenda is to deny Western culture any central place in our education and to promote the idea that every culture should be judged on its own terms. What I find rather paradoxical, and I find it almost incredible that this has hardly been noticed by anyone, is that thes e two beliefs-feminism and multiculturalism@are basically incompati- ble. If you are concerned about gender bias, how can you overlook the fact that different cultures are not equal in the way they treat women? As Islamic fundamentalists often remind us, e q uality of the sexes is a Western value judgment. Moreover, it is a standard by which most non-Western cultures-even if you allow for a few quasi-matriarchal tribes-come up short. Progressive's Quandary. The attempts to avoid ethnocentric value judgments o f ten lead pro- gressive-minded people into a quandary when it comes to women's issues. About a year ago, The New York Times reviewed anthropologist Kenneth Good's memoir of life with the Yanomamo tribe in Venezuela. It is a tribe that treats women in an in c redibly brutal way. If a fe- male past puberty is not at'tached to a male, if she is unmarried'. or even widowed, or if she has the audacity to run away from her husband, she is considered fair game for anyone. She will be routinely gang-raped and sometim e s mutilated. The critic summarii zed all this and then went on to quote, approvingly, Good's assertion that "violence [was] not a central theme of Yanomamo life." This angered a woman reader, who wrote to the Times Book Review denouncing "the myopia... wh e re violence against women is concerned." But surely there was something else at work. One can hardly imagine such tolerance being extended to violence against women by American men. With a stone-age Amazonian tribe, however, it is safer to be myopic than "ethnocentric," even at the price of some painful piental contortions.

C athy Young is a columnist for the American Spectator and a Contributing Editor of Reason Ntagazine. She spoke at The Heritage Foundation on May 5, 1992. ISSN 0272-1155. 01992 byMe Heritage Foundation.

How do the politically correct get around this contradiction? One way is by out-and-out lies. Last March, I think it was on March 2, The Washington Times published an fascinating story about-a program to--train-federal employees-in-sensi tivity toward-cultural-diversity. This program, paid for, of course, by your tax dollars and mine, m:'cludes seminars by one Edwin J. Nichols about cultural differences between whites and blacks. Most of the things that he says are really out-and-out raci s m. White males are the bane of civilization, whites are cold and acquisitive and logical-apparently being logical is a bad thing-whereas for Africans, African-Americans, His- panics, and Arabs, the highest value lies in interpersonal relationships and bei n g intuitively attuned to the rhythms of the universe. But what I found most interesting is that Mr. Nichols, a retired industrial psychologist-tells-people-in his -seminars -that-women in African societies have a higher status than in Europe,;; societies a nd are more equal to men. He explains that white women became submissive to men because in the cold climates of Europe, they had to depend on men for survival. On the other hand, "African women see themselves as equal to men" be- cause food in Africa was r eadily available to them on trees whenever they wanted it. This would certainly be welcome news to Lydia Ochieng-Obbo, an African attorney for the Central Bank of Uganda whorecently spoke at a conference called "Women at the Crossroads" at the World Affai r s Council of Philadelphia. Tradition@lly, said Ms. Ochieng-Obbo, the woman in Africa always takes sec@nd place to the man. She was always brought up to be a mother and wife and nothing more, but she did not even have the same status and the same protectio n s that European and North American women had as mothers and wives even at the time when their rights outside the home were severely curtailed by law and custom. For instance, ih Uganda, the tradition is that after a man dies, his property goes not to his w ife--or wives, as the case may be -but to his relatives. The widow may be left completely destitute. According to Ms. Ochieng-Obbo, in most African societies the father also has an absolute right to the children. Though women do most of the backbreaking a g ricultural work, they do not own property. Women are not supposed to talk in public. If you try to interview an African cou- ple, the husband usually talks for the wife. Beneflts from European Values. And Ms. Ochieng-Obbo said something that would proba- b ly sound absolutely shoc@ing to the Afrocentrists and to some of the multiculturalists who now largely set the agenda in American education. She said that most improvements that had taken place in the status of Afri@an women, and in African societies in g e neral, had occurred as a result of contacts with European civilization, the introduction of themoney economy and urbanization. Some women had to earn "money, which gave them more power in their families, and some women also got an education, though even t o day parents frequently send the boys to school and keep the girls at home. Education introduced European values and European cultural norms into African society; in Uganda, this mostly meant British values. Moreover, the British.pressured for. change in t h e marriage laws in Uganda, from polygamy to monogamy. Formally the laws were changed. Yet polygamy is'still a common practice, as is child marriage and wife-beating. Another glimpse into the life of African women can be provided by an October 1990 New Yor k Times article about women and AIDS in Africa. It is a horrible story of how the spreW of AIDS among women is exacerbated by legal and cultural norms that give a man the right to "unlimited numbers of partners according to his wishes," as Ugandan social w o rker and lecturer Maxine An-@ krah put it. It describes a society in which a woman who refuses to have sex with her AIDS-infected husband-who, by the way, has three other wives-is seen as rejecting her proper wifely role. One could mention other things, s uch as cliterodectomy and other forms of genital mutilation of girls, which also contributes to the spread of AIDS by causing infections and bleeding during intercourse.

My purpose here is not to attack African culture specifically. There are some Africa n cultures in which women have a higher status than what I just described. There are cultures on other conti- nents-in-which-women are-treatedjust-as-badlyi-and--indeed-diere-.have-been--times in-Eurpipean culture when women were almost as powerless and d e prived of freedom as in the picture out- lined above. Thus, until quite recently in the South of Italy, a young woman who was raped was expected to marry her atialcker in order to salvage the family honor. My point is to demonstrate the fallacy of what pa s ses for diversity education and multicultral- ism in our academic system today. And Edwin Nichols is not just some eccentric. He was paid $12,000 from the Environmental Protection Agency for five seminars on cultural diversity, rac- ism, and sexism. He ha s also lectured since 1989 at the Agriculture Department, the Justice Department, the Treasury Department, and the National Institutes of Health. And there are other people like him who are teaching college students, who are in charge of kids in public sch o ols. Of course, the lies are rarely quite so extreme. Here is what may be a more typical case, from my own experience. About ten years ago, I took an "Introduction to World Civilization" course at a Community College in New Jersey. Our female professor, w h o was very liberal and cer- - tainly a feminist, explained that while the status of women in premodern India might seem low, women often wielded much power in the household and were revered as mothers of sons. I was astounded. After all, we were talking a b out a culture in whfch women had no rights at all outside the home, in which it was common for men to have concubines or visit prostitutes but a woman's adultery was punished by death, and a womah whow'as widowed or abandoned by her husband could never re m arry. Of course, the highest virtue for a woman who was widowed was to immolate herself on her husband's funeral pyre. Double Standard. So I raised my hand and told our professor that I could not believe that she, a liberated woman, would make excuses for such an oppressive patriarchy. "Well," the professor snapped back, "there's no reason for us to be smug. We still have a lot of discrimination against women in this society too." That is a very standard trick of the left. Because Western societies have so m e shortcomings or deficiencies, they am said to have no right to condemn atrocities in other societies, whether patriarchal or communist. As if female infanticide and the burning of widows equalled the unfair denial of a promotion. There is a blatant doub l e standard at work. The West is the only civilization that made an effort to overcome its injustices toward women, yet it is berated for failing to do away with them com- pletely. Meanwhile, Third World cultures are treated as if they should not be expect e d to change, as if they had an absolute right to retain all of their cultural heritage. The Western past can be harshly judged by the standards of modem Western liberalism; the non-Western past or present cannot. Someone who tries to preserve traditional s ex roles in the West is a reactionary bigot. But to try to protect the Yanomamo's ancestral customs from the onslaught of Western ways is a noble effort. Indeed, there is.a great deal of talk about how the Yanomamo's traditional way of life is threatened b y the logging industry and by industrialization in general and how it should be protected, although it seeifis to me that at least from the viewpoint of Yanomamo women, it's an open question whether the preservation of this way of life is a good idea. In e ducation schools, as Rita Kramer shows in her book Ed School Follies, future teachers are indoctrinated in the view that cultures which completely deny freedom and rights io the individ- ual-male or female-and subordinate the individual to the group are n o t oppressive; they merely value the common good and social relationships over individual autonomy, unlike our Western society which encourages selfishness. This is now a politically correct line of reasoning, but only with regard to non-European cultures. When American conservatives try hot even to take away but:to somewhat abridge individual self-expression to accommodate community val-


ues, the same politically correct people denounce these efforts as narrow-minded and repressive. Again, the double standard at work. The radicals in academik even claim that Western society is somehow uniquely hostile to women, because its central values of individualism, rationality, and competition are essentially male values, while most non-European cultures empha s ize the supposedly female values of shar- ing, cooperation, collectivism, and so forth. One answer to this argument is that even if these values really are female-and talk about sexist stereotypes! -their importance in Third World cultures certainly has n o t helped actual women fare any better. But this-issue is. not just -an academic one. The United -States -is home to millions of immigrants from a diverse array of cultures. According to the "PC' gospel that holds increasing sway from history museums to ki n deigartens, these immigrants and their children should be encouraged by all means to preserve their distinct cultural identities and values; assimilation is viewed as a form of psychic violence. Yet in many cases, these values include the extreme subjugat i on of women. What's a progressive to do? This is not just an American problem. At the same Philadelphia conference where Ms. Oc- hieng-Obbo made her very eloquent remarks, another speaker was Anne Summers, an Australian journalist who was the editor-in-ch i ef of the feminist magazine Ms. in the late 1980s. Prior to that she had been a cabinet member in Australia, dealihg with human rights issues, and at the time the Australian government decided to encourage immigrant groups to retain their cultural traditi o ns and values. Bizarre Reasoning. Ms. Summers admitted that it was a wrenching issue for heir because, she said, "there were some customs that I considered barbaric towards women." But apparently being a good multiculturalist was more important. As she pu t it, "You can't pick and choose and say, 'We like this culture but we don't like that culture, and we're not going to find it accept- able.' If you are going to respect cultural traditions and customs you have to apply it equally." She added that there we r e some practices that she wouid have banned if she had her way, "but the decision was made to let such practices continue, and hope that these communities will out- grow them as they get more integrated into the mainstream despite multiculturalism." I sho u ld say, with all dub respect, that I find this line of reasoning rather bizarre. You hope that people will get integrated into the mainstream but at the same time you pursue policies that push them in the opposite direction. Unless maybe they figured out t hat this is exactly how govern ment works. The question for us is: As Americans, are we going to condone polygamy, or the selling of I I nine-year-old girls into marriage? Are we going to condone the slaying of unfaithful wives by I husbands avenging thei r honor if that was the custom in their native countries? If you think I am pushing the multiculturalist logic to an absurd extreme, think again. Because the answer to the last question is: we already do. In 1987, a Chinese immigrant named Dong Lu Chen kil l ed his wife, Ran Wan, smashing her head with a claw hammer after she confessed to an affair. At the 1989 trial, which included the testimony of an anthrolopogist, the defense argued that Chen's cultural background-"the spe- cial high place the family hold s in the Chinese community" and "the shame and humiliation" of a wife's infidelity-made him lose control. Mostly on the strength of this "cultural defense,"' a Brooklyn judge sentenced Chen to five years probation on a reduced manslaughteT charge. (I might add that the "cultural defense" has since cropped up in several spousal homicide and rape cases involving immigrants from Laos, Ethiopia, and other Third World countries.)


The sentence initially sparked protests among women's groups and Asian activi\u223\'a7t groups alike. But the coalition fell apart because Asian groups were fearful of undermining the very notion of -a-cultural- defense.--MargWt-Fung,-executive-director-of- the AsianaAmerican Ixgal Defense -and Education Fund, angrily stated that to bar thi s defense "would promote the idea that when people come to America, they have to give up their way of doing things. That is an idea we cannot sup- port.99 Opportunities in America. Yet is it possible that many people come to America because they are attrac t ed to the American way of doing things? This may be particularly true of women, who often relish their liberation from the patriarchal customs back home. After I wrote an article for The Washington Post on this very issue of feminism and multiculturalism, I received a very mov- ing letter from Ms. Nora Femenia, a scholar from Argentina who is here on a fellowship. She wrote to me that other women from I.Atin America she had met here, whether they were profes- sionals or cleaning women, had. one thing In-co r nmon: they profoundly appreciate the rights and opportunities they have gained in this country as women. It's not just that their lives are better, but that finally they feel they are as good as men. That's a personal example. Here is another one, from Th e New York Times. An October 1991 article examined the experiences of Bangladeshi im- migrant women in the United States, and the conflicts between the independence and assertiveness they have developed in America and the expectations of their traditional c ulture where women are expected to be subservient to men, to the extent that they are not even sup- posed to talk in front of males. And what a cruel mockery it would be if, out of deference to multicultural sensitivities, Ameri- can institutions began to mimic these customs. What is the lesson we can learn from all this? One is: I think we can see that the politically cor- rect, for all their noble claims, are not concerned about women's rights or human rights. Their real purpose is to denigrate and tear d own Western civilization. If they can do that by attacking. the West, and America in particular, as sexist, then they are concerned about the rights of women. When it is more convenient to attack the West as ethnocentric, imperialistic, insensitive to oth e r cultures, then women's rights go out the windo@v. I believe another conclusion we can make is that the assault on Western culture can be fended off by pointing to such contradictions. I think it is important to say that we who cherish the val- ues of We s tern civilization, whether we are conservatives or classical liberals, are not at all opposed to real learning a@out different cultures around the world, as long as what students learn about these cultures is not sugarcoated to conform to someone's ideolo g ical dogma. And despite all the excesses of contemporary radical feminism, which is usually allied with the muld- culturalists in assailing the West as the root of every evil, we certainly can agree that the ideal of equal opportunity and individual right s regardless of sex or race is really the fulfilment of the best that there is in Western and American tradition. After all, it is no accident of history that women have achieved a higher status in the West than anywhere else in the world. Perhaps that's w h y the muiticulturalists are so loath to admit it. Women may actually owe something to such uniquely Western (and supposedly male) ideals as reverence for the individuil, freedom of choice, and even technological mastery of nature-- which helped ease the b i ological constraints whose weight on women has always been especially heavy. Far from attacking the West and joining the multiculturalists in looking for salvation in mythical visions of Third World cultures, those feminists whose motivation really is to i mprove the lives and status of women should build on the heritage of Western culture. We are told that because this culture was created by white males, it can only serve them. The real believer in ra- cial and gender equality will work to make sure that t he Western heritage belongs to everyone.




Patrick J.

Distinguished Fellow