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Multiculturalism and feminism: do they mix?

By Leslie Cannold - posted Monday, 16 October 2006

Do multiculturalism and feminism mix? What about feminism and religious freedom?

One could be forgiven for having doubts. In a range of pluralist, liberal states - Australia included - pockets of cultural and religious minorities engage in practices that express limited views about the full humanity of women, and undermine equity between the sexes.

From the insistence of pockets of Somali immigrants in the US on "circumcising" their infant girls, the refusal of parts of the Anglican and Catholic Churches to ordain women and the appeal to customary law by some Aboriginal men to justify child marriage and marital rape, some religious and cultural sub-communities persevere with practices that express particular views about "proper" roles for women rejected - in theory if not in practice - by the majority.


When criticised, the defence that tends to be offered, nearly always by a male authority figure, is that what is being done is an inextricable part of "our culture".

The dilemma cannot be solved by a simple appeal to rights. This is because the right to pursue one's own conception of the good life free from discrimination on the grounds of culture and of gender are important moral rights. Which should trump the other when they conflict? Political rights are similarly impotent in the face of this conflict, with many human rights conventions and anti-discrimination protocols enshrining gender equity as well as freedom of culture and religion.

The seven core international human rights treaties, for example, include those that guarantee the right of self determination to all without regard to religion, as well as those that affirm the equal rights of men and women.

So what should be done when the values we hold about cultural and religious diversity, and our beliefs about equality between the sexes, collide?

A number of Australian politicians have recently made their views clear. Members of minority cultures or religions can either do as we do (or say we do) when it comes to gender equity, or go home. "If a person wants to live under Sharia law there are countries where they might feel at ease", Treasurer Peter Costello recently informed Australia's Muslim minority. "But not Australia".

In a speech to the Sydney Institute earlier this year, Victorian MP Andrew Robb argued that the successful integration of first and second generation Muslims into Australia was dependant on these Australians "demonstrat[ing] their commitment" to, among other things, the "Australian value" of equality between the sexes.


Some supporters of multiculturalism - many of whom are feminists - have taken umbrage at such remarks, which have been interpreted as thinly-veiled racism against Australian Muslims. Certainly it was the first time many Australian feminists heard the fair, fat and 50-ish men who run the nation even mention the word feminism, little less in such impassioned and unequivocal tones.

Yet, beneath this discomfort may have lurked another: one grounded in the sure knowledge that however unjust the discrimination some minority groups suffer (the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission handled 167 complaints of race discrimination in 2004-05), such groups may also perpetrate injustice - systematically and unapologetically - against "their" girls and women.

Whether it's Muslim parents forcing their daughters overseas for an arranged marriage with an (often far older) co-religionist, Orthodox Jewish males thanking God daily for not making them women, or leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention instructing female congregants to "submit themselves graciously to the servant leadership of their husbands" and accept their ordained role of "managing the household and nurturing the next generation", culture and religion are regularly used as defences for practices that demean, deprive, limit and otherwise oppress women.

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First published in the Sydney Morning Herald on October 9, 2006.

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About the Author

Dr Leslie Cannold is a writer, columnist, ethicist and academic researcher. She is the author of the award-winning What, No Baby? and The Abortion Myth. Her historical novel The Book of Rachael was published in April by Text.

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