Feminism and multiculturalism: Can they co-exist?

Feminism and multiculturalism are notable ideological allies in liberal academic politics, although on a global scale, they contribute many conflicting political visions. Despite the fact that these two concepts are unlikely to be seen as controversial in liberal nation states, it is fundamental that we understand the possible detrimental effects on society, culture, gender equality, and personal freedoms which could arise within conflicting areas of political processes as a result of these perspectives – particularly where state intervention is deemed necessary to protect individual or group rights, or to promote equality.

Feminism’s demand for equality for women automatically sets itself in opposition to many patriarchal cultural practices. Multiculturalism acknowledges and respects diverse cultures and traditions – commonly to ensure migrants the ability to protect their culture from extinction within a new nation. In cases where cultural practices of the minority group clash with the gender equality policies put in place by the receiving nation, the ethical claims of feminism conflict with the cultural relativism of multiculturalism’s group rights process. This exploration will asses whether the application of both feminism and multiculturalism is detrimental to society, gender equality and women, and minority ethnicities.

This debate has stimulated a range of viewpoints and responses and I would like to critically analyse three prominent political philosophers’ stances. Feminist Susan Moller Okin highlights the potential risks to women and women’s rights when multiculturalism is promoted through the allocation of special group rights that potentially subjugate women to patriarchal cultures. Chandran Kukathas, who takes on a multiculturalist approach, similarly acknowledges the tension between feminism and multiculturalism, but believes that multiculturalism should take precedence. Will Kymlicka presents the third approach we will examine, suggesting that multiculturalism and feminism should be viewed as allies engaged in related struggles.

The leading feminist approach to this issue is found in Susan Moller Okin’s essay Is Multiculturalism Bad For Women?, in which Okin suggests that some group rights essentially endanger women. Okin argues that supporters of special group rights for minority cultures have failed to notice the gendered power dynamics within most cultures which contribute to and countenance men having considerable power over women. Okin suggests that if we all agree that women should not be oppressed on the basis of their gender, we, as citizens of liberal democracies, should not allow special group rights – which essentially permit oppressive practices – for minority cultures, even if they constitute fundamental and traditional practices (Okin, Cohen, Howard, & Nussbaum, 1999).

While Okin’s emphasis on gender inequality in patriarchal cultures is certainly a valid and important assessment within the debate, her position at times can be seen as tending towards a polarizing position of feminism versus multiculturalism, and pitting the two concepts against each other, rather than productively examining the struggle and considering the steps necessary to harmoniously combine the two political visions. Essentially, Okin concludes that female members of more patriarchal cultures would be better off if their culture could be encouraged to reform in order to acknowledge the equality of women, or if in fact, the minority culture does become extinct that it integrates successfully. It seems that Okin’s approach to – and her understanding of – multiculturalism has taken a subordinate position in favour of her feminist ideals.

Although Okin’s assessment of the potential threats to gender equality by growing multiculturalism is convincing from a feminist approach, it is crucial that we analyse this issue from a multiculturalist approach as well. In the article Feminism VS. Multiculturalism; The Liberal Project At Odds With Itself, Peter Berkowitz reviews critical points in Okin’s essay Is Multiculturalism Bad For Women?. He argues:

“The root of the conflict lies in the fact that not all cultures respect individuals in the liberal way, and some cultures subordinate the individual to the common good or the good of a person or class.”
(Berkowitz, 1999)

Berkowitz goes on to content that Okin’s feminist critique of multiculturalism exemplifies a problem of modern liberalism. He suggests that the virtue of toleration transforms into a crusade for conformity, and that a worthy appreciation of human diversity solidifies into contempt for ways of life that do not celebrate diversity as an ideal (Berkowitz, 1999).

Berkowitz makes a very important assessment. At what point do liberal democracies have the right to intervene in another’s culture to further the interests or promote the values of the dominant majority culture? It is worth acknowledging the power of the sovereign state within this debate, but it seems the inherent colonialist ideals seems all too prominent (and perhaps a little racist, in this particular situation) in liberal democracies. All cultures from around the globe deserve respect and the ability to continue existing without outside intervention, but ironically such a position could potentially also be the very cause for its demise. Preserving culture is important for autonomy and self-respect, while universal equality – including equality within and between groups – is important for societal progression.

Which fundamental right is more fundamental?

In this instance, we are attempting to determine whether the oppression of women in patriarchal cultures should be condemned within liberal democracies where such action denies minority cultures their special group rights that help to maintain their existence. Whilst multiculturalism and feminism as ideologies share a common goal in their aim to eradicate each social system of oppression (Reingold & Braratz, 2009), it is difficult to determine a judicious and inclusive solution.

Chandran Kukathas’s stance on the issue comes from a multiculturalist perspective. Kukathas wrote an article titled Is Feminism Bad For Multiculturalism?, in which he argues not that a culture should be resistant to change, but rather, advocates that society should resist…

“the tendency of dominant ideas and political powers to acquire greater control than is desirable”.
(Kukathas, 2001)

Kukathas’s essay is very convincing, in that he explains the issues and threats to both multiculturalism and feminism, while maintaining his view that state control should not interfere with cultures, as they should have the inherent right to survive unaltered by outside forces.

Chandran Kukathas’s view is cautious of the detrimental affects multiculturalism can have on feminism, but his emphasis is undoubtedly on protecting the rights of minority cultures against outside intervention for the purpose of assimilating the culture.

“Groups which act illiberally are not entitled to any special protection so that they might continue to live by illiberal values. But neither is the wider society or the state entitled to intervene in such societies to ensure that they become more liberal or more like the majority of people in society in their practices and beliefs.”
(Kukathas, 2001)

The aim of multiculturalism is that we learn about, respect, and celebrate cultural differences. Many multiculturalist theorists and feminists believe that the cultural heritage of women and minority cultures are similarly oppressed by a dominant culture and deserve dignity alike. Today, differential group rights are necessary in order to create and uphold equality for minority groups. We will examine Will Kymlicka’s approach to the debate. Kymlicka is a prominent political philosopher and multiculturalist whose work largely concerns providing a liberal framework for the just treatment of minority groups.

Kymlicka’s views on collective rights are based on the ethical acknowledgement of individual rights, and confined privileges and protections to cultural groups that are internally liberal. Kymlicka continuously emphasizes the importance for self-respect in an individual’s life (Kymlicka, 1991) and believes that granting special group rights to minority cultures allows that self-respect to grow. Kymlicka discusses in Multicultural Citizenship: A Liberal Theory of Minority 1995, that granting collective rights gives the opportunity…

“to empower members of minority groups to continue their distinctive practices if they wish to”.
(Kymlicka, 1995)

Will Kymlicka’s approach to this debate is a third alternative, which sits in the middle of Okin and Kukathas’s views. He defends a more accommodating form of multiculturalism than Kukathas by suggesting that liberals should endorse some group rights whilst upholding certain conditions because the demands of some groups exceed what liberalism can accept (Reitman, 2005). Critics of Kymlicka’s group rights approach have questioned whether the internal logic of his argument leads to more forceful intervention in illiberal culture than he intends (Spinner-Halev, 2012). Kukathas’s critique of Kymlicka’s argument is based on the concern that it grants too much latitude to illiberal practices (Kukathas, 1997).

Many articles examining this topic have determined that none of these approaches are adequate. One thing that seems common within these analyses is the acknowledgement of the need for a more balanced and fair approach to multiculturalism and feminism. Oonagh Reitman’s examination of the debate in her essay Multiculturalism and feminism: Incompatibility, compatibility, or synonymity?, comes to a balanced conclusion:

“I have ventured in this commentary that what is needed is not a choice between multiculturalism and feminism, but a reconceptualization of these two political projects, with the aim of bringing to the fore a more multicultural understanding of feminism which thereby permits the identification of a form of multiculturalism which is more feminist.”
(Reitman, 2005)

If we acknowledge the need and importance for equality within liberal democracies, it seems instinctive to distinguish that specific cultural practices which deny their female members fundamental rights should not be practiced in liberal democracies. That being said, in this debate there is a fine line between upholding ethical standards and allowing cultures to maintain their independence. Either aspect of reform will harm either feminism or multiculturalism, which will affect a historically subjugated or minority group for the worse. There is no simple answer.

I have found each of these arguments compelling in their own way, but Chandran Kukathas’s view has resonated the most with me. I do agree with Susan Moller Okin in that the admission of special group rights for minority cultures needs to be assessed in consultation with women, in order to determine whether any individual’s rights are at stake. I also agree with Will Kymlicka in that special group rights are sometimes necessary in order to protect minority cultures from extinction.

There are many detrimental side effects on all proponents of this issue, but I believe the most dangerous threat comes from state intervention. Kymlicka’s approach is not convincing as it does not acknowledge the domestic sphere of patriarchal societies. His arguments for collective rights, even when only applied under certain conditions, is not an adequate answer for preventing the subjugation of women in the private sphere, where it is most predominant. Similarly, Okin’s argument fails in my view, as it does not acknowledge the many diverse and enriching benefits to societies provided by multiculturalism. I believe Okin’s approach is more likely to cause a greater divide between multiculturalism and feminism. Her stance, while well argued and eye opening, is perhaps too one-sided in its favour of feminism.

Using history as a reference, gender equality and respect for women within cultures is constantly evolving and arguably improving around the globe. If states were to intervene in minority cultures as a means to transform the culture or hasten assimilation, there could indeed be unexpected or unintended consequences. A quote from Chandra Kukathas in Distinguished Lecture in Public Affairs: Is Feminism Bad for Multiculturalism?, had the most influence in shaping my opinion on this issue, as it directly addresses Okin’s proposal that legal protective rights should be denied to cultures where cultural rights subordinate women’s rights:

“One general reason for arguing that the claims of feminism should not override those of multiculturalism, then, is not that the freedom of women is less important, or that feminism is wrong to think that women’s lives in many cultures and traditions are highly constrained and unfree. It is rather that the solution to the problem does not lie in strengthening the power of the state to effect reform.”
(Kukathas, 2001)

To conclude, I will have to disagree with Okin’s argument that feminism is hindered by multiculturalism, as I believe the approach of pinning the ideologies against each other is detrimental to the progression of equality. Kukathas makes a hugely valid argument in that we must be cautious with granting government power in order to strengthen or lessen certain cultural values. While we must continue to fight for gender equality, we must also be wary of potential misuses of power.


Berkowitz, P. (1999). Feminism VS. Multiculturalism; The liberal project at odds with itself. The Weekly Standard, 5(7).

Kukathas, C. (1997). Survey Article: Multiculturalism as Fairness: Will Kymlicka’s Multicultural Citizenship. Journal of Political Philosophy, 5(4), 406-427.

Kukathas, C. (2001). Distinguished Lecture in Public Affairs: Is Feminism Bad for Multiculturalism? Public Affairs Quarterly, 15(2), 83-98.

Kymlicka, W. (1991). Liberalism, Community, and Culture. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Kymlicka, W. (1995). Multicultural Citizenship: A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Okin, S.M., Cohen, J., Howard, M., & Nussbaum, M.C. (1999). Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Reingold, R., & Braratz, L. (2009). Feminism and Multiculturalism: Two common foundations for a vision and a practice of transformative social activities and education in Israel. Journal of International Women’s Studies, 10(4).

Reitman, O. (2005). Multiculturalism and feminism: Incompatibility, compatibility, or synonymity? Ethnicities, 5(2), 216-247.

Spinner-Halev, J. (2012). Enduring Injustice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Feature image credit: https://matterofcause.wordpress.com/2013/12/30/my-feminism-doesnt-have-to-be-your-feminism-by-samantha-heuwagen/

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